American Politics · Philosophy · Politics · Postmodernism

The Postmodern Condition Part 1: The Dissolving of Knowledge

I have been using the term “postmodern” to describe what has been happening to American society and culture lately.  Indeed this postmodern transformation has been happening all over the globe and began further back than in Trump’s time, however right now America lends itself so well to a case study on postmodernism that I am going to focus this discussion on current events, rather than on those of the past.  I have boldly stated that Trump marks the arrival of the”postmodern era” and that the disorientation and confusion this is causing in people are actually symptomatic of the “postmodern condition”.  

It raises eyebrows, as I am sure it is raising yours now… but I suppose if you have gotten this far you are open to hear me out in my attempt to make this artifact of academic philosophy and critical sociology accessible and relate able to today’s context. I believe there is important information buried in the jargon.  Important for these times.  Information is power, which means thought, analysis and insight are valuable weapons in the fight against fascism.

Most people associate with the term postmodern with a style of abstract art; paintings without form which rebel against realism or films which make little to no sense at all, and they wouldn’t be wrong.  Postmodernist artists were those who rebelled against the tradition and authority of art theory and technique.  They rejected these grand narratives of “art” which held the grasp on what was beautiful and worthy of the label, and gave way to, what is proving to be, the most significant art movement of our times.  Why do I say it is the most significant?  Well, as with so much of our civilized history, art creeps into society through culture, in all its glorious and romantic, disgusting and violent forms. This process of abstraction and form dissolution and rejection of the authority has become all pervasive in advanced societies; to the point where life actually and really does imitate art… Everything becomes postmodern, not just in narratives of Art… narratives of religion, politics, economics, gender, race, class, power, status… identity… break down and dissolve to the point where we don’t recognize them at all anymore.  

Before I go any farther, and start trying to define postmodernsim (which in itself becomes a meaningless word through this process), I want to make sure readers understand the concept of narratives.  What are narratives?  Simply, they are the stories (or myths) we tell to make something real or not.  Narratives have been applied on the macro level… that is societal narratives or stories about what “democracy” “capitalism” or “freedom” is… narratives are the things that create the frameworks and concepts of these ideas.  But they also can be applied at the individual level… that is individual narratives or stories about who “I” am… the features of our own personal genders, race or status.

For as long as I have be exposed to and thinking about postmodernism (which began when I was an undergraduate), I have considered myself to be a postmodernist (if such a thing can be said to exist). The way that I have come to understand the word postmodernism (which surely varies from other postmodernists) is that all the lines which we have used to define ourselves and our society, have been blurred to the point of dissolution.  Basic concepts like justice and democracy, are no longer defined by any “grand narratives”… they are not objective categories which can be explained or quantified by scientific methods (despite the attempts by the social sciences to do so); instead, these concepts are subjective and find meaning only in the way they are used by individuals.  For me personally,  I believe (and accept) that the power inherent in our traditional systems of economics, politics and culture is rooted only in language and narratives.  It is words alone which legitimizes the power in the system, keeps us all consenting to it, and maintains a certain social order that we have all become accustomed to. My version of postmodernism lines up with feminism, as I acknowledge the current grand narratives of the system to be, and label it as, the patriarchy.

The effects of this, although empowering for the individual who now has a vast array of choices to define themselves, is very problematic for the system which has always used these categories to maintain social order, and is, perhaps, the reason why everything seems like it is upside down right now. Because individuals no longer believe in the authority of those concepts, and may choose which knowledge they find to be most relevant to them, as legitimate and authorized.  Further to this, we now have a political regime in the White House who also understands this, and who appears to be hellbent on completely dissolving truth and knowledge, and the order they have provided throughout history.  

But the postmodern is not necessarily something to be feared, even though it is the very thing that has facilitated Trump’s success, and the rise of fascism in the US and around the world. As it is only through postmodernism that we, as regular people removed from power, can create our own systems of knowledge, markers for identity and define our own“utopian” societies, whatever that “utopia” may be. This conflict is inevitable and unavoidable in a postmodern society as we all try to find a way to both be members of our communities, and define our own identities.  We cannot reverse the effects of postmodernism and the reactionary, ungrounded and sometimes violent manifestations it produces in our lives and society.  Nor can we continue to allow the system to run based on outdated modern paradigms. I have often used the operating system analogy to demonstrate this; the machine is not running properly, because the operating system it has been running on is neither powerful enough, nor based on the same logic and language that most of the apps or software being input into the machine, uses. In this sense the machine itself requires a complete overhaul to deal with the postmodern condition and crises it has created.

But how then can we, liberal-educated, champions of social justice contribute to the building of this new machine, knowing that the fascists have decided they are the ones to build it? And now having all the power, they get to decide the logic and language that it will run on! I don’t have the answer to that question, so I am turning to some of the philosophers and critical sociologists who have been warning us this day is coming for at least the past 100 years to help me figure out, at least some of the puzzle.  

First I am going to french philosopher, Jean Francois Lyotard author of the book “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge”, published in 1979.  

Lyotard was really concerned with the status of knowledge, and the computerization of society, and the ways in which those things could impact language, politics and the individual.  The rigidity of scientific knowledge as being the only authorized knowledge posed a huge problem for him… and much of this book is spent justifying other forms of knowledge, and warning of the consequences if space was not created for diversity and, what I will call, “folk knowledge” to be considered legitimate.  

Lyotard defines postmodern as “the state of our culture following the transformations which, since the end of the 19th century, have altered the game rules for science, literature and the arts. He places these transformations in the context of “a crisis of narratives,” (remember narratives are the myths which are upheld by power). This allows the authorities and decision-makers to “allocate our lives for the growth of power. In matters of social justice and scientific truth alike, the legitimation of that power is based on its optimizing the system’s performance – efficiency.” Legitimation is “the process by which a legislator is authorised to promulgate laws as a norm.”

Scientific knowledge, which is subject to the test of objectivity and positivism, is different than other types of knowledge (kind of like the difference between “book smarts and “street smarts”) and “To the extent that science… seeks the truth, it is obliged to legitimate the rules of its own game. It does this through the Enlightenment narrative, in which the hero of knowledge works toward universal peace”

Knowledge, and particularly scientific knowledge, has authorized power, and vice versa – it has propped up the “decision-makers” and “legislators” way back to the times of Plato, but has also required authorization from power to make it “true” : “the right to decide what is true is not independent of the right to decide what is just… there is a strict interlinkage between the kind of language called science and the kind called ethics and politics: they both stem from the same perspective, the same “choice” if you will… revealing that knowledge and power are simply two sides of the same question: who decides what knowledge is, and who knows what needs to be decided? In the computer age, the question of knowledge is now more than ever a question of government.”

Scientific knowledge has also led us down the path of computerization, and what has been called the “Technocracy” “These technological transformations can be expected to have a considerable impact on knowledge… the miniaturisation and commercialisation of machines is already changing the way in which learning is acquired, classified, made available, and exploited. It is reasonable to suppose that the proliferation of information-processing machines is having, and will continue to have, as much of an effect on the circulation of learning as did advancements in transportation systems and the media. The nature of knowledge cannot survive unchanged within this context of general transformation.

He believed that computers would have irreversible effects on “research” and “learning” which are the two things legitimizing and transmitting the authority of knowledge. He also, prophetically, recognized how knowledge would become the main commodity and source of power in society:

‘The old principle that the acquisition of knowledge (learning) is indissociable from the training of minds, or even of individuals (education), is becoming obsolete and will become ever more so…. Knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorised in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange… Knowledge ceases to be an end in itself, it loses its “use-value.”

This problem gives rise to another problem which is: “Knowledge in the form of a commodity indispensable to productive power is already, and will continue to be, a major – perhaps the major – stake in the worldwide competition for power. It is conceivable that the nation-states will one day fight for control of information, just as they battled in the past for control over territory, and afterwards for control of access to and exploitation of raw materials and cheap labor. A new field is opened for industrial and commercial strategies on the one hand, and political and military strategies on the other.”

He foresaw the commercialization of knowledge as inevitably affecting state privilege in respect to the control of education: The notion that learning falls within the purview of the State, as the brain or mind of society, will become more and more outdated with the increasing strength of the opposing principle, according to which society exists and progresses only if the messages circulating within it are rich in information and easy to decode. The ideology of communicational “transparency,” which goes hand in hand with the commercialisation of knowledge, will begin to perceive the State as a factor of opacity and “noise.” It is from this point of view that the problem of the relationship between economic and State powers threatens to arise with a new urgency.

I submit that this perception of the State as being concerned with optics only, and creating irrelevant “noise”, indeed, is one of the things that got Donald Trump elected.  He tapped into an anger related to the control of knowledge, truth and narratives which are not reflective of the realities that people experience.

Transformation in the nature of knowledge, then, could well have repercussions on the existing public powers, forcing them to reconsider their relations (both de jure and de facto) with the large corporations and, more generally, with civil society. He believed nation-states required a serious reappraisal of the role they have been accustomed to playing since the 1930s: that of, guiding, or even directing investments… The ruling class is and will continue to be the class of decision makers. Even now it is no longer composed of the traditional political class, but of a composite layer of corporate leaders, high-level administrators, and the heads of the major professional, labor, political, and religious organisations. What is new in all of this is that the old poles of attraction represented by nation-states, parties, professions, institutions, and historical traditions are losing their attraction. And it does not look as though they will be replaced, at least not on their former scale

Lyotard recognizes the difficulty involved in this crisis of narrative asking, “Where, after the narratives, can legitimacy reside?” How do we measure what is true or just if we no longer can turn to the authority to make those decisions for us? “Is legitimacy to be found in consensus obtained through discussion? Such consensus does violence to the heterogeneity of language games. And invention is always born of dissension. Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable.”

Given what we are seeing today, with phrases like “alternative facts” “fake news” and “post-truth” I am comfortable accepting his hypothesis, and viewing it as having come to pass: the status of knowledge has changed, and with it, has transformed advanced civil societies to an unrecognizable version of itself.  The backlash against science and expertise has been perpetuated by the rigidity and attempts to control grand narratives that are irrelevant to today’s society.  Although these grand narratives have served a purpose in what has always been called “progress” the public, the people whose knowledge and experience has been oppressed by this control, no longer view the state as the legitimate holders of truth and authority.  Lyotard could not have imagined just how deeply computers would entrench themselves in this process… had he seen the rise of social media, and the impacts that has had on knowledge, I suspect this text would have been far more urgent and despairing.  

Knowledge, truth, authority and power, as we have always come to understand and accept them, have had their frameworks and concepts dissolved through a process of postmodern transformation.  The facists now have the authority and the blueprints to start building the new machine; and they either know exactly what they are doing, or don’t have any clue what they are doing… In either case, the effects on the individuals as we stand helplessly on the sidelines and are forced to watch the erection of this monstrosity is having troubling effects.

There has been no doubt in my mind, for the last 15 years or so, that a new machine is required… and in an unfortunate, yet completely predictable, turn of events, the wrong group of architects and engineers now have the contract to build it.