Inspired by “Psycho-Politics with RaymondKHessel” on Mutually Assured Conversation (w/ Samuel Barnes)
Metaskills, Indirectness, and Power
Where metaskills are missing, indirectness is unaddressed, and power unchallenged. In other words, if we’re never “meta,” we’re always living in a lightning storm, and it’s probably only a matter of time before we’re struck.
“Metaskill” is an umbrella term referring to metatalks, metanalysis, the ability to resist metamentality, and the like, and this short work will argue that we need to become metaskillfull to resist and channel power, especially in our Metamodern Age. To focus on one example of a metaskill, for example: a “metatalk” is a conversation about conversation, which is an analysis of the structure in which a conversation develops, the ways interpretation operates, and so on. To borrow from the reflection on the topic:
A metatalk is when we talk about the mechanisms of talking, thinking, relationships, and the like. It’s not just any talking, but a particular kind of talking in which we try to figure how and why all parties interpret things the way they do, why they feel a certain way, and what they think we’re saying when they say this or that (countless more examples could be made).
Our “Metamodern Age” is full of “meta-talk” on the need for metanalysis — analysis on the way we do analysis, which leads to metanalysis of metanalysis — on and on. There are discussions on how we do discussions, political debates on how we do politics, economic studies on the impact of economic studies on economic development — I could go on. And I think all this is a good thing (though it does risk what Kierkegaard called “the infinite absolute negation,” borrowing from Hegel), because where there are no meta-dimensions, we can only discuss what is “direct,” in “the foreground,” and the like, but life also entails “the indirect” and “the background,” and if we never discuss those, a very large portion of life will be left unaddressed.
Now, though “metanalysis” can be good, we also run the risk of being “metamental” (in our “Dismodern Age”), which means we’re forever stuck thinking about what other people might be thinking, what they think we might be thinking, what they think we might think they’re thinking about us — weird and paradoxical stuff. This is a different topic for a different time, explored in “Metamodernity and the Dismodern Self” by O.G. Rose, but the point is that there is a way to use “meta” for good and a way to use it for bad. All the same, if we want to avoid being controlled by “power” in unconscious and problematic ways, “meta” will prove necessary.
When I’m talking to someone about the weather, a question can be asked: “Why is that guy talking about the weather?” As soon as we ask this question, we are now “meta” and trying to determine what “asking about the weather” means, hides, and/or suggests. Perhaps I’m trying to avoid discussing my finances, the war I’m anxious about — there are numerous possibilities. However, none of those possibilities “are on the face” of questions about the weather; nowhere in the letters can someone hear, “He’s avoiding something.” Cardinal Newman taught that words don’t tell us what they mean (a line I love), and likewise words, acts, and the like “don’t tell us what’s behind them,” which is to say “things don’t tell us their meta-dimension.” That requires thinking and investigation.
What is “meta” is indirect, which is to say that mastering “meta” is mastering the art of indirectness. If life was only surface, this skill would not be needed, but because there is a distinction between “appearance” and “reality” (or maybe just “layers”), “meta” matters. To master “meta-skills,” we have to know how to ask questions about conversation itself, not just talk through conversation; we have to ask about thinking, not just create ideas through thinking. In a way, we could say the “meta” is looking at things that are normally “invisible,” not because they are literally “invisible,” but because we work, think, talk, and live through them. They’re like Heidegger’s doorknob (which I constantly reference), a thing we rarely if ever notice before it breaks and forces us to notice it. To be skilled in “meta” is to be able to see the “invisible,” to remember to think about what we naturally forget about and ignore. It is a skill of awareness in the ways we tend to be unaware.
What does this matter? Well, because where “meta” is lacking, power will prove all-encompassing. Power is the ability to control without force. It is “indirect” and subtle. Yes, I realize that “power” and “force” are often used as similes, but I think that is mistake. And I’m aware of the phrase “soft power,” which is closer to what I mean, but I think it’s important to see force as pushing someone into a room, while power is the ability to look at someone and have them walk into the room. Force and power often overlap, yes, and perhaps the person only walks into the room upon seeing my stare because they know from experience that I throw people in jail who challenge me, but all the same, in that act, power is more at play than force. Power is the ability to tell someone to do x, and x be done, while force is to hold up a gun and tell a person to do x. Yes, I am both giving a command (power) and using a gun (force), but the later is more “forceful” than “powerful.” Despite the constant overlap, this distinction is important, because it helps clarify why “meta” is so important.
In a funny way, power cannot be opposed: it’s either present or not. Force can be opposed, for if someone pushes me, I can push back, but if a person tells me to do x, I either do it or don’t. If power is present, power works, while force can be more readily challenged. If a person tells me to do x and I know x is stupid, and yet I proceed to do it anyway, in this example, the person must also have “force” at their backing (perhaps they can take away my allowance, penalize me on my taxes, etc.). Power works. If it doesn’t, it’s not power.
Power is nonphysical, while force is physical. But it should be noted that power isn’t always bad: if I argue y and convince you of y, and y is indeed true, I have used power to help you. If I glance at people and they cut apart a tree that has fallen onto a house, I have used power to improve a situation. Again, power isn’t always bad, and power can be used for good. However, the less we understand the nature of power and how it operates, the lower the chance we will use it well.
Power operates in “the background,” while force operates in “the foreground.” If I push you into a room, everyone can see me pushing you, but if I glance at you and you walk in, “the reason” you respond to my glance this way is because of some “background” we share that will not prove readily visible or “present” in the situation. If I have an army at my disposal, that army will probably not be in the room with us; if you’re my employee, there might not be any signs that you work for me; if you’re in trouble for something you said that morning, that scene is locked away in the past. Why I have power is not evident or “visible,” and yet it is very “present” to you in its very “lack” (as described in “Why Lacks Are Not Nothing” by O.G. Rose). “Lacks,” or “present absences” are only addressable on “meta”-terms, for they are not “given to us” by the “visible” situation itself. If power deals with “lacks” (and “the background” is always “lacking” from “the foreground”), then power is addressed through “meta.”
If I am incapable of understanding or articulating why I feel obligated to do something when a person glances at me x way, then I will be like a puppet on a string, at the mercy of glances. If I never figure out that when my wife talks about the weather she is having a bad day, my failure to pick up on this may result in her being angry, which could emotionally wreck me for the rest of the week, and hence a “power” will be hanging over me. If I don’t have a sense of how the government could discuss a foreign war to make me angry and vote y way, then my government will easily ruin my life.
I don’t need “meta” to push back against someone, but I do need “meta” to identify how a person can talk about the weather to make me obligated to purchase a new umbrella. A cute and trite example, yes, but it works just as well on a national, corporate, and governmental scale, where the consequences could be dire. Where “meta”-dimensions are not appreciated, power will be present — power is everywhere: in relationships, between friends, in States, etc. — but there will be no capacity to control it. The expressions of power will be underappreciated, “invisible,” and mismanaged, which means people will get hurt. Spouses will feel smothered and not know they are smothering; populations will be primed against one another politically and not know why tribalism is rampant; corporations will subconsciously influence us to buy products which destroy the environment corporations need to exist; and so on. Power will influence, and power will run through the world, but the world will not understand the power, and the power will be like lightening: striking here, killing there — all randomly and without warning.
If we do not emphasize the need for “meta-skills,” since we are “always already” in “a lightening storm” of power, it is only probable we will struck by lightening over enough time. Relationships are where this happens most often, I think, and lightening really hurts. However, if we learn “meta-skills,” since power can be used for good, we might be able to channel and direct power to good ends. Marriages can be the best things and the worst things: if we’re capable of “meta-talks,” the chances of marriages being wonderful are must higher, for we will be able to use power to empower. This is the wonder of “meta-skills”: power can become empowering. However, without “meta,” raw power is what we will face.
Love, influence, friendship — all of these involve power-dynamics, but that is not necessarily a bad. “Force” is perhaps more often bad than not, though not necessarily if I force you out of a car on the verge of exploding — even that has to be complexified. Mainly, the power is that we need to focus less on “the presence or absence of power,” which doesn’t tell us much, and instead focus more on “the presence or absence of meta,” which enables us to handle and channel power. Power is a part of life, and though we should certainly “tell truth to power” and avoid corporate manipulation (for example), the likelihood this effort will be sustained is much less if we lack “meta-skills.” If a demon is removed but nothing good replaces it, as Jesus teaches, seven more may come to fill the hole. So it goes with removing power where “meta” is lacking: “doing the right thing” may ultimately just make way for a more terrible storm.
History seems to be a gradual movement from “force” to “power,” suggesting that even if Dr. Steven Pinker is right about the decline of violence, it doesn’t follow that there hasn’t been an increase in “power,” which could be worse in some ways, given its possible psychological and existential torture. As technology has advanced, the costs of war increased, the likelihood of a video ending up online, etc. “force” becomes increasingly less of an option, and thus there is a movement toward “power.” This has lead to “psycho-politics,” as discussed by Raymond K. Hessel, and the situation has also perhaps been made worse by the decline of “givens” (as discussed throughout Belonging Again), for “givens” helped us “thoughtlessly” channel (our) power in directions determined by those “givens.” If a society was Christian, for example, then the society “thoughtlessly” directed its power toward realizing Christian ends; now that the society isn’t so bound by “givens,” it can use its power however it wants (“thoughtfulness,” and thus existentially), which though in one way is good, in another way can contribute to power being expressed randomly and unsystematically, contributing to “the lightning storm” described earlier. Powers can also come in conflict, leading to “psycho-warfare” (and who knows what else), in the middle of which we can find ourselves trapped and mentally torn asunder.
To close, I’d like to emphasize a clarification inspired by Samuel Barnes, which is that this paper has not meant to suggest that metaskills are inherently good, for “the directing of power” is “meta” and thus a “metaskill,” and that metaskill is easily used by corporations, politicians, and the like to control us (without us even realizing it). A reason we need to develop metaskills is precisely so that we can “self-defend” ourselves against metaskills. Yes, this paper has emphasized situations where everyone lacks metaskill, say in a relationship, which results in us ending up in a “lightning storm,” but there are also situations where metaskills are intentionally used to manipulate and control. All the same, whether to avoid “lightning” or manipulation, the need for metaskill is present. Can everyone develop metaskill? Only God knows, but I think it’s worth it for everyone to try.
Metamodernity is an age of psycho-everything it seems (to allude to Raymond again), which means it is an age of incredibly strong and pervasive power. In this environment, lacking metaskill is increasingly dangerous. No, power cannot stab us with a knife, like force, but power can motivate us to commit suicide. The hand of force loops a noose around our neck, while the hand of power is our own. Looking over our world today, has there ever been an age of so much power?
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