Cover of The Listening Society by Hanzi Freinacht

I’ve been reading Metamoderna for a while now with great interest, and finally got around to reading the book, which has been out since September 2017.

I’ll be blunt: This book may change your life, and it may go down in history as a great and accessible piece of (pop-)philosophy. However, I sense there are some serious pitfalls to reading and applying it. Looking around the web at the comments of others, it seems my concerns are well founded. I encourage you to and read it (it is quite short and pleasant), but please take some of my concerns with you as you do.

I recommend this book to anyone who’s just sliiightly uncomfortable with postmodernism, identity politics or super-rational sciencism. This book offers a wider perspective, that can both include and extend your perspective.

But before we can critique, we need to get a grip on what we are actually talking about here: Metamodernism.

What is Metamodernism, and why should you care?

Much of the 20th century has been characterized by “modernism”, a sort of catch-all phrase for a sort of pragmatic, rational take on the world we inhabit, and moderniregarded in most of the world as the pinnacle of human culture. But since the late 60’s, more and more chinks in the modernist armor have become apparent: scientists bring their own biases to the table and they don’t get cancelled out properly, the rational market can’t handle its own large-scale side effects, and as the middle class has become more prosperous in the west, material wealth has become of less importance. This anti-modern movement, which is today at the forefront in both politics and media in the most well-off countries in the world, is usually dubbed postmodernism. Postmodernism hasn’t taken over the world just yet, but it will. But then what?

On his blog, Hanzi Freinacht1, has been thinking about what comes after postmodernism. He chose the name “metamodernism”, and it’s a sort of Hegelian synthesis of modernism and postmodernism.

According to Hanzi Freinacht,

“Metamodernists define themselves through the struggle of value memes against value memes: It’s not if you’re Right or Left that matters the most, but how complex your thinking is.”

To explain this point properly, we first need to cover some basic terminology, starting with “value memes”.

The value memes

A value meme is a person’s general understanding of self, society, and ontology. A sort of framework for thinking about most of society and, to some extent, about yourself. In each such meme, certain values will naturally emerge, at least the broad strokes. So for example, most modernists hold the separation of state and church and good science education in high regard, as well as fair and open competition. Postmodernists will generally value radical inclusion and the righting of historical and contemporary wrongs. The value memes coexist, so you have a world populated by both premodernists2, modernists, and postmodernists all at the same time, vying for the hearts of people.

So what makes them memes? The value memes are memes in that they are uniquely well adapted to a certain developmental stage of society. The modern value meme could take much of the world by storm starting around the Enlightenment. This was because the previous value meme (called postfaustian), dominated by religion, naturally decreased in power: salvation became less important and attractive in the face of equality, rationality, individualism, and industrialization. Societies were well of enough that people could start looking for scientific truth, starting with a certain educated elite. Once the modern perspective had started spreading, there was no stopping it. In much the same way, postmodernists are coming to dominate academia, politics, industry, and media, because they understand the globalized human condition better than the moderns. The postmodernists can reach and touch people in ways that resonate with a generation alienated by either over-abundance or staggering inequality in well-off nations with their message, and as the number of people in such a predicament grows, postmodernism increases its influence.

So what does the metamodern value meme bring to the table?

The metamodern value meme is uniquely well equipped to handle contention and conflict in a globalized world. Whereas postmodernists happily pay lip-service to marginalized perspectives, there is still the idea that postmodernism is the real deal, what everyone should get down with, and that the power structures and racists are some sort of inherent evil that can be taken down, torn apart. In a globalized world with every meme (postmodern, modern and below) represented, the postmodern meme will take heavy fire. The growing right-wing nationalist movements in Europe is an excellent example of what happens when postmodernists completely aliene huge groups of people, who view the bleeding hearts in media and politics as the bitter enemy. Metamodernism is about a more radical inclusion, hearing, empathizing and considering the perspective of the nationalists, the crypto-liberals, and the queer-feminists. As such, they will be better at hearing the people at lower value memes out, alienating them less than postmodernists, which mean they will gradually be able to usurp the postmodernists or convert them, taking their postions of power.

Hierarchies among humans

This is all well and good – a high-level, abstract view of human culture – but Hanzi shines in his meticulous approach to human development, relating them to the value memes. Basically, Hanzi thinks, to be receptible for a higher value meme, you need to have developed further in four different dimensions (or just really far in one or two of them).

The models of human development that Hanzi steals, modifies, and constructs are the real reason you should read this book. The idea of metamodernism and its future supremacy is a good reason for you to do so, but these models are your toolkit. Much like understanding personality types like Myers-Briggs or Big Five will help you navigate your personal relationships better, so will these models help you not only with that, but also thinking about politics, sieving brilliance from banality, and improving yourself.

The four models are quite simple but contain a lot of detail. Again, I encourage you to read the book to get the detailed view. But in brief, the models are:

  • The Model of Hierarchical Complexity (MHC), a way of classifying just how complex ideas you are able to come up with and understand. The concept is wider than IQ or creativity.
  • Symbol stages or “Code”, which explains how deep your understanding of reality is. While a thinker like Aristotle might have been brilliantly complex, he didn’t know shit about, say, physics. Any undergrad outsmarts him in both math and psychology. Why? Because just by virtue of being born 2400 years later, they automatically learn a lot more about the world and thus can analyze things which Aristotle would have struggled with, or resorted to some of his typical magical explanations.
  • Emotional state. Basically, how happy or sad are you, right now and in general, on a scale from “depths of hell” to “bliss only rivaled by the prophets”, with most people hanging around the “very uneasy” to “pretty damn good” zone.
  • Emotional depth. How many states have you experienced, and integrated into your understanding? The more emotional states you can empathize with, the greater your depth.

Again, just getting access to these models is enough reason for you to go out and get this book. You’ll find all the gritty details in there.

The critique

I loved this book. You should read it too. I think you’ll love it. I don’t believe all the warnings about how you need to be a certain level of smart to get the points. I think the more readers, the more good criticism we’ll see so that even the metamodern perspective can evolve out of its current brittle, vulnerable, untested state.

Don’t drink the Kool-Aid

If you ask me, you should plunge into this book and open your mind to it. Embrace the ideas, practice thinking with the models you are given. But careful, or you might just be joining one of the annoying, delusional cults that Hanzi loves bashing.

That’s because a major theme of the book is that of how exlusive these ideas are. Hanzi is essentially saying: “If you get it, you are part of the elite. People who don’t get your perspective, or hold certain ideals or ideas, are at a lower stage of development than you. They couldn’t possibly understand.” This follows directly from the models, but by God, it is a recipe for disaster, jabbing it into the hands of young and hungry intellectuals who are already likely to perceive most people to be stupid bourgeoisie automatons, whereas they are complex thinkers who “get it”. The kind of people who think that if they only would put them in charge, or people just were more like them, they’d set this society straight and we’d have a perfect liberal capitalist scientific mindfulness socialist-egalitarian utopia. Thus the book doesn’t only give you a pass to put yourself on the pinnacle, it is also in itself a litmus test that says that if you get it, you’re good, and the critics still have some way to go. The book is self-referential, since it describes human development, so that any opinion you have on it also reflects your development stage, and thus your understanding of the book.

I googled this book. I read the Amazon reviews and the blog posts. And the recurring theme is that everyone who read the book and wrote about it a) are super excited about it (hey, some am I!), and b) find some way to justify exactly why they now belong to the metamodern tribe, (they didn’t read it and conclude that no, I’m not at the pinnacle), and c) think it fits perfectly into their pet perspectives of society, and massage it so that it fits.

Don’t deceive yourself. Open your mind, but don’t let your brain fall out. I think Hanzi would agree with me on this point.

An almost mythical belief in patterns

An interesting aspect of Hanzi’s writing is how it implicitly relies on repeating patterns in history.

The bad news are: patterns are malleable. By altering the delimitation of eras, picking out the salient features that best serves your narrative, and emphasizing similarities (and downplaying differences) between historical events, you can make it sound as if history does move in very clear, periodic waves. This sounds a lot like Hegel or Marx. You look upon the world, identifie a pattern (as humans are prone to do) and conclude that the pattern will repeat. This might work for patterns in their 50th phase of repetition, but the value memes of history are few. You often end up with one or two data points to extrapolate from. So Hanzi identifies the value memes Faustian -> Postfaustian -> Modern -> Postmodern, and then identifies the postfaustian stage as a moral development to the faustian stage: better for the masses, but still operating under the same basic logics of power and capital as the faustian stage. He then sees the same pattern in modernism and postmodernism, postmodernism still living in a capitalist world without a real alternative, but at least offering a bit of equalization and a one-world attitude. So from the fact that modernity rose out of a postfaustian world, and that the timeline seems to suggest its time for a new similar shift, he concludes that a metamodern logic is around the corner. This sounds a lot like Marx’s analysis of the great movements of the world, and his prediction that socialism was around the corner3. And for all their brilliance, both Hanzi and Marx seem to have gotten a bit seduced by their desire for a symmetrical history of the world.

To be fair, I think the patterns here might be valid. The reasoning is pretty solid, but far from waterproof. Keep in mind: history may repeat itself, but the way it does will surprise you.

The problem of Hanzi

Okay, so I will address the fiction of Hanzi Freinacht. Hanzi, in the book, often references his own academic career, research, and mentors. This is strange since Hanzi doesn’t exist. Of course he has no published research. Neither do the names behind the fictional Hanzi, as far as I’ve been able to find. A Google Scholar search reveals only a Bachelor’s thesis of one of the creators at Lund University. So every time Hanzi references his own involvement in academia, I cringe.

I don’t mean I don’t trust anyone without a Ph.D. or a good citation score. Good ideas can come from anywhere. But why on Earth would you employ such a clear Ethos argument that is not only patently false but also absurd? The only reason I can think of is that the author(s) are playing with some sort of hyperreality, creating an image of Hanzi that is just as real to the reader as reality could ever be. I can see the point. I can see how it would make you question the authority of other scholars that you may rely blindly upo that you may rely blindly uponn. (How often do you follow the sources in your non-fiction literature, read the original papers, look up biographies?) But even so, it mostly seems dishonest to me. -10 style points.

The writing

Like with all works of philosophy, you get the ideas only by also swallowing the prose. I found Hanzi’s writing both funny and cringe-worthy. It’s a thin line he’s balancing. The author’s voice in my head is that of a really smart person at a party who also knows they’re really smart, loves the sound of their own voice, and is a little too confident in their own sense of humor.

I can definitely see the writing in itself turn off some readers. Indeed, it almost happened to me. Not because it’s bad, but because it is a little obnoxious. This seems to be by design. It’s engaging. And it only really shows up in the interludes between the meatier parts of the book. So don’t worry too much, sigh out loud if you need to, and read on.

Lack of actionability

The main point of criticism of postmodernism in the book is its ineptitude, its inability to give any real solutions to the problems of modernism. Metamodernism offers a solution in that we must “develop people”. Metamodernism, as presented, here does seem promising, but it really only shifts the problem one step up: instead of just “being better and more inclusive” as the “pomos” say, we need to “develop humans along 4 dimensions”. We can do this by building a listening society. In this society, the premodern, modern and postmodern ideas get to talk to the metamodern idea, and the metamodernists synthesize solutions. In this society, we listen beyond our ideological confines.

Hanzi keeps going on about how we should be able to create institutions, a society, that supports development. But in a modern (or postmodern) democracy, how would this be done? It would entail some acceptance of the metamodern ideas and support for the idea of hierarchies among humans. Perhaps the closest example is the center-leftist, postmodern Nordic countries, with a postmodern elite. I think its easy (and I think Hanzi would agree) to convince pomos that we should “develop” the poor modernists and postfaustian racists, at least into postmodernists. But good luck having the general population agreeing, the population to which all postmodernists sound like new-age, animistic, astrological-precariat thinkers who have completely missed, not surpassed, modernism and postfaustianism. And to some extent, they are right. There are many postmodernists who don’t have a damn clue what they’re doing, but they have a “flattened” view of the postmodern code, as Hanzi would put it. If this was math, then they can perform calculations, but they don’t know the proofs, but they think they do and come off sounding silly. So how do we develop everyone? That is a question that remains unanswered.

However, there seems to be an outline of how to outcompete capitalism on Hanzi’s blog. It basically boils down to that it will happen on its own, as capitalism creates abundance for more and more people. I do have some critique of the article. First off: it starts out in a very annoying style, talking to an imagined idiot as if Hanzi needs to make you feel uncool so he can get you onboard his cool train. Secondly, the solutions come in abstraction levels similar to that you’d find in Marx: cultural capital over material capital; time and attention over money. It paints some broad, but very true or at least true-ringing strokes, but it equally useless. In classical Hanzi style, he broadens terms so that words like capital and profit take on a bit of an expanded meaning. This is great for finding overarching patterns, but it does introduce some unnecessary confusion. There’s room to fill in the details and add some rigor. Let’s see what the future book will hold. Thirdly, it all rests on the assumption that we will have “a future society where material gains, property, is so abundant that it ceases being the main concern”. There is a lot to criticize about this assumption, a sort of trickle-down economics for at least the upper-middle class. We may see dreadful accumulations of power before we see anything like the fertile ground for the metamodern elites to plant their revolution. I’ll be able to give a fuller reponse once Hanzi’s next book comes out, which will cover how to outcompete capitalism.

For now, we’re left with the following pointers (as per my interpretation): the creative class and precariat will unite to create something like universal basic income, automation will make manufactured goods abundant, and we will have the oft-predicted world where people work out of interest and for large gains, not for survival. In this brave new world, culture and symbol creation will be the central economy, and the metamodern elite wins the day with their postmaterialist values and ability to create entertainment, both shallow and deep kinds. Youtubers decapitate the bourgeoisie who decapitated the king.

Color me optimistic, but not convinced.

What makes the book great

Even though it might not be useful for political change in the now (that might change with the next book) the proposed models and value meme classifications make for excellent and robust analytical tools. It is hard not to categorize people once you see the models in play and to do so in a way that gives you some predictive power, at least so I’ve found since I finished the book. Rarely does non-fiction leave me with such a fresh perspective on the human condition, such an expansion of understanding.

I also think this book might help spark a real political shift. If we put it in the hands of the ambitious and empathetic, I think they will be better equipped to curb some disturbing trends. Even though I of course lack data to back it up, it does seem like are two rampant kinds of disenfranchisement have created classes of people that can be sucked up by metamodernism.

The first is the growing disenfranchisement between the ruling classes and the people in many modern welfare states, giving rise to strong xenophobic sentiments and value meme regression, evident in fascists rising in Europe and the US. The ruling classes are most often postmodern, whereas the modern value meme is still dominating society in general. Hanzi calls the Alt-Right postmodern, and I think he’s right. But the Alt-Right is great at rallying the premodernists and postmodernists, giving their values a place in the utterly postmodern, globalized world. Those wishing to combat the Alt-Right, or even Alt-Righters looking to outcompete feminism and identity politics, may look to metamodernism.

The second is a similar disenfranchisement on the other end of the political scale: many on the left are growing tired of the postmodern approach. Even as the postmodernists rally more people behind feminism and egalitarianism, they do so in a way that is largely unproductive, more focused on criticism of modernity and emphasis on personal expression than actual material or spiritual improvements. As a political movement, strong identity politics make postmodern politics a hard project to be part of for those with a foot still in the modern project. Metamodernism offers a more nuanced perspective and allows the doubters of postmodernism into the curch of progressiveness.

Let’s talk further

I will end by saying: I generally agree with Hanzis outlook. The book is, in essence, philosophical, and as such, can’t reach for science to back everything up, but instead needs to resort to reason, observation, and intuition. The book is, however, well researched as for as I imagine is possible, and relies heavily on modern sociology. The reasoning is clear and precise. The models of human development are argued seem applicable, and Hanzi has no problem separating the models from reality, agreeing that they can and should be improved upon further. I think it will be able to stand up to critique well, given that its readers also practice a bit of criticism.

Read the book and let me know your thoughts. There are more points of criticism and praise that deserve attention than I could fit in this already quite a long post, so I welcome some discussion. I’d love to hear what you think.

You can pick up the book here.

P.S. I found a great little article that tries to distinguish value systems, and criticize them. It is called The World’s Most Toxic Value System. The value system in the title, called thar in the article, corresponds well to the “Faustian” value meme. I highly recommend that article as an intro to thinking about value systems if you, like me, are a bit of a relativist to begin with. Go back and read the article again after finishing Hanzis book, and you will see what the book has taught you.

  1. Hanzi is, as far as I can tell, a nome-de-plume of two dudes named Daniel Görtz and Emil Ejner Friis, but I’m happy to play along with their fiction. 

  2. There are several premodern value memes, and Hanzi describes them in detail. 

  3. My likenings of Hanzi and Marx are not coincidental. They are similar in many ways, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Hanzi himself thinks of himself as a modern Marx. Speculation aside, Hanzi cites Marx and Marxism frequently.