How To Find Meaning When Everything Is Power

While we live, we all present different facets of ourselves to different people. Whether in our friendships, work, family or at different times in our lives, we encounter others. All remember us slightly differently, according to their perspective.

While we live, our physical presence holds that multiplicity together. After we die, though, the memories begin to come apart. When my step-grandfather married my grandmother, he already had two children with his first wife. But she had already left him and moved to a different country; he was stepfather to my mother and aunts instead.

He was a big character: an aristocrat of the Greatest Generation, the subject of several films about his war exploits, well-loved farmer, and patriarch to two families. At his funeral, the many facets of his life were already coming apart. Each version of his memory was fiercely defended by the mourner to whom it belonged. Long-standing quarrels, no longer held in check by his living presence, began trickling back into the open. It was not an easy day.

Today, we are all mourners at the funeral of a character on a scale that dwarfs even my roaring, hectoring, pedantic, affectionate, and irascible step-grandfather. We are gathered to mourn teleology itself—the belief that life has objective meaning and direction. What we call the culture war is the aggregate of those quarrels now breaking out between the gathered mourners over their divergent memories of the deceased.

Were we progressing toward universal peace, justice, and equality? Was it the resurrection and the life of the world to come? Perhaps it was the end of history in universal liberal democracy? We cannot agree.

The death of teleology represents a collective cultural trauma that accounts for, among other things, the increasingly unhinged debates around social justice within elite universities, and the reactive phenomenon of the aggressively transgressive online far-right.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Post-structuralism killed teleology, but it did so in error, by taking a wrong turn; it is this wrong turn that has left us so traumatized.

What is commonly referred to as postmodernism is not in fact post-modern but rather represents a last-ditch attempt by modernism to resist the implications of the post-structuralist mindset whose inevitability is now indicated by fields as diverse as physics, ecology, and psychotherapy.

Deconstruction is not the end: reconstruction is possible, indeed essential.

To situate myself a little in this story: I belong to a generation that is marginal, facing two directions, in several ways that are relevant to my argument. Born in 1979, I sit at the tail end of Generation X. I am old enough to remember the days before the internet, but young enough to be more or less a digital native. I got my first cell phone and email address as an undergraduate at Oxford. I researched my undergrad essays sitting in actual libraries reading physical books, but wrote them on a word processor. I can remember life before social media.

I also received, prior to undergraduate life, a recognizably classical education. This was, in the old-fashioned way, designed to deliver a whistle-stop tour of the march of civilizations from Ancient Egypt via the classical era to Western Christendom, with at least a vague grasp of the cultural and historical highlights of each.

The overall impression delivered was of an evolution of societies, consciousnesses, and cultures over a vast sweep of time and different human epochs that nonetheless seemed to have at least some narrative continuity and directionality. Everything else we learned seemed at least to an extent framed by that sense of situatedness within a larger narrative of human cultural evolution, whose direction was a mystery but did at least seem to be headed somewhere.

Then, in my first year as an English Literature undergraduate, I encountered critical theory—and the entire organizing principle for my understanding of reality fell apart.

To summarize: Saussure proposed that instead of treating language as transparent, its meaning rising off the page without any need for elucidation, we should split language into ‘sign’ and ‘signified.’ That is, what a word means is separable from the word that means it. We can thus, he argued, institute a new discipline of ‘semiotics’: the study of signs—a study that reaches far beyond language and was immediately influential in the social sciences.

This insight was developed by Jacques Derrida, whose simple but devastating observation was that if this is the case, we cannot define any given ‘signified’ except with reference to further signs, which then in turn themselves require definition with reference to further signs. It’s turtles all the way down. We have no means, through language, of arriving at any kind of truth that we are able to experience directly. Furthermore, the concerted efforts by millennia of culture to obscure the fact that it’s turtles all the way down is in fact a cunning effort to shore up entrenched interests, and to conceal the operations of power.

In this view, recourses to authority are null and void. There is no solid foundation, no God, no truth, no authority. Only power, and a form of consensus reality arrived at through the glacial accretion of a billion tiny operations of power that have, in sum, decreed that the world should be thus and not thus.

For me, the shift from a sense of the world as having some stable narrative trajectory to this perspective, in which meanings were not only networked but fundamentally without foundation, was deeply disturbing. It landed like a psychotic experience. Overnight, the hallowed architecture of Oxford University went from seeming like a benign repository of traditions within which I could find my place, to a hostile incursion into my consciousness of something phallic, domineering, and authoritarian. I remember describing to a friend how, as a woman and sexual minority, I suddenly experienced the ‘dreaming spires’ as ‘barbed penises straining to penetrate the sky.’

I wish I could say it passed, but it did not. What did happen, though, after I left, was that I found an accommodation with the loss of teleology and objectivity from my frame of reference. I did this by theorizing that if to posit anything at all is an act of power, then it was one I was also entitled to attempt. All cognition, meaning-making, interpretation, and perception is conceptually laden and socially-mediated action. It is impossible to ground even perception in anything but action and thus power. But so be it. We live in a society and participate in the flow of power all the time. I developed the idea of ‘temporary certainties,’ or in other words, the idea that even if meanings are not stable, many of them are stable enough for me to act as if they were solid in the pre-Derridean sense. I did not have to deconstruct every minuscule interaction for the operations of power it encoded.

In an effort to evade the monstrous pervasiveness of systems of domination and submission, I experimented with radically non-hierarchical forms of living, power exchange sexualities, non-binary gender presentation. I tried my own operations of power: I changed my name to Sebastian, to see what it felt like, then settled for a while on Sebastian Mary. I co-founded a startup with friends, in which we tried to avoid having a management hierarchy.

My accommodation kind of worked, for a while. But it did not last. It is all very well to theorize about non-hierarchical forms of organization, but in order to get stuff done you need a chain of accountability. And the worst sort of hierarchies have a habit of emerging, too, especially in social situations where they are intentionally obscured or deprecated. Communes, collaborative projects, and the like all find their leaders and followers, or their tyrants and victims. My increasing bitterness as I learned this, in the course of trying to get somewhere with the startup, made me so obnoxious as a co-worker that eventually I was expelled from the project which was, by then, failing anyway.

With that rupture, I lost my social circle, my best friend, and my entire carefully reassembled working theory for how to navigate the rubble of broken teleologies that was my adult life in the ‘00s. Concurrently, the Great Crash of 2008 destroyed the equally teleological fantasy of global liberal-democratic hegemony under international capitalism that had powered the Iraq invasion along with the triumphalism of the Blair years.

In the wreckage, though, something wonderful happened. Two wonderful things, actually. First, I met the man who I would eventually marry, and by degrees let go of the belief that in order to sustain my integrity as a person I had to reject any form of stable loving relationship to an Other in favor of multiple, overlapping, unstable platonic, sexual, or ambiguous friendships. Second, I decided I needed to learn how to do something more useful than floating around London curating experimental art events and screwing up entrepreneurship, and went back to school to train as a psychotherapist.

In the course of that study, I learned where postmodernism took its wrong turn. Implicit in the post-structuralist theories taught to every young humanities student at university is the idea that because meanings have no singular objectively correct grounding, they are therefore of no value. Also implicit is the idea that because of this, no satisfying, authentic or truthful encounter with the Other is ever possible—only an endless recursive hall of mirrors composed either of our own anguished reflections or the invasive pressure against our psyches of another’s desire.

In studying psychotherapy, though, I came to realize that while the same post-structuralist decentering of the self took place in psychoanalytic theory between Freud and his contemporary descendants, therapists had—because they have to—rejected the idea that we can never encounter the other. While much contemporary analytic theory acknowledges the need to excavate and make space for the operations of overdetermined systems such as race, class, or sex, it does not automatically follow from the presence of those things that intersubjective contact and meaningful connection cannot take place.

Just like post-structuralism decentered the observer, intersubjective psychoanalysis radically decenters the analyst. But an intersubjective understanding of the relational space as co-created by client and therapist does not preclude the possibility of therapeutic work taking place. And this in turn speaks powerfully to a claim that however muddled, muddied and overdetermined our encounters with the other may be, yet they still contain the potential to be not just benign but real, true, and transformative.

I suppose I could deconstruct that claim in turn. But I have experienced its truth both as client and also, in the course of my work, as therapist. Through intersubjective encounters in the consulting room, I have been transformed, and have transformed in turn. From this vantage point, the claim of post-structuralism to render meaningless all semiotic systems, and reveal as brute operations of power all encounters with the other, seems not just mistaken but (in the Kleinian sense) paranoid-schizoid. It is the tantrum of a child who, on realizing they cannot have exactly what they want, refuses to have even the next best thing and dismisses everything and everyone as evil.

The alternative to this paranoid-schizoid repudiation of meaning is not to reject meaning as dead or hopelessly suborned by power, but to accept that we are enmeshed, shaped and in turn helping to shape networks of meaning as part of a dynamic dialogue. We are nodes in the social and semiotic system. As such, even the act of contemplating those systems of meaning will have some tiny effect on them. When Derrida said ‘Il n’y a pas d’hors-texte’—”there is no outside-text,” though commonly mistranslated as “there is nothing outside the text”—I took it to mean meaning itself was hopelessly corrupted, and objectivity a bust. Today, I see it more as a radical decentering of my selfhood that opens up new, vibrant possibilities of connectedness.

If we read ‘text’ in the biosemiotic sense as fractal, multi-dimensional, and interconnected systems of signification, both of human culture and the natural world (inasmuch as those things can even be separated), then indeed there is nothing outside the text. But that does not mean the text is wholly illegible, or that it does not exist—simply that in reading, we affect what it says, and in return it changes us. We are unavoidably caught up in perspectival context, without truly objective ground to stand on. But objectivity was always an implicit abdication and obscuration of power and the necessity of choice. It was the idea that we could calculate what to do from objective factors that we didn’t have to take responsibility for. We do have to take responsibility, but that can mean a proactive positive acceptance. We can step up to the challenge of power and perspective, rather than reject it out of guilt and trauma.

Seen thus, a living post-structuralism is a philosophy not of radical alienation but radical interconnection. It is not the death of stable meaning, but the moment a system we thought rigid, immovable, and observable from the outside stirred and opened its eyes to return our gaze. It is also increasingly supported by contemporary studies in—for example—ecology and theoretical physics. If even the hardest of hard sciences now advances a theory of reality that embrace radical uncertainty and the implication of the observer in what is observed, then surely the humanities can do so as well without giving up on meaning altogether?

The great insight of postmodernism is that meaning is unstable, and mediated in infinite complexity by systems of power in which we are decentered but implicated. But the response to this insight from the humanities has been a furious rearguard action by the ideology of fixed meanings that postmodernism itself displaced. Enlightenment rationalism is to postmodernism as Newtonian physics is to general relativity, and it is in the ‘social justice’ ideologies now increasingly hegemonic in elite institutions that Enlightenment rationalism is seeking to make its last stand against the new philosophy of radical interconnection.

If postmodernism claimed that all meanings are unstable, socially constructed, and held in place by operations of power, the defining characteristic of the anti-postmodernism that masquerades as contemporary postmodern thought is its determination to apply that analysis to everything except its own categories and hierarchies. In effect, this system of thought seeks to recoup semiotic stability by replacing the old ‘bad’ hierarchies of Western, patriarchal, heterosexual, etc. dominance with new ‘good’ ones.

All activities, goes the claim, are tainted by the toxic operations of overdetermined systems of oppressive social meaning which speak through us and over us regardless of what little agency we might imagine ourselves to have. So in the political framework of anti-postmodernism, fixed immutable characteristics such as race assign their bearers a position on a rigid hierarchy of ‘marginalization’ which in turn influences their status within the system. The legitimacy of the new, fixed hierarchies of marginalization-as-status rests, we are told, in how they correct for, deconstruct, and overcome previously imposed power inequalities. The chief form of political action is a wholesale effort to dismantle these former inequalities, wherever they may be found.

But in practice, the demand that all historically imposed power relations be deconstructed unwinds the legitimacy of any possible social relationship or institution. All meanings necessitate the exclusion of what-is-not-meant. Making absolute inclusion a central political demand is thus in effect a call for the abolition of meaning. We are never told what form the good life might take, should this project of semiocide ever be completed. But one thing is clear: it can have no social or intersubjective dimension, for that would imply shared meanings, and with shared meanings the operations of power—exclusion, definition, the imposition of significations not wholly self-chosen—inescapably return, as do hierarchies. In this sense, the push for semiocide in the name of social justice is a project whose ultimate aim is an individuation so total it precludes any form of encounter with the Other, except in a multidirectional contest for domination that none can be permitted to win.

From other vantage points within the culture war, the reaction to this doctrine is often mockery, for the doctrine’s self-absorption, incoherence or preoccupation with language and ‘luxury beliefs.’ This is mistaken. Its adherents are motivated by compassionate idealism, but have been misled by a destructive falsehood and are in many cases deeply unhappy. The decentering of the Enlightenment subject brings with it an invitation to a more fluid experience of selfhood as radically inseparable from and in a process of co-creation with all of reality, and yes, with the power structures of the society in which we live. But the contemporary critical theory I am calling anti-postmodernism shows young people this vision of beauty, only to dismiss it as a pack of tendentious, self-interested lies.

It is no wonder today’s young people fling themselves miserably against the bars of whatever structures of meaning are still standing in an effort to knock them down—or perhaps to prop themselves up. Whether it is the SJWs, the frog memers, or the ‘failson’ ironists, they can smell the fresh breeze of meaning, less linear than the rationalists would like but nonetheless real, and yet they have been told they cannot have it, because it is not there, or else comprises only violence and hostility. So, they fight over the broken rubble of the Enlightenment, or with each other, or their ancestors, and starve in the midst of a banquet.

To recap, then: what gets called ‘postmodernism’ today is not postmodernism but the last spasm of the worldview displaced by postmodernism, that saw meanings as fixed, knowable and amenable to human mastery. This anti-postmodernism diverts young people from the astonishing richness of a systems-based, decentered engagement with the world’s semiotic complexity by seeking the only remaining form of mastery it can imagine: a defensive assault on meaning itself.

Instead of embracing the fluidity of systems of meaning, and each subject’s situatedness within that system, young people are taught that the only legitimate foundation for political action—or indeed any kind of social participation—is atomized selfhood, constructed from within and defended with narcissistic brittleness. They are taught to see themselves as solely responsible for discovering, curating, optimizing and presenting this supposedly ‘authentic’ self as their central marketable asset. But they also learn that it is continually under assault by hostile forces of oppressive social meaning whose aim is to keep them—or others like them, or someone anyway—marginalized, abject and on the back foot.

Within this system, it follows that the central locus of political activism must be to disrupt these oppressive forces that marginalize unfavored groups, so as to advance the project of collective liberation to ‘be our authentic selves.’ This is not just a political project but an existential one, for along with marginalizing unfavored groups these forces impose unlooked-for and oppressively overdetermined social meanings on each of us, undermining each young person’s quest for authentic selfhood. Individuals caught up in this worldview genuinely believe they are agitating not just for the liberation of the oppressed but for their very existence.

The fixation of today’s elite graduates on ‘validation’ of ‘identities’ may seem frivolous to older generations. But within a worldview that frames all forms of social meaning as oppressive by definition, the very gaze of the Other is an unacceptable attack on the pristine territory of the self. If we reject the genuinely postmodern ethic of radical semiotic interconnection, and our interwovenness with structures of meaning in society and the natural world, then the movement of these structures in, on and within our individual identities comes to be experienced as violence.

This perspective exists in tormented symbiosis with an Other it can neither tolerate, nor yet wholly dispense with. For the paradox is that the invasive gaze of the Other, laden with unwanted and oppressive shared meanings, is simultaneously the source of suffering and salvation. The gaze of the Other is experienced as a hostile and violent invasion, forever imposing unlooked-for social meanings that constrain the liberty of each sacred self. But it is also the only source of the ‘validation’ that will reassure each individual that their self-creation project is real, true and accepted.

The solution, within this worldview, is an (again paranoid-schizoid in the Kleinian sense) ever more desperate effort to control the thoughts of the Other. We see this in politicized campaigns to control speech in the service of identities. But as any psychotherapist (or parent) will tell you, trying to control the inner life of another is a project that in normal circumstances seems achievable (or indeed desirable) only to young children or the mentally disturbed. That it should become a central political desideratum for a generation of elite young people does not bode well for the future health of public life.

When I started my undergraduate degree 20 years ago, critical theory was one epistemology among several, which we learned about as it were ‘from the outside’ rather than as a framework for understanding other philosophies. Though it affected me severely, in ways I have already described, most of my contemporaries simply learned about the ideas and were largely unaffected. Today, though, this epistemology has eaten and digested the humanities and begun to nibble on science and even mathematics. As a result, for today’s young people, it is increasingly difficult to find a vantage point outside its political ontology from which to evaluate its operations.

We should not be surprised, then, that mental health issues have skyrocketed in elite college-age populations. They are being taught to believe, as a foundational framework for understanding the world, that acceptance in the gaze of the Other is key to validating a selfhood they alone are responsible for creating, curating and optimizing. But they are also being taught that all shared meanings—in other words, anything conferred by the gaze of the Other—represents a hostile act of violence. How is any young adult meant to navigate this catch-22?

It is a mistake to dismiss this as narcissistic—or, at least, to ignore the suffering of those trapped in this bind. To be ‘defined’ by something other than our own desire is in this system to be injured, parts of our authentic self mauled or amputated, whether by social meanings we did not choose or the givens of our embodied existence. This is a phenomenally cruel thing to teach young people, as it leaves them feeling perpetually oppressed by the givens of existence itself.

This analysis also sheds light on the crisis of elite purpose and leadership Natalia Dashan described in her Palladium piece last year. If shared meanings are not only unavailable but actively hostile, how is any young person meant to formulate a legitimate rationale for stepping up? No wonder so many elite graduates dismiss even the possibility of public service in favor either of pecuniary self-interest in finance or tech, or else joining the ranks of activist-bureaucrats seeking to advance the destruction of shared meanings in the name of total inclusion.

But as societies around the globe struggle to get to grips with coronavirus, we no longer have the luxury of sitting about like Shakespeare’s Richard II, mourning a broken model of meaning as the world disintegrates around us. Facing the deaths perhaps of loved ones, and certainly of everything we thought of as ‘normal’ until a few weeks ago, destroying what is left of our structures of social meaning in the name of liberation politics or frog-meme irony is an indulgence we cannot afford. The project of reconstruction is urgent. This project is both an inner and an outer one: reconstruction of an inner life capable of navigating social meanings without experiencing them as violence, and also of our willingness to participate in the external, political analogue of those social meanings, namely institutions, political structures and—yes—hierarchies.

This is not to say that we should shrug at unjust systems of domination. The ‘social justice’ excavation of ‘implicit bias’ is not wholly without merit. It is on all of us to make sincere efforts to meet the Other to the best of our abilities as we find it, and not simply reduce the world out there to our preconceptions. But this effort cannot be so all-encompassing as to destroy what systems of shared meaning we have left. Nor can we afford to see it grind common endeavor to a standstill.

No one knows yet what the world will look like as we emerge from the political and economic convulsions engendered by this global pandemic. One thing is clear, though: the ethic of radically individualist atomization implicit in ‘social justice’ campaigns for the destruction of all shared meaning is woefully inadequate to the challenges we now face. Through its lethal spread and infectiousness, coronavirus has demonstrated vividly how our fates remain bound to one another in infinitely complex ways, however loudly we may assert our right to self-authorship. Faced with the persistence of our social, biological, semiotic, economic, and ecological interconnectedness, we would do well to embrace and make a virtue of it, to salvage those shared meanings that remain to us, and begin the process of building new ones that will sustain us into the future.

This article was originally published at Palladium magazine.

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