A Response to Dave Snowden’s ‘Meta-Mugglism’
Updated: Feb 9
“This desire to tell a story and to disconnect from the facts is dangerous and it needs to be called out, so I'm partly doing that at the moment.” – Dave Snowden
OK, let’s get this over with.
So, Dave Snowden appeared on the Stoa on Friday to, well, give metamodernism a proper beat down (a magic-less “meta-mugglism”) and made many a ripe claim in the process. Well, now that that’s all dangling out there, it seemed worthwhile to correct the record on a number of points, and to consider just how seriously to take him—at least on this topic. (Obviously, Dave is very intelligent, and in his areas of expertise, has a lot to offer. As we’ll see, though, metamodernism is clearly not one of those areas.)
People in the metamodern scene Dave is attacking like to try to see the partial truth in everything, and to embrace critique as an opportunity to consider “shadow” elements about ourselves that we might otherwise be blind to, etc. That’s all very good, and certainly well intentioned—but sometimes there’s plum little to be gained by hallowing someone’s bad faith badgering as potential insight. Sometimes things are simply not constructive, but destructive—and designed to be so. While seeking for the good in all things, then, we shouldn’t become naïve and blind to the toxic negativity that has no redeeming qualities, but only corrodes. When that’s the case, it can be salutary to clear the air, make a stand, affirm your truth and your values and push back against invectives that might gain traction if left unaddressed, or even highlighted, through such enabling good intentions. As someone whose work is targeted by name in Dave’s rant, I obviously have more cause to do so than others, and am happy to defend my work against his scurrilous and spurious claims, if only to leave a record to the contrary.
So, here goes.
First things first, I celebrate Dave’s “sweater game.” Intellectual contentions aside, we can all appreciate a good sweater when we see one, and I 100% support the one he wore for this presentation. Cheers. All good will on that front.
As for Dave’s critique, however (reitereated in print here), it is pretty clear that he is coming from about as uncharitable, acerbic, and cynical a place as one can, and all apparently based on a rather superficial and flimsy understanding of the material to boot. To call his Stoa performance a “critique” would be a euphemism; that would suggest a good faith, informed engagement with the material for productive purposes. This, by contrast, was more of a “search and destroy” mission, a “takedown,” a purposeful attempt to disparage and discredit something based on apparently minimal and bad faith engagement with the actual material—replete with sloppy mischaracterizations, misquotations, and misreadings where they help his case, even as he affects the high ground of the scrupulous empiricist ever vigilant about the facts.
As Dave himself admits at the outset, he had to do a bit of cramming for this Stoa presentation to get up to speed on metamodernism. “I’ve suffered for it,” he laments. “I have had to read so much stuff I never want to read again, and watched so many YouTube tubes that I think are deeply corrupting.” Virtue signaling aside, this should be a red flag, obviously. Would you go to an academic lecture billed as a thorough-going critique of a topic the lecturer only seriously started exploring the week before? As soon becomes clear, Dave is simply not fully prepared on the topic at hand, and it shows as the presentation unfolds.
Something apparently gave him the impression, for instance, that Jordan Peterson is a critical pillar of the metamodern movement. At 3:22 he describes his anguish seeing “Peterson associating himself with metamodernism,” and at 5:34 admits that he “had to go through 5 hours of him as part of this project.”
What? What bibliography was he working with? I know of no instance where Peterson has ever associated himself with metamodernism. Peterson is an adjacent figure at best. Clearly that 5 hours was time poorly spent, since it apparently precluded him from reading more germane material or watching more relevant “tubes”. That includes some of the most basic material on metamodernism, it seems, as concepts as simple as the prefix “meta” and the idea of “metanarratives” are fumbled as part of the very critiques he tries to level.
Now, maybe this is dry stuff to some, and certainly not the most sensationalist accusations Dave makes (as we’ll see), but it’s worth noting, as it speaks to Dave’s sloppy approach to metamodernism generally, and undermines the image he’d present of himself as a hard-nosed empiricist emphatic about staying mercilessly close to the facts. When it comes to metamodernism 101, he seems to struggle with some of the basics.
At 8:00, Dave asserts that the “meta” that metamodernists speaks of in “metamodernism” is fundamentally misunderstood, based on “a rather crude rereading of Hegel’s dialectics.” “Meta,” he insists, is a Greek word that does not mean “transcend,” but “between”. Metamodernism, then, is based on an etymological error from the start!
Actually, “meta” (μετά) means both “beyond” and “between”. Nor is this some minor pedantic point; it was emphasized by the very cultural theorists who popularized the term. Vermeulen and van den Akker write in their seminal 2010 paper introducing the paradigm:
‘According to the Greek—English Lexicon the prefix ‘’meta’’ refers to such notions as ‘‘with’’, ‘‘between’’, and ‘‘beyond’’. We will use these connotations of ‘‘meta’’ in a similar, yet not indiscriminate fashion. For we contend that metamodernism should be situated epistemologically with (post) modernism, ontologically between (post) modernism, and historically beyond (post) modernism.’
Anyway, the reflexive meta-modern discourse in this “time between worlds” has always considered the full range of these meanings, so it’s unclear what fundamental mistake he thinks he is correcting with this accusation. More than that, claiming, as he does, that many metamodernists are simply rejecting postmodernism would, by definition, not be metamodernist. Metamodernism does seek to go beyond postmodernism by incorporating the best of its insight but avoiding its pitfalls (as he rightfully notes of Lene Rachel Andersen’s work but for some reason fails to appreciate in other metamodernist writers). Right off the bat, then, Dave reveals some shakiness in his proficiency on this topic—an ignorance about the metamodern paradigm that repeatedly leads him to accuse others of misunderstanding something that he has himself misunderstood (or not cared enough to look into).
So, likewise, at 20:00, he accuses the Game B scene (which he simply and inaccurately conflates with metamodernism) of being “hypocritical at best” for proposing an optimistic grand narrative, since “metamodernism is meant to be the rejection of postmodernism's metanarrative.” What does this even mean? What is “postmodernism’s metanarrative”? Theorists usually define postmodernism by its rejection of metanarratives. At best, “postmodernism’s metanarrative” is a metanarrative of no metanarratives—in which case, Game B’s prescription of a new metanarrative is not at all hypocritical, it’s precisely what a “rejection of postmodernism’s metanarrative” would look like.
Brilliant though he may be in other fields, Dave is clearly clumsy with metamodern theory—as with other models important to some formulations of metamodernism. A rather egregious instance of basic factual errors comes at 51:40, when he shows us his grasp (poor) of two paradigms that actually do have some relevance in many metamodern discussions: Spiral Dynamics and integral theory. "Spiral Dynamics,” he says, “is a complete and utter nonsense and pseudo-science. And you can tell that because, you know, when Wilber adopted it, he created a new level called 'Turquoise' which only people like him could aspire to, and then, you know, after that, you know, Turquoise isn't good enough so we get 'Teal,' and it's only a matter of time before we run out of colors as new people come into play on this, alright?” Pseudo-science or no, for those actually conversant in these paradigms, it is clear what a cursory understanding Dave has of them, and the blatant inaccuracies he feels comfortable spouting at the very same time he seeks to attack others for supposedly playing loose with the facts—a shocking alacrity to slander people’s integrity, which we turn to now.
MISCHARACTERIZATION AND CHARACTER ASSASSINATION
Unfortunately, Dave’s research project on metamodernism was crammed, distorted, and biased from the start. I know because I was caught up in his fishing expedition for possible critiques the week before his Stoa appearance. Posting my first Emergentism video to the SFI Complexity Facebook group, Dave saw it and immediately sought to tear it apart to use as potentially useful fodder for his coming presentation.
At the beginning of the video (0:46), I cite a statistic I first saw referenced by John Vervaeke (here and here) that 80% of people in the UK report feeling their life is “meaningless.” In the FB group, Dave pressed for sources (fine to do), and I provided the info on the original survey conducted on behalf of Yakult UK, a health and wellbeing company, as well as a link to a Sun article that gave more info on the numbers. Dave immediately fired back that “anyone quoting the Sun as an authority should be ashamed of themselves.” That, of course, was not what I had done, but that didn’t matter; I cited the original survey as the source, not the Sun, but Dave was intent to frame it his way, and see the meaning crisis as an invented fiction I was pushing for my own purposes. I provided some supplemental data from an even more credible source (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD]) that reported on UK students’ sense of meaninglessness, ranking 72nd out of 74 countries in regard to finding their lives meaningful, but this was brushed aside, at which I realized data didn’t matter all that much here; he had a narrative and was determined to stick to it. He railed on, “honestly you should be ashamed of yourself… You’re coming over as someone trying to gaslight people into coming to your meta-modern mercy seat …if you want any credibility you’ll take that video down and get your facts right before pushing it on social media.”
Based on this exchange, Dave denounces me in his Stoa presentation as a gaslighter and a disingenuous, unrepentant huckster. At 28:55, he misrepresents our entire exchange this way:
“I’ve heavily criticized Brendan on this, because his latest video on religion…the first start of the video says that 80% of the British population accept that there is no meaning in life. So, I thought I’d…challenge that a little bit, so I asked where it came from, and I first of all got told that he picked it up from Vervake [sic], so I said well that’s fine, what’s Vervake’s [sic] source? And then we got given The Sun newspaper. Now if anyone knows The Sun newspaper, this is generally not regarded as an authoritative source, alright? And it turns out that this 80% figure comes from a survey run by a company in 2019 I think that manufactures probiotics and was part of a marketing campaign to get people to buy probiotics so they would feel better, yeah? Now, um, this is a criticism, yeah? Brendan now realizes that, but he hasn't taken it down or apologized for that. Yeah? It's a factual error. I then got told, given other data in support of it, which didn't support it in any way whatsoever. This desire to tell a story and to disconnect from the facts is dangerous and it needs to be called out, so I'm partly doing that at the moment. ...To create a crisis of meaning, I say, I think that's gaslighting. It's designed to get us into a position where we'll accept whatever is offered, and I'm happy to defend that."
So, not only is the meaning crisis entirely made up, but I am aware of this, yet refuse to “apologize” for inaccurate claims or take down the video because of my nefarious agenda.
In reality, it is Dave who is making the inaccurate claims (again). The 2019 survey of 1,500 Brits was conducted for Yakult by Ginger Research, a preventative mental health center “founded in 2011 by a team of entrepreneurs and data scientists at the MIT Media Lab.” I guess one would have to presume the researchers there put their thumb on the scale—a conspiracy to peddle a meaning crisis in order to help Yakult sell more yogurt?
Now, to be clear: it’s fine to suggest that that survey might be imperfect; no single poll perfectly captures reality. Even raising questions about a lack of proper objectivity due to a potential conflict of interest is a totally legitimate concern to raise. But to hear Dave tell it, the entire idea of the meaning crisis hinges on Vervaeke and me pushing this false statistic, as if there weren’t reams of supporting data, from the rise in suicidal ideation, self-harm, deaths from “diseases of despair”—and all especially among young people (as I note at 1:04 and following).
Nope. The meaning crisis was invented by metamodernists to sell you meaning (aided by the wellbeing industry trying to sell you more yogurt).
Speaking about my video, Dave continues: "He then goes on to say that all Protestants believe in the rapture, or 80% of them do.” Now, for someone apparently so concerned about statistical accuracies, Dave clearly doesn’t "feel ashamed of himself" to misquote them so liberally (as he shouldn't, to be frank; I mean, what is this, 1950? What kind of person says that to someone?). Well, to correct the record, I do not say that in the video (as anyone can see if they watch it (at 8:53)). Rather, I cite a study (mentioned also by Jamie Wheal in his book Recapture the Rapture) not about Protestants in general but Evangelicals; and the number wasn’t “all” or “80%”, it was 58%. Clearly I’m just a sloppy academic trying to push a predetermined narrative by playing with the numbers—when, ironically, it is Dave who not only is sloppy with his numbers, but uses them selectively to push a predetermined narrative: there is no meaning crisis, alright, and those saying there is are all liars and grifters!