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A History of Meaning: The Illusion of Progress and the Atomization of Culture

By Thomas Frenette 

Arts & Culture Editor


Via Outreach Magazine


This history serves a heuristic purpose above all and recognizes its incompleteness


When asked about the primary goal of humanity, people often speak of “the meaning of life.” By this is usually meant an ultimate purpose to justify the thoughts, feelings, and actions performed in a lifetime to escape the otherwise symbolic value of the Sisyphean task. “Meaning” is a quality, not a thing, and humans have tried to measure the “meaning-ness” of their lives in various modes of meaning


     Though nebulous and reworkable — escaping the assumption that something meaningful has one specific meaning — culture is the vehicle by which people construct values, beliefs, and language to define themselves as a collective and as individuals.

History remembers monocultural societies, isolated into the praise of one metanarrative. Of course, understanding other possible meanings is inconceivable without an awareness of a choice in alternatives. Monocultural societies have become very rare in the West in the past several centuries and thus represents an increasingly rare object of scrutiny for anthropologists, sociologists, and linguists. 


     When cultures come into contact, conflicts occur over meaning. Each party views the other’s beliefs and practices as fundamentally wrong. Western society has answered this dilemma by answering “why” questions with “becauses” so that people know what is expected from them to do according to the ultimate truth. Systemic culture uses such rigid truths as central tenets for systemic answers to all questions of meaning for everyone, everywhere, always. 


     During the 19th century, religion, philosophy, politics, science, and art were wholly compatible. Religion was as rational as science; it drew justifications consistent with common sense. Political and economic theory enforced the existing social order by citing the natural facts learned from religion and science. Science confirmed the will of God, and art reflected the values of culture and idealized the morality of deep-rooted philosophies. 


     The specific roles defined by complex institutions — church, corporation, community — dehumanized people into tiny and interchangeable cogs in the intimidating, incomprehensible, and relentless machine. One’s own work was unrecognizable as the system pushed more and more pointlessly awful rules and regulations. Systematic obligations based on rigorous boundary-making separated people from their own everyday experiences and it became possible, for the first time, to feel alienated and isolated while in a crowd. 


     During the 20th century, ideological systems failed to attribute meaning to the human experience. Ideology rationalized the psychological and physical consequences of industrialization, class conflict, economic depression and world war. WWI and WW2 seemed completely pointless, and skepticism was a common reaction to the lack of cumulation of meaning of the previous century’s moral, economic, and scientific progress. 


     The disillusionment of the 19th century as an era of rapid improvement increased support for alternative modes of meaning. Whereas some spiteful reactionary movements appeared, a general repulsion of the mainstream’s nihilistic moral breakdown inspired the birth of counterculture in the 1960s. 


     The Hippie movement and the Moral Majority countercultures proposed universalist alternatives to the mainstream. The soundness of the movements was threatened on many fronts; their new visions were unable to appeal to a majority, unable to encompass the diversity of views now found within societies, and could not provide community because they were mass movements.


     The subsequent mode marked a fundamentally new approach to finding meaning. It abandoned universalism, or the delusion that meanings—mainly via ideology—must be the same for everyone, everywhere, and always. Subcultures arose roughly in the mid-1970s and aimed to appeal to small, like-minded communities. They operated along the logic that different people are different and may require different cultures, societies, and psychologies. This end is found in a type of relationship intermediate to the family and state, parallel to a ‘third place’ outside of work and home.


     The most obvious example of subculture evolution can be observed in musical genres. Heavy metal is a subgenre of rock, the primary countercultural genre, and in turn generated a subculture. Death metal is then a sub-subgenre. Melodic death, following this logic, is a sub-sub-subgenre.


     The fragmentation may be repeated until the mode becomes unworkable. The incoherence of the multiplying modes of meaning is theoretically not problematic because meanings do not hang together. Because the shards of meaning do not relate to each other, it is impossible to compare them. There is no relative value, so everything seems equally trivial. It is hardly conceivable to construct a coherent meaning from the fragments of meaning. Since the turn of the 21st century, the postmodern challenge has then been to regulate the flow of meaning as the ‘atomized mode’ delivers, for the first time, an overwhelming amount of meaning comparable to drinking from a firehose.

However, the rise and fall of systems of meaning should not replace hope with dread. The relentless pursuit of meaning stresses the human need to create meaning. A new ‘fluid mode’ is a tentative response to the current problems of meaningness. Fluidity of meaning, based partly on observation of historical trends and the intrinsic logic of meaningness, can incorporate the insights of universalism and nihilism at once; acknowledging structures of meaning without building rigid foundations. 



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