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Postmodernism & The Manslaughter of Truth

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

I had a spirited discussion with my friends about the relevance of postmodernism during a trip to Pondicherry. Under the tropical overcast evening sky, on the balcony of our Airbnb, I got accused of being a contrarian (or maybe it was while on our walk back from dinner). Why? Because I was dissing grand narratives and ideologies. Tools everyone uses for 'intellectual discourse', as I myself was using ironically in the very act of dissing them. Picking the postmodern perspective inevitably invites ridicule. It appears like you do not stand for anything. I have seen postmodernism attacked before; by "hard" science students in undergrad., by a smug school teacher calling himself a "humble naïve positivist", and ofc all over the internet by people who think the humanities and social sciences are superfluous because a rock is a rock is a rock.

But, have you seen the world of culture wars lately? Digital disinformation and the war on “truth”? Or perhaps you have heard people generally lamenting a decline in moral values and the rise of cynical corrupt post-truth politics? Fake and biased news in India's traditional and digital media (private WhatsApp or Facebook groups) was a hot topic for media coverage in the late 2010s, and while it still does make the news, it is very much normalized. 100%. Ofc, since 2016, the West (specifically the US) has been reeling with the idea of a post-truth reality. For academic authority, Steve Fuller's Post Truth Politics: Knowledge as a Power Game (2019) articulates in academic detail how mis-and dis-information wedlocked itself to Western media, politics, and culture. Sinha, Shaikh & Siddharth's India Misinformed: The True Story (2019) can be viewed as an equivalent study of the Indian scenario, although it's more a journalistic compilation of articles from the Alt News platform.

Postmodernism really spoils us, go find your brethren people

Anyway. There appears to be a general acceptance of doom in the world. Politics is dismissed as dirty, as a lost cause corrupted beyond salvation. Culture wars are fought like a zero-sum game - whether it be liberals vs conservatives in India, the States, or cyberspace. In polarized dialogues, both sides often employ a discourse - that their rivals are disingenuous using misinformation, fake news, or that they have some pure malicious intent. There's bad faith and flippant dismissal of one's opps. all around. Deep down, it’s just insecurity and uncertainty about values and morality; exasperation about your ideological rivals not seeing the “obvious” truth, and exhaustion from trying to demonstrate your objective point of view. The role of minorities in a country, whether there should be a homogenous unified culture, whether gendered pronouns are going too far, should people's mental health be mollycoddled, or should they be forced to toughen up? Should there be one unified national language? People's opinions are fractalized, there is no hegemonic position only overlapping battles. For each side, it would appear the fact that their side is not considered the obvious absolute side is frustrating.

We are sandwiched between (our) value systems, a modernist "Whig" interpretation of history, and the pluralistic reality of how different people evaluate truth and meaning. The thing about Whig history is - it's seductive to think "now's our time", that everything leading up to anything has been leading up to this very moment. Everyone wants to cross the Rubicon (for the uninitiated that was Cesar's make-or-break moment). To be clear - Whig history is a historiographic approach that holds history to be a linear journey from a dark oppressive past to a marvelous present, to perhaps a triumphant future. The genealogy of such a starry-eyed innocent school of thought? Some of history's vainest and haughtiest thinkers from Imperial Victorian Britain - Thomas Macaulay, William Stubbs, and Robert Herbert Quick. For, Whig history is intricately tied to the development of imperialism, industrial capitalism, and the liberal emancipation of people, their socio-political rights, the ideas of self-determination, and the nation-state. Now, what’s historiography, or at the individual level a person’s worldview, got to do with postmodernism? Everything.

Defining the Concept that Dislikes being Defined:

To define "postmodernism", we ought to examine modernism first. Which itself is hard to pin down because within it were a lot of divergent movements. Under modernism was a deluge of artistic and philosophical traditions dating as far back as the 19th century, peaking in the first half of the 20th. Movements like impressionism, abstract expressionism, Dadaism, absurdism, stream of consciousness literature, blase, blase as the various artistic/cultural movements within modernity. You had grand theories of psychology as attempted by Freud and the psychoanalysts, and grand theories of society as espoused by Marxists and Fascists. Nationalism was fever pitch everywhere. Modernism, even when critical of things, took a know-it-all, confident attitude towards life and physical reality. Everybody took themselves very seriously. It was the attitude birthed in the West by the machinations of the previous two centuries – enlightenment and imperialism. Whig history was the natural choice of the modernist.

Circumstances change and zeitgeists mutate with time. For a period, the optimistic core that enlightened reason bettering society as the present progressed to the future was negotiated, tweaked, and preserved. The First World War landed the first blow to the soaring feeling of good faith throughout the world – it appeared that instruments of reason and science were also those of murder and massacre. The Great Depression hit. Then round two of the World War. But it seemed like the worst was over; the post-war boom time was back for the West. Life was about choosing the right ideas, values, and thus ideology, doubling down, and winning. “Enlightened” democracy had one. While capitalism and communism fought, it was still a binary world. Still, the conflicts, emerging anticolonial movements, and economic divide did much to diminish the modernist spirit. It slowly moved toward its downfall.

Values usually contested through warfare in the international arena were increasingly being contested at home. Fundamental questions like “who’s progress”, “who’s right to self-determination”, or “who do you mean by ‘the people'” came under microscopic focus. Hitherto, modernism has been quite white and masculine. Thus, 2nd wave feminism, the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war protests in the US, leftist and student unrest in Europe (e.g., French student and worker protests in 1968, which collapsed the government), and so on - precipitated one after another. Then, one had decolonization. Even newly independent nations, excited to modernize on their terms, experienced the inadequacy of the modernist spirit. Back home in India, the nationalist spirit of independence had worn off by the late 1960s; we lost a war to the Chinese, our economy was retarded, communalism and casteism were still entrenched. By 1975 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided to practice dictatorship for a bit by declaring a state of emergency. Modernism was at freefall.

From the cracks of the self-righteous, self-confident modernist movements emerged postmodernism. Postmodernism itself eludes a definition, primarily because all the thinkers (Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, etc.) ascribed the label never really accepted it. They were just engaged in sociocultural critique questioning the existing status quo of power distribution, examining how the world worked. The thin thread binding them together was perhaps the rejection of modernity or venturing beyond the naive attitudes fostered by the "Age of Enlightenment" two centuries ago specifically in Western society. Very (and I mean very) broadly, postmodernist thinking entailed scepticism of grand narratives, theories, and ideologies that claimed to be a one-stop-shop for solving problems.

Laughs in Foucauldian

As Jean Francois Lyotard argued in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), grand narratives are whack. The grandest modernist narrative - of humanity's unitary progress through history using reason - was more like an anecdote by the mid-century. Somewhere in these previous sentences may lie a workable definition, for intellectually postmodernism (like its predecessor) evolved out of a series of related philosophical (and artistic) movements. If modernism was self-serious and optimistic, postmodernism was ironic and sceptical.

Why am I getting into this...

The polarizations and fractures of the contemporary world reflect not just the lack of consensus in values but upon the very idea of ‘truth’. Case in point, the Sangh having their own idea of the Indian independence struggle, one where they actually matter. Or Godse being some sort of a patriot or something. Truth is a contortionist; it bends according to the observer. This was always the case - the American South had its own myth of the Civil War and the antisemitic stab-in-the-back myth was how wounded Germans justified their WWI defeat. Was history written by the victors? For even losers write their history. Narratives appear to be a much more compelling way of meaning-making rather than "blunt truth". Our brains have got all kinds of defences for our delusions, one example being Confirmation Bias.

Postmodernism as umbrella theories of social science/humanities simply described these human tendencies. Truth was never a black and white binary but steeped in the multiplicity of human experience. The modernist hubris piggybacking off the "Age of Enlightenment" thought such a universal truth could be achieved, or rather imposed. A lot of people cannot handle reality if it's not simple and unitary, it was objective truth that was being questioned. Science hates postmodernism (The Science Wars story coming soon). The disdain for narrative knowledge, or alternative forms of knowledge that are considered the domain of 'primitive', knowledge imparted through storytelling, or even rituals and art, is rampant in the 'cool' 'detached' scientific world. But the argument of unified scientific progress itself is the very form of narrativizing that scientist’s disdain. So argued Lyotard. It's just the power of deductive reasoning bolstered by empiricism/positivism; it's the tool. Because the discovery of Lucy (our greatest grandmother) doesn't prove the existence of gravity, they are too distantly related for you not to narrativize. Lyotard states science's modus operandi to be the employment of denotative statements in describing reality - all of which is also subject to change, y'know - falsifiability. No matter how true it feels, or obvious it seems, it is only accepted as a scientific statement if it's possible to disprove. The threat is always looming.

The uncertainty bred by postmodern thinking is why people hate it and dismiss it. If anything goes, then how do we function? Cum si Cum sa is how. As is now evident with a global information/disinformation society. But grand narratives while not objective are still important. And if reality is not objective that does not make it any less valuable, if truth and knowledge do not come from some pure noble pursuit, that does not make them any less worthy of pursuit. Postmodernism illustrates the arbitrariness and absurdism of grand narratives; it is a series of denotative statements on how people make sense and meaning. The mental burnout people feel when negotiating (or rather arguing) with the other side; the lazy caricatures one may reduce one's socio-politico-philosophical opponent to; the pressure and fatigue leading to such feelings can be alleviated if people remind themselves of the postmodern condition. It is what it is. To make and manifest a shared meaning, a collective consciousness, is a Sisyphean task. Because sometimes a rock is a stone is a music genre is a boat related to an upset applecart.

There is a culture war brewing in the colony I live in. We have the born-again Hindutvads and a rag-tag collection of "left-liberal, progressive" coalition. The former is very childish and insecure, the latter insufferably hoity-toity & self-righteous. They are your uncles and aunties. They bicker about festivals in the colony, independence day, and the menu during colony events. They talk in hushed tones about each other. Their children display more maturity, as they appear to get along, for now. It's not about discourse, it's about perverse tribalism and self-seriousness. What is that, postmodernist acceptance, or a modernist cope? Ya, it's a leading question, let me lead you...

I must clear my name from the accusation of being a mere contrarian or having no conviction. Ofc my friends were not serious nor mean-spirited. There are many more well-qualified people defending postmodernism in cyberspace too. After spending my undergrad. detached and dismissive of all the postmodern theories, and having gone through a mystical transformation in grad. school, I want it to be on record that I choose to die on a postmodern hill, for "We can be Heroes"…only in a postmodernist world.

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