Pi Columnist Billy Allen looks at ‘postmodern’ culture and argues for a middle-ground to take us away from bleak nihilism
At the beginning of the new year, I discussed the altogether human tendency to dichotomise. I was concerned, chiefly, with the recent collective inclination to criticize everyone and everything: a neurotic habit shown in an uninspiring revelation of a sort of “endism”, where the better of those among us are increasingly enmeshed by the forces of radicalism, injustice, and so on. All this, I concluded – and maintain – was a case of ideas and actions blown way out of proportion, but something we could mollify by rekindling optimism and moderating our judgement.
But to leave the issue there, aloof and wishful, is, I think, to under-appreciate what all these perceived trends represent. There is more to discuss in all this than criticisms of misshapen political ideologies or populist fervour – there are fundamental characteristics of our modern culture at work which organise our sentiments at a high level.
Broadly, it is an issue of philosophy, and has been evolving for some time. In several ways it emerges out of what has been called ‘postmodernism’, although that term is considered somewhat dated within the academic community; this was a corpus of literary-based ideas following the French philosophers, among them Foucault and Derrida. These philosophers deconstructed society in such a way as to shift our perceptions away from the ideas of Reason and the Enlightenment, and towards a phenomenology
of complete subjectivity.
Yet in this modern iteration, subjectivity does not enforce an individual’s agency, but rather subsumes it under functions of power in society, whether biologically inherent or just extant in a casual sense. These ideas of ‘deconstructivism’ have aggregated into the
consciousness of many, but particularly the intelligentsia, who testify that most if not all of our thought and action connotes a systemic power-relationship, or, at least, some unresolved nihilistic dilemma.
It is not in itself a fatalistic problem – for instance, I do not for moment subscribe to its inevitability: that it cannot be changed, that it is somehow empirical and absolutely biological. No, that is not the point at all. We operate within social systems which are constantly shifting and evolving; we have entered into this current state of affairs, and we shall see our way out. Yet, sometimes, history has shown that the evolutionary process has not moved fast enough for the likes of those who suffer beneath the mettle of a stagnating though prideful society – and so revolution, and so rebellion, war, and things of this disruptive and violent sort.
Now, in the case of radical postmodernism, the polarity, the divide, in other words, between what we’ve got and what we want, is inverted. The complaint is not that our social systems are transitioning too slowly, it is not, as Marx would have decried, that the oppressor’s oppressing tarries, and, resultingly, lays low in chains the lot of humanity. It is quite the opposite. The chains, instead, have been loosed too far. Societally, we have expanded our collective philosophies outward that our basic grip on a whole host of rational beliefs have been thrown unceremoniously to the Humean flames. It is all too much, all too fast, and it no wonder that many should feel fragmented and lost by attempts to solve society, through these deconstructivist means by fairly taking it apart. And we would wisely not forget that it is not purely a case of identity, but of our laws, and our rights and liberties, as well.
When it comes to the heart of the matter, contemporary society under the postmodern frameworks is dealing with a loss of objectivity, and this has, as I have indicated, all number of destabilising consequences. Several are encountered daily: take an increasing shrugging-off of tradition and custom – Foucauldians would interpret these as functions of power into which we are duped.
As another familiar example, what of the tired matter of ‘political correctness’? If we are honest, this is etiologically an extension of tradition and protocol. Nevertheless, it has suffered from what one might call a process of ‘hyperisation’ at postmodernist hands: it is now closer to an ideology of multiculturalism where every opinion, culture and perspective commands equal value. Because, present thought argues, reality is lacking a teleology. In other words, its lacking structure and purpose, and we should not give assent to any voice who would fathom one.
it is a movement that represents an epoch of undoing – of untying our links to our Enlightened past.
This, consequently, indicates why matters of faith and spirituality often appear increasingly bankrupt today, since ‘belief’ cannot readily propagate among communities if it has no metaphysical basis – that is to say, we cannot believe in any meaningful way if there is no objective truth beyond the confines of our religion or our personal principles. Postmodernism teaches this – that there is no overarching answer, only independent communities with their own ‘ideas’. It is both perplexing and belittling to think that we should respect others’ values, and validate our own, not because they are worth anything, but because it breeds harmony and egalitarianism.
The worry, perhaps, is that this state of affairs will beget some form of collectivist dystopia. Yet we should have little fear of that. Indeed, we should be careful of losing a proportion of our own: the essentials of our society remain free, and such is the legacy of history to which we intend to contribute. What we are faced with now, and what I have attempted to outline is a movement that represents an epoch of undoing – of untying our links to our Enlightened past. It is presently characterised as a transition. And I must say, it is a culture that has not been entirely honest.
The only way, we presume, that the postmodernist mode of thinking achieves ground is through a constant reiteration of all the problems and flaws it perceives in an older order. Its final argument is verificationist: that we prove nothing, know nothing, beyond the scope of our own physicality. We are still, they purport, here, in this world, alive, and we act according to certain brute facts of our own biology. But matters of substance, of higher meaning, are illusory. There are, of course, some intermediate philosophies, of multiculturalism, of power, all of which result in the elimination of ‘value’ through a par system. If this is so, all our history is for naught – and what sillier thing could be spoken?
In an age when we are meant to be educating and informing across all ranks of society, there is ironically no greater insult to the notion of empowerment than to insist on extreme notions of subjectivity, to squander people in the dark corners of ignorance, disenfranchising them from their capacity to believe and to hope, and to know things in their faith. Notwithstanding I am optimistic; the postmodernist mission, indeed, is only semi-conscious, it is a collection of ideas organically transmitted.
It is not maliciously covert and undercover, and we do ourselves a disservice to return to such dichotomic terms: so let us close that sorry chapter and its constituents, of McCarthyites or wars on terror. My advice, instead, is only to encourage conviction, and ownership of one’s own identity. We should look backwards and forward, inheriting old traditions and developing new mechanisms. Progressiveness, truly, is not this unconditional subjectivism, but making headway through some
answers. Come, then, let us go and ‘stretch out our arms further, and then one fine morning– ’