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Joe CorbettJoe Corbett has been living in Shanghai and Beijing since 2001. He has taught at American and Chinese universities using the AQAL model as an analytical tool in Western Literature, Sociology and Anthropology, Environmental Science, and Communications. He has a BA in Philosophy and Religion as well as an MA in Interdisciplinary Social Science, and did his PhD work on modern and postmodern discourses of self-development, all at public universities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at [email protected].


Transcending Individual Character

Response to Keller's Opportunity in Tri-memetic Chaos

Joe Corbett

Keller has a fundamental misunderstanding about postmodernity and what the identity politics phenomenon is all about.

In Marty Keller's “The Opportunity in Trimemetic Chaos”, he argues that the value meme of moral autonomy and reason in modernity is under attack, on the one hand, from the traditional tribal mentality that never got over the liberation of bodies and minds from the collective, and on the other hand, especially from the postmodern identitarians who revel in their self-identity with a chosen sub-group (neo-tribalism), by-passing any possibility for the development of individual character. He seems to think that this is evidence that modern values are precarious and have not yet been fully embedded in our interiors. But he also thinks that this is an opportunity to win the fight for modern values once and for all in the evolutionary advancement of consciousness by engaging in a trimemetic war with the regressive forces of tribal identity, especially the postmodern identitarians who have skipped the development of their individual character, like the bad libertarians they are.

Although not entirely amiss in his analysis, let me explain why Keller has a fundamental misunderstanding about postmodernity and what the identity politics phenomenon is all about. For this, I will need to quote at length Brendan O'Neil in an essay he wrote called “The Crisis of Character”, since it is from this which Keller draws to make his own conclusions. O'Neil says,

“What is today referred to as the rise of identity politics is in truth the hollowing out of the institutions, beliefs and freedoms around which life and identity were shaped and cohered for centuries. It is a crisis not merely of politics, or class, or the left; it is a crisis of character, a questioning of what it means to be human …”

Indeed. Everything here I agree with. But the full truth only comes out in what is not mentioned here, and that is that what we call the modern enlightenment was not in fact a universal liberation of bodies and minds from the yoke of traditional oppression. Those institutions, beliefs, and freedoms were those of and for white male land owners, for centuries. So the crisis of character (or as O'Neil puts it, 'a strong individual who makes the world rather than needing to be consoled by it') is a crisis of the hegemony of white male landlord supremacy, and the questioning of what it means to be human is a questioning of what it means to be Other than a white male landlord. And this, by any stretch of the critical imagination, is a necessary and welcome development in bringing out the possible alternatives of what it means to be human.

Keller's scorn for the “embittered clerisy of the Frankfurt School and critical theory”, and his belief in a “postmodernist campaign to hollow out the advances in human evolution achieved by Western civilization”, does not take sufficient account of the failures of modernity based on its specific historical limits related to culture, gender, race, class, and (capitalist) mode of production, which was great (for some) while it lasted, but now has reached the limits of its usefulness to advance all (or even some) of us to the next level.

Above all, what postmodernity is about is the collapse of the grand narrative of inevitable social progress based on scientific reason AND capitalist democracy, originally the vision of and primarily for white male landlords. What we have now with postmodernism is a more healthy skepticism of the claims of this modern project and its subject, and the building of alternative visions to supplement and, when and where necessary, to replace it with viable and sustainable alternatives.

If I was an advisor to history as Keller seems to fashion himself, I wouldn't be so worried about building the moral autonomy of individual character (consolidating orange) as I would be about integrating multiple human interests (mobilizing green) into a collective interest based on a common humanity (awakening teal). Postmodernism has gotten us to the multiple human interest phase beyond the limitations of modernity, now it's our job as integralists to help get us to the post-postmodern stage of the unity of human interests.

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