By Rick Talbot. August 15, 2002.
** Note: This is a philosophical essay, not fiction. Have fun! **
The last decade of the 20th century - and the beginning of the 21st century – has seen a drastic shift away from post-modern thought and values. The predominant social themes of the recent years have moved away from post-modern ideals. The human mind has collectively evolved beyond the questioning of meaning, has decided that there is none, and has resigned itself to self-destructive outlets.
In this new era, which we should call post-meaning, we find the ultimate expression of the “Me Generation.” Namely, the self is important; others are irrelevant. Cultural relativism has given way to global homogeneity, and has headed toward non-culture. Ethnic diversity is being lost around the world. Finally, the question of God’s existence has become irrelevant, as God himself has become irrelevant and, by consequence, meaningless.
I thought of the idea of the post-meaning era as I was walking through the park one day in April. I then searched the internet for the term “post-meaning” and found that the first usage comes from a 1994 article, “The Meaning of Meaning in a Post-Meaning Age.” And so, though I have not been the first to think of it, I hope that I can offer meaningful speculation on this new frame of reference. This article will reflect on the dawn of the Post-Meaning era.
Toward A Post-Meaning Era
We live in a time that is post-meaning. The reality that we inhabit is beyond meaning. The old categories have failed us; we no longer feel grounded by any greater purpose. Our society is consistently pervaded by a sense of being lost. There is a feeling that the world, and all events, are essentially random and out of our control.
Pre-Western societies mostly viewed the world as sacred. They have seen the world as being part of a grand design, with everything functioning as it should. The earth, society, and God are tightly integrated. Everything that happens has a sacred cause and a sacred ramification. This is especially true of aboriginal cultures around the world.
Western society has, until recently, viewed the physical world as a profane place. The sense of sacred is grafted onto the profane world by the condescending grace of God. Meaning and purpose come from an outside source.
Today our society does not see the world as a profane thing saved by a meaningful god. Now the world is a senseless world. It is a world where all events, good or bad, happen essentially randomly, and where God has no hand in the proceedings. There is no meaning – no integral sacred meaning of the pre-western peoples, and saving grace granted us from above.
The fundamental human questions in the past may have been, “Who am I?” or “what is the meaning of life?” or “Is there a God?” Today, in our post-meaning world, the fundamental questions are “Does it matter if I figure out who I am? Is there a meaning of life? What difference would it make if God exists?”
The new attitude toward God is the most obvious symptom of the post-meaning era. The post-modern question “Is God dead?” has finally given way to the idea that maybe it doesn’t matter if God is dead. In fact, maybe God doesn’t matter at all. The large majority of the population that lives in Western Society (and this includes Japan and the rest of the westernized nations) live their lives as if God didn’t exist.
Many will still profess a belief in a specific denomination, or state an agnostic belief in God. However, most will still live their lives as if they didn’t believe in God. They will live their lives as if there were no God. This lifestyle, to quote Donald Blais relegates all individuals to a sort of “fundamental atheism.”
So why believe in God at all? This is the problem with the post-meaning world. There is a fundamental contradiction that takes place in the mind when dealing with the most important post-meaning questions. When the mind looks for meaning it looks outside of itself for purpose and order. In the past this meaning could be found, in faith or through logic. Today when meaning is found the mind is defeated by the profound thought that it doesn’t really matter. The contradiction is that the post-meaning mind searches desperately for meaning, and destroys any meaning it finds.
Because we are in a time beyond meaning, the post-meaning mind must always fail at its desire to find meaning. While post-modern may have seen the lessening role of the rational intellect as the source of humanity’s success and development, the post-meaning era demonstrates the abject failure of the intellect, because the use of intellect can not solve the problem of its own inconsequence.
While post-modern values emphasize emotions as equal to intellect, in the post-meaning era the emotions are reduced to non-use, or at most to be paralysed by the redundant, eternal, futile cry for meaning. This is where post-meaning is different than nihilism. Nihilism, as I understand it, has been often thought of as leading to an eventual acceptance, and eventual embracing of meaninglessness, even perhaps leading to indifference toward the absurdity of existence. The post-meaning era shows us that society can have no acceptance. Instead there can only be destructive resignation. Viewed in this light, a trend like hedonism is not a symptom of the moral freedom that meaningless brings. Rather it is a self-destructive reaction to the unanswered need for meaning.
The specter of mass-death, of random mortality, only feeds the sense of meaninglessness. For if death can come at any time, from anywhere, then does it really matter what the potential victim does? Why go into business if you can be killed by a collapsing building. Why teach if you can be murdered by your student? This growing sense of senselessness, meaninglessness, irrelevance, and unimportance creates the following problem: Why do anything at all? It would seem that the only people who are doing anything are the ones who are doing the killing, the victimizing. Everyone else is a potential victim, an unimportant casualty (because the world still exists after their death). And so everyone else is inhuman.
The post-meaning era brings us the promotion of the indulgence of the id and the erosion of a healthy ego. In other words there is a growing trend toward infantilism, toward instant gratification and ego-inflation. This makes sense, because if there is no meaning from outside of the self, then the only thing that matters is self-gratification, self-promotion, and self-importance. The self must create its own synthetic meaning by enhancing its artificial importance. Post-modern self-interest has given way to post-meaning self-importance – this is typified by the growing WIFM Phenomenon, “what’s in it for me.”
But, once more the contradiction at the heart of the post-meaning era rears its head: While the individual (and the entire society) engages in acts of self-enhancement, there is the understanding that there is really no meaning to the self. All self-enhancing acts are therefore meaningless. This is the numbing self-contradictory core of the era.
In the post-meaning era, all familiar ideas are being questioned. In the twentieth century, as the ‘war on terror’ is being waged we are seeing a “new type of war.” In all wars throughout history there were two clearly defined combatants, the goals and stakes were well known, and the objectives clear. In today’s warfare the combatants are essentially unknown, and the goals unclear. But in the post-meaning era does it does not matter who is being fought. It does not matter that war is being waged against a loosely associated system of political, religious, economic and social meanings.
The various “rage” phenomena are another indication that we are in the post-meaning era. Road rage, parking lot rage, air rage, and grocery store rage, are all demonstrative of a growing frustration throughout society. There is a nebulous feeling of powerlessness, of being out of control, of being quick to anger without any direct reason. Could all this rage be an outlet of a constantly fruitless search for meaning? The rage phenomenon is the individual lashing out from a sense of powerlessness, and so trying to assert power over others. This is related to another growing phenomenon, the shooting spree.
It most recently happened in Germany. A high school student entered his school and killed seventeen people before killing himself. While this at first seems like a complicated event, it actually comes down to a simple cause: lack of meaning.
When a mind is faced with a meaningless world, and so is unable to construct meaning from within or without, it reacts fatally. Life is meaningless, and so killing is no big deal. It doesn’t matter whether anybody lives or dies, because there is really no meaning to anything. Life is random, senseless, and without purpose. So why shouldn’t a young man, feeling marginalized, hopeless and without recourse, go out in a blaze of glory? The post-meaning individual becomes the ultimate nihilist in this final act of exacting meaningless vengeance on meaningless people (or non-people, as it were). The post-meaning individual proves his or her own self-meaninglessness by finally committing suicide.
As I stated earlier, there can be no acceptance of absurdity, no embracing of an authentic self-created meaning. In The Myth of Sisyphus Camus proposes the triumph of man over absurd existence:
“This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile…. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
However, the heart is not strengthened by this struggle. Instead it becomes worn down, and all that is left is a numb despair for the state of our existence. The struggle itself can only create a false meaning and, to quote Camus, “convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human,” the false meaning will be seen to be a sham, and all that will remain is meaninglessness. There is no reason to go on living, no reason to struggle. There can be no struggle against nothing.
Heinrich von Kleist sees no light at the end of the meaningless tunnel. His disturbing story, “The Earthquake in Chile,” first published in 1808, is a chilling exploration of the loss of meaning that occurs in tragic circumstances. In this story everyone close to the hero is killed, the city of Santiago is destroyed, and the citizens turn against him and kill his son. The story ends with a sense of futility masked behind subtle optimism: “it almost seemed to him that he had reason to feel glad.”
“… [being] the plaything of chance, a puppet on the strings of fate – such an unworthy situation seems so contemptible to me and would make me so wretched that death would be preferable by far.”
Kleist eventually committed suicide.
In the post-meaning world the reaction toward meaninglessness is more often akin to the anxieties of Kleist. The existential self-affirming struggle of Camus is infrequent, if to be found anywhere at all. Perhaps we are beyond the absurd; perhaps the absurd is no more, and so nothing is left against which to valiantly struggle.
The post-modern concept of the victim/oppressor dichotomy has become muddled, to the point of the victim alternating with the oppressor. This is true of Israel and Palestine, which alternate victim status in the minds of world society, and take turns killing, so as to allow them to gain external sympathy and enhance internal solidarity. This is also the case with individuals. People like Osama bin Laden have gone from being the victim of Soviet aggression, to being the liberator of a nation, to being the oppressor of American interests, to being a victim of American aggression. Victim status all depends on public opinion, government decree, or media sanction.
Eric Gans proposes that this easy switching between victim and oppressor is due to the lack of a “sacred center.” That is to say that our reality no longer has a sacred, objective core to be used as the measuring stick of good vs. bad and victim vs. oppressor. Public opinion or media pressure can then be the deciding factor, rather than a concrete code (such as the Ten Commandments). He says:
“The postmodern esthetic has no vision of authentic centrality around which to constitute its scene. To empower the victim over the persecutor merely reproduces the old structure with the roles reversed….”
In this case, Gans was observing this phenomenon in art. However, seeing that art is usually an analogue of life, perhaps this observation can apply to reality as well.
In the post-meaning era we find that it is impossible to make meaningful social and political statements. All ideas, all personal statements, and all points of view are equally conformist to the dominant international society. Conservatism, socialism, and anarchism are all equally conformist because all have been integrated into, and castrated by, the global society. It is impossible to be truly non-conformist because all types of non-conforming action have been made meaningless. Any non-conformist act merely fits into an accepted mode of action, and therefore is coerced into conforming.
Take for example the non-conformist Goth subculture. Society has stripped it of its meaning by marketing actions such as Marilyn Manson. Thus Goth has been coerced into conformance with the sales expectations of the society, and has become meaningless as a tool for individual meaning and expression.
This same society that coerced Goths into conformity has spread around the world and continues to erode native cultures of their identities. The world society of the post-meaning era treats other societies as meaningless and unworthy of preservation. This is different from 19th century society, which felt it was civilizing archaic peoples. Today the post-meaning Western society does not see any meaning at all in anything, and so smaller cultures are absorbed and altered through ignorance rather than belligerence. If anything, the existence of native cultures is seen, by the free market forces within society, as either an opportunity for marketing, or as an obstacle to expansion and profit. Profit would be seen by some as a meaningful thing.
This all-consuming Western mono-culture will eventually descend into a non-culture – as it devours everything, it will eventually stand alone, and so by its own sole supremacy it will become meaningless. Consider what Nikolai Berdyaev says in The Bourgeois Mind:
“Carlyle, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Leon Bloy, Dostoyevsky, Leontiv, all foresaw the victory of the bourgeois spirit over a truly great culture on the ruins of which it would establish its own hideous kingdom.”
Berdyaev’s definition of Bourgeois goes beyond the typical socio-economic discussion of the term. Bourgeois is seen as a state of mind, where all thoughts are superficial, where there is no depth to the culture, and where all religious expression would be stripped of meaning and reduced to convention. For Berdyaev, bourgeois is the destination on the road to non-culture. Is the hideous kingdom is here?
“The final triumph of the image: entirely cut off now from its original body, it is free-floating and richly polysemous. Always more surface than depth, more depiction than reality, the icon now becomes pure zero-degree image, a depicted lifestyle without a life, a face without a person, a spiritual moment without context or meaning. In other words, the pure pervasive triumph of cultural exposure, a sign lacking both sense and referent. In still other words, the everything (and nothing) we sought all along: communion without community.”
Our post-meaning era is symbolized by chronic cultural erosion due to the stress of meaninglessness. Any attempt at meaning is self-defeated. The mind must always fail at the search for meaning. Meaningful points of view are co-opted into the dominant society and stripped of their meaning. Existence is purposeless, random, and senseless. The world has moved beyond the profane, and has become meaningless. It doesn’t matter if God exists, and in the post-meaning paradigm, human life is less than meaningless. It is beyond meaning.
 Bruner, Ketcham, Norwine, & Preda, from their 1994 article, “The Meaning of Meaning in a Post-Meaning Age,” (International Social Science Journal, of the Organisation des Nations Unies pour l'Éducation, la Science et la Culture, Paris, Vol. XLVI, No. 2)
 Condescending grace: This is the concept that humanity is so unworthy that God must lower himself to the level of human kind; thus patronizing us. Consider the Book of Job 41:9-11. “Behold, the hope of a man is disappointed; he is laid low even at the sight of him [Leviathan]. No one is so fierce that he dares stir him up. Who then is he that can stand before me? Who has given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.” My understanding of this passage is as a comparison of man to God. If man can’t stand up to Leviathan, a powerful monster (maybe a crocodile or whale), which is made of flesh and blood, then how can man stand up to God?
 Dr. Donald Blais, ThD. Aboriginal and Orthodox Studies, Department of Religion, University of Toronto.
 The term “new type of war” is attributed to George W. Bush, although it is more of a media catch-phrase, if anything.
 This war is being waged against those cultures that still see meaning in life; against those who eschew the free market economy as the main road to national development; against those who believe in unchanging conservative social values; and against those for whom God is a very real, present and palpable force.
 From the introduction to The Marquise of O- and other stories. London: Penguin Books, 1978. Page 7. ISBN 01404.43592
 This post-meaning explanation of the Israel-Palestine conflict would seem to say that the conflict largely exists because of political interests, and the need for each party to gain legitimacy over the other. The Irish Catholic-Protestant situation is another conflict where opposing internal forces work to attain victim status and all of the benefits that victim-hood brings.
 Eric Gans, PhD, UCLA. “On Esthetic Periodization.” http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/views/vw258.htm – Gans also argues that in the era after post-modern (which he calls post-millennial) the artist self-creates the sacred centre to replace what is missing. I do not see this occurring. Instead I think that art will increasingly reflect the struggle to survive in the absence of meaning. An exception will be the growth of new-age art, which has only a superficial bourgeois meaning.
 This means that discussion of the ‘post-meaning’ concept is itself merely a conformist act. However, an alternative view would be to say that we have simply run out of new ideas, that we conform only because there is no more room to maneuver, and that “there is nothing new under the sun.”
 Profiteering off of other cultures is an old trend. Maori shrunken heads were a great source of income for British traders, at an expense that was literally bourn on the shoulders of the Maori. Also the World Bank sees other cultures as merely an opportunity to push Western capitalism into new markets. They do not consider whether the people would benefit or suffer spiritually, environmentally, or culturally.
 Profit, trade, and the economy are meaningful things. However they have no meaning outside of their own self-referential manmade internal meaning.
 “Ten Steps to the Creation of a Media Icon.” http://www.adbusters.org/magazine/20/kingwell.html
Written April-May 2002.
First published on the internet August 14, 2002.
Draft 1.01 - last updated August 15, 2002.
1.00 - original version. August 14.
1.01 - made clarification to endnote 2, to explain that I interpret Leviathan as a flesh-and-blood creature, and that the passage is a comparison of man vs. God. August 15.