by Mike Meyer ~ Honolulu ~ October 2019
We are now postmodern. Damn, we have to decide what that term really means. All those people who felt secure in mocking the craziness of ‘deconstructionism’, ‘postmodernism’, and ‘poststructuralism’ as the end of the social sciences back in the ‘90s and not worth further thought are being troubled by the reality of the eternal return.
What resulted was not a system or solution but a set of descriptions, tools, rhetorical devices, and concepts that dealt with destabilizing the older concepts of identity, historical progress, and certainty. These devices included repetition, difference, simulacrums, and hyper reality.
Back in the ’80s and ’90s these were purely academic debates and safely removed from real life. We now face the reality of destabilized concepts as objects constantly from diversity in identity to the replacement of truth. This is not academic anymore.
Understanding postmodern society is what we have to do everyday. Somehow it got real and we are struggling to find the mental tools to understand how everything went to hell.
The tools that we need were being worked out by a range of anthropologists, linguists, historians, and others over the last forty years. This is not a surprise and is what is supposed to happen as human society evolves in reaction to scientifically driven change and growing complexity. Sometimes it works.
The irony of the eternal return and virtual reality as endless, equally valid images is continuously challenged by alternative facts. Is authority really based in lies? The disintegration of our planet and human society by the artifice of capitalist hierarchical roles is now a hard political issue.
If everything is information and information is in constant flux how do we justify judges and rulers? How do we rank concepts that are in continuous change? We are asked to distinguish between news and fake news but under it we know that everything is another simulacrum. Does it make sense to accept a simulacrum as real? If not, what is it?
We are faced with a daily onslaught of failures and accelerating collapse of things that once worked but don’t now. For all the wealth of scientifically amazing changes and technological tools that have transformed human life other things that we have long assumed to be just the way things are, with confidence in how they work, are failing catastrophically.
While technology mostly works, sometimes amazingly, science is fundamental to our lives but is increasingly difficult to even grasp. And then it changes. Older hierarchical forms have long since been objectified as words tied to social transactions and arbitrary social roles.
At the same time the structure and nature of our societies with their political and economic systems are being torn apart by strange people shouting about going back to old ways that were not nice at all.
In fact those strange people don’t make much sense but what they say mesmerizes those who are most disrupted by all the changes. Racism, lies, and willful ignorance are suddenly ok with these people. These people have suddenly accepted that the old meanings are now fluid but have not accepted the responsibility to build outside the old structure. Deconstruction is a process prior to new structures or, more accurately, the absence of structures.
At the same time the groups and people who could be relied on to try to translate change into better ways for our societies to work are also struggling with all the changes. Their answers are also old and tattered as they exist as objects in an endless array of objects all of which may be virtual.
The tendency is to become depressed and consider everything as failed, failing, or about to fail. America with a disintegrating criminal regime, Great Britain with yet another power grabber dedicated to self destruction, and the burgeoning disasters planet wide would lead you to think so. The greatest of these is the destruction of our planetary climate as a consequence of the very nature of modernity with, endless, unquestioned exploitation and production.
By whatever means possible we now realize we have to become postmodern. If not, we face the classic descriptions of insanity by repeating the same destructive actions and expecting a new and positive outcome.
At the same time there is almost no understanding of the causes or direction of changes that we are experiencing. Our popular culture has been minimized to meme levels. More than three or four words in a row pushes the attention limits of the majority of people without direct incentives for their effort. And that may not even help.
This is not to say that people are failing to learn and apply that learning. It is just that they have not realized that the changes driving all of this are not temporary or superficial aberrations but fundamental changes in how we understand and define reality.
Through most of the history of postmodern thought the general definition of that thought has been popular nonsense. This was colored by reaction to the origins of postmodernism in the 1970s and 80s in the wake of cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s.
The origin of the term is the book, The Postmodern Condition by Jean-François Lyotard, in 1979. This developed in different ways in France and Italy with the dominant French themes being tied to structuralist anthropology in the 1950s. The French postmodernists became known as poststructuralists.
I stumbled into this as a graduate student in the 1970s and was heavily influenced by Claude Levi-Strauss, the founder of structuralist anthropology, and Michel Foucault who became a leading French poststructuralist. Lyotard’s book came out shortly after I left graduate school and moved into technology driven, paradigmatic change although I came to see my own work as postmodern if not directly part of postmodernism. That was ok as there was no real ‘there’ there.
Forty years ago it was and remained difficult to define postmodernism as it was primarily an attempt to describe what was showing signs of failure or was drastically changing in modern human societies. The original structuralist approach was an effort to describe and define the structure of human language as universal and underlying all language. This was also the origin of psycholinguistics as the structure of human language was, logically, tied to the patterns of human perception.
Levi-Strauss identified this as being fundamentally dyadic. In a primary work, The Raw and the Cooked, he analyzed North American Indian myths for dyadic concepts extending Ferdinand de Saussure’s earlier work on structural linguistics. This explains much of the difficulty with French postmodernism as it was heavily based in language, art, and mythology and so was often outside the tradition of philosophical rigor and well clear of science.
The broader result of this quest for structure underlying all language came to a negative conclusion. While there are repetitive elements in language and, clearly, in how people communicate, the expected structure is not an object but a subject of human attention. We struggle to make subjective things objective but they just don’t stick.
In the end we have to find the structure we have always assumed to exist in our own construction of it as an idea. For primates, who evolved with the ability to pick up a stick and beat sense into someone based on the certainty of our assumptions about ownership, this loss of structure, itself, requires evolutionary change. Our words as weapons are now much more tentative and require individual humility at their relative weakness.
This is now relevant as we move into the mid 21st century as the evolution of postmodernism gives a perspective on what is coming and the cause of the problems we face. Thirty years ago the end of the modern era was not identifiable to the great majority of people. There was no perspective from which to begin to critically judge modern culture except in the realm of art and literary criticism.
To make things more confused the literary version of this is the source of deconstructionism. This was also generally mocked outside the academic world of humanities and social sciences. Jacques Derrida initially defined deconstruction through the end of the 20th century. But this was generally seen as the plaything the of avant guard and pop artists.
Literary studies became entangled in understanding all the things that were not in the story. The world of the author dictates the rules of the world that author writes about even if this is not a subject of what is written. A literary creation is a simulacrum of life but that life is a simulacrum of social roles and hierarchies. How do they relate and is one more real than the other?
How does all of this fit together now? The key to all of this is the dyadic or binary as foundational to human thought. We think most naturally in terms of opposites. The Chinese described this nearly three thousand years ago as yin and yang, black and white, hot and cold, dark and light, or raw and cooked. How we define things is also based on cultural assumptions (explanations) and our preference, at any one time, for one or the other such assumption. We constantly choose the reality that we live.
All of this aims to destabilize existing assumptions and categories. The rise of the modern world, that is the modern scientific and capitalist world, destabilized medieval and classical worlds with entirely new categories and perspectives creating the Newtonian world of classical physics among many other things. This inspired representative government moving the justification for hierarchy from birth to a broader definition of citizenship and capitalist denial of value to anything but financial symbols.
The end of the modern world now means we are experiencing the destabilization of the cultures we think of as given. That destabilization has produced Donald Trump in the US, Brexit in Great Britain and pseudo-fascism in a variety of states. Under this lies a confused population that has enabled these disasters with their initial reaction being a rejection of the critique of the old norms. What was academic anticipation and a creative set of projects thirty years ago is now brutal reality.
That brutality exists only for those who reject the changes that have long sense become inevitable. Those changes require us to look at life as virtual with responsibility resting in each sentient being to work at detecting and accepting the changes between the old and the new and between ourselves and the other, whatever that may be.
The process of thinking and communicating about this is not simply analysis of a stable topic but totally dependent on the distinction between ourselves and another. The postmodern world is a great deal more work than the modern world.
The suppurating social and political wound caused by that portion of human society reacting to all these changes with their lurch into pseudo fascism and denial, is a violent allergic reaction to the this postmodern world. Our only choice is to evolve or succumb.