What, if anything, emerged in Austin?
There we all were—an eclectic assembly of thinkers, thought leaders, digital luminaries, sensemakers and visionaries, engineers and designers—all gathered together at last in an air-conditioned refuge from the humid Austin heat. The summons? “We have all been working on the same project,” announced Tomas Björkman from the stage, to which I nodded emphatically. Behind him, on the presentation screen, was displayed a representation of a “bifurcation point”—the node at which a complex system splits along two possible trajectories towards a new attractor, one either more complex than the current system (“breakthrough”) or one less so (“breakdown”). Our possible fates were clear and explicit.
Of course, the signs of breakdown were all around us: not just Austin’s hottest June on record, but the accompanying sight of homeless men and women seeking shade in the shadows of the tech giants’ skyscrapers; not just the pandemic masks on many faces, but the lingering looks there of shock and anxiety from the day’s news of Roe v. Wade being overturned. The attractor of regression, devolution, and collapse were exerting their pull. The oppressive systems of control were ramping up to meet the looming chaos. We were there to exert our own pressure—to push the system in another direction: to fight off entropy and be the catalysts for some unlikely breakthrough: if only we could spur a synergy from our collective efforts.
And so, there we were. Workers on the same project, co-creators of an unlikely promise. We had been called, Björkman noted, to name that project, and take it forward. As he spoke, I felt like one recruited for some kind of inverse-Manhattan Project: a mission (should we choose to accept it) of defusing a devastating global bomb ticking closer and closer to detonation; a concerted effort of these passionate minds to create the world we urgently need to enter.
In short, the stakes were high. No one person or idea could offer the magic bullet. Rather, we would need to pool our efforts, combine our energies, connect our endeavors, and work together if we were to have any chance of change. For my part, I was there to develop and explore the spiritual and religious parameters of the emerging world—to link up with others so interested and get to planning, designing, working. We’d all been talking, all of us, over Zoom and Clubhouse and Facebook—for years! The ground had definitely been cleared, I thought. Now was time to roll up our sleaves and start constructing the foundations.
Or so I hoped. The reality turned out to be…more mixed; the forward momentum, more frustratingly muted than I would have expected. In retrospect, I have some ideas why.
Before I get into that, though, I do want to say up front and emphatically that this gathering was a good and necessary idea; an event organized with thoughtful sensitivity and care; a container constructed in earnest and good faith with the noblest of intentions. For that, I am incredibly grateful, and wish to express my endless thanks to the founders, planners, funders, and foot soldiers responsible for putting it all on. Emerge 2022 was an experiment, and to whatever degree it may have succeeded or failed, its organizers were still as successful as the best of scientists: undesirable results do not discredit the meticulous quality of the lab conditions. Emerge 2022 was a moonshot; and, as the name suggests, an effort to provoke a complex synergy that’s more than the sum of its parts. But emergence occurs at the edge of chaos, and sometimes that edge isn’t found, leaving only chaos.
The very first event I took part in was exemplary of the challenges that haunted the whole enterprise, and, for me, set the somewhat dissonant tone for much of the weekend. Besides a very loose container for the whole group, the gathering was structured around a menu of smaller “inquiry spaces” based on particular topics where, ideally, likeminded and like-passionate people could assemble, connect, discuss, learn, and plan. On the morning of Day 1, I decided to attend the discussion group called “The Pattern that Connects.” With co-facilitators including Jeremy Lent and David Sloan Wilson, and a title literally lifted from Ken Wilber’s magnum opus ‘Sex, Ecology, Spirituality,’ I was excited to talk about complexity, evolution, and their spiritual implications for the emerging world. Instead, the title would prove a most ironic misnomer, as the ensuing group discussion soon fissured and fractured into disconnection and disagreement.
After some rousing initial comments by the facilitators (touching on the aforementioned topics and mentioning myth and mythopoeia [yes!]), another facilitator stood up and, in slowly meandering speech, proceeded to denigrate the very idea that we should now sit around and discuss the pattern that connects. “Not to be cynical,” he said—and then continued to cynically critique the very premise for our gathering together, concluding with the derailing suggestion that we speak only in stories, since, he said, linear and analytic thinking was the cause of our problems and we could only escape that tyranny by being…forced to tell stories.
I wasn’t here to tell stories, I thought, but, now that this had been said, there was no going back. Trying to speak about ideas and plans had been tied to the reductive and exploitative modernist worldview, so…unless you only told stories now, you were part of the problem…
The group was large (maybe 30 people), and the room was loud, so we were now in a very large circle of folks expected to essentially yell our stories (about what?) to each other. Someone wisely suggested, “Maybe we break up into smaller groups? That way, if there are people who don’t want to talk in stories, we have an option for them, too? Can we do that, if no one has a problem with it?”
“Yes, I have a problem with that,” someone immediately retorted, and reiterated the problem of analytical thinking. I could feel my heart rate rising. Was this really happening?
Shortly thereafter, The Pattern that Connects succeeded in breaking up into different groups. Unfortunately, the lack of cohesion proved fractal. Once in a smaller group, I expressed my hopes for what we might yet accomplish, and suggested we plow forward toward productive solutions. “I don’t think of there being a problem to solve per se,” the person to my right responded. “You know? The whole problem-solving mentality is like…very narrow and rigid. Different people see things differently. Why can’t we just have fun and enjoy ourselves? That’s why I’m here.” I interpreted his “here” to mean not only this group, or even this conference, but life itself. I responded, now somewhat exasperatedly, “But…what about existential risk? What about the whole project of trying to make a better world before everything goes to hell?” My group interlocutor shrugged. “I mean, sure, try. But you can’t get all hung up about it. If we fail, we fail. That’s all.”
I didn’t even know how to proceed at this point. Did this person actually not care if the world system collapses? or devolves to oppressive structures of manipulation and control? if billions of sentient lifeforms suffer and die? Why, then was this person even here? Why on Earth were they at this gathering? If we couldn’t even agree THAT there was a project to work on, or even that there SHOULD be a project to work on, let alone WHAT the project might be, what the hell connected us at all? Even the supposed prompt of finding the unifying thing that connects was deemed suspect. Why focus on unity at all instead of difference, it was asked.
“Well…” I finally said, dispirited, but looking for some modicum of coherence, “I guess we can all agree…that we can agree to disagree…” The Pattern that Connects concluded with different dissonant groups with simmering tensions and absolutely no coherence. This doesn’t bode well, I thought.
The rest of the weekend was characterized by an oscillation between utterly demoralizing moments like this and truly invigorating and inspiring ones. A discussion I co-facilitated on “The Spirituality of the Third Attractor” with Jeremy Johnson and Roger Walsh was the best of the latter camp, as far as I was concerned. Rich, dynamic discussion flowed energetically from the group on the topic of the future of religion, the fraught tension between hierarchical organization and decentralized/personalized possibility that should characterize it, its relationship to technology and AI, and the role of existing traditional religious organizational infrastructure. This was why I was here. This was the sort of true momentum I’d been hoping for. Even still, we only scratched the surface; there was so much more to explore.
I believe that discussion was filmed and will be shared in some capacity, so I won’t spend much time describing it. But, in sum, it represented the best sorts of larger group discussions that can be possible when there are enough shared assumptions grounding enough different lenses and life experiences to generate something new and fruitful: i.e., emergence!
But discussion spaces like that were few and far between. It got me wondering why that was. Like many of the very reflective people there, I, too, started reflecting on the gathering—what seemed to be constraining it, and what seemed to overflow or counter those constraints. Well, here’s my analysis of why more things didn’t ultimately emerge in Austin.
The culture war in America, and elsewhere too, is divided along the fault lines of a few major worldview structures: namely, traditionalism, modernism, and postmodernism. The new worldview of metamodernism, by contrast, represents an intervention into the culture war dynamics, precisely because it offers a post-postmodern view that seeks to integrate aspects of all the other worldviews (including postmodernism) into a more comprehensive whole. In this way, metamodernism moves beyond postmodernism, and thus avoids its impasses and cul-de-sacs. Its ability to do this puts it in a unique position to affect the kind of urgently-needed pragmatic societal changes we face.
(Source: "Metamodernity" by Lene Rachel Andersen: https://www.nordicbildung.org/metamodernity-paper/)
Unfortunately, though metamodernists can (ideally) see and integrate the meaningful insights of the other worldviews, the other worldviews cannot see or integrate metamodernism’s. Rather, they see metamodernism according to their own strictures and narratives. Modernists simply think that its notions of development and progress are their own; postmodernists simply think that its notions of normativity are those of modernists, or, worse, the traditionalists. The result is that an effective metamodernist can converse and connect with people of these worldviews, but the fullness of that connection mostly goes one way. If a metamodernist tries to propose systems-level solutions at a metamodern level, they will not be understood by modernists or postmodernists, who will only respond with critique and attack.
I came to Emerge 2022 thinking it was a gathering of metamodernists. In actuality, it was a large gathering that cast its net rather wide. The makeup of the participants reflected this, with the consequence that Emerge unfolded as a sort of microcosm of the broader culture war. There was the modernist contingent (pushing technological solutions to the world’s ills: web3, crypto, blockchain, AI, etc.); there were the postmodernists (pushing deconstructive power analysis and New Age woo); and, finally, there were some metamodernists (trying to talk past these divides with concern for inner development, complexity, meta-perspectives, integration and methodological pluralism). (There were, to my reckoning, virtually no traditionalists among us.) The result, unfortunately, was often a cacophony as jumbled and incoherent as the culture more broadly—only with the added frustration that this was supposed to be a special opportunity to fix things, change things, make things.
In short, there was simply no deep Pattern that Connected. No shared set of assumptions, no shared meta-perspective. The tribe was fragile, porous, tenuous and tense. Many, it turned out, did not really see themselves as working on the same project after all. Some saw project-working itself as apparently totalitarian and colonialist.
Indeed, as someone interested to explore spirituality in this context, I was disheartened to find only the familiar hegemony of New Age represented (the frequency with which we were collectively herded together to “close your eyes… become aware of your body… now wiggle and shake!” was frustratingly high). I gained a sympathy for those not-infrequent critiques of metamodernists that rail against the navel-gazing uselessness of such “spiritual” exercises—not because spirituality isn’t absolutely necessary for the coming world, but because what counts as “spirituality” in supposedly-metamodern spaces apparently remains largely undeveloped.
To be sure, the performance of the postmodern narrative was actually very pervasive at this gathering. That was illuminating to me. While before I may have been more charitable in my assessment, today I can say that I have never been more convinced that postmodernism, as popularly espoused, is and must be an utterly unproductive paradigm. You can’t build things with a bulldozer. You can’t paint with acid. Though ever well-meaning, the postmodern contingent regularly and predictably led only to stasis, stalemate, impasse, obstacle, and abyss in contexts otherwise primed for breakthrough. There was nothing so obvious or apparently wise that couldn’t be immediately critiqued, doubted, or derided (with the lone exception, it seemed, of indigenous wisdoms, which it endlessly and uncritically fawns over as the be-all-end-all panacea of our decadent modernist civilization—rather than, as many metamodernists would propose, a crucially important thread in a larger, more pluralistic cord). Again and again this contingent implied or outright stated: reconstruction is delusion, goals are limitations, effort is oppression, and the only just move is disappearance before an indigenous animism that they neither understand nor represent.
Meanwhile, the neo-modernists, for their part, are only all-too-keen to create. On the slim hype of ideology and speculation, many are barreling head-first into technological answers to vastly complex problems, neither of which they appropriately grasp. A recurring set of buzzwords float like spells in the air: crypto, DAO, token, blockchain… Surely, it is believed, these alone will save us. Well, I presume many of them will indeed have a crucial part to play in the coming world. But, though I find their creative enthusiasm and earnestness far more appealing than the postmodernists’ cynicism and willful incoherence, I must also profess a profound reticence at the neo-modernist project. I am slow to place the fate of the globe in the hands of programmers simply because they meditate or voted for Bernie.
Alright, savage critique over. Of course I love you, too, you modernists and postmodernists. Of course you’ll all be crucial parts of the solution to our society’s ills. As will the arch-disciplinaritains or meta-trans-uber-romanticists, or whatever it is that comes to make metamodernism, in its turn, look like a cheap manifesto written by an 8 year old. Bigger answers are still out there; we speak only from our vantages.
But what does all this mean for Emerge, for the project we’re working on (er, some of us, anyway), for the future of open society and a flourishing world?
Ultimately, the limitations of what we were able to do at Emerge stemmed not so much from the problems of any given worldview; rather, it was the collision of worldviews in a container nominally dedicated to producing coherent solutions that hampered us. What this says about metamodernism shouldn’t escape critical scrutiny here either. After all, shouldn’t an integrative worldview be able to overcome the challenges of such disconnection? Shouldn’t metamodernists be the ones leading the way in affecting positive change by bringing the worldviews together? What good can metamodernism do if it can’t even resolve in miniature the culture war dynamics that loom so large beyond the walls of Austin’s Central Library?
Whatever this means, I think that Emerge would have been far more productive and tangibly "successful" had the net been cast a bit less wide. If a meta-perspective is needed to make progress on the meta-crisis, that perspective will need to serve as the background framework for any such gathering of futurists. Otherwise, time is simply wasted, either in attempting to build bridges across hostile worldviews and exhausting oneself through efforts at greater mutual understanding, or simply in keeping silent to avoid the inevitable backlash when that understanding is found wanting. I must admit, I struggle to see how we might build a new world with folks still fully preoccupied with deconstructing the old one—let alone with folks still actively building that old one.
But we must. And for trying, I salute the organizers of Emerge 2022, even if I walk away with less to show for it than I might have hoped. More than that, I encourage them to consider what a smaller, more intentional assembly might look like, where the project is named outright, and the assumption a given that we do, we MUST, save the world for future generations; that the grandest conceivable narrative is not one that pits identities against each other; that technology, while a crucial part of the solution, has also been the problem, and will need to be handled with the utmost deftness and awareness if it’s to be wielded constructively; that we must develop not only the exterior world but our inner one if we’re to be adequately equipped as people to navigate the complexities of the coming age. Gather me together with folks who can affirm those things and I suspect we’d see some real magic emerge.
I’m tempted to close with a recognition of the many beautiful moments that Emerge occasioned, but this would simply become a litany of names of people I’ve come to love over the past couple of years, folks I got to spend a bit of time with over a hot Austin weekend. For, ultimately, this is and remains my tribe. You, you damned emergentists, are my brothers and sisters in chaos and complexity. To have had some time to come together with my tribe, despite all the dissonance, was its own magic. I’m inclined to suggest that it was these fugitive, marginal (dare I say, liminal?) interactions that constituted the real meaning and power of the event for me. I’ll defer from detailing these many beautiful moments, though—partly because that list would be long indeed; but more so because I’m still not sure if the community itself is the consequence or the end of all our striving.
Have we “found the others” in order to work on our shared project? Or do we work on the project as a means to find the others?
I was confused, I must admit, at one small discussion group I attended, when we went around the circle with our attempts to pithily render the goal of that shared project we were working on. “Cultural transformation by means of inner and outer development” was my on-the-spot attempt to summarize what we were at. But so many other people simply offered words like “friendship,” “connection,” “love.” The part of me that felt eager to get to work that weekend recoiled from such answers; is that all this was about for them? Is this really just about feeling connected in community? I admit, a part of me balked at that, and, to be fair, I do think the urgent existential demands of the moment call on us to do more than, well, find our buddies. On the other hand, what are we really up to with all this “systems change” talk if not building better communities, deeper connections, meaningful spaces, intimacy, honesty, trust, and love? Are we looking in the wrong place for testaments of “success” in our project if we’re just considering it in terms of new institutions, new governance structures, new mediums of exchange, etc?
A church gathers weekly, ostensibly in hopeful anticipation of the coming of the kingdom of heaven. That’s the pretense that brings the congregants to share space and break bread. But, in their hopeful (endless) anticipation, in the best of cases, don’t they create the kingdom amongst themselves? Connection, friendship, charity, communion, support—such are the things of the kingdom to come. But they are also here when we work towards them.
Would it be a trite, perhaps facile conclusion to suggest that this liminal community is doing something similar? Or does that get us off the hook too easily? Does that mean we can allow ourselves to lower expectations, and simply be content in a hangout session when we should be planning for mass extinction, political oppression, apocalypse? Is this dear assortment of souls, whom I've truly come to deeply love and respect and enjoy, only justified to the extent that we're creating the future through some tangible new systems? Or are we the very harbingers of the world we long for, whenever we gather and connect and resonate at the frequency we know the world also needs? Is the future emerging from us, or among us?
I don’t know the answer to this. But, like a good metamodernist, I’d say: both/and.