Tuesday, April 8

A Postmodernist All Along...

I've been reading "Postmodernism for Beginners" and finding much comradery with Postmodern theorists and artists. I think anyone living in this day and age already has an intuitive understanding of the situation that Postmodernists have observed in their theories, even if we haven't written complex discourses on the subject.

The basic idea is that globalization of our culture has caused a type groundlessness in our society. Because there are so many traditions existing side by side, they lose some, if not all of their meaning. Lyotard called these larger traditions Metanarratives. A familiar example of a Metanarrative would be the Christian worldview that used to utterly dominate European society. When an entire society ascribes to the same Metanarrative, then all the smaller ideas stories, and customs, (Micronarratives), fit into the structure of the Metanarrative. But an overriding Metanarrative is something we definitely lack in today's world. And what is the result? A huge gaping void of course.

Another issue raised by Postmodernism is what theorist Baudrillard termed 'the death of the real'. It seems to me that this situation is a symptom of the void left behind by the dilution of Metanaratives. The death of the real is a condition brought on by mass production, television, pop art, and other forms of media. Our reality in the modern world revolves around commercial goods and entertainment, none of which have any substance in and of themselves. One could even argue that Capitalism has become the new Metanarrative. But what does such a Metanarrative teach us? What does it have to say for the individual? Is it helpful?

Even though Capitalism may be a narrative that snakes its way all throughout our society, we can't ignore the fact that existing alongside it are hundreds of other subcultures and micronarratives. We also can't forget that it is made up of non-real parts, mass produced copies which are inherently meaningless. And this situation is fairly unique in terms of our history. Certainly metropolises existed in ancient times, like Alexandria for example, but the synthesis of cultures doesn't compare to today's world. Not to mention our current level of mass production and commercialism, which is unprecedented. These days you can pick and choose from whichever religion you feel like. You can buy copies of a buddha statue at Zellers. You can eat any kind of food, quesadillas in an Irish pub even. You can study whatever you want, read books written by Caucasian Buddhists. The choices are endless and they are for the most part, shitty copies of the originals, or simulacra, as Baudrillard would say.

And in some ways, this is appealing isn't it? It sounds like more options equals more freedom. Mass productions means Buddha statues for everyone. But I think within all this choice lies a catch. I read an article called "The Paradox of Choice", (there is a book as well with that title), and it illustrated this catch fairly clearly. There are two major elements to it. The first is the groundlessness. The second is the responsibility and increased chance of regret.

The groundlessness is the knowledge, whether conscious or not, that whatever beliefs you ascribe to, there are so many other options. Whatever you choose to do with your life, there are so many other options. This can only plant seeds of doubt. Or maybe you don't choose much at all, because you see all these options for the facades that they are. None of them are real or true independently. The only way to make them true is to believe them, and how can you do that when you know they aren't really true? Just imagine how much simpler it would be if you were born in an isolated society, where there was only one worldview, which you could choose to either embrace or reject. Limiting maybe, but so so much simpler. I sometimes imagine what this would be like with longing. As it stands, I feel paralyzed by the groundlessness and emptiness of the choices which lay before me. So much so that I feel my life is in stasis. Sylvia Plath's image of the fig tree from The Bell Jar illustrates this point beautifully. The figs are choices, potentialities. While she watches the tree, paralyzed, not knowing which fig to pick, each piece of fruit shrivels and dies.

The other problem with choice is the liklihood of regret. As human consciousness allows, we are aware that when we make a choice, we ultimately erase any other options we may have had. Thus each choice can also seem like a loss. Even when we pick a fig, it inevitably means that the other figs will die without us experiencing them. We cannot help but reflect on the past, thinking 'I should have'. And we naturally blame ourselves. The article I read gave a good example of how this works. Imagine you are going to buy a bottle of wine. If you go to a huge LCBO, where there are hundreds of types of wine, you are going to be overwhelmed with choices, and will probably have high expectations for the bottle you choose. If there are this many choices, one of them must be perfect. If you're disppointed with your bottle wine, it will likely be because you feel that you should have chose something different. On the other hand, if you go to a liquor store which sells only five types of wine, you are going to have much lower expectations. Thus you are less likely to feel disappointed and regret your choice.

The end result of all this fakeness and lack of cohesion and cofusedness, is ultimately a void, much like the void that the Existentialists purport. Depressing? I'm not going to lie and say that this never gets me down. It does. But like anything else in life, we have a choice about how we react to this situation. It is a unique challenge that human beings have never had to face before. So we don't have a cultural Metanarrative to make sense of the world for us. So we are surrounded by simulcra. So we have an infinite amount of choice. What can we do with that? That is our challenge. Postmodern artists are rising to it. More on them perhaps in my next blog...