The Perverse Art of Destroying Meaning

Glenn McLaren

In an article in The Conversation from early 2016 titled, “Why Was Stephen Fry Fried On Twitter?” Australian philosopher, Clive Hamilton, criticizes the unreflective political correctness culture of digital social media which sees individuals becoming outraged over seemingly trivial jokes and asides by celebrities. Hamilton, insightfully, I believe, links this phenomenon to broader cultural developments such as the rise of neoliberalism. He argues, “The monopoly of neoliberalism as a political ideology has meant the eclipse of all coherent critiques of the social-political system and the subsequent drift into the individualized politics of identity and equal rights.”

What Hamilton is highlighting here, as he has in much of his work, is the fragmenting effects of ideologies such as neoliberalism through the privileging of private interests over public. In this world, our world, we become enslaved to the externally driven hedonistic pursuit of the pleasant life where meaning is exchanged for momentary pleasure and we live under the illusion of individual freedom. In his book, The Freedom Paradox, Hamilton uses the metaphor of neoliberal consumer society existing on the periphery of a rapidly spinning sphere in contrast to the meaningful life which is lived in the relative calmness of the core. Central to Hamilton’s views, therefore, is the importance of meaning and the impoverishment of a life devoid of it. One would think that any self-respecting philosopher or even scientist would share such views. Sadly, however, this is not the case.

Neoliberals are part of a long, intellectual, (or anti-intellectual) tradition which seeks to deny the importance of meaning and even destroy its relevance. Why would anyone want to do that? Because, as history shows, destroying meaning is the key to gaining, at least temporarily, power and control, whether it be over other human beings or natural processes in general. For example, in his brilliant book on the history of debt, David Graeber reveals how different forms of slavery succeed by displacing people from their meaning-rich contexts. As well as the application of brute force, people are rendered powerless through being dislocated, fragmented, and thus, disoriented. Those held in slavery have often survived by eventually creating new systems of meaning, often through embracing religion of some form as a way of transcending the power of their oppressors.

But what do I mean by meaning? Here I reflect traditional philosophical understandings going back several thousand years and now supported by more enlightened fields in modern science. Meaning is not a thing with properties but a process of creating wholeness. It is the process by which we take the complex multiplicities of particulars of the world and make sense of them more broadly. It is not a process of simplifying, however, like reductionism, but a process of expanding our consciousness through situating our experiences within wider contexts. Those who seek to oppress us, seek to retard this process.

As cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter has recently argued, it is rooted in analogy as “the fuel and fire of thinking” and can be likened to philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s characterization of perception where one begins with a vague feeling which is then made more distinct and then contextualized. Without the third step of contextualization, one is left with a bunch of seemingly unrelated fragments, like having terabytes of data but no story to tie them together. Studies of affordances by J. J. Gibson in psychology and Jakob von Uexkull’s concept of umwelten in biosemiotics suggest that meaning creation is fundamental to all organisms at different levels of complexity. Meaning creation happens, therefore, not only at the highest levels of abstraction but in every moment of living experience being the condition for us to orient ourselves in complex worlds.

The human quest for meaning is the process of moral development. As psychiatrist Viktor Frankl famously showed us through his experiences in the Holocaust, the “will to meaning” begins with experiencing epistemological and existential crises. In Georg Hegel’s dialectical terms, we move from abstract to negative to concrete, where our naïve and simplistic concepts of the world meet resistance leading to reflection and the formulation of more concrete (what I suggest are more complex) understandings of reality.

This is a continual generation of tensions and is the condition for generating growth and ultimately, wisdom, the condition of deeper wholeness and a highly expanded consciousness. A world of increasing technical efficiency, therefore, where the goal is to resolve tensions and where the paths of least resistance are actively facilitated, is a world designed to eradicate the will to meaning.

So, once again, why would anyone want to create such a world? At least from Plato on, meaning creation has been seen by some so-called philosophers to be the exclusive activity of an elite few. A good example is the English political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes, while brilliant, used many extravagant analogies and metaphors in his arguments to expunge analogies and metaphors from philosophy, preferring strict, unambiguous definitions. Hobbes valued strict order against a backdrop of brutal and chaotic nature and legitimated the idea that the majority of people in a society should, rather than think for themselves, subject themselves to the will of a handful of elites in their self-interest.

The scientific revolution, more generally, of which Hobbes was a part, saw the embrace of atomism, mechanism, and empiricism and the rejection of telos and metaphysics. The efforts of those such as Descartes, Locke, Hume, and later Newton were to reduce nature to something lifeless and meaningless which could be simply measured using calculus and coordinate geometry. In more recent times the neo-conservative movement, inspired by the philosophy of Leo Strauss, promoted the idea that the role of intellectual elites was to consciously and strategically deceive the public in order to overcome decadence. Like Mustapha Mond in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, these “Philosopher Kings” pull the strings of a population of subjects engineered to have no will to meaning. Any tendency to question the meaning of existence is quickly suppressed through mind-destroying drugs (refined sugar seems to be meeting this definition today).

The analytical tradition in philosophy, developed through Bertrand Russell’s logical atomism and the Vienna Circle’s logical positivism, degraded philosophy leaving it a mere handmaiden (person) to science. Here meaning was trivialized or explained away by philosophers as epiphenomena, at best, of micro components. While obsessed with meaning, logical positivists and ordinary language philosophers rendered meaning, meaningless.

Then there are the neoliberals who have strong links to the neoconservatives. Like Strauss, the spiritual leader of neoliberalism, Walter Lippman, was known to express the view that the public needed to be deceived in their self-interest. As philosopher Michel Foucault revealed, the Mont Pelerin Society formed to create a new totalitarianism to replace Nazism. This time, however, it was based not on mobilizing the people of a nation for war and turning all into mindless soldiers, but on pacifying and infantilizing the atomistic components of an economy turning all into mindless consumers.

Philip Mirowskis’s investigations into neoliberalism reveal its close links to the development of computers to control military bureaucracies utilizing genius’s like John Von Neumann, who Mirowski argues held most of humanity in contempt. The unholy alliance between computers, the internet and smart phones has become the ultimate neoliberal tool for destroying meaning and controlling and manipulating subjects, distracting them from seeing the nature of their oppression.

As philosopher, Arran Gare argues in his recent book The Philosophical Foundations of Ecological Civilization, the final expression of this nihilistic drive towards meaninglessness will be the eventual transformation of a living Earth into a lifeless Venus-like planet, thanks to climate change. Through this mindlessness, the universe will lose the only creatures we know of who make the universe conscious of itself; who give it meaning.

Clive Hamilton is both, a philosopher and a democrat and sits within the tradition of what historian Margaret Jacob called, the radical enlightenment, philosophers who value meaning and human development towards greater wisdom as the conditions for liberty. Neoliberalism is part of the tradition of the moderate enlightenment. These are not philosophers, but anti-philosophers; not democrats, but anti-democrats. They do not love wisdom but fear it as they fear a world of wise human beings who they see as a threat to their control. These are thinkers who want to end thinking for all but a handful and end the quest for meaning for most in order to control the future; one that will be short and unpleasant.

It is such thinkers who now control today’s neoliberal business-model universities. So it should be no surprise that they have become places where wisdom is actively destroyed rather than nurtured. Where like computers, students become successful data collectors rather than creators and interpreters of meaning. As moral philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre wisely said, if all we give our children are fragments and bits of data, if we deprive them of the stories of humanity’s quest to understand itself and its place in the universe, then we “leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions and their words,” which is just how the neoliberals like us.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr.