Death of Meta-Narratives and Postmodern Era
Source: The Nation / www.nation.com / By Muhammad Ali /
17th-century French philosopher René Descartes’s probably had never envisaged, in his wildest dreams, that his famous dictum ‘cogito, ergo sum’ (“I think, therefore I am”) would be completely rejected by the Generation Z, Y and A, especially during the postmodern times. Nor did the proponents of the theories of modern era had ever imagined that a time would come when the fundamental ideologies, time-tested beliefs and universal truths would lose their meaning.
We live in a postmodern time; era of death of meta narratives. An era which ended the age of reason, an era where truth is under scrutiny, an era where ideologies are viewed with skepticism, an era where morality and ethical values have no meaning, an era where according to Vaclav Havel, ‘Everything is possible and almost nothing is certain.’ When Jean-Francois Lyotard first defined postmodernity in his famous book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge in 1979, the majority of us misunderstood what he actually meant. It is safe to admit that he was far ahead of his times and prophetically predicted the future (the present times) while critically analyzing the socio-economical, cultural, ethical and political manifestations of such an era. So, it is imperative to first understand the concepts of modernism before dissecting the challenges of postmodernism.
The era of modernism is generally referred as a period that starts from 1870-1910, and runs through the present times. The era describes the various domains of Euro-American cultures that emerged from the concepts of ‘Enlightenment’ (a European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries in which ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and humanity were considered the ‘grand narratives’). The era of modernism strongly believed in the meta-narratives based on the core principle of objective natural reality, the concept of absolute truth and grand ideologies which were not to be questioned. According to Hayden White, an American historian, this era saw emergence of four master narratives that derived the world cultures and societies for decades: the Greek Fatalism, Marxist Socialism, Bourgeois Revolutionism and Christian Redemptionism. For centuries, societies defined their socio-economic, religious and political boundaries around these meta-narratives. The ideology of the nation state, industrialization, rise of capitalism, urbanization, mass literacy, proliferation of mass media, upsurge of representative democracy, revolution in the field of science & technology, colonization by great empires etc. were some of basic characteristics of the modern era. In short, people believed that the problems in societies around the world can be resolved and managed through a system grounded on logic, reason, objectivity and time-tested theories.
Then came the postmodern times; the era that rejected the concepts of meta-narratives and criticized the long-held beliefs regarding society’s value systems, the characteristics of human nature, ethical and moral boundaries and above all the objective reality. In short, postmodernism means there is no absolute truth and there is no absolute falsehood, everything is debatable and every doctrine is questionable. For a long time, humanity believed on various socio-economic, religious, political and cultural ideologies which gave them a true meaning of life in this worldly world. But every ideology which we held for so long seems to be falling apart around us. We challenge and criticize the veracity of these claims and look at these belief systems with skepticism during these postmodern times.
So, how is all of this relevant to us? We live in these postmodern times and see its true manifestation unfolding in front of us. The rebellion against the typically accepted grand narratives have totally changed the way our societies are now functioning. What was believed to be unethical, against the norms and immoral, few decades ago, is now being acquiescently practiced under the garb of a ‘new normal’ as advocated under postmodernism. People around the globe now openly question the religious beliefs, the real meaning of life, the once unquestionable code of conduct of pluralistic societies, the importance of human relationship, the value of jurisprudence, and above all the meaning of freedom and liberty. It has impacted each and every domain of our socio-economic, political and cultural lives. Art, creativity, language, content writing, media, film-making etc. all have gone through a radical change in the name of so called ‘innovation’ or thinking ‘out of the box.’ Films like ‘Pulp Fiction,’ ‘Inception,’ ’8 ½,’ and ‘Blade Runner’ are some of the examples of postmodern era that are aimed to sabotage the highly regarded expectations of the audience, attacked the very basics of orthodox film making while experimenting with the blending of various genres. ‘Pastiche,’ ‘Distortion of Time,’ and ‘Hyperreality’ are also some of the interesting characteristics of postmodern era. In this regard, Jean Baudrillard (considered to be high-priest of postmodernism) argued that hyperreal is “more real than real.” People around the world, now, rely more on the hyperreality than the reality. That’s why the image or the copy of original is more powerful, attractive and has more meaning than the original in postmodernism. The high-resolution illustration of a juicy burger as advertised by a fast-food chain looks more attractive and convincing to the consumers as compared to the original in today’s hyperreal world.
Postmodernism is making ripples around the world. It is changing the way, we used to look at our world under the solace of once ‘universally accepted’ metanarratives. We don’t have that luxury anymore. It has impacted all the nations, societies, cultures and religions across the globe and Pakistan in no exception. Over last decades, we have seen a fundamental shift in our cognitive thinking, attitudes and behaviors regarding every aspect of life. We have started to question the very basics of our religious ideologies, the two-nation theory and our time-tested moral, ethical and cultural values which remained the binding force of our pluralistic society for centuries. Not only limited to society as a whole, even our individual character traits like the way we dress up, the way we interact with elderly and young ones, the manner we tackle our responsibilities at the domestic levels, all has gone through a radical shift. Now it’s ‘OK’ or more precisely ‘cool’ to be shabbily and weirdly dressed up while visiting a posh or expensive restaurant, crossing all boundaries of ethical and moral values when it comes down to making money, something we never even imagined couple of decades back. And we do this under the garb of freedom and liberty as advocated by the postmodern theorists. Ever rising voices for transgender rights, feminism, worrying increase in the numbers of atheists, stereotyping, anti-globalism etc. are some of the examples which we see happening in contemporary times, however, never imagined before. There were times when discussion on the possibilities of Pak-Israel relation was considered crossing the red line, however, it’s openly debated in all public and private spheres. Individualism, materialism, consumerism, isolationism and hyperrealism in various societies at large are some of the products of postmodernity. Here another question arises. What about postmodern mass media and its role in present times? Probably the theories of Marshal McLuhan would be the best place to look for such answers. When in 1960’s, his concept of ‘Medium is the Message’ took the world by storm, very few understood what he actually meant. We can see his prophecy coming true in present times. The digital media platforms, technological advancements and our ever-growing independence on them are the real manifestations of postmodern era.
Postmodernism and its underlying theories are just the beginning, a tip of the iceberg. There is a lot to come in the forms of post-postmodernism, post hyperrealism, post structuralism, post materialism etc. If you think that we would soon be out of the clutches of these mind-boggling and ever challenging concepts; I bet you better think again!