We need a better word for ‘postmodernism’.
Why does it matter?
Understanding Postmodernism can help us understand the world we live in today and the forces shaping humanity. So in that sense, it is a powerful concept. Yet, because the word used to describe it is a mixture of two very broad concepts – post and modernism, it ends up confusing people more than it clarifies.
So if it is post something, what has already transpired? What was the cause if this is the effect? Is it a linear progression of events?
What is modern? Wouldn’t anything that is ‘now’, be modern? So postmodern is the future? But then why are ‘modern arts’ almost a century old? Why do we still have modernist artists, postmodernist artists? How can they exist at the same time? Schrodinger’s cat?
You see why effective branding is important. Wouldn’t it have been better if modernism was called something else, something that better encapsulates what the people who coined the term were feeling? More-so with postmodernism, because in reality its a different beast, not a derivative or a descendant of the modern one.
About time we renamed these two concepts.
Here’s my attempt at distilling these complex concepts down to a few words.
Modernism is ‘Hope of absolute meaning/ certainty of favourable changes’
Postmodernism is ‘acknowledgement of uncertainty in changes/ meaning making’
These terms are fairly restrictive, I agree. But it captures the unifying sensibility behind the movements/ changes that defined ‘modern’ or ‘postmodern’ artifacts/ events.
Modernism essentially is blinkered optimism.
Modernism is about humanity’s optimism with technological changes (instant photograph, instant communication, plumbing), social changes (democracy, communism, cults). A thousand optimistic -isms proliferated in 20th century. What a time to live in for an intellectual! To think and to work towards utopias!). Communism, Capitalism, Maoism, Minimalism or even Taliban’s version of Islam – proponents of all these movements did actually believe in their -isms. They were working towards a positive change as they saw the world. These ideas affected art too and gave rise to many -isms that too have a strand of idealism that defines the art work. (Constructivism, Dadaism, Stalinist Totalitarianism) Even if a modern message was dark, it was full of certainty of one’s world view. That certainty was born out of a sense of ‘I now know what is right for the world. Only if we change these things.. the world will be alright.’ That is essentially a modernist’s mindset. Modernists essentially are optimist, because there is a certainty in there mind about their view of the world – science apparently has all the answers so do the politicians and the religious heads. There are authorities who are absolute.
The optimism of a modernist however, isn’t all roses. It’s in the nature of an idealist to attempt to change the world. And a single person can’t do that. You need to convince many people about your ideas of utopia to make it a reality. But when you can’t do that with honest and reasonable dialogue as two equal individuals (and you never can), you end up becoming a tyrant – forcing your perspective on others with threats, social boycott, death or even worse – rewriting history. In Czechoslovakia, a certain Mr. Clementis was simply erased from history. In India, the current government is busy forcing children to think that ancient India had flying planes and that a cow can solve all our problems. and so on. There are endless examples from antiquity to now of dangerously foolish people with simplistic ideas of change for a better world – unfortunately, the price of which must be extracted from a scapegoat – Mexicans in US, Guatemalans in Mexico, dalits in India, minorities everywhere. This is the price of ‘modernism’.
Postmodernism is the identification of this futility: The Sisyphean tragedy that we can’t escape. The tragedy itself is ‘modern’. (and as with Sisyphus, eternal) The recognition of which is ‘postmodern’.
The fall of Berlin wall, dissolution of Soviet union, Quantum physics, chaos theory, internet, crypto currency, refugee crisis, mixed race marriages, LGBTQ pride parades, vocal atheists, weak looking tech billionaires who didn’t wear suits, climate change threatening our survival….
The edifice of certainty has come crumbling down. Reasonable among us, can’t go on believing in simplistic ideals of utopias.
A postmodern worldview, understands that there is no easy solution to global or even personal problems. That there are no ‘final solutions’. But because one doesn’t know a solution, doesn’t mean one shouldn’t critically examine modernist solution of others. Because, the modernists often have final solutions that are worse than the problems they solve. Modernists (Hindutvawadi, Nationalists, separatists, Nazis, Marxists, Capitalists, Republicans, Democrats.. all identity groups) find this finger pointing inconvenient and get agitated. They are incapable of reasoning. And hence, most modernist movements end up as tragedies for the scapegoats and the intellectuals.
That is the way humanity functions, with a healthy dose of denials. The denial is essential to go on living with limited perspective; to go on living in service of the system at detriment to self. Humanity as a social group, thrived due to this very denial. We can’t let that go now, simply because we have instant answers at our fingertips due to internet. Hence fake-news. The denials is essential for maintenance of sanity of millions.
Postmodernism – When the pace of change became unbearable and humanity needed a carpet to dust away its confusions and dissonance under, it coined a term – postmodernism.
This is why post-modern work of art typically is confusing. Because, it is not meant to convey a singular vision. But rather, it is trying to show us some complexity, some chaos that the creator feels, we are blind to. Postmodern art is confusing because it is not about giving answers, but about raising questions.
Globalised world and internet = Frenzy caused by reality puncturing our denial
For those with the courage to look at reality objectively, Internet is a means to understand the complex interplay of events, motives, behaviors, resources etc. For the unreasonable among us, internet is an echo chamber where one goes to validate one’s own narrow worldviews.
Internet has short-circuited the natural course of ideas that humanity was geared to deal with. No modern ideals now have enough time and space to grow without the harsh jab of postmodern reality, puncturing its ideals. So either a person will go insane with the realisation of absurdity of life. Or drown himself in meaningless and eternally boring life that is validated by the system’s authority figures. Or react sharply with abuse, threats, anger to discomfort creators. Or as it rarely happens, listen and engage his flailing neurons in his brains to comprehend an alternate world view and in the process expand his narrow little world. The best among us embrace the absurdity and make themselves useful to others – hey if your existence is meaningless, might as well help fellow insignificant humans on their little journeys towards eventual deaths. Might as well, explore little corners of the vast world and grow as person. Might as well, do some good unto others. Might as well, not loose our shit over imaginary gods and abstract ideals.
The absurd life
There is no omnipotent god. Our existence on earth is a delicate affair. There is no judge with moral superiority. Science only knows that we don’t know enough. There is no certainty of success/ happiness. There is no one true path of life. Relatives can’t be trusted with the child. There is no trust. There is no fixed price even. A shaving razor might be for Rs. 100 on amazon for me, Rs 74 for someone else… There is no certainty about anything.
Life essentially is absolutely absurd.
Earlier, only philosophers contemplated the absurdity of our existence. Now the world forces us to experience that absurdity in every instance. That is the postmodern experience. Post modernism, is our engagement with that big uncertainty.