Transcending "Cancel Culture" Critique

Back on The Stoa to talk about Integral, Cosmopolitan Socialism, Gebser

Dear friends,

A few announcements.

I’m excited to announce my return to The Stoa tomorrow, August 25 at 12 pm ET / 9 am PT.

My talk is called “Transcending Cancel Culture Critique: An Integral Left w/ Jeremy Johnson,” and you can register for the session here.

The rest of this letter provides context and serves as a written companion to tomorrow’s Stoa talk.

So, read on, or if that’s enough, stay tuned for more Patreon events and online course announcements very soon.




Religion as a Metaphor

For the curious, here’s some background context that serves as a companion read to tomorrow’s discussion. Peter Limberg (founder of the Stoa) collaborated with Rebel Wisdom recently to produce this video (“The Cancel God”):

The feedback was positive, negative, everywhere in between. For folks on the left like myself, I had some obvious criticisms. Peter actually writes about them openly (and offers a steelman of my position) here:

The idea of this was to serve as a “minimal viable meme” with the hope of offering a different perspective on the broken discourse that cancel culture engenders… most thought it was awesome, some people thought it was stupid, and a few people, mainly progressivists, found it unhelpful…

[the progressive take is that the] … piece is not helpful in ameliorating culture war tensions, and in fact it will further add to the polarization. By framing woke folks and social justice warrior types as “adepts of cancellation” that are unbeknownst “useful idiots” to a nihilistic God that wants to end humanity is a fanatical rendition of some of the tired Intellectual Dark Web / Quillette type arguments against cancel culture.

For what it’s worth, this was my initial take as well — what does this video do except to reify the sympathetic position of anti-woke viewers? Even so, my thanks goes to Peter for the good-faith invitation to critique/respond to the video from an integralist perspective.

Demiurgic Murmurs

So now, a little spoiler: playing with the deific metaphor already present in Peter’s video, I feel that we can turn to gnosticism for another metaphor: what if the “Cancel God” is just a demiurge?

I borrow this gnostic inquiry as a useful way to understand how implicating, or outright blaming “cancel culture” or “Wokeism” — or “mean ‘green’ meme” in the language of the philosopher Ken Wilber — as the primary cause of hyper-polarization and social media toxicity isn’t a sufficiently complex answer. It just isn’t. The problem runs deeper. It’s more systemic, and “Wokeism” in its excesses is a symptom of these deeper pathologies, stemming from neoliberal capitalism, rather than a cause.

We could — hopefully — build more bridges across the spectrum of the culture wars if we recognized that.

Reifying the Cancel god metaphor won’t help to amplify the good faith critics coming from the left who recognize the integrality of racial and class inequities and its longstanding intersectionality (see Angela Davis, Cornel West, Adrienne Maree Brown), let alone build a bridge with them. Moreover, placing the blame on Wokeism or a Cancel deity metaphor falls into the gnostic trap of substantively ignoring the underlying market drives that produce these appropriately critiqued excesses. It’s not “cancel culture” that’s the root problem.

I talked about this in my initial response to the video in a tweet thread here:

Douglas Rushkoff, in his recent books like Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus and Team Human, makes this argument consistently:

I continued this line of thinking in my initial response thread.

Shouldn’t we trace the “culture war” phenomena to its underlying economic, media ecological, and material/environmental incentives? To recap, we need to recognize that,

  1. “wokeness” / cancel culture has manifested in its particular way, both positively and negatively, shaped by these material forces and

  2. we can extend this material analysis to the longer, historical arc of neoliberalism and globalization.

We seem to be needing then, at a bare minimum (for now), two literacies: a historical/material economic literacy (how we got here in the culture wars) meshed with a media ecological literacy (where we are and how it is driving tribalization in the present). Later we’ll return to a third literacy, but these two are important to grok on the way there.

Both literacies require that we turn away from triggering oppositionalism of the digital theater and back towards the material and environmental questions:

How is this helping? What is aiding the achievement of social empowerment and structural transformation? How do genuine movements towards social justice get co-opted and captured by market forces, i.e., “Woke Capitalism,” and how can we continue to empower these movements to not only resist but supersede this capture? What mass-appeal incentives do we have that can help steer collective action towards transformation?

We need to, like integral theorist Zak Stein talked about in an Emerge podcast with Daniel Thorson, recognize what social media has been actively designed to do, and turn back towards the human-to-human world (a la “Team Human”) and, might I add, the posthuman world (for another post) to imagine what might be possible for our shared future.

See Matt Christman and Amber Frost’s Jacobin segment, “The Consequences of Social Media,” talking about the abstracted, virtualizing consequences of social media architecture on movement building.

When we recognize the incentive towards cultural atomization and virtualization amplified by neoliberal social media environments (an ideology that Bruno Latour has appropriately labeled “Out of this World”), we can acknowledge this as our first aforementioned literacy, and turn to the second literacy: tracing the material history that helped fuel — read: stoke the flames — of these culture wars. We would do well to become more familiar with this history.

There is plenty of room for criticism about the left, and how the left is profoundly affected by a deeply unwell — systemic — culture of neoliberal atomization. These critiques run from Mark Fisher’s famous “Exiting the Vampire Castle” to more recent concerns about the “left eating itself” to a lack of a “spiritual left.” Sure, it’s all true. But importantly, the critiques coming from the left (mostly) recognize that these are symptoms, not causes. The left has, as it were, their gnostic metaphors straight.

I just don’t see this insight — or at least this discernment — shared by the more polarizing “anti-woke” critiques. I don’t even see it in Ken Wilber’s Post-Truth World critique (and let’s save an explicit response to that book for another time).

(Consider how atomization is so endemic and universal a social phenomenon that it has also crept up as one of the issues in the Intellectual Dark Web communities. See this letter exchange between Vincent Horn of Buddhist Geeks and David Fuller of Rebel Wisdom as they explore the problem of tribalism in the IDW.)

So, we all suffer from this gnostic god.

We all endure alienation and cultural atomization.

But this singular demiurge belies a deeper, tentacular stratum; a kind of negative theology of neoliberalism.

Conversely the left, at its best, offers a robust material literacy, and a history of intersectionality (the relationship between race and class has been well developed and present since the advent of the New Left, though problematically polarized as we witness today), to help us develop effective strategies to overcome this cultural annihilation, this “war of all against all.” We can, we ought to be drawing from and highlighting these already-existent intersections. Right?

Surely that’s our common aim — our “superordinate” goal superseding tribal oppositionalism — isn’t it?

If we want to overcome the “meaning crisis” (Vervaeke) or the existential “meta-crisis” in our civilization, we’re going to need to integrate the left, not bypass it, and the left is going to continue to need to evolve and adapt.

Recent, serious criticisms of “Woke capitalism” are a good indication that the story doesn’t end here.

And the “Woke” god is a lesser deity, a demiurgic manifestation of a deeper chthonic pantheon we need to learn to overcome.

So where do we go from here?

Well, there’s that third literacy I was hinting at.

Turning Towards Integrative, Regenerative Thinking: Theory and Praxis

This is my last point, but it’s not the least important. In many ways it’s the most important of the three aforementioned literacies; or rather its importance is found in the way it sees through the previous literacies, integrally.

The Möbius strip of integral philosophy is not so much that idealism or materialism have the upper hand (for sake of convenience, Hegel or Marx), but that we are somehow, well, integral beings with insides and outsides. That matter matters. That materials are suffused with meanings (as the Jesuit paleontologist and mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would say, there is a “within” of things).

The material conditions of our culture is entangled with our consciousness, and this, in turn, affects the shape and form of our material conditions.

Which is first? Which is causal, the chicken or the egg?

As an integralist, I would say that holding the chicken and the egg simultaneously is more helpful than collapsing that “wave form” into an either/or answer. In the integral approach, it’s important to ask what sort of lived subjectivities (our relationships with space/time, and self/world) help to bring forth the conditions for certain ideological and historical modes of thinking.

Metamodernism revived an interest in these subjective inquiries, but integrative thinkers have been considering them for some decades, if not a century.

Integrative thinking gives us the self-inquiring tools to ask: what is our lived cultural phenomenology (i.e., the “structures of consciousness,” our “being-in-the-world,” that Jean Gebser posited, and that Ken Wilber adapted as developmental stages in Integral Theory)? What is our sense of being in time, in place? Our self and world? Then we can ask:

  • What is the history of our current mode of sensemaking? How did it arise? Can understanding our phenomenology of becoming consciousness (Bewußtwerdungsphänomenologie) help us to see more clearly, shine through (dia + phainomai) our present meaning- / meta- modern crisis?

  • How do we trace towards coherence the forms of sensemaking that brought forth Cartesianism, colonialism, and capitalism, each as manifestations of this structure of consciousness?

I wrote about why we need this integral approach in the Side View journal.

If we wish to render transparent the true extent of the meta-crisis, to get a clear sense of how to navigate through it, then we need to thoroughly identify the foundations of the world coming undone. In order to navigate this space “between worlds,” we need a phenomenology of consciousness that can help us to trace, as it were, the underlying ontological “structures” of the old world, the constellations of sensemaking we have relied on up until now. We should do this so that we can better recognize what the new world might be like—to re-constellate ourselves around that emergent foundation.

This inquiries help us understand how we might

  1. retract these cultural manifestations (capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, cultural fragmentation and oppositionalism, etc.) by recognizing how we have both internalized them and how they are, as Marshall McLuhan and Gebser both say in their own ways, extensions of some aspect of us and

  2. thereby create the conditions to bring forth a different ontologies of material meaning, i.e., Franco Bifo Berardi’s “futurability”?

We “see through” the manifestations of neoliberalism and late capitalism for the intensified, late-stage manifestations of the atomizing “perspectival world” that they are. They, too, are expressions and extensions of an outlived structure of consciousness — a mode of sensemaking and ontology — that is running itself aground.

The good news (can’t escape the religious motifs, can I?) is, we can take back these projections, and learn to die before we die (or rather undergo a cultural, sensemaking death before our civilization does) to reclaim the endeavor of bringing forth new, creative ontologies that belong to tomorrow.

We can call the epoch coming to a close “perspectivalism” as Jean Gebser did, or “mental-ratio” structure (something roughly like Ken Wilber’s “First Tier” memes and in particular “Amber”/Modern), which is to say it is very good at Cartesian subject-object dualisms and atomization. But a culture stuck in forward gear, with a predominantly extractive mentality, is a culture that is riding towards its own death.

Any more of that good news?

Briefly, the integral, “aperspectival” turn is a turn away from abstraction and towards “concretion,” towards the regenerative, the non-human, and the complex ecological world. It is a turn away from both the temporal stasis of Mark Fisher’s capitalist realism — trapped in a flat “now” with a canceled future — and the temporal accelerationism of the Capitolocene, and a turn towards imminent possibilities, “slow urgencies,” latent futures only cohered for us in the creative present (a kind of radical reclaiming of time and the future). The integral phenomenology is an affirmation of the hyper-local and the planetary (the “cosmo-local”), of process and living systems, and the actualization of the planetary culture/s that enact/s these principles.

This is all what arises for me as I bring together integrative thinking and leftist theory, an “integral left.”

I suppose I am an advocate of a kind of poetic materialism, or material poetry, in the vein of commons philosopher Andreas Weber.

We can’t possibly talk about a post-capitalist future without arguing for a world where meaning matters. Where forgiveness and redemption become an integral answer to neoliberal atomization. As Michael Brooks so strongly advocated for, the left can’t just give up on spirituality, because the left, if it’s anything, is a regenerative project, and a regenerative project is also a human and ecological one, cultivating empathy for the human and non-human world.

An “integral” left is deeply studied and literate in material history at the same time it is open — transparent to — the varieties of human meaning-making, subjective and intersubjective poetics of religious and cultural imagination. We need to be ecumenical about the varieties of sensemaking that constitute the meshwork of a planetary posthumanism (again, more thoughts on this in future posts). Spiritual, secular, and all hybridizations therein.

This isn’t to say that the future is one where the left position on everything is universalized, but it is to say that, in the project of cultural evolution, the left can be a critical ally. This is a bridge that needs to be built beyond the culture wars.

I’m speaking across the memetic tribes here and asking: who wants to see people become assets? Who wants to ignore the planetary crisis we’re barreling towards (OK, already in the midst of)? Who wants to shrug off getting to the roots the meaning crisis? We know there are many who would willfully turn away from this crisis — and therefore this project — but we need to address those who want to do something, and talk about scaling mass appeal.

I’m advocating for a regenerative left, a spiritual left, and ultimately an integrative “cosmopolitan left” framework working towards the transformation of culture.

The future is post-capitalist not because a bunch of leftists want it that way (OK, some of us do, I admit), but because the more-than-human world is coming crashing into our way of doing things. The doors of perception are wide open. Kicked down, even. The outside is now inside. Culture and nature and time dance on the head of a pin in the deep present. Here comes the planetary. It’s time to start reimagining everything.

With thanks to Ryan Nakade, Ann Gleig, and Brent Cooper for feedback on this talk.

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Read Seeing Through the World: Jean Gebser and Integral Consciousness