🌸 The Rise of the Homo Romanticus
On what yoga, fake news and meaning-seeking have to do with each other.
👋 Hi, Ed & Chris here. In the Atlas of the Long Now, we interpret our rapidly changing world. We do so with the historic-futuristic glasses of the long-term thinker and the toolbox of the speculative maker. For the here and now is a moment that spans centuries.
Today we devote some thoughts to the rise of the Homo Romanticus: the cultural archetype who wants nothing more than to coincide with himself, his community and his natural environment. He or she seeks emotional security above all else. Which, ideally, is found in one's personal and original relationship with the world and oneself.
The rise of the Homo Romanticus has good sides, but also seems linked to the increasingly subjective nature of our public domain.
Indeed, sometimes the Homo Romanticus wants nothing more than to bend rigid objective reality and wrap it around himself like a soft, warm blanket. After all, sometimes an alternative fact is nicer than an emotionally challenging fact. So this week, some thoughts on the cognitive dissonance of the Homo Romanticus
And, our fellowship at Pakhuis de Zwijger has begun. Last Monday we explored the past and future of our public trust. You can watch it here 👇.
In addition, Pakhuis de Zwijger has also recorded a fun podcast with us talking about the Long Now, how future thinking works and how trust changed over the past 1000 years, and why we need new Architectures of Trust now.
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The Rise of the Homo Romanticus
Last week we discussed A Culture of Fact. In this book, historian Barbara J. Shapiro describes how English culture became increasingly objective in the Early Modern Era. Through jury trials, ordinary people learned to think in fact, evidence, alibis, testimony and motives. The subjective learned to distrust.
As we described earlier in the essay Building Trust in the Electric Age this pursuit of objectivity was secured by "the professional". This was accompanied by a work ethic that encouraged knowledge workers to leave their subjectivity at home and do only what the job required of them, regardless of self-interest or what they thought of it themselves. The ideal professional was just a cog in the machine.
In her book, for example, Shapiro describes how the writers of news reports and travel books in the 17th century were held to high standards by their readers. If they were too biased or if they described events they had learned about second-hand, they were accused of writing fiction.
This objectification of reality was closely intertwined with the rapid rise of printers, publishers and authors after the invention of printing in the mid-15th century. Urbanising Europe thus gained a new view of the world. And the objective professional supported this view with an architecture of confidence.
With the transition from the printed word to the activated word, we must look for a new architecture of trust. Because trust in professionalism and the institutions based on this work ethic are waning. They are no match for the deluge of information that the Internet continually throws at us.
We need to build a robust digital system that on the one hand safeguards our public values and on the other hand raises and strengthens the level of objectivity within the public domain
But this is only part of the solution, because it is more than just a technical problem. Another cause of decreased trust is the rise of the Homo Romanticus.
The Homo Romanticus is a cultural archetype that surfaced in European consciousness in the mid-18th century. He stands alongside the Homo Nobilis and Homo Economicus in our thinking.
We have named the Homo Romanticus after Romanticism, a movement in Western Modernity that asserted itself especially in the arts and intellectual life in the late 18th century and into the 19th century. During Romanticism, subjective experience was the starting point. Introspection, originality, intuition, emotion, spontaneity and imagination were central. Romanticism was therefore a counter-reaction to the rationalisation, industrialisation and objectification of Modern Western society.
The word Romanticism is derived from Medieval romances; epic and lyrical poems about imperfect men pursuing perfection.
The Homo Romanticus long stood in the shadow of the objective Homo Economicus, the dominant archetype of Western Modernity. While the Homo Romanticus asserted himself in the world of intellectuals, scientists, artists and freedom fighters, the rest of the population had better things to do than worry about their emotional security.
After World War II, this changed. The Homo Romanticus rose to the surface of the popular imagination. With increasing prosperity, public education and the rise of electronic media, young people suddenly had the time and space to concern themselves with the meaning of life and derivative moral issues. This led to, among other things, the civil rights movement and the many youth subcultures of the 1960s.
As more and more people could enjoy a middle-class lifestyle, demand grew for self-help products, paranormal services and a myriad of Eastern philosophies, religions, healing methods and martial arts. Indeed, the emerging Homo Romanticus seeks some sort of emotional footing. For a lifeline the increasingly complex world. For humanity in a high-tech society.
The Homo Romanticus may often and gladly rail against the soulless Homo Economicus and the objectivist professionalism on which this archetype depends. But in the search for his subjective anchors, the Homo Romanticus sometimes forgets that his prosperity and well-being also depend on objective structures. After all, clean water from the tap is not a natural phenomenon.
It is the challenge of the Homo Romanticus to reconcile individual and subjective experience with the objective reality we collectively inhabit. A democratic society with a complex knowledge economy is simply not compatible with a self-absorbed Homo Romanticus. The Homo Romanticus must train himself in a dualistic view of man and the world.
Where the Homo Nobilis projected his subjective inner world onto the objective outer world (which made the outer world unworkable), the Homo Economicus projected the objective outer world onto his subjective inner world (which in turn made the inner world unworkable). It is up to the Homo Romanticus to reconcile these two views.
That this is a difficult task for many people is evidenced by the large overlap between people who are receptive to conspiracy theories and those working in the wellness industry. Or, in other words: There are a lot of yogis among Trump supporters and QAnon adherents.
After the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 02021, articles appeared with titles like "QAnon's Unexpected Roots in New Age Spirituality"(Washington Post), "Does yoga have a conspiracy problem" (BBC), "The wellness world's conspiracy problem is linked to orientalism" (VOX) and "Meet the police chief turned yoga instructor prodding wealthy suburbanites to civil war" (Washington Post)
For example, the BBC article begins with the following sentences:
'Throughout her career as a yoga teacher, Seane Corn has been used to hearing students and colleagues rail against mainstream medicine. She even shares some of their concerns.
But when the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020, Seane noticed a change.
'I started to get text messages and emails inviting me to speak on panels or listen to leaders talking about anti-vaccination - but within that, there was this rhetoric about Covid being a hoax,' she told the BBC.
'They would then start to send me information about Big Pharma, which then led into information related to Bill Gates, then to sex trafficking,' Ms. Corn says.
What begins with a skeptical attitude towards Western medical science, and perhaps with a genuine curiosity about other medical traditions, often ends in a cul-de-sac of inimitable conspiracy thoughts.
This can be partly explained by how the public domain has been fragmented by all manner of social media companies whose algorithms present people with ever more spectacle and outrage. This puts them in filter bubbles that feed their cognitive dissonance.(Cognitive dissonance is the tension a person experiences when confronted with facts that are inconsistent with their own beliefs.)
But thus, in addition to the non-functioning public domain, we also have to deal with the Homo Romanticus who feels lost, and is desperately seeking. This meaning-seeking man has an almost occidentalist aversion to Western civilization. (Occidentalism is a term coined by British-Dutch sinologist Ian Buruma and Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit. According to them, occidentalism is characterised by an aversion to Western civilisation. It is too materialistic, too frivolous and too individualistic)
Now there is an awful lot to dislike about Western Modernity, and there are many examples of the absolute horror it has produced. There is also a great deal of good to be said about all sorts of brilliant non-Western traditions of knowledge. And the exploration of one's own subjectivity can be absolutely interesting and meaningful.
But throwing the baby out with the bathwater is never a good idea. (The child in this case is objective and systematic thinking.)
Society's challenge, then, is twofold:
On the one hand, the digital domain must be propped up with a robust digital architecture of trust. On the other hand, society must teach the Homo Romanticus within all of us that the recognition and exploration of one's own subjectivity should not erase the recognition and exploration of a shared objectivity.
Indeed, the future of Homo Romanticus is either dualistic, or we risk an imminent "regression" to the times of Homo Nobilis.
Love ❤️ Ed & Chris