Vichaar Manthan's recent Sustainable Narratives conference had an enaging discussion on Culture and Literature In A Postmodern World with three respected authors Professor of Philosophy Lou Marinoff, Director of London's Nehru Centre Amish Tripathi and Professor of English Makarand Paranjape.
As chair, Sachin Nanda framed the conversation by sharing that only a third of the conference registrants understood the term Postmodernism? of which less than a quarter believed Postmodern ideals were sustainable. In light of these statistics the panel set out to define the term before assessing its impact and its future. For the readers? benefit I start by briefly defining its predecessor, Modernism and successor Re-Modernism to provide context.
Modernism is a Western ideology from the early 20th century. In its quest to find meaning in a chaotic world it disputed the ideology of Realism and religion, focusing on morality and which gave rise to various movements like abstract art. By the late 20th century Post-Modernism rose in opposition, but was soon shunned by Re-Modernism at the turn of the millennium. Since Re-Modernism returned back to principles of Modernism, panelist Makarand Paranjape (author of Debating the 'Post' Condition in India) defined Re-Modernism as a world where "reason is re-placed, not replaced? since it shines a new light on morality and advocates a search for truth, knowledge and meaning.
Defined by its drive to dispute, reject and mock Modernist ideologies, Postmodernists (and the likes of JF Lyotard and J Derrida) typically challenged Modernism's universal truths and instead positioned morality as being relative and socially conditioned. It led to a narrative of nobody being right and a sense of indeterminacy. Despite its large influence during the 80s and 90s, this ideology has been referred to as obscure or as the Panel put it, gibberish? and a Western Vagueology?. Lou Marinoff (author of Plato, not Prozac! and On Human Conflict) helpfully encapsulated it as it means anything you want it to mean or nothing whatsoever.
Author of?Immortals of Meluha, Amish Tripathi, summarised the concept as being driven by nihilism [i.e.] to burn everything that happened before? and contrasted this to the Eastern ideology or practice of Dharma that questions, respects and builds on the shoulders of its ancestors.
To best relay the themes of this talk we have to bring a parallel Eastern ideology? here, that is Dharma. Paranjape describes that it allows robust disagreement and debate without the extreme of relativism, nihilism [and] allows plurality." Marinoff echoed this with a quote from the Bhagavad Gita that "by whichever path they travel, they come to me at last? championing that this is one of the most open minded sentiments ever expressed in all of philosophy. This concept came into play by way of comparison as the Panel analysed the impact and longevity of the Postmodernism's influence on culture and literature.
How influential has Postmodernism been?
The impact on literature appears to have been that styles moved from rational to rogue. Stylistically and ideologically it became paradoxical, celebrating multiple meanings and styles. However, the consensus of the Panel was that the East, with its Dharmic foundation, was unaffected with the exception of regions and demographics that were operating from a historically Western context. Elsewhere however, it had embedded itself in academia, culture and literature such that it defines their cultural and political narratives until today.
The discussion later gave rise to the notion that Postmodernism, in its constant questioning and scepticism, was seeking a sort of perfection. Tripathi added that the impact of any ideology would be limited to its ivory tower if it couldn't grasp the concept that perfection does not exist. This may explain how swiftly the Re-Modernist ideology moved in.
To what degree has the impact been harmful?
At an individual level Paranjape claims that with its inherent lack of clarity, the ideology paralyses one into inarticulate gibberish? so much so that it ruined the careers of many [philosophers].
At a societal level Marinoff implies that Postmodernism numbed the minds of the masses which served institutions well since it was much easier to rule sheep than thinking citizens.
Despite its appeal, Marinoff asserted that they [Postmodernists] don t see the human being, they see the world through a lens of race, class, gender, politicisation, oppression and tyranny and they blame Western Civilisation for all of it?, the very civilisation that allowed it to flourish. Therefore at a civilisational level it appears the impact is self destructive. Tripathi likens it to a cancer which 'seeks to destroy the very thing that is giving it life, as it dies with the body? which he contrasts against his own Dharmic perspective.
The future of Postmodernism
*Instability of trends Paranjape implies its longevity is based on its efficacy and therefore, he argues, it works perfectly for Western academia which is trend driven? since its indeterminate stance can mould accordingly.
*Education When looking to the future, Marinoff expresses a need for realising the full potential of human beings [..] by keeping an open heart and an open mind and seeing the world as it is, instead of what has been indoctrinated. He calls for an education system that counters Postmodernism as "the world isn't black and white. We have a bicameral brain, we need to engage both hemispheres, we need both logos and mythos. He seeks for us to open the doors, read banned books, see the totalitarian censored films in the classroom and discuss them - that's the only way to open minds.
Paranjape goes further to say "we need Aatmanisation not Individualisation? (where Aatman broadly refers to the common energy that connects us all). Postmodernism allows one to recognise reason, but Dharma brings an intuition, a kind of empathy?. Tripathi support this by asserting that India has an answer to bridge this gap, [by Dharma] allowing us to understand the concept of nuance? and he suggests that if we can imbibe the concept of consciousness then this fundamentally changes the way we look at things?.
A consciousness revolution for a new humanism
Having understood the freedom of thought that Postmodernism brought to culture and literature, against the background of its chaos, antagonism and vagueness, the panellists left us with some inspired considerations on vehicles for progress.
Marinoff guided viewers with a question what colour are ideas? what race, gender, religion are ideas? Great ideas belong to ALL human beings!? thus reiterating a need for change at the grass roots through education and a need for ideology to be inclusive. But what next?
Paranjape reminds us that in communication there is action and the capacity to change the world?. Tripathi responded that we can draw on the Indian tradition where stories are vehicles for philosophy.
Marinoff concluded that we need a new humanism, one which values the human being as human and all of the differences? or as Paranjape puts it, a consciousness revolution.
Daksha Raval is a graduate of Economics. After over a decade working at the Big4 on cross border tax, she is now Founder of Serve.Social setting out to create a global culture of volunteering, and is one of Vichaar Manthan's newest volunteers.