Towards A Grand Narrative
John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis — and beyond
Zombies and Postmodern Bullshit
Jean-Francois Lyotard defined postmodernism as the death of the grand narrative. His view—a rather grandiose narrative in itself—was that: ‘The narrative function is losing its functors, it's great hero, it's great dangers, it's great voyages, it's great goal. It is being dispersed.’ But he was deadly wrong. Actually, the hero, the adventure, the voyage, the goal, the grand narratives never really went away. They just need to be re-discovered.
Postmodernism, as a cultural mood, is the gleeful and nihilistic celebration of the death of meaning and ‘a sound and fury signifying nothing’. It is a grand narrative about the death of grand narratives, a philosophy or attitude based on a performative contradiction. The good news, however, is that postmodernism has committed suicide by its own logic, and new grand narratives of meaning are emerging to take its place.
Even though he is too cautious and humble to say so, John Vervaeke, in his YouTube lecture series, ‘Awakening to The Meaning Crisis’, is trying to do no less than articulate a grand narrative — to point towards a possible renaissance of meaning for the 21st Century. He is not merely deconstructing in the postmodern fashion, but also slowly and patiently constructing something as well. With his singular ability to weave a story from philosophy, history, and cognitive science, his wonderful series is leading the way. Vervaeke is on the right track, trying to keep the essence of both the religious and the empirical, the secular and spiritual.
Post modernism has diagnosed the ‘The Meaning Crisis’, as John Vervaeke has perfectly named it, but it doesn’t provide an awakening. Certainly many of our grand narratives—for instance nationalism, socialism, and liberalism—need to be deconstructed and have been increasingly reduced to ideological noise, lacking the force of meaning that they once had. Postmodernism is an imaginative failure to come up with new meaningful narratives to respond to the times. And yet there is no end to the human grand narrative called history as long as there are people are around to create it.
Incidentally, Vervaeke’s description of the meaning crisis has something to do with zombies, who are today's post modern monsters par excellence. Zombies are the mindless, rootless, consumers—those who have lost any narrative. They are purely cinematic creatures, remarkable only for their shock value and gore. What do zombies consume? Your attention. Zombies devoir consciousness, which is why they eat brains. They are the postmodern monster par excellence—beings without language, narrative, or purpose — those who live only to plunder the possibility of a grand narrative.
Today’s zombies are the disembodied hordes who feed off our attention on the internet. They are the swarms of self-obsessed and image addicted consumariates on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter; they are the devouring of the everyday porn that constitutes today's ‘news’, ‘entertainment’, and ‘social media’. I have put the latter in quotation marks because it's hard to tell the difference today between news and bullshit, meaningful art and distraction, and what is so ‘social’ about social media. We live in the age where our grand narratives have become what Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt has rightfully named ‘bullshit’.
A real grand narrative however must be a jihad against bullshit—(Jihad in the sense of spiritual and personal struggle rather than a holy war obviously)—and a valorization of truth, beauty, and meaning. It’s time to stop listening to the postmodern zombie professors who have been telling us ad nauseam that enlightenment and heroism are impossible. We need to keep the undead hordes from devouring the brains of our smart young people who are starving to death for depth, adventure, and meaning. Should we not provide them with the skills to kill the postmodernism zombie once and for all—and to point them towards a positive and constructive grand narrative?
Grand narratives emerge from necessity—it would be hubristic to try to write the grand narrative on our own. The grand narrative must be a communal and participatory endeavour. And many people have significant pieces of the puzzle, including ever-present Jordan Peterson. Peterson, for all his faults, has show us that a thunderous kind of truth can break through to the masses and raise up the culture from its apathetic and confused postmodern miasma. Peterson’s great contribution is to have articulated the first step: clean thy room!
To clean our room means to begin to awaken to the all pervasive dirt of our existence and then to do something about it. This is no small task! The existence of suffering (the dirty room) is the first noble truth of Buddhism more or less. The buddha also said in one way or another: ‘clean your goddamn room’. This is the ‘adult message’ of taking responsibility for the ignorance and suffering we create; and it is a timely message in an age of entitlement and rights without responsibilities. Buddha’s grand narrative was called ‘The eightfold path’, a path of radical responsibility, which we won’t discuss in detail here.
Where Peterson ultimately fails however — even though it is a heroic failure — is to stop at the individual, and to not going beyond a certain ‘pick yourself up by the bootstraps’ mentality and philosophical pessimism. Peterson has no communal principal, beyond the nuclear family, and little to say about the future, and about the problems of capitalism and consumerism.
Furthermore, while Peterson trumpets the wisdom of the west, he has overlooked the wisdom of the east. What if, as the Buddha pointed out, the so-called sovereign individual, which is Peterson’s answer to the Meaning Crisis, isn’t real? The great sages of the east have told us long ago that what we call the self has no essential nature. To focus on the individual at the exclusion of all else, is therefore to focus on an illusion, since the individual is forever fluid and changeable. The deeper spiritual path involves transcending, no not reifying the individual.
Peterson is also lacking an idea of what the buddha called ‘sangha’. Only in a sangha—or a group of truth seeking individuals—can we really find our place. We can’t do it through self-effort, in other words. Self development is not enough; it will not spontaneously create ‘the good society’. Furthermore, the good society, for Peterson, is exclusively the Christian west—presumably the bad society is everywhere else. In the end this is a totalizing and manichean view, of the kind that Peterson rails against.
Peterson’s great virtue has been to translate abstract ideas into practical, skillful means and mass psychological interventions. Peterson makes good headway into the meaning crisis, but gets lost in cold war politics and traditionalist anxiety somewhere along the way. That is not to say that he isn’t a marvelous psychologist, scientist, and thinker—and a wonderful guide to Freud, Jung, and Dostoyevski—and so much more. Only that his grand narrative is incomplete.
Ken Wilber, Integral, and Metamodernism
Ken Wilber’s integral movement, based on a developmental theory of everything, never really caught fire in the popular imagination, in the way that Jordan Peterson has. Wilber was in many ways the Jordan Peterson of the 1990’s, and his early books are his most essential. But today his great ‘theory of everything’ seems to have fallen flat and the integral movement has lost steam: it never had the power or larger effect on society that it wanted to.
Perhaps his time has not yet come. But the problem in the integral movement has also been an inability to communicate. These movements have so often been hyperintellectual, and ended up speaking solipsistically only to themselves. In a way, Wilber was too generous to new age spirituality on one hand and theoretical autism on the other. A proper grand narrative, I would argue, would have to have real poetic force.
Much as I love and appreciate what I have learned from Wilber, there was something—perhaps aesthetic—missing from his movement. My feeling is that integralists need to return to Jean Gebser, Wilber’s forerunner in integral theory, and a deeper and more poetic writer than Wilber. What I find missing is a larger mythopoetic, or even religious force. Integral tends to be too abstract, with its endless categories ranking human beings—putting itself on the top of its own ranking system of course.
A grand narrative has to speak thunderously, rather than timidly, and have a little dynamite, as Nietzsche would say. The younger generation of metamodernists are lacking this dynamite and maturity, and intrinsic quality. They tend to copy the integral movement, while forgetting to honor it. Of course, the metamodernists are young and ambitious, and mired in idealism and ‘green’ activism. One shouldn’t however be fooled by such self-conscious and fashionable movements, or think that the answer lies in any one of them. There are pieces of philosopher stone scattered everywhere. It will take something big to assemble them. Heidegger’s statement still rings true: we are too late for gods and too early for being.
The way forward is the way back, to paraphrase TS Eliot. Metamodernism needs to go back to Ken Wilber and further back to to Gene Gebser and further back still. In other words, a lot of study and deepening of consciousness could be more valuable than a lot of activism, or over-hasty conclusions about reality. The too greedy spirit of wanting to reform and save the world is lethal. Every movement that is too idealistic, that has too much grandiosity and hubris, fails. The Grand narrative cannot be to engineer through hubris. The biggest mistake in creating the grand narrative has been going too fast—relying on mere theory and activism, rather than the slow revelation of truth and necessity.
It is no small task to try to articulate a grand narrative. It may not be about ‘saving the world’ particularly, but making it less like a hell. And not only that: we need a constructive narrative, rather than the usual ‘end of the world’ lamentation, the zombie processions that make up fashionable protest movements like ‘the extinction rebellion’. Perhaps we are doomed and will fail, but as Samuel Beckett says, fail harder. But above all: keep the heroic impulse in tact.
My initial inspiration for thinking about this subject comes from my podcast partner and co-conspirator Alexander Bard and his writing partner Jan Soderqvist’s series of cyber philosophy books. Bard tells me that the grand narrative of our times should be called ‘Ecotopia’. That is a sustained engineering and theological project to make the world more and more like a garden. This is done, not from naive idealism and activism, but from real artfulness, smart politics, soulful engineering, and yes religion.
The quest for the city on the hill or the promised land has always been a religious quest. However, what is meant here by religion is what ‘binds’ people together (From the Latin religare ‘to bind’), rather a set of beliefs or dogmas. A grand narrative is a religion in this sense. And every communal activity has a religious quality, from the gathering of scientists around the fabled god particle, to the most theocratic monotheistic madness. If we are engaged in religion no matter what we do, and religion is a fundamental human activity—and I think it is—then obviously we should practice wise and living religion, rather than parroting dead tradition.
On the other extreme to bad tradition is a certain disastrous blank slate ideology. This has haunted romantic movements since the French revolution. Canadian singer Joni Mitchel sang in her hippy anthem Woodstock: ‘We have to get back to the garden’—the essence of the romantic grand narrative. And yet the primeval garden is just a teeming chaos. There is no ‘getting back’ there. The etymology of paradise is a walled garden: a proper balance between the wildness of nature and the taming force of the human civilization. Rather than getting back to the garden of Eden we should instead by trying to create it: by linking heaven to earth, which is the primordial function of true religion.
The various tribes all have their own one-sided narrative ranging from progressive blank slate ideology to stuffy traditionalism. The traditionalist hates the modern world, and is forever nostalgic for a lost golden age; the blank slate progressive revolutionary is over-hasty about creating a utopian future. These two sides of our own nature are locked in a fierce duality. A grand narrative evolves from this dialectic tension, and the fabled third way must emerge out of the rubble and monotony of the culture war.
Of course, postmodernism may have actually served an evolutionary purpose in deconstructing these dualities. We may have to lose our religion, in other words, before we can regain it. But along with our learned cynicism should arise a certain romanticism. A smart and positive romanticism will preserve the desire to take an imaginative leap, and to keep the view that human beings can be as profound and heroic as they can be malevolent and heartless. To balance a certain Petersonian philosophical pessimism, Alexander Bard is right that we need to start building the ecotopia and believing in something great again.
Where to start?
Chogyam Trungpa’s book Shambhala: The path of the Sacred Warrior is a perfect grand narrative as far as I am concerned, and it would be good if it were revisited. There is nothing ‘new age’ about it, as its title might lead one to believe—Shambhala is not merely some mythical Himalayan kingdom. Trungpa’s vision of the enlightened society is very earthy and common sense based: grounded in ‘meditation in action’ but also heavily weighted in the arts and poetry. And even though Trungpa’s community fell apart—and continues to fall apart apparently, mired in endless controversy and scandal—the seeds of his vision remain accessible.
Of course, Trungpa’s Shambhala was based in traditional Buddhism, but he also intuited the need for something post-traditional—even post-buddhist. Trungpa was different than other Tibetans masters, who are so often trapped in Tibetan cultural forms and quite hostile to the West, because he was interested in western Tantra. Trungpa lived a short life, but left an amazing amount of revelations and practices. In my view Trungpa’s tantra points the way towards the remedy John Vervaeke is searching for. In any case, this fat old Tibetan—who was a bit of a drunken womanizer—gave me the first taste of a plausible grand narrative, and it seems to me his vision endures.
John Vervaeke’s has something in common with Trungpa’s post religious vision in some respects. He is trying to find a religion that is beyond religiosity, and science that is beyond scientism. Vervaeke understands the need for hard-headed empiricism on one hand and post-rational and ecstatic participation on the other. How to combine traditionalism and futurism, religion and science, the heart and the head? The Zen arrow points two ways: backward and forwards simultaneously.
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