Thinking Beyond Postmodernism

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I have noted over many decades that Americans really have little sense of history. Whatever is happening NOW is easily peddled as having a real sense of permanence. Everyone seems to forget that just thirty years ago the ideas that held court so forcefully have pretty much ben overthrown and rejected. Thus the monolithic experiment that was Modernity has largely been rejected (with all of it’s arrogant versions) in favor of a Postmodern reaction. No one seems to make the logical inference that this reaction too will be questioned in time – and that as a reaction – with little real substance in and of itself – it too will be found wanting.

As we look back over history we find that many ideas are better than others. Some survive and continue to rise to the top despite historical context, different enculturation and problems of language. The truthes and resonance of such teachings and views seem to survive while other views dissipate like, well…like fads.

If Postmodernism is simply a reaction – a rejection of Modernity and its arrogance (and it may well be more than just that) the question becomes “what is beyond Postmodernism?

And let us pause and take stock of the situation in a simple and straight-forward manner. Post-Enlightenment humanity took over the reigns – sans the Divine -in the grandest experiment of self-determination ever. This resulted -planet-wide – was the single bloodiest century in human history christened by the development and double-use of the atomic bomb. In the wake of humanity’s rejection of Modernity (best expressed in the fall of Communism with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – some 200 years after the opening volley of Modernity at the storming of the Bastille in 1789) we have the shock and awe of the technology blitz with almost instantaneously shrunk the world into a truly global village.

Add all those factors together and you can see why people are a bit disoriented.

The term “Postmodern” is certainly en vogue – at least in theological circles (where they are always a good ways behind). But really – it has simply come to mean (practically) that you align with nothing really. That you are subjective/relative and aligned with whatever is poltically popular – not on a search for what is true or resonant. You don’t construct an create so much as you deconstruct and find a narrative current to flow with.

And by all means don;t show any originality or display critical thought. As one who has observed the practical outworkings of both Modernism and Postmodernism I cannot say I really see much difference. One’s taller.

Postmodernism doesn’t really land you anywhere any different than Modernity on a practical level. It is still just as competitive, linear, overly specialized and dogmatic in it’s rejection of all dogma except its own. It is inclusive so long as you accept all that it excludes. It does not encourage open exploration and it possesses the same socio-political minefields that existed under modernity – just maybe not without pointed rifles or a Gulag (which is a definite advantage).

Frankly, we need a new term – and a new direction because simply reacting to Modenity, embracing an exclusive subjectivity that is simply en vogue and committing acts of historical arrogance is not science or the pursuit of knowledge or the truth.

But I have a suggestion.

The Suggestion

Note that it is only a suggestion, and a hopeful one. The trick is to make it truly open ended enough to be inclusive, yet also formative enough to make sense. Then, of course, it has to resonate and be fair to all parties.

The idea first came to me in the late 80s. I was reading Gregory Bateson’s book Steps to an Ecology of Mind and trying to see if I could get his ideas to “talk” with my understanding of Ernest Becker’s world view as presented in The Denial of Death, (which is one of the most important books written in the 20th Century). In order to see how these two great minds might meet I had to do a great deal of translation, in much the same way that you might place the Buddha’s teaching of non-attachment next to Jesus of Nazareth’s teaching about the “lilies of the field”. You expect some divergence but are looking for some legitimate connections and different angles of approach on the same truthes.

In the background of my mind was Becker’s stated desire to form a “uniform science of humanity,” something that would allow for a multiplicity of voices on any given subject, and integrate exploration via all disciplines instead of pitting them against each other. Becker’s vision for this was cut short by his untimely death in 1975, but has always seemed one of the most noble projects set before us.

Imagine for a moment if instead of going into a humanities class and having them exclude some of the great world traditions and the other sciences, they actually included them and looked for correlations? What if they “looked sideways” (as Professor Martin Kemp calls “lateral thinking”) and brought in relevant information from other scientific disciplines?

Now fast forward to 1989 – which means most of us had no idea how the world was going to be changed by this thing we now refer to as “the web”, but ironically it was just that image, the image of a web, that came to mind at the time, just a much simpler image. Instead of the hierarchical and competitive system which Modernity championed, I envisioned an approach that would employ a flexible epistemological web of “lenses” that would be relational to examine any question or phenomenon.

AN EXAMPLE

Here is a simple example within one discipline: psychology (my undergraduate studies). I was a psychology student in the late 70s and was regularly amazed by how zealous and nearly religious were the wars within the department. Each “school” of psychology was a war for dominance in the department, the Behaviorists trying to understand all aspects of human existence within their own narrow view, and the Humanists and Existentialists doing the same. It was an ideological war with no winners because no one was open to other ways of seeing.

But what if the Modernist model of competition and exclusivity had given way to a Postmodern sensibility – or better still – something beyond that? What if those professors had laid down their philosophical armaments and started to talk with one another and look for correlations in their work? What if the Behaviorist could have seen his own view as merely one lens among many and valued the Humanist’s lens, and the Existentialist’s lens? Would they not go deeper with three lenses as opposed to the one? And then what if they had interfaced what they saw through the lenses with other lenses? What if they consulted with the award-winning nutritionist on staff in the biology department, and the social theorist in the sociology department?

I realize that may seem simplistic, but two great sayings by Einstein help here:

“Imagination is more powerful than knowledge,”

and;

“Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

We’ll take the second first. It’s simpler that way.

A Simpler Model

Instead of a highly competition and rationalistic model we have the option of adopting a horizontal and relational model that consists of a flexible web of lenses from which to explore existence and the questions which resonate most for us. These questions can be about anything, from ecological concerns, to deep existential questions about the meaning of existence, to how to create a new pastry or float a toy boat out in the harbor.

I mentioned that this workable model is a flexible web of lenses – that means that it is relational. This is key. It not only does not seek to compete and exclude other ways of seeing and interpreting, it LOOKS for them. Much like search engine “spiders” this flexible web of lenses is always looking for connection, and when it finds it, it celebrates and is able to go deeper.

It is looking for relationship.

Imagination

I promised a new “term” beyond Postmodernism, and now it is tiime to suggest it. Einstein noted that “imagination is more powerful than knowledge” and what we are talking about here requires more imagination than it does brain power.

Post Modern sensibilities have made this possible by rejecting the rigid assumptions of Rationalism, re-introducing irony (and thus humility), and creating a new pluralism that is, potentially, non-reductionist. In other words, we can dream about something both useful and achievable. Postmodernism – at present – does not ave to be a cul-de-sac. .

So imagine that the universe, everything around us, and also us, is essentially relational.

Just sit with it for a moment, and understand that by relational I am not saying “personal.” That’s a whole other matter.

Keep it simple but not simpler.

The Universe as Relational

Twenty years ago, and under Modernity’s iron grip, I would have proceeded to “prove” this to you from a variety of sources, all of them good. I could have argued from almost any platform, from the disquieting notion that human babies die if touch and interaction are withheld, to the fact that astrophysicists talk openly about the relational nature of all energy. Or we could appeal to any Creation myth from any culture and the same relational element would be present.

But in a Postmodern world I am not limited just to such arguments. Just ask yourself “Am I not relational by nature?” Aren’t our days and ways filled up by the question of relationships? And don’t we have a stunning array of them?

So to return to our emerging model, we can take our flexible web of lenses and seek what we can see through them looking for relationship between the pictures they deliver.

I once created a product in the videogame industry called “eGuides” that was patented by Random House. It was based in the philosophy I am now expousing. It was flexible and adaptive. It had a definitive form and objective (to teach a person to conquer a videogame swiftly) but adpated to the narrative and inherent qualities of each game (the lenses recalibrated according to resonance and relevance and informed us as to content as we began each new eGuide). The lawyers (at $300 an hour) kept asking me “how did you think this up?”) Could I explain about Bateson, Becker and a whole different way of doing science?

Prima eGuides, awarded a US and International patent in 2002, Random House. Christopher MacDonald, lead inventor, Team: Wade Smith, Dusty Brown, and Robert Reinhard.

Um, no. This was an online interactive crash course in how to crush opponents in Starseige Tribes. No one would believe my process, or how I had created something new in three months out of thin air with a rag-tag team and only $225k. The next game was Tombraider 3 (Lara Croft) …so it was essentially Bateson and Becker with digital boobs and a shotgun.

I do not mean to be offensive – I am just trying to show how truly ordinary this really is. If it can work for videogames (across all genres without a hitch – and that is just one tiny little application that one little niche industry asked me to employ) and earn an international patent (and has) – it might be worth a look?

A Larger Metaphorical Example

I’ve been trying to think of a modern phenomenon that is both simple and playful to illustrate this. I think perhaps the Super Bowl is just such a model. Well not so much the game itself but the broadcast of the game itself and all the different lenses that are used to bring as full a presentation as possible to as many as possible.

A variety of lenses are used to record data which is then relayed into a central hub. Some of these lenses are able to record more relevant data than others at various times. So some of the main cameras down on the field at strategic spots get hours of emphasis, whereas the camera outside the stadium is only used twice for a few brief seconds, and the camera that views the city in which the event is held is used only once.

To these camera lenses are added work that has been done by other lenses prior to the game. There are interviews with players, with wives of players, and with the high school coach of the superstar quarterback upon who the hopes of the city reside.

What decides which cameras are emphasized?

As I have hinted at, relevance and resonance seem to be the criteria.

How do you determine that? People in their respective fields do that every day of the week. It is a silly question. Do they often get it wrong? Yes – but eventually they get it right because the wrong answers turn into poor results over and over again.  It’s just common sense.

To continue: Two weeks after the Super Bowl, the whole crew and all the equipment are shipped to cover the Democratic National Convention. There are no footballs, and the agenda is completely different (except of course that someone wants to win and others to lose).

The same general parameters are used to cover the broadcast, only now the longer range cameras that were so effective two weeks earlier, are not as useful in a more intimate environment. Other cameras that are more mobile and light weight become the best lenses from which to record and broadcast information.

The choices are fairly easy, and, as before, all the same equipment is used, it’s just that some lenses are more useful in this situation than they were at the Super Bowl.

Now I have little doubt that some part of this illustration may break down somewhere, but it is meant to illustrate really only one point, and that is the effective use of multiple lenses and how they interact to derive as much relevant data as possible in a non-competitive manner.

Apply the Flexible Web

Below is a written description of the flexible web. This model is meant to be an exploration – not normative. Consider it like a simple but extremely adaptable probe. The sort of probe that if sent into the unknown would have the flexibility to mutate, on the fly, as it encountered new and unforeseen environments or phenomenon – much as our eGuides adapted to the differing “worlds” that each videogame presented by its creators.

An example?

Okay, let’s go back to our psychology department, only this time they have gone through Postmodernization and have seen the Enlightenment experiment for what it was…just one lens, and a limited one – a Colonial one. In it’s stead is a new model. It is not called Postmodern, it is called Relational.

And a possible new term is Relational. You can make it an “ism” if you like, but I kinda like it the way it is for reasons I’ll address shortly.

But back to our school. The department has decided that the focus of the program for that year will be depression. Instead of a competitive system with each school of thought trying to out leverage the others, they meet to put forward the best information they each have on the causes and remedies of clinical depression.

The Behaviorists bring relevant data on conditioning; another professor puts forward medical models based upon chemical imbalances; yet another -a Humanist -notes that the philosophical notion of freedom and free will carries with it the inherent problem of trying to sustain meaning, and that the crisis of meaning for human beings is closely tied to depression. The Freudians talk about family dynamics and unconscious urges which effect emotional stability.

All the while they are looking for relationship between this different ways of seeing depression. At the same time, new questions arise about social and environmental factors. For this they will need the Sociology and Biology Departments to help them see more. One student who has been sitting in on the discussion as an aid asks about a culture he read about in his anthropology class that have almost zero cases of depression. Instead of being laughed at, a call is placed to the author of the book.

Other lenses pop up as well. The Biology department also reports that they are doing a study on endorphin and serotonin levels based on new dietary finds. Another best selling book includes remarkable testimonials of those who have been relieved of depression by prayer or meditation.

Every one of these lenses is used to gather as much information as possible which is then brought into the mix looking for relevance and resonance.

The beauty of this model is that it is flexible, malleable, non-competitive and is open to lenses outside of strict rationalism, while not rejecting its benefits.

It is also non-reductive and therefore truly pluralistic in the best sense of the word.

We Are “Relationals”: Beyond Postmodernism

We are not stuck being Postmoderns; we could be Relationals. The universe is inherently relational, and as self-conscious and curious beings within creation we are too. It’s why we care about the meaning of our lives, and how we relate to each other and this universe. It’s why we have children and why love is so important to all of us. It’s what lies at the core of being human and our questions about God’s existence and what our lives mean. It’s what we think about and dream about in some way every day of our lives and are trying to find answers to. Modernity gifted us with many things, but it is time to move beyond it’s confines. There is serious and deep work to be done, and it is relational.

 

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