kortina.nyc / notes
2 Feb 2023

Freinacht // The Listening Society

A few weeks ago, I had that experience of meeting someone new and really hitting it off – with a bunch of shared reference points and interests – and he asked me if I was into “Metamodernism.” At first I thought he was talking about David Chapman (who has a Meta-rationality project), but he pointed me instead to Hanzi Freinacht’s The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics Book One.

The authors – sociologist Daniel Görtz and theory artist Emil Ejner Friis – use a style similar to Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra – but it doesn’t always land as well. Somehow for Nietzsche it comes off as tormented and earnest, whereas the tone in Listening Society often just feels a bit obnoxious. But that shouldn’t stop you from reading it.

It really is some of the most cogent, comprehensive thinking about society and philosophy I’ve encountered in quite some time – and it is nascent stuff. Hanzi Freinacht has published 3 books since 2017:

An excellent way to introduce yourself to his work / thinking is the series of interviews he has done on The Jim Rutt Show:

His theory of “metamodernism” is basically asking how we can rescue the really useful ideas of modernity and the Enlightenment, while acknowledging the very valid critiques about structure and power raised by post-modernity, without devolving into nihilism.

Hanzi’s own summary can be found here:

Metamodernism is the philosophy and view of life that corresponds to the digitalized, postindustrial, global age. This can be contrasted against modern and postmodern philosophies.

Modern philosophy is the general mechanistic, reductionist worldview that is still today the common “mainstream” narrative people learn in schools and that has most adherents in Western societies and in other developed economies. The modern worldview first blossomed with the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century (Newton’s physics, Descartes’ philosophy and Francis Bacon’s scientific method). It holds that physics is the basis of reality and that science and rationality set people free. It is tied to such things as democracy, capitalism, socialism and human rights. It corresponds to the living conditions of industrial society within the frames of a nation state.

Postmodern philosophy is the critical perspective that has grown from social science and the humanities over the last century and it has taken a firm hold of universities and social movements during the last few decades. Postmodernism involves a critical stance towards knowledge and science, and holds that power structures, unconscious drives, cognitive biases and arbitrary social constructions enthrall human minds. We are not nearly as rational as we think. Hence, the story of science and progress is not necessarily true: viewed from the perspective of the oppressed and weak, the progress of civilization often amounts to little more than exploitation, smoke screens, excuses and a more systematized oppression. The postmodern mind grows from late modern societies in which mass media and cultural distinctions often cause more suffering in people’s lives than do direct economic inequalities.

Metamodern philosophy enters the scene only once the Internet and the social media have become truly dominant factors in people’s lives and when many of us no longer partake directly in the production and distribution of industrial goods. It is a worldview which combines the modern faith in progress with the postmodern critique. What you get then, is a view of reality in which people are on a long, complex developmental journey towards greater complexity and existential depth. The metamodern philosophy is a whole world of ideas and suppositions that are counter-intuitive to modern and postmodern people alike. But since both the modern and postmodern philosophies are increasingly outdated, these metamodern ideas are set to develop, take hold, and spread. One day, they may become as dominant as the modern philosophy is today.

Some of my favorite bits from The Listening Society…

The “humble seeker” failure mode is one I find myself often falling into:

702 The double-bind works simply by holding the presented ideas to impossible standards, ones that your currently accepted views couldn’t match either. You present a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”, usually without realizing that you are doing it. Your mind can then quickly rush to a critical standpoint and feel justified in denouncing the new idea that threatens your status quo. Part of this is necessary—with so much implausible information around these days, we do need quick ways to get rid of the worst of it. But if you let your inner inquisition and thought-police control your input at a too early stage, you are bound to miss goldmines and hidden treasures with jewels you couldn’t dream of. There will be vast horizons that just never open, and you will remain simpleminded.

708 “The humble seeker”: The second double-bind is “the humble seeker”. The humble seeker thrives in ambiguity, in questions rather than answers, in cracks in the puzzle, in exceptions rather than rules, in minute details and relations, in subtle whispers and the non-obvious. Or so he tells himself. Here’s the humanities student, the posthumanist, the Nietzschean, the Deleuzian, the Foucauldian, Derrida-fans or even just Heidegger people, cultural theorists and some deep ecologists or Taoists. They are offended by the certainty of the speaker, and by the very fact that her thoughts can be systematized, organized and lead to concrete conclusions. These consider themselves to be of a subtler and nobler breed, being humbler, more dynamic and open towards the paradoxical mysteries of the world. The problem, which makes this into a double-bind, is that you have in effect precluded all system building and concrete suggestions, all overarching maps and all simple underlying rules that could elegantly explicate the complex emergence of the universe. You try to force the speaker into your way of thinking and speaking, by relying on a concealed hierarchical system of your own. Your system looks like this: All “open, subtle thinkers” are morally and intellectually superior to all “rigid system builders”, and thereby all system builders have false conclusions. Of course, this is very convenient for you, since if the system builder is not rigorous and systematic, you can brush the speaker off for that reason instead.

2424 The philosophical principle of metamodern politics is as simple as it is elegant. This principle holds that social life is of fractal nature, and that society consists of three interdependent dimensions that always repeat themselves but ultimately depend on one another: solidarity, trade and competition.

Solidarity—in all societies that have ever existed, there has been cooperation and what the anarchist classic Peter Kropotkin termed “mutual aid”. And in all of our lives, there are always at least some aspects of such things as caring, brotherhood, friendship, cooperation, help, charity, alliances, affiliation, liking, love and so forth. The principle is: you, rather than me.

Trade—in all societies that have ever existed, and in everyone’s life, in every relationship, there is an element of exchange: tit for tat, something for something. The principle is: me and you, but only conditionally. “Only conditionally” serves to underscore that we only make trade transactions if there is something for us to gain.

Competition—in all societies that have ever existed, and in everyone’s life, in every goddamn relationship, there is an element of competition: conflicting interests, power relations, struggle, manipulations, violence, animosity, enmity and so on. The principle is: me, not you.

The unstated, irrational belief that people have, is that one of these three dimensions somehow makes up a higher truth than the other two. The Left somehow believes, in a subtle but pervasive manner, that solidarity is the highest truth. The libertarian Right believes that trade is the first principle. The conservative and the fascist believe in their hearts that fierce competition lies beyond the other two, that it ultimately defines social reality.

The “consumer” is a member of the bourgeois class – I’ve often thought of the phrase “complicit consumer” but stating this outright so simply is something I haven’t seen / feel like I’ve been grasping for:

2524 In reality, liberal democracy in industrial society has been a party-political trench war between working class (worker, employee) and bourgeois (industry, professional, consumer, share owner) interests. Industrial society, its classes and categories, has spliced aspects of us into different shards, from which political identities have been formed. From these different identities we could then form parties and belief systems about what modern life is and should be.

You cannot escape contradiction:

2552 You realize that there is no “safe” political position. Whatever position you take, it will work its non-linear way through reality and sneak off to murder, torture, maim, destroy, exploit, defeat others, deprive others of their meaning making, and press itself upon social and political reality. The truth is that you don’t have the truth; that you never will. And even if you turn out to be right about something, there will always be a time when your opinion is outdated or at least incomplete. Whatever direction you move in, it will lead to contradiction, self-destruction and decay, sooner or later. Your perspective or opinion always has a systemic limit, a breaking point; it always breaks down under its own weight, just like any engine, organism or economic system. You never get to be the good guy in the end. You are not innocent.

There is no way to choose innocence – this is complicit with status quo (vs more actively striving to change the status quo, move things towards more justice).

2556 But you are society as a whole, more than Louis XIV, the Sun King, ever was the state (the one who said l’état, c’est moi). Society is you—Left and Right, up and down. There is no “default position” to which you can revert, no way of “just being normal”. Ours is a meat-eating, animal-exploiting, cruel, capitalist, alienating, unfair, oppressive, unscientific, undemocratic, unsustainable society. If you partake in it, you are complicit in its crimes, mistakes and vices.

And if you tolerate this, your children will be next. When I make suggestions about how to improve society, and you say no, but offer nothing in return, you are not being innocent, a liberal defender of freedom—you are killing children and burying them in invisible graves. When you call yourself an anarchist, an environmentalist, an anti-capitalist or just an honest working citizen, you are not pure, not taking the “right path” and leaving it to others to mess up the world. You are hiding behind a small shard of the totality of human existence and failing to take responsibility.


2566 It is a question of choosing totality over partiality. Partiality is only possible if you believe in the liberal innocent. Once you choose totality, once you begin to see society as a whole, liberal innocence is lost.

The universe seems to have presented us with a mean, ironic twist: Any true freedom, revolution or open horizon is simultaneously a call to power, a crown to grasp, an adversary to conquer. Even the most heartwarming idealism, be it feminism, peace work or abolitionist animal rights, must act violently to create new hierarchies, new winners and losers. In that violent act, we can never know for certain if we are good or evil; an inconvenient truth if there ever was one. We only know that if we choose innocence, we have chosen evil.

When we identify with ideas, ideals and deeper political movements, we are also challenging other patterns of thought, other “memes”. The metamodern thinker and activist challenges modern society. This is not revolution on the barricades, and no harm needs to come to human bodies. But people are deeply invested in their ideas and worldviews. To challenge their ways of thinking and sensing is also an act of cruelty and aggression; shattering people’s beliefs, their sense of security, self, ethics and reality. Nothing could be less innocent.

Horizontal vs vertical complexity of thinking (also seems like a useful heuristic for measuring AI):

3133 What we are comparing now is horizontal complexity and vertical complexity. Horizontal complexity is simply a measure of how many calculations you have to make (how many yes-no questions you manage to answer). So this is basically how quick and efficient your brain is. A human newborn has much greater horizontal complexity than an adult parrot, even while being at a lower stage. But then again, a computer can have greater horizontal complexity than a human (while still being at stage 0 Computational).

So, what is vertical complexity? The MHC stages measure orders of vertical complexity. This means that each stage coordinates the actions at the preceding stage. You go from constructing stories to finding abstract variables in those stories, to finding relationships between abstract variables, to finding systems of relationships, to finding common properties in systems, and so on. There are actually five rules that determine the relationships between the stages, but here we just need to mention the three most basic ones—it’s a bit technical, but bear with me:

Higher-order actions are defined in terms of lower-order actions. This makes the higher-order tasks include the lower ones and requires that lower-order actions are hierarchically contained within the relative definitions of the higher-order tasks.

Higher order of complexity actions organize lower-order actions. This makes them more powerful. Lower-order actions are organized by the actions undertaken with higher order of complexity, i.e., more complex tasks.

Higher order of complexity actions organize those lower-order actions in a non-arbitrary way.

Dogmatic belief in reductionist science turns all of reality into an extraction project:

4090 Yep, there you have it. You never stopped believing in God, you punk. You only pushed Him backstage by means of a simple negation. But that negation still posits a God. You’re still doing the same move as Newton and Descartes did: Except they actually admitted that they assumed that reality was made possible by the eyes of God. You didn’t kill God; you hid him away.

You’ve been sitting in His holy lap this entire time. But your Non-God with a “view from nowhere” is just utter nonsense. It is a religious belief and nothing else. And from that “objective” position, which is, and only ever was, a filthy lie—you have been objectifying and instrumentalizing the world, justifying a giant extraction project where you get to exploit everything as your legally owned resources. It’s disgraceful, dishonest and deeply harmful.

Tragedy // Resolve in the face of a fundamental hopelessness and utter meaninglessness. // only broken hearts can save the world:

4917 Tragedy. It’s not only wars, or disease, or even death. It’s everything. People I know grew up to suffer from psychiatric illnesses, others were lonely, others insecure, others afraid and manipulative—and then there’s always the millions of tortured piglets all over the state of Denmark. So much abuse, self-hatred, so much misery: There is a fundamental and logically necessary brokenness of reality itself. And before you know it, you start falling apart as you get assigned to a crash course for death. All that blooms, including childhood, love relationships and friendships (especially those), must either rot or wither away to be lost and forever forgotten.

Obviously, the sense of tragedy grows from acquaintance with the lower states and their successful psychological integration into our worldviews. Depth grows from recognizing the profound seriousness of the matter: that your own children will be tortured. They will be tortured. It is the truth of the matter. And even if your kids happen to stay in the middle-range of subjective states for most of their lives (or you don’t have any), other kids just as valuable and alive will not. This is serious shit. By-the-ballness.

To not recognize this profound seriousness, and to fail to make it into the main engine of one’s life, is what I call the denial of tragedy. People tend to react against the claim that we should strive towards the happiness of all people in society, because they assume that such an intention implies a denial of tragedy. But, as I argued earlier, to work for the happiness of all is not a denial of tragedy.

What grows out of a clear recognition of the tragedy of existence, is not the relishing of pain, or the excusing of misery and injustice. It simply means, as suggested by philosophers of 2nd person relatedness such as Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas (and the Judeo-Christian tradition they build upon), a surrender to the primacy of the “thou”, the you-ness of reality; the “youniverse”, if you like a play on words.

So what does that mean? Long story short, it means that I am nothing without you. I am born through you, and I must live, ultimately, in service of you. It is the recognition that, fundamentally, I love you—that love is a fundamental faculty and a realization rather than a specific feeling. Just having “compassion” towards you must always be an understatement; indeed an insult. I must live in service of you.

Depth is developed by the recognition of tragedy, by the successful acceptance of such tragedy, and by the resolve to work, as Sisyphus eternally lugging rocks, against it. Resolve in the face of a fundamental hopelessness and utter meaninglessness. This is depth-as-tragedy.

Depth as tragedy is development of the 2nd person relatedness to reality. This is the depth of the saint, the bodhisattva (an Eastern equivalent of the saint) and of what in Western philosophy is called “philosophical pessimism” (perhaps Schopenhauer is the best example). It is the depth that grows from living with a broken heart. Tragedy is necessary for us to mature beyond our current, limited form of “humanity” and begin to take responsibility for all sentient beings in all times. Only a sense of tragedy can drive us to work for the wretched of the earth: loving until it hurts; as medieval nuns of contemplative Christianity, licking the wounds of lepers.

And for this reason—I can say with perfect conviction—that only broken hearts can save the world.

This quote from Bertrand Russell is just beautiful:

5075 “What have I lived for? Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy—ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness—that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what—at last—I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer. This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.”

5768 Can you see now that development matters? That inner dimensions matter? Can you see that we need to balance science and cognitive complexity with inner growth—and vice versa?

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