Jun 29th, 2021
‘Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough’, said Archimedes, ‘and I will move the world’.
This widely quoted line from Antiquity remains evocative today because the quest to ground our agency in axioms goes on. We all prefer to know what we are doing and why, but it’s not easy to find a stable vantage point.
The world is the same size as it was back then 2300 years ago, but it has become both bigger and smaller. It’s bigger because we are about eight billion people and influences on our daily experience stem from far beyond the location of our bodies. And yet it’s smaller because we now know our planet as a dot in the vast reaches of space and we can traverse that dot on a plane in just over a day.
In this big and small world, wicked problems at scale like COVID-19 and Climate collapse can feel unreasonably confounding because they are at once remote and intimate. The sense that many of things that shape our lives are outside of our control is not new, but it is all the more vexing in the information age for being tantalisingly just beyond what and how we know.
As events unfold, many have become acutely aware of the relationship between, for instance, ecology, economy and epidemiology, because those relationships directly impact our lives.
Should I realise my dream of living in a house by the sea when Scientists suggest the coastal village may not be intact in 2050? What if lockdown ends too late for my business and too early for my neighbour’s health? The challenge is not that such conundrums are merely complex, but that they are often essentially contested or sometimes even beyond intellectual comprehension, regardless of whether experts are involved.
This context is one reason we have described the offer of Perspectiva Press as ‘soul food for expert generalists’. The idea of an expert generalist is a paradox, but not an oxymoron. In theory, our very best philosophers, civil servants, political leaders, and writers are expert generalists. Their defining skill is inclusive synthesis and their defining qualities are epistemic acumen and agility. They blend knowhow with knowledge, having enough expertise in one domain to value different forms of understanding. And they know how to integrate these forms, while retaining curiosity towards whatever remains unfamiliar.
Such soul food is called for because we seek to recapture and reenchant the discourse about what it means to be human in this moment when we expect too much of our minds, and in an era where life is increasingly shaped by technological forces beyond our control.
Perspectiva Press will therefore specialise in books that help to:
The Perception of Context (and what follows)
Our confounding context is also why one of our first books is an anthology on metamodernism. Metamodernism is a theoretical perspective on our culture writ large and what to do about it, and is described by me in the book’s preface as ‘the perception of context’.
Attending to our perception of context matters acutely for many reasons, not least to think more productively. As Elon Musk put it recently: ‘Fear is not the mind-killer. Context-switching is the mind-killer’. One antidote to context-switching is to see connections between contexts more clearly. This involves investing time in grasping our larger context as clearly as possible, which is what our new anthology tries to do. I describe this attempt as follows:
‘I believe the point of invoking metamodernity is not to insist on this name for a chronological phase of time but to resolve to characterise a cultural epoch with a Kairological quality of time. What this approach discloses is not just that it’s simply the early 21st century but that it’s in some meaningful sense the time, more precisely perhaps our time, to look within, between and beyond.
It is time to reappraise our inner lives and relationships by grappling with the apparent spiritual and material exhaustion of what has passed as normal and normative for a little too long: the presumed progress of science, reason, bureaucracy and industrial capitalism, the limitations of perspective and the failure of critique.
We are now obliged to create meaning and fashion agency within the context of meta-crises of perception and understanding relating to ecological, social and institutional breakdown. One world seems to be dying, and another is trying to be born…
To be metamodern is to be caught up in the co-arising of great polarities. Hope and despair, credulity and incredulity, progress and peril, agency and apathy, life and death. I had mixed feelings about metamodernism – until I realised it is about mixed feelings.’
These mixed feelings stem from our increasing emotional sensitivity to the dynamics of our world systems. This is not just of theoretical importance. It directly shapes our awareness of the breakdown between cause and effect – a breakdown our increasingly shaky political mandates must disavow.
Politicians like to show efficacy through the levers they pull. But in an interconnected world of multiple state and commercial actors, ‘pulling a lever’ – for instance through monetary policy or by going to war – is more likely than not to create unintended and undesirable consequences.
This breakdown in the relationship between cause and effect and the difficulty in connecting how we understand the world with how we act in it means we have to work harder to find our ‘place to stand’.
In this algorithmic society, our attention is distracted by design, our viewpoints polarised on purpose. Political hope nowadays lies in speaking truth to power from a place that confers legitimacy and authority. That means forging our own sense of truth and power – one that is undeceived about what truth and power mean in a digitally meditated world.
How might we do that? Four of our new books answer the question in different ways. Each is about finding a place to stand. A place aware of the relationship between systems, souls and society. That is, between the world as it is in itself, the world as we experience it individually and the world as we create it together.
Hanno Burmeister is a German business and political consultant who locates his understanding of the world in the intense personal experience of coming out as a gay man, while being caught in the shadow of his country’s political history, as a grandchild of the Nazi era.
That experience taught him about our need to contend with cultural conditioning and inherited ideologies – and this as a necessary precursor to finding a place from which to try to rebuild society.
His book Unlearn builds on this premise. It offers a sustained reflection on the difference between widespread calls for ‘change’ and the need for transformation and the personal challenge it entails.
Our cultural imperative is to unlearn some of the driving forces of the context in which calls for ‘change’ arise, including many unheeded sources of inertia. The aim is to change the way things change.
Some of what we need to unlearn is particular prevailing ideas, but we also need to unlearn our attachment to ideas in general. Liam Kavanagh’s Collective Wisdom in the West holds that Western society is deeply attached to Enlightenment ideas of rationality, individualism and equality; ideas we can no longer properly see, because we see with them and through them.
Liam is cognitive scientist trained in the Buddhist tradition. For him, finding a place to stand is about prioritising practice-based approaches to understanding as a premise for deeper and more deliberate engagement with the world, or what he calls ‘contemplative activism’.
In recent years, for instance through Daniel Kahneman’s work and the ‘nudge’ thinking of Behavioural Economics more generally, we have heard a great deal about ‘slow deliberation’ and ‘fast intuition’. This book points towards a neglected and timely perspective grounded in slow intuition – a valuable perspective on the world that currently lacks political capital.
And what might it mean more generally to build political capital? Psycho-social therapist, journalist and political advisor Indra Adnan answers this question in The Politics of Waking Up. She calls upon her memories of Indonesia and recent efforts to contend with Brexit and Climate Change to search for the basis of ‘a new politics’, finding her own place to stand.
If we cannot place our faith in politics as we know it, if merely hoping for a different party to be elected does not fill you with confidence, what follows? Adnan suggests pathways to intelligent people power and mass participation, grounded in meeting people where they are and noticing the patterns across different levels of political expression; across the levels of ‘I’, ‘We’ and ‘World’, or what Adnan calls ‘Fractal Politics’.
There is so much heat and noise around about what is ‘woke’ today, but this book takes the idea of waking up at scale seriously, and clarifies what it actually means.
Last, but no means least, Anthea Lawson’s The Entangled Activist explores frankly what it means to be an activist today. The world appears to need activism more than ever, and yet the practice feeds burnout and rarely succeeds at the scale it seeks to affect.
Based on her extensive experience and reflection on activism, including a recent night in a police cell after being arrested for role in an XR protest, Anthea asks what happens when you realise that the attitude of ‘getting the bastards’ can only take you so far.
Is there a way to do activism that is not about bringing down villains and being the saviour of victims? If so, what kind of psychological work is required to get there? How might activists find their place to stand – one that’s wise to the risks of psychological projection, and to their own entanglement in the problems they seek to address? And yet still, nonetheless, demonstrate that their activism is worth exerting?
The Civilisation Business
Taken together these books offer readers new places to stand. Perspectiva Press’s first batch of books offer a deep appreciation for metamodernism as a perception of context. They display a newfound awareness for the need not merely to learn but to unlearn. They conduct a clear examination of how the shadows of the enlightenment live on with us in our unexamined ideas and how to relate to them better. They show how to forge a viable politics at scale as the world wakes up; and how to be a wiser activist, at a time when activism is demanded of us.
These books are part of Perspectiva’s contribution to public education, in particular towards helping to answer prevailing questions like: What’s going on? What might be next? What should we do? What, therefore, should I do?
And why books as such? It is unusual for a charity like Perspectiva to become a publisher, even a small one. However, we value books as dignified cultural artefacts with their own kind of analogue power. We believe ideas travel further and connect more deeply when they are rooted in the mandate of a publication designed to last for years, not merely moments.
We also saw a gap in the market for books that specialise in the kinds of integrative and imaginative sensibilities that speak to the challenges of our time. My own agent Toby Mundy once argued for the value of books as irreplaceable sources of thick description, and I agreed with him.
‘We’re in the civilisation business’, Toby said. As a non-profit, all our revenue is reinvested in the charity, but a time when civilisation may need saving from itself, the civilisation business is a good one to be in.
All books can be purchased via this website.
This post is also published on the Emerge website.
Jonathan Rowson is a writer, philosopher and chess Grandmaster who was British Chess Champion from 2004-2006. He holds degrees from Oxford, Bristol, and Harvard, was the former director of the Social Brain Center at the RSA, and an Open Society Fellow. He is co-founder and director of Perspectiva, a research institute that examines the relationships between complex global challenges and the inner lives of human beings. His latest book is The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life. Find out more here.
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