A crisis of significance

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Peter Berger, Brigitte Berger, and Hansfried Kellner outlined the concept of the homeless mind in their 1973 book, The Homeless Mind. In it, they detail how, due to the technologized and bureaucratized mode of production in the modern world, our very identities have bifurcated as we carry out the roles of technological production. As Berger et al. note, "the individual now becomes capable of experiencing himself in a double way: as a unique individual rich in concrete qualities and as an anonymous functionary." (Berger et al. 1973 p.34) In dealing with a whole host of anonymous roles we are confronted with by bureaucracy, we start to experience different parts of our identity as more or less real than other parts. And to the extent that we experience parts of our identity that are less real, we tend to suffer meaninglessness and anomie (i.e. it becomes very difficult to find meaning while flipping burgers in a fast food chain). Our minds are homeless so long as we suffer the anomie created in large part by the modern modes of technological production.

Anomie and the concept of the homeless mind (Berger et al. 1973) are useful constructs to help explain what has been termed a "crisis of significance" (Wesch 2009) in the contemporary world. Both of these concepts originated in sociological discourse and help to explain how technological and bureaucratic structures brought about by the rise of modernity have affected the individual. Growing up in the contemporary, postmodern, world the individual has become more self-centered and self-conscious than ever before (Twenge 2007). Anomie and the homeless mind offer a framework to bridge the gap between the modern and postmodern worlds by demonstrating how the contemporary individual is both self-centered and suffering from a crisis of significance.

Originating in academic discourse with Max Weber (Orru 1989), but not made popular until its use by Emile Durkheim and later Robert K. Merton (Deflem 1989), anomie has been predominantly used in sociology to mean rulelessness or normlessness. In this context, a situation of anomie occurs when there is a combination of ineffectiveness of society's regulative power and a lack of rules to regulate an individual's behavior. While Merton used anomie to develop a theory of deviant behavior in individuals, others extended anomie to the psychological and psychiatric domains. (Deflem 1989)

In psychology, anomie describes a situation in which an individual "withdraws from society and loses interest in what is happening around him." (Marx 1966) This withdrawal is caused by the individual perceiving the social order as "lacking meaningfulness or usefulness" or by "his perception of constant conflict in the basic goals of life." (Davol and Reimanis 1959) Merton founds the causes of this conflict in the social structure, hearkening back to Durkheim's analysis that anomie occurs when social (organic) solidarity has not been realized (Deflem 1989).

By looking at the macro level technological and bureaucratic structures of modernity, anomie can be described as a sense of homelessness in which the individual's identity bifurcates when faced with performing in anonymous technological or bureaucratic roles. The very nature of technological production necessitates the proliferation of anonymous functionaries and this anonymization becomes internalized in the individual, causing him to begin to engineer, just like technological production, his own identity. This bifurcation of identity can cause the individual to experience meaninglessness about his social roles i.e. anomie. (Berger et al. 1973)

While this critique of the modern (i.e. industrial revolution to 1950?) modes of production is brilliant, it is only partial. This critique resuscitates many of the great modern philosophers (Marx, Weber, later Durkheim) to express relationships between modes of production and the individual psyche. Nonetheless, while it provides insight into the "crisis of significance," it does not and cannot fully explain it. One of the reasons it cannot is because it is largely a critique of the modern structure and we have moved over the last 50 years increasingly into a postmodern, "information age", structure. So, along with this critique of the modern structure, we need a critique of the postmodern.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the western world saw the emergence of a new level of consciousness in a significant portion of the population. In academia, this shift is reflected in the emergence of the postmodern schools of thought in a variety of disciplines. I feel Berger et al. were a part of this emergence and due to that, were able to see clearly the dynamic of the modern structure. For this reason, their critique elucidates so many important truths, none more prominent than that of the homeless mind.

However, when taken in context of developmental studies (see spiral dynamics), a more complex view of the homeless mind emerges. In this context, an individual will feel homeless when he is at a developmental level either below or above that of her surrounding culture (see levels of development). The individual below that of her surrounding culture might not feel at home because she is being pulled up to a higher developmental potential by her surrounding culture. Equally, the individual above that of her culture might not feel at home because she is being pulled down to a lower/previous stage of development by her surrounding culture. Someone at a postmodern level of development (green meme) might feel homeless in a modern culture, which I believe is what inspired Berger et al. to write The Homeless Mind.

Berger et al. were not explaining their own developmental dynamic; instead they were explaining how a premodern individual (someone with a center of gravity in a premodern stage of development) would feel homeless in the face of a surrounding modern techno-bureaucratic structure and culture. Their own developmental dynamic gave them great insight into the premodern/modern dialectic because they were both beyond modern (postmodern) and thus could see the modern structure clearly, and because they shared a certain developmental solidarity with the premodern level of development as being equally non-modern stages (premodern is non-modern just as postmodern is non-modern).

If my hypothesis is correct, that Berger et al. were largely explaining how a premodern person feels in the face of the modern world, and if we are now fully living in a postmodern world, we would greatly benefit from understanding how the modern individual feels in the face of the postmodern world. For instance, how does the modern individual feel homeless in the postmodern world? What structural dynamics are in play and how are social relations and identity being negotiated? Also, given the hypothesis that Berger et al. were able to provide such a brilliant account because they were themselves at a postmodern level of development (at least in theory), in order to discover the dynamics of the modern/postmodern homelessness, we would need individuals at a post-postmodern level of development to provide the explanation.*

Present day homeless mind

Since the 1960s and 1970s, the significant shift of people to a postmodern level of thought has become increasingly manifested in the physical world. This manifestation can be seen most clearly in the development of a fully fledged information economy which has caused a techno-bureaucratic shift in the structures of society. While this shift has been underway for many years, right now we are seeing its effects clearly with the simultaneously massive technological development in the capabilities of computing and networking (internet) and massive ecological, economic, and cultural crises expressed through global warming, the world-wide banking crisis, and the polarized political landscape.

One of the primary characteristics of postmodernism is connectedness. Postmodernism in theory is characterized by breaking out of the boundaries and categories put in place by the modern world. In education, this is seen in the emphasis on cross-disciplinary, multicultural, holistic, and interdisciplinary studies. It becomes clear that no one discipline and no one perspective can provide all the answers. Over the last 50 years, this theoretical connectedness has been expressed in the physical world through media. Television, cell phones, and the internet have added both a new level of connectivity and new ways to connect. Just as postmodernism in education pushes to break down walls between disciplines, in the physical world it pushes to break down the modern silos of industry and information. No where is this more evident than in the current crisis and perhaps downfall of the newspaper industry. This modern industry, made possible by modern technological development, is being subverted by postmodern technology and postmodern ways of accessing, disseminating, and relating to information.

While we are currently seeing a stunning expression of the postmodern shift via crisis in the physical world (ecological, economic, political), we are also experiencing the "crisis of significance" individually in new ways and for new reasons. Increasingly, our roles as anonymous functionaries in the modern world are being replaced by computers and machines. Instead of experiencing the anonymous bank teller, we now experience the anonymous ATM; instead of the anonymous department store clerk, we now experience the anonymous online checkout form. This replacement has led to a suggestion that there is a coming renaissance for creativity and human-centered capacities in the professional world (Pink 2006).

Berger et al. said in 1973 that the bifurcation of our identities in the modern structures allows us to perform some of our roles "tongue in cheek" as we experience our self in certain roles as less real than our self in other roles (Berger et al. 1973 p.34). With the connectivity of the postmodern world, it seems that we are in a position to be ever more aware of the different roles we perform and our different selves in those roles. With increased awareness it then seems that we either experience these roles almost entirely as less real aspects of our self, always struggling to discover some core identity from which to act, or we experience them all as real parts of our self and attempt to integrate them into our concept of self much like an interdisciplinary course might attempt to integrate multiple fields. While these are two opposite approaches, culturally we seem to have adopted the former as evidenced by high levels of apathy.** While individuals experiencing the modern form of the crisis of significance are vexed by having to perform roles that are less real, they at least experience the contrasting roles as real. However, it appears that postmoderns experience the crisis of significance as a struggle to find significance anywhere; a struggle to experience any of their roles as real, authentic, and not anonymous.***

In the face of this experience, the postmodern trend has been to indulge in surface level realities, and attempt to fight off the anonymity of the less real selves by fixating on celebrity. In popular culture this leads us from the MTV generation to today, in which postmoderns want their celebrities to be as real and authentic as possible (Real World, reality TV, etc.) and want just as badly to be celebrities themselves. Thomas de Zengotita, Jean M. Twenge, and Ken Wilber have all analyzed and documented this situation using a variety of methodologies and collectively reinforce each other by showing how self-centered and narcissistic the postmodern culture is. They also all agree that no one individual or group of individuals is at fault for this self-centeredness; rather it is a result of structural development occurring as a dialectic between the external physical/technological world and internal consciousness.

The postmodern homeless mind results in a total absence of significance. The individual finds it hard to feel at home anywhere and in the face of this, has a tendency to regress to surface level evaluations of meaning. While there are countless explanations for the contemporary predicament that faces the self, by tracing this concept of a "crisis of significance" through premodern, modern, and postmodern permutations, it is hoped that a useful perspective arises that is able to contextualize how we may experience ourselves today. Since our current lack of significance is so dire, it seems that our next great shift (post-postmodern?) will have to reintegrate significance back into the self.


* In spiral dynamics this level is represented as the first stage of the 2nd tier of development; in Integral theory this is the first Integral stage.
** This situation parallels closely theoretical postmodernism in which deconstructionism took over many disciplines in the late 1970s and 1980s. While many people dismiss postmodernism as just deconstructionism, there are others who push for some sort of reconstruction after deconstruction. Perhaps reconstruction after deconstruction could be considered a sort of post-postmodernism and integrating all the parts of ourselves as developmentally higher than experiencing all aspects of ourselves in our various roles as less real selves.
*** This is most exemplified in the emergence of existentialism in popular culture (see I Heart Huckabees).


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