The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Lene Rachel Andersen. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Lene Rachel Andersen. Lene is an independent futurist, author, philosopher, and publisher. She’s a member of the Club of Rome, and she’s appeared on the Jim Rutt Show several times, most recently, EP 165 and EP 166, where we did a deep dive into her book Libertism. She’s also the author of the very interesting book, the Nordic Secret, which will be republished on January 30th, probably about the time this episode comes out, and there’ll be a link to it on our episode page as usual, which you can reach at jimruttshow.com. Welcome, Lene.
Lene: Thank you. Good to be back.
Jim: Yeah, it’s great to be back. We always have interesting conversations. Today we’re going to be talking about Polymodernity: Meaning and Hope in a Complex World, a book that Lene reissued in, I think it was November, is that right?
Lene: Yes, correct.
Jim: It’s a reissue and very slight enhancement to Metamodernity, a book she published in 2019, and which we covered in depth in EP 89. And again, there’s a link on the episode page to that episode, and in that episode we went through linearly chapter by chapter by chapter and talked about the book in considerable detail. So we’re not going to do that today, but we’re going to jump around and talk about various topics in the book in highlights perhaps, or at least what happens to interest me at the moment. But if those who want to get a detailed take on what’s in the book, you can check out EP 89. So first, why did you decide to reissue the book at this time?
Lene: So I gave it a new name. It was called Metamodernity earlier and now I decided to call it Polymodernity, and there are two reasons for that. One is that there’s a whole metamodern ecosystem of thinkers and people who give this term metamodern a lot of different flavors and come to it from different angles, and it’s generally about modernity and post-modernity, a mix of the two, an oscillation between the two, or a combination of the two. And I work with not just post-modernism, post-modernity and modernity, but also with the pre-modern, traditional, and the indigenous. So I work with four cultural codes, and it became increasingly confusing that I work with four cultural codes and calling it almost the same as the ideas around metamodernism that only include two cultural codes, and poly means many. So one, two, three, four many, it became polymodernity. So it’s a more correct name semantically, it’s closer in meaning to what I’m actually writing about. S.
O it’s to get this idea to stand out more among the metamodernists. I have not abandoned metamodernism. It’s actually easier for me to join some of the metamodern discussions having renamed what I do and calling it polymodernity. So what I call polymodernity is an idea that is that we have as a species been through 300,000 years of cultural evolution, modern human beings genetically appeared around 300,000 years ago, and we spent almost 300,000 years in the Stone Age and living in indigenous cultures around the globe, and then around 11, 12,000 years ago when the Holocene climate emerged, that is when some tribes in some places started developing horticulture and agriculture. And then about 5 or 6,000 years ago, depending on where you look around the globe, there was an invention of writing, picture writing at first, and culture that went from stone age into metal ages, first the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age, and then depending on when you start counting, the modern world appeared with Gutenberg’s printing press around 500 years ago, and then the steam engine, I don’t know, 200 years ago.
And then we have the post-modern world, which we could say begins in the early 20th century or in the 1990s. So it’s not like from one day to the next everybody changed their cultural code. But to grasp history and to understand who we are and the many layers that all our cultures have today, it’s just a handy method to split up history into these four big chunks, very scientific term, chunks of time and ways of organizing society, moral values, understanding the world and humans’ place in the world.
And if we, as I do, divide the human history up into these four big chunks, we can see some patterns that are similar around the globe. We can also see some patterns that are different around the globe, and we can have a meaningful conversation in a different way about some of the culture clashes that we do have because we tend to look at, for instance, the culture clash between Christianity, Judaism and Islam, where I see a much bigger clash between the pre-modern worldview and the modern worldview. So a modern Jew and a pre-modern traditional Jew will have a more of a culture clash than a modern Muslim and a modern Jew, for instance. So there is different ways of understanding ourselves and history if we have this polymodern toolbox, prism, lens to see history and ourself through.
Jim: Let me return to relationship between polymodernity and metamodernism. We’ve had other metamodern folks on the podcast, particularly Hanzi Freinacht, who’s been on several times, and he runs the flag for one brand of metamodernism, and there are others. So would you consider yourself still a member of a tendency within the broader tribe of metamodernism or you abandoned the flag of metamodernism?
Lene: I mean, I’m still friends with a lot of people in what I call the metamodern ecosystem. I definitely see polymodernity as a friend of metamodernism. I spend a lot of time and energy on distinguishing metamodernity from metamodernism, and within metamodernism, there’s like three or four major ways of defining metamodernism. I just thought it would be easier for everybody if I changed the name because I also want to work with this differently, because my intentions with polymodernity is to say what can we learn from those big chunks of human history? What is meaningful for us to keep and what do we need to get rid of? Before we turned on the microphones here, you and I talked about, “Huh, violent patriarchy. Maybe that’s not one of the good things to bring with us into the future.” But there are other things that if we got rid of them, if we lost them, we would be a lot poorer.
And those are the major philosophical, religious, aesthetic traditions from around the globe because they have symbolic worlds and they got aesthetics that speak to deeper layers in our emotional lives and are dealing with big existential questions in a different way than philosophy or modern psychology would do because they tell stories and they have a symbolic way of addressing many of the big questions that we’re facing as human beings. We need different layers in who we are and how we relate to other people and what is culture and civilization, so what I hope to be able to, with polymodernity to say if we create new institutions, new communities, we need to rethink the economy, for instance, what are the patterns or structures or different traits from the past that can be useful also in the future? And if we got rid of them or used them in the wrong way, there are answers that we are not capable of giving ourselves. So I want us to learn from all of the human experience and be better at choosing, so what do we apply where and what do we really get rid of?
I also have a matrix where I divide history up into eight different pillars and have a much more detailed look at things. So it’s not like there’s just four big cultural codes, and those are… They’re it. There are many ways of looking at this. But when I talk about polymodernity, it’s four different cultural codes and it’s a lens through which to see the world. I know that a lot of historians get clammy hands and a heavy heartbeat when I start dividing up history this way because of course you can’t say that on that date the Bronze Age started and then on another date the Iron Age started and there was these similarities between the two, and therefore it is the pre-modern traditional era. It’s fluent, it’s going back and forth, but when we look at it, we can see some patterns that are either stable over time or characterize a certain way of organizing society and human life.
Jim: Before we move on from placing polymodernity in and around or somewhat separate from metamodernity, one thing that I don’t see in your work that is pervasive in the work of, Hanzi Freinacht, let’s say, is stage theory. What’s your take on stage theory and why do you not use that?
Lene: I mean, in The Nordic Secret, I definitely explore psychological and emotional development in humans and look at how do we mature through life? But I do not relate that to different cultural codes or historical development. Any hunter gatherer tribe can have wise people and emotionally mature people, so I do not relate a certain level of individual personal development to the prehistoric indigenous era and to the pre-modern traditional era and to the modern era, the post-modern era, and the metamodern era. I think there’s a flawed thinking in combining stage theory of the human inner world with culture. There is to some extent a connection in that some… I mean particularly traditional culture, for instance, the hundred thousand strong Iron Age ring walled city had to contain people through violence and keeping everybody aligned culturally and with regards to their values and behavior, and they did not appreciate people who were thinking too independently. We also saw that in the medieval era in Europe, for instance. There was the Pope’s way or you were not a popular person by the clergy and the aristocracy, for that matter.
So certain societies have not encouraged human development and emotional development, moral development and independent thinking and questioning authority. We live in a society that does encourage questioning authority. Certain kinds of authority. Also depends on what tribe you belong to in this society what kind of authority you’re allowed to question. So I would say yes, we have a much more complex society in some ways today in the West, for instance, and we’re legally allowed to question and criticize anything. But you can enter woke forum and not be allowed to question certain gender viewpoints, and then you can enter a conservative forum and not be allowed to question other gender rights issues. History, for instance, what kind of history you’re allowed to study in school, what kind of books are you allowed to read.
So even though we have a multitude of very different cultures and subcultures within the current post-modern metamodern societies, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have bigger tolerance. And actually some of the most intolerant people are the people who intolerantly practice tolerant value systems and tell everybody how tolerant they are by canceling them. So there is no one-to-one connection between your emotional, moral, personal maturation process and the cultural code that you’re in. So I do not see metamodernism as promoting more emotional maturity than modernity or pre-modernity. What I would actually say is that the big really different cultural code is post-modernism, because it deconstructs everything and every culture before post-modernism has been able to say, “This is the way we do things, my child, until you’re reached the age of, I don’t know, 13, 14 years old, and you’re considered adult, I’m the one who tells you how things are done in this tribe or a house or whatever.”
And in post-modernism parents, grandparents, teachers have had a very hard time saying, “This is the way that we do things.” And I think a lot of young people who have grown up in post-modernism have lacked clear guidance and boundaries as they grew up. We, the adults, we have taken something away from them that’s really crucial, which is a sense of safety and security during their childhood where they knew where the boundaries were and so that they had something that they could bounce their little lives up against rather than just having this big open space of anything is allowed, because it doesn’t really work that well for children. It may work well for mature adults, but it doesn’t work well for children.
Jim: Regular listeners know that I always push back on the concept of post-modernity is actually where we are. I’ve had lots of arguments with Hanzi Freinacht about that, for instance, and others. My own take is that modernity actually started a little later than Gutenberg, more around 1700, around the synthesis of three things, which is modern science, which came into being in the 17th century, modern finance, which came into being very late at the end of the 17th century with the founding of the Bank of Amsterdam and the Bank of England and the development of fractional reserve banking. The third part was the beginnings of representative democracy, probably exemplified best by the glorious revolution in England where the Dutch William and Mary came over and took over in a relatively bloodless revolution England, but only under the conditions that the monarchy was now a limited monarchy with the parliament being superior. So those three things I believe fused modernity.
Lene: And I would say one more thing. Actually, I would say yes, Gutenberg. I mean, it took a while before we saw the effects of Gutenberg’s printing press. So yes, I mean the actual changes may have been later than his invention, but I would also say one of the hallmarks of modernity is the steam engine and that you separate the work hours from your household. I mean, you have the modern job with the steam engine, and rather than having artisans and farmers working at home and having the whole family involved in what you produced at home and then you took to the market, you suddenly have a workforce that gets up in the morning and go to somewhere, leaves their family behind, go somewhere else, produces stuff, and then comes back home with a paycheck or an empty pocket because they drink up everything because their life was so miserable. But it’s a very different work structure, and there’s… I think it was Karl Marx who talked about disenfranchisement, to be disenfranchised from the labor, the results that you produce.
Lene: Alienation, that’s it. Thank you. Yeah, so the sense that as a factory worker… I mean Charlie Chaplin showed it in modern times where you just have this worker who turns one bolt or nut day in and day out and goes crazy. So there’s a completely different attitude toward or structure around production, and you got alienated from it.
Jim: Yeah, I do think that the transition to fossil fuel was a second stage in the explosion of modernism, and that’s what really changed the world. In 1700 the world’s population, amazingly, was only 600 million people. 600 million people. Less than a 10th of what we have today. Further, the energy that was consumed by the human race, a slight plurality was animal labor, donkeys turning a grist mill. Then the second was human labor. The third was wind and water. And of course, 200 years later, it’s all fossil fuels, solar, all the modern technologies. So in 1700, humanity was still relatively light footstep upon the Earth, even though all the pieces were in place for it to take off, which it did, which I find very interesting.
So anyway, back to my critique of post-modernism. We still live in the world of science, democracy, and particularly hyper modern late stage financialized capitalism. So I therefore say we are still modern, and that what post-modernism is a critique of modernism. Some of the critique is useful. For instance, I think the greatest thing post-modernism brought to the table was seeing through grand narratives. And it is not to say that grand narratives aren’t useful, but they’re not exactly true. It’s like the old-
Lene: They’re symbolic.
Jim: And it doesn’t mean we should eliminate them, but the post-modernists say we should eliminate them. I say we should understand what they are and what they’re good for and what they’re not good for, and that they are not literally the truth, and that the reification of any theory is dangerous. For instance, we tend to reify all kinds of things. It’s kind of like fish in water and the wise fish says, “Oh yeah, we swim in the water,” and the other fish say, “What’s water?” When we think about money, for instance, they just think fractional reserve banking managed by central bankers was something Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. No, it’s a series of frozen accidents starting in 1694 culminating the Bretton Woods and then going off the gold standard 1971, the flood of cheap money starting in 1985. But anyway, these are a series of frozen accidents and it’s a specific institutional structure, and it’s something we as humans could change, but we don’t see it that way. So that’s the problem of grand narrative.
And when I critique post-modernism most strongly, I live far away from fancy big cities. In fact, I live in one of the lowest population density counties in the United States, East of the Mississippi River, and we have a call it 1,200 square kilometers, 450 square miles, population 2,200. 2,200. That’s a long way from the big city. I know a lot of people I grew up with, I grew up in a working class community, working class, lower middle class community. So a lot of my oldest friends work with their hands, work in the trades. I’ve never met a post-modern plumber. I’ve never met a post-modern farmer. So this idea that we live in the post-modern world I don’t believe is actually true.
It has an influence as a very strong critique, and particularly in upper middle class and above and four year college educated, particularly elite college educated, post-modernism has warped into a lumpenform of post-modernism that we might call critical theory or wokery, and that has infected the brains of a significant percentage of younger people of upper middle class background. But we don’t yet quite live in a post-modern world. At least that’s my take.
Lene: You can’t build a society on deconstruction. So if we try to have a post-modern society, it would fall apart. We need something else. But yes, there are some important insights from the post-modern way of looking at things. So we can see the water, exactly. And that is why I want to talk about a polymodern future because what we gain from, or what we can get from the indigenous prehistoric cultures or even the indigenous peoples that are still around, they have a relationship to nature, for instance, that we need to learn from. They see themselves as part of nature, integrated into nature. And you can’t pull yourself out of nature. You are nature. We are nature. And there’s cycles in nature that we need to be a part of in order for us to thrive and survive. So we can learn that from indigenous culture.
There is a pre-modern culture where sterilization pulls itself out of nature and now we have, in Christianity and Abrahamitic religions, we have that God is so far away and abstract and humans are outside nature or above nature, between God and nature, so we need to steward nature, so we’re different from nature, and there’s a lot to we learned from that as well. And one of the things is that nature is gruesome, god is gruesome, and if we don’t behave, we’re going to suffer and we’re not going to survive and it’s going to be nasty. It can be floods, it can be locusts, it can be all kinds of stuff if we don’t behave. So I think we can learn some things from that. I mean, we’re seeing it with climate change and forest fires and hurricanes, all that stuff.
And then there’s the modern world and our relationship to nature there where we actually, via science, have been able to understand and manipulate things that, I mean just 50 years ago people couldn’t even imagine. Like Hans Christian Ørsted, Danish physicist who discovered electromagnetism, and we’re talking through devices now that are using his discovery from about 200 years ago. We couldn’t have had the control of electricity without it. So we need the modern world. And then there’s the post-modern relationship to nature, which is more or less not there. It’s like, “Hey, everything is a social construct, so gravity is just a collective narrative.” That was not actually works even if you don’t believe in it. But post-modernism taken to the extreme has this everything is just a word game.
And that’s actually a very interesting lens through which to see even gravity because at some point you will get to a point where, and sometimes very fast, where post-modernism does fail, but it allows us to then look at, for instance, and deconstruct modernity and the modern relationship to nature. It allows us to deconstruct the traditional relationship to nature and narrative and religion and how that was intertwined. And then the prehistoric indigenous or even contemporary indigenous cultures and how that relationship to nature is also circumstantial, basically.
Jim: The part that I think we can useful adopt from the indigenous worldview is because they were not very powerful most of the time, they were constrained by nature, essentially. If you were operating with a sharpened wooden stick, maybe you can wipe out the ground sloth, but apparently the humans that came over to North America around 14,000, 15,000 years ago probably wiped out some of the slow moving megafauna, but you really couldn’t screw the Earth up in a major way. Once you get steam power and bulldozers and powered saws and dynamite and all that stuff, the ability to really torture the Earth and push us past our carrying capacity, and, oh, by the way, the 12X increase in population in 300 years. But unfortunately, the hubris of the starting point was never turned off until very lately. Putting myself at their perspective, here we are in 1700, we’ve got calculus, we have modern finance, we have democracy. We can build this amazing world, and we don’t give a shit about nature because frankly nature is way bigger than we are at this point, right?
Lene: There’s so much of it. We can just go out and you take stuff and burn it and eat and…
Jim: Exactly. Silent Spring was probably the book that changed people’s thinking, 1962, Rachel Carlson, I believe is the author. And very late in the day when a small minority people said, “Wait a minute, the Earth has boundaries, and we were either at them or across them,” and from the work I see of other people, we’re across the planetary boundaries in numerous places. Just one random statistic that I like to put out there about how far we are out of balance is of all the wild mammals on Earth, they represent 4% of the weight of all mammals on Earth. 96% are humans and their cattle and sheep and goats and horses. With birds, it’s 80% of the biomass of birds are chickens, turkeys, ducks, et cetera. Only 20%… All those birds you see running around your house, I live in a beautiful place full of birds, all those birds add up to 20% of the weight of the domesticated chickens and turkeys and ducks and such. That’s to my mind, whoa, that’s crazy out of balance.
And we were totally incapable of doing that in 1700. So avoiding that temptation was not built into our code. And of course as is well known, books like Guns, Germs, and Steel, this inability to see the limits has happened before, even in pre-modern culture where they were just strong enough to be able to destroy their basis of life. We talked about it in the pregame, that Iceland, who was settled by amazing seafaring people, ferocious vikings, oops, over about 200 years, they cut down all their trees and they were stuck for a while. They were actually cut off. They get a couple of ships a year come over from Norway, and that’d be about it. And similar happened to the Vikings in Greenland, took longer. Easter Island’s a famous case where seafaring people, how the hell did they get there? On boats. But they cut down all their trees. So it’s this inability to have in your code of your society that there are appropriate limits to the infringement upon the natural world. If we could get that fixed into our modern society, that alone would make a huge difference.
Lene: I mean, you and I are two different generations, but if we go back to our great grandparents, our great grandmothers, they knew how to be frugal because they had this deep understanding of, if you overeat, there won’t be food at the end of the year. And I think the traditional farmer, there was only so much land that there was only so much you could grow there. So there was this deep knowledge that if you do not first of all save enough grain to plant in the next season, there wouldn’t be any food.
So I think until the industrial revolution, really, modernity, there was this deep seated fear of hunger and people saw their children dying of all kinds of things and their wives in childbirth. So we have become so accustomed to life not being dangerous and there being so much of everything that we can just keep buying stuff whenever we feel like it, and we can throw out food if we don’t want to eat the same thing two days in a row. And our great grandmothers would’ve been like, “You’re doing what? You have a fridge. Eat up what you have in the fridge.” And we’ve become really, really spoiled. So we need to relearn some of these old good habits and virtues.
Jim: Yeah, it’s interesting. My own mother grew up on a subsistence farm with no electricity, no indoor plumbing in northern Minnesota, which is a very far northern part of the United States where it gets to be extremely cold, lots of snow, and they didn’t even have central heat. They had a big wood stove and that was it. So my own mother lived in a culture-
Lene: I mean, my grandmother is a child, pretty much same thing. So yeah, great grandmothers don’t even have to go that far back. They know how to put things aside for not so good times.
Jim: And they had a small farm, 40 acres on the edge of a swamp. They had dairy, they had chickens, they did some popcorn, because one of the few things that would grow in the short growing season that far North, and they survived. But if you threw a soft American suburbanite into that situation, they would die because they would not be willing to work that hard, nor do they have the skills to understand it. Now, let’s jump to another one. I know this is one where I think you and I probably disagree. You talked about the Abrahamic religions and the sky god. Personally, I think that’s malarkey and that humanity started to purge itself of these gods and the supernatural and what I think of all is nonsense just after 1700 in the early 18th century with the rise of the Enlightenment.
Most of the great Enlightenment thinkers called themselves deists, but that was to keep themselves from being burned at the stake, probably. They certainly did not believe in Yahweh and all this and that, and it is to my mind, curious and interesting that, Max Weber called it, the disenchantment of the world, the purging of magic in the supernatural from the world started out quite strongly almost 300 years ago, but definitely did not finish its arc. In a country like the United States, probably 80% of people, even if they’re not quite official kosher Christians or Jews, do believe in something like Yahweh and heaven and hell and angels and all this stuff. And I know you’re a believer as well. So what’s your thought about the place of the sky gods in our very modern world?
Lene: Just to explain where I stand on that. So I studied theology, Protestant Lutheran theology at the University of Copenhagen because I wanted to become a pastor in the Danish Church, which is evangelical Lutheran Protestant, which is different from evangelical in the US. So it’s the German tradition. And I wanted to do that because honestly, whenever I did go to church, which didn’t happen often, it was so incredibly boring that I thought somebody had to do something about it and eventually I thought, “Hey, maybe that might be me.” And then studying theology and reading the New Testament cover to cover, I realized that what really spoke to me was the Jewish heritage, the Jewish society, the Old Testament, so the Tanakh as it’s called, the Hebrew Bible, and I’d always resonated with Jewish culture in our own day and age.
So I converted to Judaism when I was 30. And one of the big differences between Protestantism and Judaism is that there is no credo in Judaism. So there are ways that you behave during the week, for instance keeping the Sabbath and eating kosher, having a kosher home, kosher kitchen. So there are actions that you take and there are ways that you organize your life, but nobody asks you what you believe. So I’m a practicing doubting Jew, and that’s the polymodern side of me. I absolutely love the stories and I find deep human understanding and value in the stories. I also love reading the five books of Moses and also other parts of the Old Testament because of all the interesting historical details.
I mean, suddenly you run into if two men get into a fight and the wife of one of them tried to separate them and she touches the low hanging parts of the opponent through his garment, I think her hand needs to be punished. So there’s this completely different worldview of body parts and of course gender roles and things like that. But I found this window into the Bronze Age and the Bronze Age mind. And there’s a brilliant book called God: A Biography.
Jim: Yes, I read that, very good book. Guy named Miles, I think.
Lene: Yes, Miles is his name. And he reads the Old Testament as you would read any kind of play or fiction, and he compares it to… So how do we understand Hamlet? Well, we read Hamlet as a narrative of a character development. What if we read the Bible in the same way? How does God evolve? And I think it’s so brilliant because he starts out like this almost cartoonish, one dimensional, yes, angry guy with a big beard walking the garden and saying, “Hey, Adam, where are you? Where are you?” It’s like, “Hey, you just created him. You have to know where he is. You’re omnipotent and everything. Why do you ask where Adam is?” So we need to understand this in a completely different way, and what I think we as modern people are making a mistake, because in the meantime, we came up with a modern worldview and rationalism and analyzing text and nature and each other from this rational point of view.
And then we look at the biblical text and then we read it from that point of view and say, “This doesn’t make sense because we know that the world was not created in six days and a day off. We know this and we know that, so this is just rubbish.” But if you haven’t developed the modern worldview yet and have never been introduced to it, you write poetry. So this is a poetic narrative about humans in the world and how we relate to the stars in the sky and the fact that there is this world with all these things that are interconnected and interrelated and where things have consequences and we cannot figure out the pattern. I don’t think people designed religion in order to control other people and have a long lasting civilization. I think a lot of cultures and religions were there, and some of them came up with modus operandi that survived for a long time because they turned out to organize society in ways that had great survival mechanisms in them.
So if you have a religion that tells people that you’re under constant surveillance from somebody who knows everything, and here are the rules, and even if nobody else is watching, God is still watching, then you have this thing going on in your mind that’s like, “Hey, I would like to steal this from my neighbor, but I know that God is watching so I won’t.” And if everybody thinks like that, even though there is no God doing that, but if everybody believes that, you’ll actually have a pretty well-functioning society compared to a society where everybody’s like, “Hey, nobody’s watching. I can steal this stuff.” So there are these long-term consequences of having good narratives that people believe in whether the narratives are right or not.
It’s the post-modern in me that allows me to do this and look at this pre-modern text and heritage in this way and say, “Yeah, I would normally look at it with a modern worldview and say this makes no scientific sense, but now I can look at it from a Bronze age worldview and say, ‘wow, imagine that somebody in the desert came up with this and they kept telling it because it made sense to them. There must be something to this.'” And overall, not just in this context, but generally, we tend to, when we look at history, turn around, look back and say, “How come people 500 years ago couldn’t figure this out? And how come people 2000 years ago couldn’t figure this out?” What we need to do is to jump back to the beginning of, I don’t know, the great apes or something, and say, “Okay, now we walk into history the way that it unfolded.”
And as we run into modern humans who live in little tribes and have this relationship, shamanistic spiritual relationship to nature, what an amazing accomplishment it is for these people to have language and then go on these dream trips to other realms and come back with answers from the spirits and tell that tribe that we need to get across the river tonight, otherwise we’ll all die. Because I doubt that any tribe of chimpanzees have ever done something like that. And likewise, when we get to the first agriculture, they brought with them their understanding of the world as they figure out, “Hey, if we put this grain into the ground and wait long enough, we can have more of this food that we like. Why don’t we get all the grains together or the pits together and then plant all the pits from these fruits or whatever it is, and then five months from now, we’ll have more of this stuff that tastes so good.”
Then you can be really amazed at the creativity and the imagination and persistence that people came up with or had even 10,000 years ago when, if you look at it from our point, it was like, “Oh my God, they did that. That’s gross.” Well, no, it was like the big new thing back then, and it was actually pretty brilliant because before they had done so and so, and that was really horrible. And I have the same relationship with the Bible. If you read Hammurabi’s Code for instance, which is about a thousand years older, a lot of the Old Testament was edited together, you actually see a lot of progress from a human rights legal perspective. I wouldn’t want to go back and give up what I have today, but I would definitely prefer to live under Jewish law compared to Hammurabi’s law.
For instance, there’s this amazing paragraph in Hammurabi’s Code that says that if somebody built a house for somebody else, so A builds a house for B, and the house collapses and B’s son dies in the collapse, what do you think the punishment should be for the guy who built the house?
Jim: Kill his son, probably.
Lene: Yeah, his son should die. I mean, this is like an eye for an eye or a son for a son in very concrete terms.
Jim: Let me respond to that. I must confess, I’m also a fan of looking into the Bronze Age. I have read the Bible, Old and New Testament, cover to cover twice. I also read the Pentateuch, which is the first five books, as you know, the books of Moses, plus Joshua. Because I always say, if you’re going to get the joke, you got to get the punchline. As a person who dislikes Yahweh on principle, I think if you really want to understand what a schmuck he is, you got to read the book of Joshua where he is telling him to kill everybody, the babies, the animal, slaughter them all. He is a miserable motherfucker. So every 10 years I reread the Pentateuch plus Joshua, and I always look forward to Joshua to say, “All right, all this happy talk. Now we’ll see what an asshole Yahweh really is.”
I recommend that if you want to get a good sense of what this dude is all about. It is brilliant literature. I mean the people, the way this was created and created, the insights into the true nature of human psychology, brilliant. And as you point out, as a coherence mechanism, brilliant. It’s very interesting. Though on the other hand, in terms of the moral code, oh yeah, was there 175 death penalty offenses in Leviticus and Judges, including any male homosexuality shall be death, working on the Sabbath shall be death. The 175 of these death penalty things for some of them, remarkably stupid-ass shit, right? So yeah, it’s progress from Hammurabi, but even Mississippi in the United States would be horrified to implement Leviticus and Judges as their legal code.
Lene: Wouldn’t be too certain about that about everybody, but that’s just me.
Jim: No doubt. There are some biblical literalists in the United States and other places, just as there are Islamic fundamentalists who want to have a Sharia state.
Lene: That is the pre-modern worldview, and that is why I find this so crucial that we talk about polymodernity and that people get what cultural codes are. Because if you have a pre-modern worldview and you honestly think that there is a God that monitors everything, and this scripture that we have inherited gives not just personal moral guidance and cultural heritage and an aesthetic framework around your life, a poetic framework around your life, but literally should be the legislation of your society because that is the only way that people will behave, that is a pre-modern worldview. And if we don’t get how that pre-modern worldview works, we’re going to get into all kinds of wrong misunderstandings of the conflicts between different religions, and particularly when we have a world of a lot of migration, because there are pre-modern regimes out there, for instance, Iran and Saudi Arabia, where it’s a literal pre-modern reading of the sacred texts that are implemented as the rule of law in the country with the modern means of violence and surveillance.
So the latest technology, the electricity surveillance of all kinds of modern technology. You can also take the Taliban in Afghanistan. They’re using the modern post-modern technologies, the digital technologies to implement a pre-modern order of ruling society. And that is where we have the wrong combination of what we have learned through history. So one of the big fights that we had in the West in the 19th century was what should be the ruling principles in society and how shall we govern? And there were religious people who still want the religion to be in the political sphere and be ruling the political institutions, but we got a new set of non-religious religions or ideologies, we got socialism, conservatism, and liberalism, that became ideologies that became the narratives, the value systems of the political system in the modern world. So in the parliament, in the public sphere, in politics, and in society, even in a religious society that has secular political structures, political structures need to be secular and you cannot bring God into your parliament.
That is where we need to have the modern worldview, because they’re modern institutions. So if you have a political debate, you can be a communist, you can be a fascist, you can be a liberal, you can be a socialist, you can be a conservative, you can be a libertarian, but in order to function in the modern society, you have to be able to argue your case and you have to be able to do that based on logic and science and the way that the world actually, the physical world is. That’s part of modernity, and that’s how we can have democracy and political freedom. And then you can take your religion and practice it at home or in your house of prayer. And the really big political struggles, and I see that also in the United States, even though there’s a lot of In God We Trust in the American political realm and the Constitution, and you take oaths on the Bible and so forth.
If the secular political system, if democracy is going to work in the modern post-modern world, it has to be a secular argumentation that takes place, and then we need to be able to recognize that other people have other viewpoints and other needs and other demands on society and needs from society than I do. And then we can negotiate. But if people start bringing in sacred text or revelation, then we cannot negotiate because how can I negotiate with something that somebody apparently saw as a vision, I don’t know, 500 years ago or 2,000 or 3,000 years ago. But you’re absolutely welcome, and that’s religious freedom. You’re absolutely welcome to go back home to your family and run your household based on these principles.
So what we managed to do in the West and the 19th century is that we make the split between the public sphere and the political realm and the private sphere where you can be secular, you can be an atheist, you can be a religious person, you can have any religion you want. In the modern society with the modern democratic institutions, we let people keep part of a pre-modern world, and we can only have freedom and democracy if we all respect that once we step out into the public sphere, that religion is no longer an argument, that we can’t say that we need to do this because it says so in the Quran or it says so in the Bible. We need to negotiate among ourselves as equals, as human beings, and only as human beings.
Jim: That is if you accept liberalism essentially. Now we are in a war against liberalism.
Lene: There’s socialism and conservatism in the modern sense.
Jim: I don’t know. The Christian nationalists America are perfectly happy to go to a theocracy. The woke mind virus is another religion that even if you only violate in your private life, they’ll be happy to burn you at the stake. So I think that the liberal synthesis that you laid out brilliantly, by the way, is at risk from both sides currently.
Lene: Totally. Absolutely.
Jim: But here’s the move I make, which is one other call out about the Bronze Age. I just got infatuated again with the Iliad, and I went back and read two translations of it in the last six months. The most recent one, I would say is truly excellent by Emily Wilson, just came out a few months ago. It’s a poetry translation, but don’t let that put you off. She chose rather than using hexameter, which is the traditional Greek meter in epic poetry, she rendered it in iambic pentameter, essentially the same meter that Shakespeare uses. So it’s totally readable, it doesn’t hurt your head at all, and she consciously wrote it with very simple English words. She’s a scholar of classical languages. Says the language of the Iliad is quite unusual in the simplicity of the word choice and the grammar, so she wanted to replicate that.
So another way of looking at Bronze… These are more ruthless. These are people who love rape. They all talk about sacking cities, and the main reason is so they can steal people’s wives and rape them and take them back as sex slaves. These are not nice people. But you can get a totally different view of reality from the Iliad. And the two I read are Samuel Butler, who’s a classical prose translation. But the one I really recommend is Emily Wilson and her new poetry. Iambic pentameter, so very readable. It’s brilliant. But anyway, so here’s the Rutt move about religion and the Iliad, and also I’m going to add Freud. All three, I would argue, really belong in the basket called literature. And this is not to say they’re unimportant. A fair bit of my ideas come from the works of Robert Heinlein, believe it or not, science fiction writer, who I believe highly moral, understood the world, called him like he saw him.
He’s not right about everything, but I borrow ideas from Robert Heinlein from literature. I borrow ideas from the Bible. I borrow ideas from James Joyce. I borrow ideas from the Iliad. And if we could make the Enlightenment move that religions are not literally true, There is not the guy in the sky, but they have stories that had some utility at various times and places, let us read them as stories of that sort and be discerning. And this is one of the things I find that I really like about your approach, is that it really calls for discernment amongst previous traditions to find out what could be reused. The Judeo-Christian, it has antecedents in both. I think old JC himself laid it out most clearly. Love thy neighbor as thyself is the first rule. What is the greatest virtue? Love. These are very useful things from that hateful old book that calls for stoning adulterers and killing people that work on the Sabbath and death penalty for male homosexuality.
So read the thing with some discernment, just as I read Freud with discernment. It’s not science, but it has some very rich insights into the nature of humanity. And that allows us to mine the social learnings of the past, but to do so with discernment to synthesize a polymodern, post-modern, metamoden, or I like to call it, what comes next. But at the same time, we shan’t lose the fact that we’re also threatened by a renaissance of the pre-modern, the theocratic. In fact, I have an essay which I lay all this out, it’s called In Search of the Fifth Attractor, and one of the four bad at attract I lay out is theocracy. It is a possibility of our future and those of us who want to have a good future for humanity should work strong to resist it.
Lene: Absolutely. I mean, A Handmaid’s Tale should not be implemented. So the more I think about this and also learn about indigenous peoples, both the ones that have survived and are still around and historically, is that I wonder what it does to our sense of self when you have, and also our meaning making, and polymodernity is very much about meaning making… So if you live in an indigenous culture that is literally surviving at the mercy of nature, so you can’t do anything except just play by the rules that nature lays out for you, and you have over generations of generations of generations, you have through intuition developed, and modern science would laugh at this, but you have developed insights about patterns in nature that allow you to survive. And they’re meaningful because you do them together and some of them actually work. Or they may not work, but it looks as if they work.
And you have your understanding of yourself is that you’re here at the mercy of nature and the spirits and there are spirits and everything, and you have to relate to them and show them respect. And you have to show nature respect because you survive based on the respect that you show nature and everything around you, and being in tune with that, and that being in tune with… That sensibility of being in tune with nature is something that I have lost and I think most of us have lost a lot of it, if not all of it. And then you have quick jump to monotheism and the Abrahamitic tradition, you have this big eye in the sky. There’s a you.
There’s a constant you, it’s not just I am constantly reflecting upon the you that is in the sky that is seeing everything, that I can have conversations with, that I can pray to, that is monitoring everything that I do, and that created this world with whom I need to be on good terms because otherwise something bad is going to happen either to me or my society or my life in eternity after this life. So the mental complexity of having this relationship either to nature and being in balance with that or to a creator God in the sky that sees everything and that has given me a set of rules that we need to live by, and then the modern world where all of this is gone and the only relationship is between me and other people. I see a dimension missing here.
And when we don’t have it, because this was there all the time when our brains evolved. Our brains evolved with something that was spiritual and that got us to keep spirituality going and spiritual relationship with nature for 300,000 years and then inventing a god in the sky. What is it that is missing if we don’t have this extra dimension in our sense of being in the world? I don’t know. And then in post-modernism, not only do you deconstruct this, you also have this ironical distance and holistic attitude towards it, which is that this is just of no value. A.Nd one of the things that has happened over and over again in authoritarian regimes is that it is very often religious people, often pastors, Christians, Catholic priests who have led the resistance because they had a second realm within which they could get their reward even if they died in the political struggle here and now.
So if you only have the here and now and the physical world as part of your meaning making, your only way to survive and live long is to actually comply with the current rule and just submit to the oppression. Whereas if you have a religious belief that tells you deep down in your soul that there’s a second realm, there’s another reward in a different realm, you may be willing to sacrifice yourself for the cause of freedom. And I’m not saying that all religious people are doing that. I’m not saying that there aren’t bah humbug and things going on in religion. I’m just saying that I think we need to recognize that that imagined friend in the sky that was called it, that actually does have or have had some very positive consequences and that it can keep lives together and keep people alive and continuing what it is they’re doing because it gives them hope.
Jim: Let me hit on a few of these things. One, you mentioned it in passing, one of my pet peeves about metamodernism is the ironic stance. Not only do we have irony, but we now have meta-irony and post-irony. And I actually did a podcast with somebody on the three, and I go, “Jesus Christ people,” and I’ve decided that I’ve returned a earnestness is necessary, and that irony is a spice in literature, theatrical irony… Without theatrical irony, which is basically where the audience knows what’s going on, but the characters don’t, you couldn’t have Shakespeare. It’s full of ironic irony, theatrical irony. The joshing play conversations you have with your friends. Often ironic things back and forth. But when one makes an ironic stance about matters that matter, public policy, how to live, what you believe, I frankly think it’s a form of moral cowardice. People are afraid to take ownership of what they think, so they put it out in this ironic way, which you can cut it either way and it’s easily deniable.
Which then gets me to my second point, and I think it was a very good point you made about the fact that the resistance to tyranny has often, though not always, been by very committed religious people, because I would say that that is a one level up phenomenon. The real root is courage. Aristotle said about his 12 virtues that the most important was courage, the first virtue, because without courage, the other 11 are impossible. So when I think about, I know you’re so interested in continuing life forming education through the bildung approach, it strikes me that if we as a society took it upon ourselves, then thinking about our social operating system to make sure that we are constantly encouraging true courage, fearlessness, willing to die for the right, we would have a very different society than a bunch of temerous cowards who want to live so they can have a Double Whopper with cheese tomorrow.
Lene: So the way that I now describe bildung is that it’s two different kinds of knowledge, and the one kind of knowledge is the easily transferable knowledge, and that is what we’re focusing on in the school system. So that can be math or science or learning a foreign language or baking breads or something like that. And we can test if people have learned it. We can start speaking French and see if they answer correctly In French, for instance. And the other kind of knowledge is the non-transferable knowledge which comes with life experience, but it’s also our emotional depth. It is the emotional depth that comes with life experience and comes from making a fool out of yourself and making mistakes and having successes and creating friendships and maintaining friendships and falling in love and all that stuff.
And this moral depth or emotional depth and the upbringing that we need from parents and older people in our tribe or society to tell us, this is how you behave and this is how you don’t behave, that is what allows us to actually keep friendships. This is what allows us to enter a group of new colleagues and function around them and not have them kick you out at the first chance they get. I mean, this is what allows you to not just be invited to a dinner party, but to be invited back. So the social norms, the “this is how we do things here,” we’ve been so afraid of indoctrinating kids in the post-modern era, but we have been so afraid of upbringing in the school system that we have lost the language for moral behavior, and we’ve lost it in the public sphere.
And we have, with a post-modern sense of irony and nihilism, we have… Even in Denmark where we’ve had very low levels of corruption, we’re seeing now social norms falling apart because we’ve not been able to talk about them. And it’s not been okay to say, “I think this is not morally okay. I think you’re morally wrong. I don’t think you should speak like that. I don’t think that we should behave like this in our company, because the founders of this age old, nice family owned business was because they wanted to do something with this company that was bigger than just making money. But now I’m the boss and we’re here to make money.” So we have made ourselves more one dimensional and dumber during post-modernism and during modernity than we’re aware of. And one of the descriptions of society and also of bildung, in this personal development is an illustration that I call the bildung rose. It has three layers. One is what is possible here and now, one is what might be possible, and then one about what ought to be.
And in the what is possible here and now we have production and technology, and that is what we’ve been investing in for the past 40, 50 years without investing in what might be possible and in what ought to be. So we have starved the institutions in our society that we needed to update, we’ve starved the aesthetics, we’ve starved the political institutions, the fundamental sciences that need to be beyond and outside the market forces. I don’t know a professor who doesn’t spend I don’t know how much of their time applying for funding instead of researching. And then we have the ought to be, which is the narratives that tell us what our moral values are and the ethics that allow us to discuss how are we going to handle new technologies, for instance. What ought to be our reaction to artificial intelligence? What would be the morally right way for us as a society to go on with this new technology or to not go on with this new technology?
And if you call it a moral argument, people are just going to laugh at you in your face and say, “Who are you to tell me what the moral value should be in this society?” Not telling anybody what they must be, I’m just saying we need to have a discussion about what they ought to be. So we’ve lost the language for ought. And of course the pre-modern religious society had ought all around you all the time and it became this straight jacket where you couldn’t do anything. I don’t want to go back to that, but it is also bad that we’ve lost the language for…
Take something like freedom of speech, which I think should be an absolute value, but I doubt that very many people think it’s okay to bully people. So there’s an ought in there where it’s like, “Yeah, you ought to not bully people. You have the right to tell people that they have, for instance, ugly children. But you don’t do that.” So there are things that we need to look at this as, “Yeah, what is legal? What do I have the right to say? And what would be okay to say?” And we’ve lost the language for that.
Jim: If you honor the virtue of compassion, you’re not going to tell somebody your wife is ugly and your kids are stupid, even if it’s true.
Jim: So now, it’s not actually in this book, and I don’t recall if it was in any of your other books, but I think it is a key question of taking ought and thinking about everything we’ve talked about so far to the next step. If we’re at a fork of late late modernism and we could go to metamodernism, polymodernism, closely related, some horse show of post-modernism, there’s the other one, which is hypermodernism. This is the techno optimist, accelerationist, transhumanism. We should merge with the machines as quickly as possible. I know people that I’ve had on the show that are singulatarians, the singularity where the super intelligence just eats humanity, they say, “That would be good. Sooner we have the singularity and humans have served their role to birth the super intelligence and then they can get turned into paperclips, so what?” What is your thought about ought with respect to hypermodernism?
Lene: That we ought to steer away from it, and whoever thinks that humans are some kind of abstraction that we can and ought to manipulate technologically, ought to have their head examined. This whole philosophy about human happiness and suffering now with 8 billion people compared to the human happiness and suffering a million years from now with a billion billion people. So if we can create human happiness among a billion billion people on several galaxies a million years from now, that is worth more than the human happiness of 8 billion people that are actually alive today. I don’t know what went wrong with these people because I don’t know if they don’t have children or they don’t have relationships or they grew out without relationships or they have some kind of hormonal deficiency or… Here would say there’s something wrong. And this is a moral statement.
There are so many people who could have meaningful lives and we could change the economy if we wanted to once we see it. We could change the economy. We could actually thrive 8 billion people on this planet. We could have meaningful lives. And I think, and we could have that, all of us. And that’s why we need to rethink what we’re doing, we need to rethink the global relationships and interrelatedness because we’re in a different phase because of the technologies that we’ve created. So we are in a transition to something else, and if it’s hypermodernity, we are going to suffer, and everybody who’s alive now is going to suffer, and I don’t want that to happen. That’s an ought. And what is going to happen… So one of the biggest joys we have as human beings, people will probably say, “Yeah, it’s love, it’s caressing, it’s kissing, it, being together, it’s being together with your friends and all that stuff.”
Yes, that makes us happy, and seeing your children grow up and relating to your family, that makes us happy. But there’s a different joy and we get depressed if we don’t have it. And that is learning. It’s actually one of our biggest joys. So whenever we encounter something that is not so boring it’s painful, and which is not repetitive because it’s new, but it connects with something we already know, but it’s not so advanced that we can’t grasp it, when we’re at what Vygotsky called the proximal zone of learning, that is when we thrive. So that is when there is newness and there is familiarity. And when we have that wonderful balance of newness and familiarity, we thrive. I call it the sweet spot. So it’s not too complex and causes anxiety because we cannot grasp it and it’s not too boring because it’s repetitive and we already know it, but it’s new.
And that’s how cell phones are designed, that’s how apps are designed. So they’re designed so that to the vast majority of us, it’s really, really interesting to get a new app or be on Facebook on the social media because there’s newness and familiarity. Same thing with game shows and television, newness and familiarity, and all kinds of entertainment hit that sweet spot. The difference between learning something and entertainment and being on social media, unless you bring up your social media carefully like a child or a dog so it does get you things where you learn stuff, is that entertainment is just going to… It’s like empty calories. It’s not going to allow you to grasp more stuff tomorrow than you did today or yesterday.
But if we had this chip implanted into our brain so that we could download everything from the internet and know everything and be connected to everybody so that we could just sit down and eat potato chips in a fish bowl all day, and then we would have all knowledge in the world transmitted to our brain and we could connect with everybody and know what they were thinking, we would be constantly bored and life would be so painful it would be a constant depression, because there wouldn’t be anything new and exciting. Then you could of course stimulate our nervous system and have us feel some kind of excitement through hormones or certain neurons that would be stimulated so it felt like excitement and you could probably develop an-
Jim: Yeah, electrical stimulation. Yeah, you could have all the orgasms you want.
Lene: Exactly, you could have constant orgasm. But even that, if you didn’t have to make an effort and actually-
Jim: By pressing a button.
Lene: … score a little bit and take out a bottle of wine and buy flowers and light some candles and flirt with your spouse or somebody at the local bar or something, even sex would be boring. I mean, you could be in a hundred year orgasm technologically, but how much fun would that be? You also have to eat. So we would make ourselves miserable if these people actually succeeded with their technologies. We’re actually going to be much happier if there’s a little bit of struggle and if we could learn stuff. And fortunately all babies who are born are still born as Stone Age babies. That’s why it’s so hard to educate everybody and to get enough education, because when we’re 18, we get the right to vote, and then we’re supposed to understand the society that we’re in and the perspectives of all kinds of political decisions. And we don’t, and people who are 60 don’t necessarily understand it either.
But we’re still born as Stone Age babies when we enter this world, so we should look at human life as how do we get from this Stone Age baby that is curious and has an appetite for everything and wants to know everything and wants to play and be joyful and jumps from chairs and tables and play stupid games and learn who they are in this world, and how do we get that Stone Age baby to become modern, polymodern, post-modern, adult with a meaningful life, and what should be the structures around that life so that everybody could find a place in their society where they say, “Oh, I do this really, really interesting thing for a living, and the individual parts may not be that interesting, but I can tell what a difference it makes.”
Or, “I do this really, really interesting thing. It’s not very useful for society, but I find it deeply interesting and I do it out of love and then I live of, I don’t know, what I can grow in my backyard.” So we need to look at… I mean now we have the opportunity, we have the technologies, we have the resources, we even have the understanding of the human mind. So we could actually create a future where everybody can live a lot of their time in that sweet spot of, “Hey, this is interesting and not too boring.” And there’s something interesting about learning and that sense or that process of growing as a human being. Did you join the army?
Lene: So anyway, but a lot of men have done that. And while they were there, they hated it. And then afterwards they loved it. So what happened? Well, somebody made them grow, and while they were there, they were really pushed to their limit and they were pushed to their limit constantly, and they were pushed socially, cognitively, intellectually, emotionally, physically. And at the end of the, I don’t know, 3, 6, 12 months, whatever, they had, if not changed, but they had suddenly realized that, “I can do so much more than I thought I could.” And then they look back and then they realized that, “Wow, I entered this military as an 18-year-old dumbass, and now I’m a man.” And then they love it. And what happens is that as you learn something, whatever it is, there are new connections in your brain being made. And if you learn something that you realize that this was really useful, “I became a different person, a better person. I can do more than I could before,” something actually changed parts of your brain.
And that will always be with you until you learn something else, and you’ll end up loving somebody else for pushing you to the limit in a way that you learn stuff. So we actually end up loving the people who make us grow. You can also be traumatized by too much pushing and too many demands that you cannot live up to. So it can also be traumatizing if it’s all too complex or hard, which is unfortunately the experience that a lot of kids and adults have in the formal educational system. But if you have a teacher who understands you and sees you and you feel seen and understood, and they give you exactly the assignments and challenges that hit that sweet spot, you will love your teacher for the rest of your life. I bet you have a teacher that saw you and you think back at this teacher with fond memories and say, “Yeah, this teacher, really, I learned something.”
Jim: All right, well let’s wrap it there on that optimistic thought of the fact that one of the essences of being human is engaging in learning. I’ve learned so much in the last year about AI, writing AI code to talk to the LLMs, and I’ve learned actually how to write better from watching how they write and all this stuff. So I’m a huge believer in learning, and you’re absolutely right. Some of the most important people in my life were four or five really excellent teachers that I had that challenged you at the right level of difficulty. If it’s too hard, you’re just lost. If it’s too easy, it’s boring.
Which by the way, I also dabble in game design. I’ve done a couple of games. One of them has been published called Network Wars, and you want the challenge to be stretching, but not breaking, is essentially the art of game design and education. So I want to thank Lene Rachel Andersen for yet another very interesting podcast here on the Jim Rutt Show. Take a look at her Polymodernity: Meaning and Hope in a Complex World, a new edition of the Nordic Secret. So thank you Lene Rachel for coming on the Jim Rutt Show.
Lene: Thank you for inviting me.
Jim: It was fun.