The effect of postmodernist thought on contemporary political discourse is a shift in the framing and presentation of the argument and the informative content found within the argument.
The ramifications of this are far-reaching. More so than in the past, those that present these issues – politicians, corporations, media outlets – control the discourse to a much greater extent, easily compartmentalizing the knee-jerk opposing voices, and drowning out those that might offer alternative solutions from the margins of the political spectrum. No issue, regardless of size – from war to the electoral process – has found itself immune to this hasty reorientation.
Most frustrating is that this adaptation of postmodern tenets is done in a narrow and unrefined manner, ignoring much of the intense research and careful thought that is put into the postmodernist study of disciplines such as history and literature. A bastardized form of this schema has become entrenched in political thought, and the citizens of many states across the world are none the better for it.
“The United States is held hostage to the influence of two pernicious forces: a worship of violence embodied by the traditional right and a frantic materialism of the postmodern sort, which has impeached active dissent and opposition to the patent oligarchic deviancy of modern so-called Liberal democracies. Thereby, the postmodernism of the Left has corroborated the Right.” (Preparata, pg.xiv)
In his 2007 book, Ideology of Tyranny, Guido Perparata laments the effects that postmodernist thought has had on modern Western society, particularly when it comes to political matters and the ramifications the decisions shaped by said discourse have on society as a whole. Absorbing much of his criticism is French theorist Michel Foucault, as he has become the icon of sorts for a theory that dismisses truth, promotes relativism, and demands a careful and concise analysis of the always unique relationship between objects as opposed to the objects themselves. Preparata feels this overarching approach – rather than freeing the human mind to think in more open minded and abstract ways – has, at least practically, created oblique politically correct language, and a general dialogue that prefers molasses-like semantic arguments to streamlined hierarchies and structures. His examples are numerous, his argument persuasive, and his conclusion is rueful: “The postmodernists have carried the day: school and university curricula in the United States have, for the most part, converted to the discourse of diversity, multiplicity, and unbridgeable ‘difference’” (Preparata, pg.xv)
But in truth – to the extent that there is such a thing – postmodernist theory need not be such a convoluted mess that needs immediate replacement, as Preparata not-so-tacitly recommends. Knowing how to navigate the discourse successfully is the difference between whether it is a conceptual morass or an effective and informative tool for twenty first century analysis. As the world becomes governed by rules enacted less by public opinion and more by closed door meetings, a proper understanding of complicated issues must arrive before proper action, and postmodernism can definitely help with the former and perhaps then with the latter.
The immediate matter at hand is language use. Postmodernism holds that the information language contains is temporal, pliable and can be altered – either explicitly or subtly – to put forth a certain argument. There is no inherent meaning in a single word. An analysis of its usage must be looked at as being unique and different in every situation, taking into consideration the speaker, their motive, their addressee, the location, and the time in a historical context. All these factors make the moment of that usage unique. With the fragmentation of language demanding a multi-interpretive approach to analyzing information, factoids can be specifically fashioned to support specific arguments.
To give an example, in the recent debate over health care reform in America, politicians both for and against the measures can claim that the majority of the electorate is behind their position. This is possible because each side can attest to specifically worded public opinion polls. In the case of those pushing for reform, the question typically runs along the lines of, “is it time for the United States to offer a government run health care program like other first-world nations?” Meanwhile, in the case of those against reform, the question might be put to the populace thusly: ‘”Should the United States create a government-controlled form of socialized medicine that each American must participate in?”
Both of these statements purport to ask the same question, but are meant to spurn different feelings and concerns in the mind of the addressee. Certainly what appears to be a more neutral question can posed – “Should the United States enact health care reform that creates a single-payer system?” – but even keywords in that query can have people see a particular political slant behind the wording. ‘Health care reform’ and ‘single-payer’ are loaded terms, with all those along the political spectrum reacting to them differently.
While political manipulation of the populace is nothing new, the form it has taken in the last three to four decades would make it largely unrecognizable for those familiar with it before this postmodern period. Technology has allowed for information to come apart at its seams, the massive detritus washing ashore in piecemeal form, easily manipulated and contorted by those on the upper hand of power relations.
Put simply, technology has caught up with a theory that for years was typically too abstract and unwieldy to be applied on a grand scale to the macrostructural landscape. Postmodernism’s decades-old assertions concerning the limitations and flexibility of truth and language have become an uneasy bedrock for political discourse. It has gone from peripheral to essential.
For democracy to function, information regarding how the government is run must be offered freely and with uniform regularity. An informed populace is necessary for elections to best represent the wishes of the state’s citizens. Disinformation and segments of truth buried in rhetoric or irrelevance has become so commonplace that the term ‘voting against one’s interest’ has become a term that no longer raises eyebrows, despite the fact that it is a damning symptom of a malfunctioning democracy. The term ’24 Hour News Cycle’ has been used in a derogatory manner by those in elected office, but even they begrudgingly admit that they themselves are dependent on this form of information diffusion and analysis, and make many decisions with it in mind.
Troublingly, postmodernism unapologetically concedes that such outcomes are wholly expected in its schema of the relationship between subjects (in this case, the state and the populace). Metanarratives are recycled endlessly, with power versus the powerless the most typical form, and only the tools changing over time (from physical violence of earlier periods to lobbying and telegenic consultants today). Carl Boggs’ Imperial Delusions focuses on the breaking down of familiar global power structures at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and notes that, “postmodern discourses… owing to its reliance on Michel Foucault’s model of dispersed power, stress decentered forms of authority and social relations, diversity, and fluidity tied to abstract historical processes that, in this context, merge nicely with globalization motifs. Its near mystical approach to international politics in effect conceals the self-interested, blatant, violent exercises of American national power.” (Boggs, pg.xxxiv) Like Perparata, Boggs is rightly concerned that certain characteristics of postmodernist theory – which is now entering its sixth decade – has splintered political discourse to the point where only brutal subjugation is the easily utilized tool for particular nation-states.
The solution to this constant obstacle, then, is a finer reading of postmodernism for a wider audience, as, despite its bleak assertions and mountains of evidence that support these assertions of Preparata and Boggs, navigation through these conceptual structures is possible to some degree, and with a better understanding of how these structures operate within twenty first century society, answers can be found to improve the lives of the billions across the planet. And postmodernism truly is a large enough theory to address such heavy and pressing concerns. Its acknowledgement of how unwieldy and fragmented information has become leads it to attempt to arrange and order the vast fields of knowledge as best it can (while acknowledging that a creating a wholly complete schema is not possible).
Brian McHale, in Constructing Postmodernism, outlines the criteria of the theory:
“We must choose among competing constructions of postmodernism on the basis of various kinds of rightness or fit such as, for instance, validity of inference; internal consistency or coherence; representativeness of sample; appropriateness of scope; richness of interconnections; fineness of detail; and productivity, a story’s capability to generate other stories” (McHale, pg.26)
These are all processes that take a large amount of research when applying them to such a large disciplines like a global economic theory or a state’s regulatory bodies. When it comes to political discourse, postmodernism looks not only at the question being asked but the larger situation surrounding the question. Who is asking it and to whom, what the agenda of both of these people may be, and where these factors figure into the larger concepts of society in general. Several components must be taken into consideration when critiquing these interactions and they shall be explored in detail herein.
Meta-narratives and how they are processed
The term ‘agenda’ has taken on a negative connotation in the last several years, as it has been used to describe a supposedly nefarious plan hatched by people in power to be unleashed upon the hapless public. Predictably, in the oversimplified two-party American system, the right accuses the left of a ‘socialist agenda’ while the left accuses the right of a ‘corporate agenda’. Outside of this, however, ‘agenda’ simply means “a list of items of business to be considered and discussed at a meeting” (New Oxford American Dictionary).
The politics of Western society has become so steeped in doubletalk and the search for ulterior motives in the decisions made in the halls of power that the belief that there is a pretext around every corner and within every decision has become an established part of political debate. Mirrored in the global interconnectivity that modern communication allows, these agendas can include action and influence from corporations, special interests, political parties, specific citizens, international groups, and media outlets.
Effective accusations of ‘agendas’ can become something more; a narrative that becomes as common as background noise that can always be utilized to by its creators to strengthen their own position. The ‘liberal media bias’ narrative has been pushed so heavily in the last two decades – despite evidence showing that the opposite appears to be true, that the media has a decidedly conservative bias – that it becomes an easy accusation to be levied by a conservative who is coming under fire by the mainstream media. Such accusations have become so typical that slang terms for such negative coverage have become separate memes, as Sarah Palin has used the portmanteau ‘lamestream media’ as label for her detractors. On the other side of this stark political spectrum, the left typically accuses the right of being heavily influenced by special interests and corporate lobbying, which is a slightly difficult accusation to make, as the simple journalistic pursuit of ‘following the money’ typically reveals that both left and right politicians take corporate money – and therefore support pro-corporate legislation – in almost equal measure.
This is has become such a familiar acknowledgement – that both sides of the narrow political spectrum that exists in most democratic Western countries are more similar than different in that they support the status quo of those holding socioeconomic power – that it has become a narrative in and of itself. And with that comes advertising during election campaigns of candidates proudly asserting themselves as being a member of either party while lamenting the activities of the party they associate with, promising to somehow fight against this entrenched arrangement (in 2010 American mid-term elections, several democratic candidates ran on an anti-White House platform, despite the fact that Obama is a democrat).
These narratives are extremely pliable, and as the overall ‘story’ is more essential to its adherents than the facts that supposedly create the story, it is extremely easy for these narratives to disregard contradictory facts that discredit it (as the example above practically demands a cognitive dissonance).
The goal then for the postmodern theorist is to rise above these debates and look for similar patterns that might reveal the larger conceptual structure (in this case, that participating in government practically demands a cozy relationship with special interest groups). Preparata offers the following:
“Recent scholarly analyses of Neoconservatism have revealed the existence of an undeniable philosophical affinity between those postmodernists of the Right and their counterparts on the Left…Both parties believe that ours in a world ultimately driven by chance, which only power (i.e. violence) can subdue. Yet the conservative elitists keep this truth occult and recommend, for the sake of social stability, the espousal of ‘traditional values’ and economic oligarchism, whereas the Foucaldian postmodernists of the Left personify, more or less aggressively, the other half of the game, namely the unstable and chaotic drift of life upon whose taming the conservatives assert their political tenure.” (Preparata, pg.5-6)
This analysis reveals another narrative – tenuously labeled as a ‘metanarrative’, as it stands above the narratives we are already exploring – where both sides of the political spectrum are practically defined by being the other’s opposite. The simplest binary structures – whether definitions like homogeneous and heterogeneous or symbols like yin and yang – do not require extensive investigation of both parts. Knowing the qualities of one means you immediately know the other, as it is its mirror image. Despite seeming there to be little room for interpretation and analysis, the agendas of these absolutes is still a foundation for a new discourse. Knowing a position and its opposite leaves all those that do not fit into the simply binary momentarily unexposed and not acknowledged.
The danger of assertion-and-negation being the basis for human understanding is a chief concern of postmodernism, and in modern politics the challenge is to resist bending positions outside the binary system into it, warping the tenets so that it loses its autonomy. Those that reside in either dominant binary argue that this assimilation is necessary for even part of this separate position to see some of its demands acknowledged (the forming of the British government in the 2010 elections – with the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties making bilateral concessions in order to join forces and take power – is a key example). Escaping this politics of compromise is necessary for the survival of this alternate/independent position on the political spectrum. Binaries by nature attempt to hold those slightly similar political positions nearby in constant check, just as the gravity of large planets keep their moons in orbit.
Yet this is not the biggest difficulty that a properly working democratic government faces. Despite it being ‘the halls of power’, the influence of private entities and institutions with narrow economic goals has been on the rise for the last four decades. Now certainly a comparatively small contingent of wealthy individuals have always had an inordinately large say in the goings-on in congress or parliament, but much of the time it was the politicians themselves with the wealth, or were connected to it in a much more immediate and straightforward relationship (they were friends or associates of powerful businessmen).
Today, faceless corporations owned by a multitude of investors whose sole goal is profit have armies of lobbyists whose jobs are to shape law to their benefit, typically at the expense of what would be beneficial to the vast majority of the state’s citizens: “These blind forces working in society behind the backs of actors raise questions concerning the real possibilities of politics in modern society: how far these blind forces extend; how automatically they function and how binding they are. When thinking about modern politics the problem is, how much and what kind of scope the blind forces working in society leave for politics. These ‘contradictions’ are built deep inside modern politics and their ‘traces’ may be easily seen in the empirical level of everyday routine politics.” (Pekonen, pg.130)
The belief, however, that these ‘blind forces’ are permanently entrenched in political discourse is a perspective that postmodernism vigorously rejects. If positive narratives such as progress, egalitarianism and total efficiency are artificial constructs, then so too are negative ones such as incessant class warfare and bureaucratic corruption. Postmodernism doggedly stresses the importance of acknowledging that many possibilities are always on the table, and that almost all narratives and beliefs go through periods of being embraced or scorned. While perhaps this is reassuring on a zen-like level – as it might be the only way to see some level of solace in many of these narratives that take on the form of political ideology which can be both brutal and as long as several lifetimes – this does not mean the current climate is lacking particular challenges, nor that any person should wait on the sidelines for the tide to turn.
But what exactly is the postmodern citizen expected to do? On some level, the same type of work as a postmodernist theorist: Consume and analyze the information presented to them, and make the best possible judgment. Pekonen offers the following:
“The trend in the modernizing process has been that the individual has to stand more and more on his or her own feet; her or she must decode for him or herself what is taking place. It is ever more difficult to resort to some traditional narrative. Of course, a very interesting and very important problem is what it exactly means when political leaders try to represent in their persons some ‘new’, and how the followers judge this ‘new’, and how political judgment functions.” (Pekonen, pg.132)
This was written in 1989, but in many ways it took nineteen years for a large scale practical example of how simply ‘new’ – constantly associated with rebirth, redemption, and progress – could possibly be sold to a large segment of a state’s population as legitimate political discourse. In the Western World, the years leading up to the second United States presidential election of the twenty-first century was full of disillusionment and malaise from practically all shades on the political spectrum. The fate of the global economy suddenly hanging in the balance, at no other time was the outcome of a single nation’s vote so studied and anticipated by the rest of the world. It became clear that political and economic systems were failing and not meeting the needs of a rapidly changing, globalized society. In effect, the state of the world was catching up to the abstract pronouncements postmodernism offered decades earlier. Preparata saw Foucault as the icon of this shift in perspective that inevitably altered the landscape of political discourse, and decries the result:
“This new philosophical ‘system’ implied no resolution, no synthesis, no expectation of salvation, no promise of a struggle in the name of unity – aspects that, for instance, Christianity and Marxism did share to a certain extent. Because it didn’t really promise a way out of the suffering, the new ‘discourse’ seemed to abandon the world to its own confusion and insolvency.” (Preparata, pg.2)
In the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama succeeded thanks in part to his ability to supersede these typical narratives concerning the inefficient morass of contemporary politics. But even this is an example of narrative atop another. There needed to be an instituted narrative – ‘Washington is broken’ – for Obama to place his own supposedly narrative-free narrative – ‘and I can fix Washington because I embody hope and change’ – above it. An acknowledgement of narratives – an act which becomes ‘meta’, meaning, in this context, an awareness of a higher order – is intended to be proof that one is freed from the lower narrative in question, as pointing it out is supposed to be an epiphany to those who have until then been ‘suckered in’ by it. But as illustrated above, it is not a true solution, as other ‘higher’ narratives necessarily conquer the previous ones, only to become subject to future conquerings themselves.
The result of these overarching and overlapping narratives that continue to relate back to power relations offer the average citizen nothing but suspicion when it comes to how they assess any political figure – or representative of a political figure – whether it is a campaign volunteer or a media personality. This level of clarity – not being pulled in and fooled by these narratives – is sensibly marred by a feeling of cynicism. Is there nothing but narratives atop narratives? And once one deciphers and arranges them, what are the practical steps required to make an actual change in local and global governance?
Much like modern bureaucracy, this increasingly complicated structure of ideas is meant to offer clear solutions but frequently results in the exact opposite. Giving every position a voice means a constant babbling of concerns, with one group or concept always being drowned out by the general chorus. Preparata laments that the effects of postmodernism can, “fragment dissent, impeach debate, antagonize and censor opposing views, discredit universal compassion, promote U.S. corporate power through the promarketing discourse of diversity, and annihilate the comprehension of political dynamics.” (Preparata, pg.112)
Preparata’s hostility is not without its merits, but an acknowledgement of this system cannot be solely a negative thing. He sees postmodernism as an ending, as a system that boils down everything to a miasma of epistemological shreds, when really it should be looked at as a thought process that can be applied to already existing political system. Jameson, for example, has offered up extremely liberating and practical applications of postmodernist thought upon capitalist theories, namely the act of cognitive mapping (Buchanan, pg109).
Discovering metanarratives does not destroy them or sap them of their function or power. They can be properly placed and arranged in everything from flow charts to punch lines. The most important thing is to be constantly aware of them, being able to tell the forest from the trees: What are the goals of the metanarrative in question? Who is promulgating the existence of this binary? What do they have to gain from these manufactured positions that politicians bargain over?
Typically this answer finds those in positions of power orchestrating such accounts, with many below them playing a particular part in the chain, sometimes unknowably. Some cling to one particular binary so ardently that they may not realize the role they play in the metanarrative that exists above them.
The American health care debate mentioned in the introduction makes a fine example, as further research – not necessarily offered in the mainstream media – illustrates that through large donations to various politicians, health care insurers and pharmaceutical companies helped frame not only the bill but also the public discourse surrounding it. If the most basic role of democracy is to ensure that a majority of its citizens are well looked after and governed in a way that is beneficial to as many as possible, such discoveries of concentrated capital/power manipulating the very creation of far reaching and essential laws should be not only of great concern, but of vociferous denunciation as well. Peeling the layers away from the byline or ‘official’ announcement is one of the simplest ways to find the metanarrative. Yet a major contemporary impediment to this process of investigation is the institution that for much of the twentieth century was expected to illuminate and reveal such manipulation by those in power: the media.
Media Perception and the twenty-four hour news cycle
Postmodernism permits the study of temporary patterns to make temporary conclusions, and holds that truths are arbitrary and are subject to change. What might be considered gospel one day, could be heresy the next. What should be studied, then, are the goals of those who make such seemingly blanket and absolute pronouncements.
The role of the media is to disseminate information, but to be more specific, the information is expected to be relevant and as objective as possible. This has been the goal for as long as the ‘news’ has been out of the direct hands of the rulers of the state. While we should not be so naïve to make the case that Edward Murrow and Walter Cronkite at no point framed the news to fit their particular viewpoint of the world – the former offering opinions on the McCarthy hearings, the latter on Vietnam – there has been a marked change in how the news – especially reports pertaining to power structures, both political and corporate – is presented to the public.
The term ‘conflict of interest’ has taken on new and bizarre significance in the postmodernist period, in that espousing a particular political viewpoint in the act of reporting the issue at hand is not considered a ‘conflict’ at all, but rather an accepted form of reporting. After all, a cynic might argue, in a postmodernist world where is no truth, why bother trying to be objective?
Without acknowledging the philosophical background from where this line of thinking came from – which eventually espouses a greater and more complex analysis of the facts to come to the most informed ‘temporary’ truth – the media turns away from the depth of research required for such complex issues that plague modern society.
The result is what referred to as ‘infotainment’, a form of news presented by pundits, who wear their opinions on their sleeve, and frequently blur the line of fact and opinion. While Sunday morning political talk shows have always been a source of vigorous debate, the advent of the twenty-four hour news network has expanded the length of the discussions without proportionally increasing the amount of information.
One of the basic problems is simply that these networks – CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, BBC Newsworld, Al-Jazeera – are constantly competing with other, wholly disparate television programs for viewership. With the exception of the BBC, all of these stations make money off of advertising, which bases rates on the size of the audience. Beginning in the nineteen eighties, a channel with nothing but news stories suddenly had to be interesting and worth watching, as opposed to being only informative. In this, there has to be a level of entertainment or levity interposed between the typically bleaker actual news, or keep these distressing remarks on floods, bombings, or outbreaks to brief, thirty-second digestives. Softer, lifestyle-oriented stories – perhaps a segment covering some elderly women in a small town raising money for charity by walking in marathons – became commonplace not only in mid-afternoon lulls in viewership, but made there way onto the tail end of nightly newscasts on the major networks. A palette cleanser for twenty minutes of mostly rapid-fire negativity.
This has become the standard in reporting. A formulaic news format that borrows from other television programs and includes stories that last the length of commercials (or shorter) results in an under informed populace who become accustomed to having complex global problems whittled down to single paragraph read by a telegenic personality. Part of the reliance on this method is due to the fact by promising twenty-four hour, round the clock news reportage, is that there needs to be twenty four hours of programming, every day of the year, whether there is anything worthwhile to report or not. It is rather disillusioning that in response to this gap of events to report upon the news networks choose distinctly non-news lifestyle pieces over more expansive and nuanced coverage of complex issues such as the state of the nation’s regulatory bodies, the cost-benefit analysis of foreign intervention and aid, and the development of alternative energy sources.
Instead, thanks to the fragmenting of stories and a drive for high-as-possible ratings, an increase in hyperbolic rhetoric and the peddling of unsubstantiated rumour was the result. Even when pertinent information is meted out, it is wrapped up in a massive and constant volley of less relevant peripheral information so that it is hard to easily determine the useful from the useless. Some of this is intentional misdirection, some is accidental irrelevance, and some of it is an attempt to actually disseminate – what the producer and network heads believe is – genuine information. The result is that all positions along a political spectrum can find at least a kernel of what they chose to see as truth or an agenda in the coverage and analysis of any issue.
In the coverage of pressing issues there is no true bipartisan concern, as lines can be drawn anywhere, but they typically follow the line of power relations, which, at the beginning of the twenty-first century is concentrated among multinational financial and energy corporations. The importance of this factor cannot be understated, as the result are broadcasts that represent – whether subtly or explicitly – the interests of the respective power. This is not to say that Goldman Sachs is in constant contact with any news channels demanding that they cut any criticism of the company from reports. While there have been several instances of companies like Monsanto and Brown & Williamson attempting to kill stories that portray them in an unflattering and sometimes criminal light, most criticism of the powers themselves has been absorbed and commodified within the overall media landscape. As people have slowly been pigeonholed into stark and opposing left and right sides of the political spectrum, media outlets have been fashioned to shallowly represent such political views to give the illusion of choice. While the majority of commentators may push support for less government intervention on one channel, another may constantly champion government regulation. This supposed balance is meant to be offered up as proof that there is diverse opinion available in the media, when in reality the result is a further polarizing of two sides, leaving the corporate entities in power to act without any restraint from the general population. A six-minute debate between two or three talking heads amidst a constant barrage of commercials – some of them for the product or corporation being discussed – is a paltry example of democracy and in-depth coverage of a pressing issue.
Clearly associated with this is the large and far-reaching problem of market concentration of media outlets. Not so much because a plurality of voices makes for a more-informed open debate, but because the corporations that own the television networks, radio stations, and internet sites which provide the information have such far ranging investments or partnerships in many corporations that are involved in matters of great and newsworthy importance. MSNBC is owned by a corporation called NBC Universal, which is soon to be absorbed by media giant Comcast. This corporation has recently been accused of breaking network neutrality laws by intentionally slowing down service to certain websites and for file transfers. The blandly named News Corp. – which oversees the Fox News Network – is another large media corporation run by Rupert Murdoch, although among its wealthy investors is Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal who has been suspected of funding terrorist-related groups in the Middle East. What should be noted here is how these facts are never or only obliquely mentioned on these or competing news networks (perhaps they all acknowledge the old phrase that begins, ‘those in glass houses…’). The result is that the larger corporate interests of the media outlets themselves are rarely exposed in the mainstream media. Where there should be a constant state of transparency is instead a lack of details from the very institution that is meant to offer that very thing to the public.
These information-dispensing superstructures play an extremely large role in framing the political discourse not only of a single state, but of the world as a whole. When the public is unaware of these corporations’ own vested interests – whether it may have a political bent or simply attempting to make a profit by almost any means necessary – the quality of these discourses suffers greatly. A lack of essential information means people are building opinions on poor foundations, which is ruinous for democracy when they bring such misapprehensions to the voting booth.
Corporatism has become a new empire, operating without regard for state borders, but with similar blanket strangulations on the ease of the spreading of information through their media operations. Due to frequent polls suggesting that a majority of citizens in Western nations are aware of such machinations and do not implicitly the trust the media (Morales, 2010), there is a postmodernist bent here due to the almost paradoxical nature of how the citizens react to such a situation: We are aware of the news’ biased nature, but are reliant on it for daily information, and continue to form opinions based upon what it provides.
Few citizens – regardless of age, culture, or education level – would deny that much of information offered through traditional media outlets is engineered and altered to present the investors point of view above all else. Through a thin veneer of reporting the unassailable facts of a news story is promulgated, with pundits then finessing certain narrow opinions on the matter, but viewers are reminded every seven minutes how nearly all of network television operates. The material – whether information or entertainment – is meant to make the purchases of advertising space appealing to corporations. The advertising pays for the shows and those who watch the shows are expected to pay for the advertising by purchasing the products. Recognizing our own role in the many agendas we knowingly or unknowingly participate in is essential in keeping our heads above water, so to speak:
“To escape the general postmodern incredulity towards metanarratives it is only necessary that we regard our own metanarrative incredulously, in a certain sense, proferring it tentatively or provisionally, as no more (but no less) than a strategically useful and satisfying fiction, in the key of ‘as if’.” (McHale, pg.24)
Watching television to understand anything concrete about the goings-on in the world – beyond such basic coverage of events like natural disasters – require a level of suspicion towards the organization that is presenting the information to you. What do they gain from framing the world in such a fashion? What do they expect you to conclude?
This requires some level of research, sometimes difficult to find, as the most common form of knowledge accumulation comes through the same source: corporate owned media outlets, whether it be televised or on the internet (although within the ever-expanding latter example are several news websites that are attempting to offer a more expanded and independent narrative as compared to those with corporate and political ties).
In some ways, we are once again returning to Preparata’s concerns about the onset of cyncism and helplessness, where people are more aware than ever of how much power lies outside of their control. It is no surprise, then, that satirical news programs that critique actual news coverage are not only popular, but are thought to be more truthful than its legitimate brethren. Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show, has been voted as the most trustworthy newscaster (Nordyke, 2010), thanks largely in part to the effort of contextualizing the news itself, rather than simply report it. There is a certain level of public catharsis that occurs when institutions that repeatedly trumpet their own success and importance are shown to be guilty to hypocrisy and gross error. A reminder of the fallibility in government and the media should be seen as an impetus to improve these organizations, rather than an outright attack upon them. Like modernism before it, postmodernism embraces this deconstruction of absolutes, as it closes the perceived gulf between them and us.
But outside of socially conscious satire and academia, this gulf between political positions are widening and fragmenting, along with alarming tones and more extreme language to describe anyone that does not share the same opinions as the speaker.
The politically motivated shooting of a dozen people outside of a mall by a mentally disturbed young man in Arizona in January 2011 set off a volley of debates in the media over the inflammatory rhetoric on the left and the right sides of the political spectrum (as the intended target was a democratic candidate, the criticism was directed mainly at conservatives, who in turn accused those accusing liberals of politicizing the issue and irresponsibly pinning the blame on them).
While obviously a tragedy that requires a society to do as much as possible to ensure that it must not occur again, it is a relatively straightforward story to cover, and from the standpoint of how a complex society operates – and what the government’s job is to require it operate smoothly – it requires very little augmentation. Alongside the vitriolic argument over vitriolic rhetoric came a renewed but temporary debate over gun control. Ranging from altering the laws so mentally disturbed people cannot purchase weapons to whether certain guns cannot be augmented with extended magazines, the discussion on the major news networks reflected the opinions of a minority of citizens and an influential lobbying group (the NRA). But as noted above, the discussion alone was meant to be an example of democracy in action. Because it is being discussed for several days after the incident, the message to be conveyed was that there was also going to be some type of reform in the halls of government. In fact, little was done by the way of government intervention either at the state or federal level when it came to the issue of gun control.
This section has focused mainly on the presence of television news, as it has become the main source for up-to-date information on the goings-on in the world. The rise of the internet has so far only made small changes in how or what is reported. In fact, in some ways it’s biggest accomplishment is the leveling of the playing field for mainstream newspapers and television networks alike, as newspaper websites can now be updated almost as quickly as a news reporter can read off a teleprompter.
Yet the newspaper industry is still in a particularly weak position, as it has been battered for decades at the hands of the faster medium that is television. Klosterman notes that with the rise of twenty-four hours news, the newspaper industry – thanks to a declining readership directly correlated to the rise of television– realized that, “TV was able to deliver the bare bones of information at a much faster speed. It was like the newspapers were a horse and buggy, and TV was a train. So how did newspaper magnates combat this dilemma? By trying to design a really, really fast horse.” (Klosterman, pg.214-215) Instead of trying to differentiate itself from television with longer and more in depth articles, the newspaper industry tried to ape television by offering shorter and flashier takes on current events. (Klosterman, pg.215) This led to a battle with advancing technology that the newspaper had no hope in winning.
The internet laid a further blow upon the world of print media, as free classified sites like Craigslist stole paid classifieds from newspapers, and while banner ads are common presence on newspaper websites, they only earn a fraction of the revenue that ads of varying sizes do on physical paper. It has become commonplace that a sharp uptick in layoffs and the closing global offices now counts for good news for a newspaper, as the more common outcome is simply bankruptcy.
On the other side of the technological spectrum, what the internet has allowed for is an opening for alternative news sites that are less beholden to advertisers and the corporate world. While the immediate trade offs are less flashy graphics, a lack of international bureaus, and a slow uptake on breaking news, the advantage is that these sites such as Real News Network can offer exactly what television shied away from: in depth coverage of complex political issues. The challenge for these networks then is to retrain the Western mind – becoming more and more accustomed to the bullet-point infotainment world of data dispensing – to better absorb and analyze these complicated matters. The question of the ultimate locus of the information is a difficult one in postmodernism, as there is no single truth, but only a hierarchy of answers of varying quality. In this, statistics compiled by the state through bipartisan offices and departments are typically agreed upon by academics and impartial observers alike as the best places to find such data. The greater detail paid to the statistics and how they were processed means a better and well rounded conclusion.
The internet then plays a convoluted role in the access of global information. It can be blamed as the chief proponent of the fragmented and unverified source for immediate knowledge, while its freedom and flexibility means it can easily provide the antidote to these problems if only people could find the websites that attempt to provide this service.
Not a moment too soon, because as the many issues concerning the state of world become more complex – with many philosophies such as postmodernism predicting this and observing these changes – the current dominant apparatus meant to provide information refined itself in such a way as to provide insufficient, superficial, and narrower answers. While television has long been considered the culprit of this streamlining, the internet has replaced the twenty four hour news networks as an accelerated form of being able to find some type of evidence for whatever political position you support. This was foreshadowed as early as 1989:
“Day-to-day political problems and disputed questions come to the fore and their relevance to the whole of parliamentary politics becomes all the more important. The aim of parliamentary politics in this situation, when political actors try to answer the challenge posed by the modern situation, seems to be the ‘electrifying of situations’ (the phrase is Frederic Jameson’s). When the present moment and situations are continually changing, all that is left is the ‘electrification’ of always new, repetitive and differing kinds of situation. The continuance of time has the tendency to be interrupted or split. There exist only situations and the politics of these situations. It seems that even politics has run across the experience that time does not necessarily have continuance.” (Pekonen, pg.138)
This ‘electrification’ is seen in hyper-partisan rhetoric as well as in oversimplified platitudes shared by anyone who has a louder-than-average voice in political discourse (namely politicians and pundits in the media). While many have lamented the fact that twenty-four hour news cycle ensures that extremely complex and important issues are not given the proper attention for the citizens of the country, it can certainly be argued that this form of media is a symptom of a much larger problem: The focus on the short term and the truncation of time perception.
The Erasure of History
Political/economic writer Matt Taibbi notes in his book Griftopia that the corporate focus for profit in the late-twentieth/early twenty-first century has been primarily on the short term. Taking incredible risks for gains in a two to five year period (or even just compared to the previous quarter) has triumphed over making a steady profit over several decades. Much of this has come into being thanks to a loosening of financial regulations, which permit large institutions to take more risk. Sometimes these risks create catastrophic economic disasters that can affect many more economic structures than the institutions that took them – with the 2008 financial crisis being the prime example – but in many cases the people that made these decisions years earlier are no longer heads of the guilty corporations. It becomes ‘someone else’s problem’ (in this case, the citizens of the United States, the United Kingdom, and other Western nations, who bailed out some of their country’s biggest banks to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, although in America alone the true number, if one includes money offered by the Federal Reserve, might be in the trillions). The connection between cause and effect is broken if the causers are never able to feel the effect.
Likewise, the government officials that had revised these laws after being influenced and lobbied by these same corporations are not as concerned with the legacy they leave. With the memory of the average citizen being broken down thanks to the accelerated news cycle and the impression that immediacy and knee-jerk reactions are the only way to proceed in a fast paced world, it is possible for politicians to vote for bills that go against their constituents’ interest without fear of ballot retribution down the road. If they do happen to be voted out – a rarity, as many democratic Western nations have extremely high incumbent retention rate – it has become the norm for the ex-politician to find a consulting or lobbying position with whatever special interest they cozied up to while in office.
Information becomes unmoored, adrift and forgotten for as long as need be. The ease at which statistics can be skewered or altered to support a particular political position has reached new heights in the postmodern internet era. Rather than increase the level of accountability – so far, anyway – it has enabled any website to be set up as a foundation or committee that can distribute articles or studies that either erroneously cite sources or invent them out of thin air.
Fact-checking on such articles can result in those that cry foul to be labeled fierce partisans, trying to discredit the supposed evidence. If concentrated capital from the corporate sector wants to push a particular agenda an early public relations move is to form an incestuous groups of supposedly distinct website committees that all support said agenda.
From an issue to issue basis – whether it be energy policy, corporate tax policy, or health care – these façade organizations that represent the positions of the large corporations that control and distribute resources are enough to create the appearance of legitimacy, no matter how much the evidence supplied may run counter to the actual statistics.
On a global scale, these corporations unite under larger geopolitical organization such as the IMF, The World Bank, NAFTA, NATO, and host of others. Citing an overwhelming amount of organizations – government and non – with mysterious acronyms as their titles, historian J.M. Roberts acknowledges that, “the spread of this luxuriant undergrowth to international affairs makes obsolete, nonetheless, any notion that they can form a game played by independent and autonomous players operating without restraint except of individual interest as interpreted by Realpolitik.” (Roberts, pg.852) A ‘game’ that affects one and all, as it is played every moment across the globe. The more one studies history, the more one realizes how malleable it is. Numbers are mistakenly given sacrosanct status – as we are accustomed to their unchanging perfection in the realm of mathematics and science – with dates and chronologies held as the first step in constructing when history actually took place. But looking backward from the present day requires assumptions, guesses, and endless corrections, with the past becoming more opaque the further back one looks: “The end of one of the centuries into which the Christian dating system arbitrarily divides the past has no significance, nor has any supposed millennial year, except that of convention and convenience.” (Roberts, pg.855)
Once again, we come up to postmodernism’s chief tenets, the instability of complete knowledge – especially when it comes to history, where the victors have the privilege of writing it and seeing this version live on down through generations – and the necessary delusion that we must tell ourselves concerning what time it ‘actually’ is in relation to events thousands of years before. Yet incongruous dates have plagued Europe and the rest of the world as late as the early twentieth century. Russia was consistently two weeks behind the rest of the continent, so the October Revolution of 1917 that ushered in over seven decades of communist rule occurred in November as far as the Western world was concerned. Additionally, leap years are treated with either slight annoyance or a mirthful shrug, not as a constant reminder that our attempts to impose our preferred and orderly calendar upon the laws of physics is not perfect.
Despite this, there is a driving need to believe that the fundamental structures we base our society and our macro and micro routines upon are on strong foundations of knowledge. For millennia, it was a theological construct where a creator god was the absolute ruler, and only in the last two to three centuries has this notion been slowly replaced in most places across the globe with a scientific-based dogma. And while this replacement has a paradigm has yielded many immediate and practical advances in a wide variety of disciplines, the belief that it is unquestioningly the answer to all humanity’s concerns must be considered suspect.
It is actually to science’s credit, then, that the guidelines those within the scientific community have for the search for knowledge is of much higher quality than those of the general populace. One of the hallmarks of postmodernism is its questioning of the connection of past events with present ones, that each moment is wholly unlike what came before, and the cause and effect beliefs of complicated matters are mental constructs that can differ with each observer. While cause and effect is one of the most basic forms of scientific observation, it is only in the last several decades that it has become clear that in quantum physics – the study of the very smallest pieces of matter – such fundamental assumptions about how the universe works fall to pieces. Recent experiments have shown that we do not understand 95% of the mass within the universe.
If science is subject to a near constant great void of unknowingness, what hope does politics have? How we view history, how we view past, present, and the future is through this field of knowledge that has been warmly embraced by a great majority of people even as its own experts stress that science is not a bedrock of knowledge but an always ongoing process of knowledge accumulation, always altering itself as new information is found. In this regard, scientific theory can be considered wholly postmodern. The problem occurs when such theories are applied without constant questioning to the ever-problematic real world, where such knowledge can be utilized and twisted for political goals.
Once again it must be stressed that in the disciplinary fields that postmodernism is heavily involved in, these are boards that are treaded extremely lightly and with as little partisanship as possible. Meanwhile, climate change advocates are viewed with suspicion by many of those who espouse free-market values, as the changes the former advocates typically demand some form of regulation that the latter severely opposes. An extremely complex political issue, certainly, which factors in several scientific disciplines, economic policies, power relations, and involves every human being on the planet.
But with the sparsest tenets of these observations being brought to the fore in the typical superficial political discourse, it gives the opportunity for individual figures and the entities they may represent to distance themselves from previous statements as media organizations frequently turn a blind eye to contradictory comments made in the past. Climate change deniers might still champion an old scientific paper that might have raised suspicion on climate change, even if in the scientific community’s more refined research methods have largely discredited it. The transmission of ‘unfiltered’ information – necessary for the proper form of postmodern analysis of any complex issue – is frequently subverted and altered by certain groups before it reaches the masses.
The beginning of the Cold War and structuralism are complex subjects that can benefit from a postmodernist interpretation that isolates certain historical claims to greater understand nuances and variables. A politician saying one thing in 2006 and saying the opposite three or four years later should be given the same type of analytical format. What has changed regarding the issue at hand? What does the politician have to gain from revising their position? Holding them accountable for the difference and demanding an explanation should be a constant thorn in their side.
The difference between flip-flopping and adapting to a changing environment is now in the eye of the beholder, and so the beholder has a responsibility to find out – on his or her own, if a regulatory institution such as the media does not provide this service – whether it is one or the other. Without this form of monitoring, politicians can switch positions– provided he or she has the backing of a dominant political party – or offer a solution that has been tried in the past as something original and revolutionary, with little fear of public criticism.
Holding people to the actions in their past should be utilized in an effort to see if it might offer an insight into how they might behave in the future. Postmodernism’s attempts to untangle such possibilities have been met with much internal debate: “Fielder, for instance, characterises the emergence of a new artistic priority in the novels of the mid-1960s as a ‘critical point’ in which we are peculiarly aware ‘of the sense in which literature if not invents, at least collaborates in the invention of time’” (Docherty, pg.3). But while it might seem like an interesting position on which to base a novel, time itself has, throughout the twentieth-century, become subject to an extreme destabilization. Some of the most important influences of science upon modern society are through a passive and partial understanding of complicated theories. Einstein’s calculations on relativity proved that time is not absolute and bends alongside space under the pull of gravity. While it would require some intense research to fully comprehend such conclusions, what the public took from this is the cribs notes version.
High culture appropriated ‘time is relative’ first, as literary movements like modernism and postmodernism and film genres such as the French New Wave created wholly original ways of presenting narrative (that is, the linear passage of time). While Joyce’s near-incomprehensible 1939 tome Finnegan’s Wake starts in midsentence and the end of the novel provides that sentence’s beginning – providing an eternally circular notion of time – it was during the late 1950s and early 1960s – just as postmodernism itself was becoming a legitimate multifaceted theory – that such notions became widespread to the public at large, thanks mainly to the popularity of television. While radio was the first technology to send invisible waves of information through the sky, providing listeners the world over with identical and simultaneous experiences, it was television that quickly became associated with immediacy and a constant volley of disparate pieces of information, where a turn of the dial – quickly replaced by the push of a button – could yield a range of audio-visual images from a news report to a sitcom to a commercial to a football game. The limits of participation and the periods of time that would normally take to experience them were shattered, albeit in an unnatural form. Low culture is where themes and tropes of high culture are simplified for widespread use and television has largely played this role by attempting to reach as broad an audience as possible, with genres such as situation comedies and paint-by-numbers melodramas. The temporal gap between the event – real or manufactured, for entertainment or education – and its dissemination to citizens on the other side of the globe has shrunk to nearly zero. With the actual information becoming available for consumption immediately, it was not long after that the political discourse concerning the information became just as much as a kneejerk response. The expectation for quick reactions to events which may have a series of complicated factors of instigation has become commonplace not only by the public, but the decision makers themselves. Whether it be economic policy or national security issues, an in-depth, expansive, pro-active debate over how to proceed has been replaced by an instantaneous, reactive decision-making process. Advances in technology led to a postmodernist theory on the promulgation of information, and through this came a postmodernist theory on politics’ use of it. The format that plays for the masses in terms of the spread of light entertainment is then ripe for manipulation when it comes to political discourse and its diffusion. The structure of three commercial breaks per half hour is the same whether you’re watching a comedy, reality television, or the news. The paradigm shift for scientific ideas outside of science – in this case, the relativity of time – can be considered as follows: From high culture to low culture to politics.
Finally, history itself – our understanding of past periods of time – is erased and redrawn when it presently convenient to do so. If concrete knowledge is fleeting, whatever we pin down at one point and state, ‘this is exactly how it happened’, we are doing a disservice to the unstated but obvious claim that we cannot know the past. Even if we were present, our memories of events are relative and fallible. Docherty acknowledges that, “to know the real is no longer to know something stable; epistemology is contaminated by history.” (Docherty, pg.24)
History by definition is contextual. A certain point in or period of time that never repeats, and to know of it is to classify it in a particular form that lessens its comparability to other events through recorded time. Being destined to repeat the past is only possible in the broadest terms. The connections between events are always falling apart and reassembling in different ways. While this may seem to be more of theoretical argument, examples of such difficulties reveal themselves in a myriad of ways, including misplaced actions by large and dominating institutions:
“Whatever governments do, they feel they must say increasingly that they believe in a version of democracy, the rule of law, human rights, equality of the sexes and much else. Only now and then is there a nasty jolt, an exposure of hypocrisies in practice, the revelation of an unacknowledged moral disagreement or a blunt rejection by a culture still resistant to contamination of its traditions and sensibilities.” (Roberts, pg.845)
While many people have become accustomed to such hypocrisies and manage to navigate themselves towards a sort of cynical understanding of what actual reforms and changes that reflect their own wishes might eventually come, this continued disconnect is incredibly detrimental to the future of democracy. Binding oneself to history – and to certain tenets or decisions made during any particular period – is little more than an opportunity to have the events of the present and future blow up in one’s face.
With this, the best any individual – although considering the topic of this essay, we should probably imagine a politician – can possibly say is that they will try to be honest to their own virtues, as anything larger than that – an ideology, a political party, a complex issue – is rife with the opportunity to be overrun with contradictions and cop-outs. Granted, these are problems that had plagued many forms of government, democratic or otherwise, but it is this line of thinking that, if adopted, could lead to a more clearer and understandable position by the individual/politician in regards to specific issues.
The solution then is a constant refinement of conclusions as more and more evidence accumulates. For starters, simply stressing the virtue of patience for both citizen and politician alike would do a world of good, since the process of informed reflection can better ensure proper action, instead of having an immediate action followed by a reflection of what worked and what didn’t. As mentioned above, for the individual, the key is to have an internal system of morals and abstract positions, and apply those to the complicated, real world issues at hand. Of course, a rather large bureaucracy is required to keep up vigilance. Knowing what we do about bureaucracy, though, the challenge then is to ensure that this organization or office does not get bogged down in paperwork (including its digital counterpart) and remain as flexible as possible.
Technology can assist us here, and once again it should be noted that many of the contemporary shortcomings that postmodernism outlines can be corrected with the proper use of said shortcomings. Advances in communications – the internet, smart phones – has resulted in a fragmentation of ideas, but proper use of such networks and devices can repair such disassociations. More work is not the goal, but a better understanding and categorizing of work, and computers are fast becoming ‘smart’ enough to do much of the most basic sorting without human intervention, except for perhaps as an occasional supervisory role.
History remains a powerful metanarrative that influences the decisions of a great many people, and all should be aware of how malleable such a construct actually is. If history is the variable, then the people experiencing, creating and altering it in real time must be the constant.
A re-definition of common archetypes: Short Term, Identity Politics/Symbols
Postmodernism is wary of the past’s perceived influence on the present, and as such is self-reflexive, always looking back at the conclusions it has made to ensure they are still relevant and as correct as possible in the present context. In some respects an episode in futility, but the alternative of clinging to an outmoded or misleading concept or ideology can lead to many harsh distortions of important information.
Models we are familiar with are always ripe for either subversion or re-branding. Expectation for political action has changed, just a time when action is becoming much harder to enact with speed and efficiency. Running for office, candidates frequently try to present themselves as outsiders, free of the typical influence that plague a congress or parliament that is constantly given terrible approval ratings (in fact, criticism has become so harsh in America for the house and senate that even a politician who has done great things in congress risks losing an election if he or she does not lament the problems within their respective deliberative body).
With the breakdown of the transmission of ordered and uniform information – replaced by a constant assault of disjointed factoids and stripped down bullet points – the perception of time has also shrunk, and with that comes an expectation by society as a whole for quick problem solving. Technology’s ability to make industrial-level production and communication faster is now reflected in what has long been a much more deliberative and careful aspect of human civilization: governance.
Short-term solutions have become the defining characteristic for large-scale problem solving, as anything long term is quickly labeled as expensive, unwieldy, and unlikely to meet the projected goals in the first place.
Paradoxically, as technology has quickened the pace of industry, business and information dissemination, it has made certain aspects of this massively interdependent global apparatus much slower and complex. While the switch from non-renewable to renewable energy resources is sluggish for some rather obvious reasons – energy corporations have no interest in switching to another source of power when oil and coal are still readily available and turning a large profit – on top of this a large scale, long term change to ‘greener’ technologies is rife with extremely difficult challenges considering the current political climate and expectations of the populace. The idea of an immediate solution has been inundated in Western culture, which keeps public and personal sacrifice at bay and reflects an immediate distrust of the one organization that actually has the potential power to institute such large scale changes: the government.
Postmodernism can certainly be on the hook to some degree for this perception of problem solving – as it champions fragmentation and distrusts narratives that are typically lengthy and complex – but that is due to a mishandling of its precepts. Just as in a postmodernist approach to literature or history, in politics ongoing problems require ongoing solutions, continually being altered and tweaked as the process towards the goal demands. A much more flexible long-term solution would be the most appropriate format for instituting change, however it cannot be denied that fitting such a plan into an entrenched bureaucracy will not be very successful without increased power given to those in government. This move, however, would come under heavy criticism from both corporate entities and a sizable segment of the populace in most democratic states. That this sector of concentrated capital can constantly rely on a large group of citizens to support an anti-government position gives credence to its legitimacy within political discourse.
Identity Politics has always been an easily playable card both in and out of election cycles, but in the last two decades the substance behind such exploits has become thinner. The phrase is no longer limited to certain cultural or social groups, but can now be applied to some degree directly to political issues, as these are able to singularly divide the electorate in many cases. And while it was possible in the past for identity politics to have a slightly varied platform, this has largely been eradicated and replaced by platitudes. ‘High concept’ is a term used in the film industry where the story can be summed up in typically a single sentence. “Four scientists hunting ghosts across New York City” tells all one needs to know concerning the plot of 1984’s Ghostbusters. Acceptable for the entertainment industry, but this level of summarization for political issues is dangerously reductionist and typically nothing more than empty rhetoric. Politicians can bandy about common buzzwords such as “smaller government” and “health care reform”, and, depending one’s political slant, can inspire admiration or loathing. Identity Politics has never been a particularly nuanced process, but it has evolved in many respects from beyond the typical stereotypes and psychological associations of, say, women voting overwhelming for a female candidate or the Latino community voting for a Latino one. It has been replaced simply with liberal/left and conservative/right. Reflecting the values and ideals of a particular community has been assimilated into a much more uncomplicated dichotomy. A Latino candidate is expected to hold a pro-immigration in America and is therefore expected to support the party that feels likewise, but they are then also expected to embrace many of the other positions the party holds. For the sake of the party as a whole, any values held by the candidate that may be counter to the faction must be smoothed over or compromised.
The presentation of identity politics has become much more complicated despite working on a much broader level, as the debate has – in the case of the last presidential election – been reduced to which candidate best exemplifies the rather nebulous term ‘change’. The manufacturing of the oversimplified political discourse is in the hands of the public relations industry. There seems to be little to no concern that outside of electoral campaigns these same firms attempt to sell breakfast cereal, mutual funds, and all-inclusive vacations to the masses. In selling politicians in the exact same way, logos and symbols begin to play a much larger role in shaping the identity of the candidate, to the point where they appear to be less of a whole person and more like a simplified idea.
Pekonen notes that, “a growing reliance on political imagery suggests that the ability of electoral politics to continue giving meaning depends on political identities and identification where people make these symbolically, or imagine their future through symbols.” (Pekonen, pg.127) Substance and the most effective political platform of the candidate suddenly matter less than the simple terms and expected logos and swag associated with them. The focus on whether candidate Obama was wrong to not wear a flag pin became headline news in early 2008, as did the earlier photograph of him not holding his heart like other democratic candidates were during the Pledge of Allegiance (it was later revealed that the picture was taken during the Star Spangled Banner, but these details typically are not given much attention if it runs counter to the angle of the presented story).
The importance of symbolism in the history of civilization can be seen in endeavours ranging from politics to religion (from the crucifix to the yin-and-yang) to science (where even a chart of practical information – the periodic table – is meant to suggest the usefulness and exactness of science), but what they all have in common is their ability – for better or worse – to simplify a rather complicated concept:
“A symbol is a means by which that which is not immediately perceived is made sensible. With symbolization we give things, events and actions meanings which mean more than things, events, and actions themselves, as such. In symbolization ‘immediate reality’ and the experiences coming from it are not expressed as such, but are sublimated with crystallized symbolic expressions for the definition of the deeper essence of reality.” (Pekonen, pg.134)
In other words – much like in advertising – we naturally ascribed to symbols the ideal that the symbols supposedly promise. The underlying notion to a breakfast cereal commercial is that the product is the best thing for you, whether in terms of taste, health, or value. This has transferred now to political candidates, so it should be little wonder that so many people are disillusioned with certain aspects of Barack Obama’s performance as president so far. He was voted in with the incredibly lofty hopes that he would somehow repair the many problems currently facing America, based mainly on the oft-repeated slogans of change and hope. With its unqualified success at the ballot box and limited success in governance, however – and a similar type of rebranding for the Republicans since that loss – it is make sense with Pekonen therefore concluding that: “Discourse concerning politics may be replaced by discourse concerning signs…quick, broad, and omnipresent publicity based on central mass media and acquaintance with consuming signs…are the conditions upon which politics and politicians as images are consumed.” (Pekonen, pg.140)
What’s reassuring to some degree – as Noam Chomsky notes in many of his speeches – is that at this point many citizens in Western culture understand this discordant relationship between the complex intricacies of modern politics and the salesman symbolism in which they appear before the public. But this awareness should not give way to cynicism, despite its prevalence. In Imperial Delusions, Carl Boggs explains at how far this form of oversimplified, symbolic identity politics has gotten:
“Within American political culture today such debauchery of language has reach new levels in both its sophistication and absurdity, the result of a public sphere colonized by spectacles of righteous warfare with its own militarized technocratic language. This vocabulary has been so fully assimilated into public discourse as to become almost invisible, uncritically absorbed into the vocabulary of politicians, the media, government officials and varied ‘experts’ from across the political spectrum.” (Boggs, pg.xiv)
When ‘constructing’ candidates for public office, the most superficial attributes – sometimes reducible to a single term – are the ones that are pushed most heavily upon voters, simply in the hope that by being vague people would be more likely to bend towards that particular candidate, as the less they know concretely about his or her policies the better they can imagine said candidate as their ideal one. Empty terms such as ‘hope’ and change’ came to define Barack Obama’s presidential campaign (despite the fact that many of his stances on pressing issues could classified as centrist and corporate-friendly), while George W. Bush became ‘the candidate most people would want to have a beer with’ because of his grooming as an outside-the-beltway cowboy figure. The truth of these assertions is not nearly as important as whether they are convincing to the public or not.
In this we see a slight dovetailing of postmodernism and functionalism, as the latter vigorously stresses that if something is useful, or fulfills its eventual goal, it is undeniably a good thing. ‘The ends justifies the means’ is an excellent reductionism of how to rule, provided you leave all morals at the door. Postmodernism is hesitant to embrace such a philosophy, even though it can be argued that morals and ethics are simply nothing more than another temporal and malleable meta-narrative. Ignoring how certain decisions affect a variety people in a disparate number of ways – as functionalism is wont to do – certainly does not work well with postmodernism’s insistence that as much information as possible is gleaned and taken into consideration before making an appropriate decision.
But this all-encompassing form of decision-making runs counter to how many governmental mandates are carried out. Despite any pretense for democratic values, the strongest form of influence upon politicians comes from the private political and economic sector, and even a very small representation of them at that. Fredric Jameson connects this concentrated form of power with the weakening effectiveness of language Boggs mentioned earlier:
“If the ideas of a ruling class were once the dominant (or hegemonic) ideology of bourgeois society, the advanced capitalist countries today are now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm. Faceless masters continue to inflect the economic strategies which constrain our existences, but no longer need to impose their speech (or are henceforth unable to); and the postliteracy of the late capitalist world reflects not only the absence of any great collective project, but also the unavailability of the older national language itself.” (Jameson (ii), pg.73)
Without a proper discourse, the language is reduced to superficial and largely symbolic designations. ‘Freedom’ is perhaps one of the most nebulous and mangled terms used in a democratic society, especially in an election year. Freedom in its purest form is impossible, as it must be void of any context, and permit the individual to do absolute anything, which would appeal to the functionalist but at the expense of civilization itself. Law and order, a tacit agreement by a community to prohibit certain actions – murder, theft – is freedom’s enemy. It is upon the blurring border between legal and illegal that freedom uncomfortably rests. The term has been compromised to the point where the ability to own a firearm and carry it into certain buildings is sometimes seen as the highest level of this concept, whereas in a truly ‘free’ society one would be able to use such a weapon indiscriminately without fear of reprisal by any sort of regulatory body like the criminal justice system or the state itself. Instead ‘freedom’ has become a placeholder term for ‘good’, just another symbol that any citizen can infuse with personal meaning, regardless of whether that meaning can come to any sort of realization.
More damning however is the fact that the basic terms used to denote one’s place on the political spectrum is becoming more and more irrelevant and meaningless as the postmodern era continues. The current usage of the term ‘left/right wing’ is based on the seating arrangements in the parliament of post-revolutionary eighteenth century France. Liberal has traditionally meant forward thinking, open minded, and supporting reform. The label conservative is associated with tradition, caution, and wariness of reform. Both claim that they best represent the notion of ‘freedom’.
But these have become of little use in the late twentieth/early twenty-first centuries. Liberal has also been associated with government intervention and the welfare state, whereas neoliberalism - the support of unregulated free market capitalism – is championed by conservatives. In addition, the association of ‘freedom’ to the term liberal has been torn asunder. For liberal, it means social freedoms, while for neoliberalism it means economic freedoms (of corporations, no longer constrained by liberal supported regulatory government policy). In one of many examples, military dictator General Pinochet, “impose[d] a policy of economic ultra-liberalism on Chile, thus demonstrating, among other things, that political liberalism and democracy are not natural partners of economic liberalism.” (Hobsbawm, pg.442)
To further complicate matters, libertarians embrace portions of both types of freedoms, social and economic, while eschewing the role of the state in as many institutions as possible. In fact, due to the libertarian position that the larger the government is the fewer freedoms citizens actually receive, it is typically placed to the right of traditional conservatives on the political spectrum.
This mangling of terms – in addition to the fact that infusing of religious issues into the conservative parties in the last three decades would make it almost unrecognizable to conservatives fifty years ago – comes at the expense of a loss of meaningful political discourse. An oversimplification of politics at a time when the most powerful structures – financial and energy industries – are quickly escaping the regulatory powers of the government by becoming extremely complicated and understood by too few government officials will have dire consequences on the ability to properly limit the power of these institutions. Dismissive clichés meant to represent an entire industry – defending the actions of certain investment banks and brokerage houses as a form of traditional capitalism akin to the small business owner – does a disservice to all involved. Furthermore, such pontifications coming from people in power legitimatize such ignorant statements in terrifying ways:
“As long ago as the eighteenth century, Voltaire observed, ‘Those who can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities.’ On sanitizing language, the Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura writes, ‘By camouflaging pernicious activities in innocent or sanitizing parlance, the activities lose much of their repugnancy. Bombing missions are described as ‘servicing the target’, in the likeness of a public utility. The attacks become ‘clean, surgical strikes’, arousing imagery of curative activities. The civilians whom the bomb kills are linguistically converted to ‘collateral damage’.” (Johnson, pg.120-121)
Postmodernism holds that this debasement of language is expected when it comes to the goals of those in power, as the meanings of words can be altered to suit the agendas of these institutions. Most essential of all is for the public to have no opinion one way or the other, to keep them from the political discourse in its totality. The practice of euphemistic rhetoric downplays the importance of the information itself, suggesting that there is no reason the public should pay attention to the matter, that it is an unexceptional issue that can be dealt with within the government or industry alone.
But true postmodern thought denies the existence of unimportant matters when it comes to language. The term ‘collateral damage’ should be a euphemism that raises alarm in every citizen, because not only did an attack that killed civilians take place, but the perpetrators are attempting to frame the incident as irrelevant and run-of-the-mill. On the inverse, the concerns should also be voiced when there is the practice of inflating the dangers of more innocuous terms, like equating welfare programs – a staple of most Western democracies – with communism or exploitation, or Islamist with terrorist. Repeated enough both actively and passively in the dominant forms of media and the viewer begins to internalize such turns of phrase along with the basic information of the event. That, or a rejection of these deliberate framings is built along with a general distrust of the media that goes with it. This reaction is not an unusual one, and, as Jameson notes, the conclusion this individual may have to such an overwhelming propaganda is not positive:
“What happens is that the more powerful the vision of some increasingly total system or logic – the Foucault of the prisons book is the obvious example – the more powerless the reader comes to feel. Insofar as the theorist wins, therefore, by constructing an increasingly closed and terrifying machine, to that very degree he loses, since the critical capacity of his work is thereby paralyzed, and the impulses of negation and revolt, not to speak of those of social transformation, are increasingly perceived as vain and trivial in the face of the model itself.” (Jameson (ii), pg.66)
There is a slight benefit, then, in having the public become cynical and detached from the bloated bureaucracy that many Western countries currently find themselves plagued by. Jameson is viewed as a Marxist with postmodernist tendencies who holds that by assuming control of most aspects of culture in the mid-twentieth century in an economic sense, corporate capitalism managed to become such an embedded narrative the world over that it is impervious to any challenger, whether with or without any form of power behind it (Jameson (i), pg.48). Corporate Capitalism then, by the early twenty first century, has become the single, seemingly indomitable universal archetype. While it becomes much more clear how these metnarratives are created and offered and which citizens and institutions benefit the most from them, it is hard to remember that it is still just metanarrative that can be excised if need be. But that is indeed the case.
Left to Our Own Devices
Postmodernism’s take on technology is close to its opinions on science: there is practical benefit from its intellectual structure, but that doesn’t mean there should be an orthodox dogma of its place in society immediately and unquestionably erected.
Yet it is more challenging for technology in at least one respect, in that – despite being a product of science – people embrace its usefulness and benefits that much more quickly. There seems to a strong level of cognitive dissonance when certain groups of people decry certain findings of science into a television camera, an extremely intricate device that only exists thanks to the development of the cathode ray tube.
The most popular technological advances of the last three decades have been seen mainly in the communications field. Personal computers have been able to organize and share data in incredibly complicated and intricate ways while at the same time connecting people the world over thanks to the internet. These two technologies have coalesced into singular electronic tools such as the smart phone, a handheld device that has revolutionized not only the diffusion of culture, but the diffusion of politics and economics.
The smart phone – a term that will most likely become redundant as soon every phone will have a similar level of computing power – is the personal and physical manifestation of globalization. It is a social equalizer on an international level, because the political and economic policies in one nation are relevant to all those it does business with, and everyone who chooses to do so can follow the decisions being made in states such as America, China, and India. In these regions the device assists in creating a constant network of personal and professional communication, while in remote African villages, a cell phone’s purchasable and refundable airtime minutes have replaced the physical transportation of hard currency.
While earlier technologies allowed for a globalized economy in the most physical form – transporting goods from one side of the earth to the other in less than a day – it has now become effortless for personal, face-to-face (via video screen) customer service to exist across the same distances instantaneously. Suddenly inclusion in certain culture practices is not limited to those in the same dwelling, town, or country.
Almost every bit of information accumulated throughout human history is now at our fingertips – a statement that should be taken without a hint of hyperbole – which means that, “knowledge is reduced to technology, a technology which enables the illusion of power and of domination over nature. It is important to stress that this is an illusion. This kind of power does not give actual power over nature, for that in nature which is unamenable to its formal or conceptual categories simply escapes consciousness entirely.” (Docherty, pg.6)
Docherty – like a good postmodernist – stresses that our server databases full of history and message board detritus have limits and are certainly not absolute (power outages and the running down of batteries will see to this) and so should be viewed with some level of suspicion. Unquestionably, what technology does have in regards to power are all those that buy into this narrative of the triumph of technology, which has long been a staple of the Western world and is quickly spreading to rapidly industrializing developing nations across the globe.
Like science, it is – at this point – an indispensable and mostly beneficial narrative. Egalitarian notions of everyone having the same opportunities have made great headway in recent decades. While the form of government and the nation’s infrastructure in the end makes the difference between a stable state and a chaotic one, a populace unified by telecommunications makes a much more effective force for change than a splintered and disparate one.
This is not to say there are no drawbacks to our faith in technological progress, as some are glaringly obvious, and some much more subtle. Mentioned throughout this essay is information fragmentation – trying to make sense of such an overwhelming amount of data can result in ignoring it completely, or making erroneous and misinformed conclusions – but another effect that we can expect to see is a change in how much less important the retention of information becomes. It is quality that will seem less worthwhile, as all the information the world contains can now be placed in one’s back pocket. The replacement trait for the twenty-first century will be lateral thinking. Making unusual and unexpected – but highly valuable – connections between seemingly unrelated pools of knowledge.
Related to the larger problem of immediate communication is transmission for the sake of transmission. In Amusing Ourselves To Death, Neil Postman notes that once a telegraph line was built between two distant states in nineteenth-century America, it was expected to have regular reports going back and forth simply because it was possible to do so. (Postman, pg.65) While writing in the early days of CNN, Postman would now most likely find the same conclusions with all twenty-four hour news networks. Useful in a time of national emergency, but nothing more than a repetitive-hype machine otherwise.
The embarrassment of politicians attempting to have a facebook or twitter page aside, politics recognizes these changes in communication can have – like any new technology – benefits and drawbacks in attempting to keep the current power structure (whatever it might be) from changing. In large scale protests in the Middle East – whether it be Iran in 2009 or Egypt and Tunisia in early 2011 – the most obvious solution for the authorities to stamp out the ability to use the internet and telecommunications as a tool is to simply turn it off. As Docherty noted, it does not take much for the unwavering belief in this seemingly inevitable and dominant technology to become nothing more than an illusion.
Yet while we hold onto these strides in this one particular field as proof of our unending march of progress, at the same time there is a dearth of advances in other extremely important fields. In a world focused on the immediacy of solutions and endless novelty, superficial strides of progress can be given as much praise as substantive ones. While faster processing power has meant huge advances in communications and computing technology, and with this constantly being cited as proof of advancement, it means less of a focus on the many other technological industries that also must develop and evolve. Postmodernism demands a constant attempt to understand and analyze the entire of field of discipline in question, not simply attention given to what is currently the most successful aspect of it. There has been extremely slow growth in the search for and promotion of alternative energy, especially in some of the largest nations on earth. A lack of investment and interest – at least at this point – from the corporations in the energy industries that utilize traditional methods (oil, coal, hydroelectric) can be attributed to an unwillingness to look at long term solutions. This fact alone is rather startling, as it seems to prove that even the powerful institutions that shape how certain agendas are diffused and discussed among the populace ignore some of the most basic tenets of their own corporate existence. A focus on planning for the short term in regards to their actual products and services they provide – rather than investing in renewable solutions that are not dependent on limited and harmful resources – has infected the very organizations that have worked tirelessly to place themselves in positions of power for extremely long periods of time.
If nothing else, changes to global environment should be seen as a key piece of evidence to prove that science and technology can harm as well as help, and that looking at only narrow strands of evidence does a disservice not only to the wealth of information that is truly available, but to the basic tenets of the postmodern and scientific disciplines as well.
The man behind the man behind the curtain
Postmodernism refuses to rest permanently on any of its conclusions, as its belief that even commonly agreed-upon truths are arbitrary and subject to change means that accepting certain positions as static is falling into the same pits of error and vicious circles that plagued all the ideologies that came before it. Postmodernism is endlessly self-reflexive, attempting to ensure that its proponents ‘keep digging’ and adapt to the always-altering present moment. To rest for a moment and claim ‘this is it’ is resorting to a way of thinking that postmodernism is constantly trying to stamp out. Endless self-doubt, done in a constructive and detached manner is an expected – although admittedly maddening – process.
Plenty of postmodern theories, however, are willing to excise a basic, almost interchangeable hierarchy from this miasma of near-truths. Us vs. Them is a worn and recognized archetype that can be employed from time to time for basic comparisons between differences of opinions and ideas, but it loses its effectiveness – in fact, becomes quite dangerous and partisan – if it is too strongly adapted as central tenet. Unfortunately, this is exactly where politics typically finds itself. Frozen in broadly defined, rarely changing bullet points.
As mentioned prior, identity politics is meant to draw as many people as possible into various political factions, each demanding a level of compromise that can easily render the individual a faceless statistic, meant to pull a particular lever on voting day. Regarding how an individual falls into the overall reading of history, Roberts states that: “Personal experience, that tempting prop, vividly adds its own dangers of distortion. Moreover, the borders of that experience have changed so much in recent years that it is often hard to discern at all, let alone define exactly, what is being experienced in the first true age of mass communication. We must except our experience, as well as our history, to be revalued.” (Roberts, pg.856) Part of this revaluation – which should be constant – includes questioning the effectiveness of the political process. While this has long been an essential concern of every citizen in a democracy, few would doubt that special interests want focus to be placed on how politics deals with certain issues and not on others. In many ways, the reductionist reading of postmodernism is a boon for such forces on the upper tiers of the power hierarchy, as a displaced, fragmented populace makes it that much easier to manipulate. The solution for the masses is a further refinement of postmodernist tenets, where the overload of data must be properly arranged and disseminated, despite any opposition from those whose power might be challenged because of the risks of said dissemination (note how quickly this become an Us versus Them binary).
In politics, this search for ‘truth’ within the vast amounts of data has manifested itself in the form of search for agendas, namely the ultimate goal of a select group of powerful people that supposedly tailor the government to fit their own agendas. Supporters of the right side of the political spectrum see liberal elites constantly attempting to push government regulation and egalitarian/socialist policies while the reverse of this has leftists holding the belief that corporations and special interest groups influence the right-wing of government to support free-market policies in order to extend their power and reach across the respective state and globe, at the expense of the average citizen.
In both cases, however, the agenda is never fully completed, so the push against it is similarly unending. Unlike in postmodernist theory, however, where this framing of truth in constant flux is typically where the research in whatever field can begin, the real world political ramifications of this stalemate are numerous and destructive.
In many modern democracies these beliefs of the not-so-secret machinations of one political party or influential group that is in control are so entrenched that the main goal of the minority party(ies) is typically to do nothing more than obstruct, which –to their own supporters – is the only way to stave off a horrendous fate of the agenda that dominant actors are pushing.
Those who wish to look beyond this warring binary, however, should search for similarities in the platforms and actions of these supposedly oppositional parties. Boggs stresses that, “the appearance of worldwide diversity and fragmentation is now overshadowed by a homogenizing logic brought about by transnational corporate rule, with its unifying thrust toward commodification of the planet. We are in the midst of a profoundly depoliticizing shift of forces in which the global domain triumphs over the local, the commodity supersedes autonomous social life, standardization prevails over diversity – and, above all, economics take precedence over politics.” (Boggs, pg.14)
Regarding Boggs’ final observation, it might be better to posit that the intractably conjoined relationship between economics and politics are being pulled further and further away from the actual hands of citizenry. Boggs notes that Leslie Sklair believes that it is the rich elites that will actual dictate the reorganization of the global economy, called the transnational capitalist class (TCC). They will do ‘good’ because they see it is for the best, in terms of long-term investment: “the TTC reproduces itself through a complex hegemonic apparatus, namely the ‘profit-driven culture-ideology of consumerism’. Once solidified, the TCC, operating in its own self-interest, can expect to work toward resolving two centrally global crises: the increasing gulf between rich and poor, and the ecologically unsustainable path of worldwide capitalism.” (Boggs, pg.17)
Sklair here is rationalizing the current power structure by claiming that it will – at some time not disclosed – begin to solve the problems that it helped create in its reach for power. It comes as little surprise that Boggs is immediately hostile to the idea, and it should be rather clear that this narrative – while being promised as one that will solve the world’s ills –benefits chiefly the people who support and are in charge of it, with the rest of the world coming in second. (Boggs, pg.17)
This constant search for an understanding of a particular position and the advantages and disadvantages that come with it is one of postmodernism’s most important qualities when applied to political discourse. But the rise of corporate power has resulted in a dehumanizing effect in how these non-governmental macrostructures are being operated. Beyond ensuring an interrupted maximum profit, many questions concerning overall social benefit and the ramifications upon the future fall by the wayside. In Griftopia, Matt Taibbi laments that the effect of destabilization of information has resulted in – at this point – only a handful of people understanding how the world operates: “Our world isn’t about ideology anymore. It’s about complexity. We live in a complex bureaucratic state with complex laws and complex business practices, and the few organizations with the corporate willpower to master these complexities will inevitably own the political power.” (Taibbi, pg.14)
What is rather remarkable about this hierarchy is how similar it is to pre-twentieth century societies. Re-emerging in the early twenty first century is a powerful cabal of corporations and associations headed by citizens with similar socioeconomic perspectives carving up the world regardless of political borders. As the gulf between rich and poor widen, a new nobility class is emerging. A class based on how well one can understand and manipulate the quickly merging worlds of international law and finance. The essential difference from a pre-modern democratic state is that this class is formed by the abilities of the individual alone. While passing down the wealth through family bloodlines will still be a common occurrence, what should be stressed is that in contemporary society practically anyone can join this porous group of individuals, thanks to hard work, a little luck, and adapting a rather amoral stance concerning the ethics of global business.
The American Dream – although at this point it should really be classified as The International Dream – is a radical destabilizing of preconceived notions of worth and possibility. The odds are obviously stacked against the great majority of citizens, but there is always evidence in the form of ‘rags to riches’ success stories, which prove that such achievements are possible. Certainly this is yet another narrative that keeps the many billions of middle and lower classes in their place – the hope that they might one day be the one who, thanks to working hard, becomes be part of that incredibly wealthy 1% of the world means they cannot risk disrupting how the global economy operates – but its spell cannot be broken because of the evidence that it does work. Even the astronomically high mathematical odds of success cannot deter this goal from taking root in the minds of citizens from Boston to Beijing.
Clinging to this particular hope for success illustrates the basic challenge for postmodernism during this period in human history. Within the title of this belief – “The American/International Dream” – is the acknowledgement that it is not a goal that will unquestionably be realized (‘dream’). It is an excellent example of how a narrative that displays its limited ability in its title can be still be taken up and held as, if not truth, then a narrative worth believing in despite the fact that it will most likely end in failure. To be part of this empowered class then is in large part a game of odds, a perspective that postmodernism embraces wholeheartedly, as randomness and chance are two variables whose role in how the world works cannot be denied. But the problems with basing a structure or narrative on randomness and chance are obvious immediately. Even when compared to other metanarratives, these two concepts by definition are unreliable and constantly shifting, more so than science, and even religion (which at least offered a hierarchy of social organization). Hence, the warped belief that one might win the lottery, create a successful business when a great majority of them fail in the first year, or be elected without support from already powerful institutions.
But for those who do achieve these goals, the weight of responsibility on their shoulders is not necessarily reflected in their actions. A measure of success requires adhering to already set rules concerning economics and politics. To succeed within a large scale system means supporting the theories of that system. Even those wishing to alter or overthrow it must face the system upon its own terms, and use its own tools and resources to enact change. The tragedy is that the set tenets – both personal and public – that those seeking these positions of power must adopt frequently come at the expense of the common good for hundreds of millions of people across the globe.
A postmodern war
If the Cold War can be said to be a modernist war as the qualities it possessed offer a clear break from classical definitions of what war entailed (two opposing sides whose politics and culture are practically defined by contrast, coupled with the fact that the antagonistic overtures never actually becomes a true ‘war’), then the War Against Terror can be said to be a postmodernist conflict.
Running through the basic traits of this loosely defined campaign against what can be labelled as an international guerilla reaction with theocratic elements against political and socioeconomic policies of Western Capitalism, postmodernism tenets occur with some frequency. There is no end to the conflict, as the definition of ‘Terror’ is so ambiguous that no one can truly say when it has been conquered for good, and the major antagonists are not states but small groups within unstable nations.
While Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist groups are currently the ‘face’ of Terror for the United States and much of the world, they are essentially interchangeable with any past or future enemy of whatever state is currently fighting Terror. Chomsky notes that just as 9/11 permitted America to treat rogue (mainly Middle Eastern) nations with strong-armed military politics, it gave other large states the chance to also stamp out terror wherever they saw fit (Chechen and Georgian rebels for Russia, Urgurs and Tibetan rebels for China).
While this view might be seen as one that concedes the dominating force of the military industrial complex and its supposed desire for the fabled ‘endless war’ of dystopic fiction, the truth is that it is only another metanarrative that is adopted for a set period of time; namely, as long as it is fruitful and manageable by the power of the state. In the United States, the coming decades will see a fury of large-scale decisions as to whether the nation can afford to retain its global military reach without jeopardizing the standard of life of its citizens, as the cost of overseeing what many critics call an empire is forever increasing. In Nemesis, Chalmers Johnson outlines the problem that America – currently the chief actor representing Capitalism – must face in the upcoming years:
“The likelihood is that the United States will maintain a façade of constitutional government and drift along until financial bankruptcy overtakes it… it might, in fact, open the way for an unexpected restoration of the American system, or for military rule, or for some new development we cannot yet imagine. Certainly, such a bankruptcy would mean a drastic lowering of our standard of living, a loss of control over international affairs, a process of adjusting to the rose of other powers, including China and India, and a further discrediting of the notion that the United States is somehow exceptional compared to other nations. We will have to learn what it means to be a far poorer nation and the attitudes and manners that go with it.” (Johnson, pg.269-270)
Johnson makes several allusions in his book to the fall of Rome and the British Empire, concluding that America will most likely follow the path of the latter. While perhaps correct in the belief that America will not so much implode into chaos and violence as slowly slide into a lower standard of living, the glaring difference is that America’s prominence in post World War II international affairs was based explicitly on the possibility of another war coming after it. When communism was finally defeated thanks mainly to overspending, the war economy had its first crisis of conscience in over fifty years. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, communist China was never portrayed in the same negative light, as extremely heavy trade between it and the West was mutually beneficial. Throughout the nineteen-nineties, the role of military might to solve the world’s problems were called into question – especially as its role in the Balkans in the middle of the decade had some disastrous results – although spending on the military did not see many deep cuts.
The War on Terror began with the Bush administration proclaiming that the reason the United States was attacked on September 11th had much to do with rights and privileges the citizens and the United States enjoyed and nothing to do with American foreign policy in the Middle East (or anywhere else in the world for the past sixty years, for that matter). So the phrase became, “they hate us for our freedoms”, a cliché that would be amusingly naïve if not long after its first utterance the US government passed the Patriot Act, a law that actually restricted freedoms for the average American, as it gave the government more power to monitor private citizens, listen in to their telephone conversations, and have companies provide private information about them without a warrant.
Justification for military conflict in a time of fragmented but perceptible transparency requires a public relations offensive that matches in strength to the power of the military force itself. The most challenging archetype that is sold to the populace of any nation is the ‘just war’. That is, a legitimate reason to invade another country. What would be considered ‘waging aggressive war’ – a charge levied against the surviving leaders of Nazi Germany and sent them to the gallows in the Nuremberg trials – has to be given a makeover to make the offensive move seem like a defensive one (it is rather chilling to note that this was done by the Nazis themselves at the onset of the Second World War, as they claimed that Poland invaded them first, going so far as to have German soldiers dressed as Polish ones ‘crossing’ the border into Germany territory). Whether it be faulty evidence offered up by the United States prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the charge that there was massive civil unrest in the Tibet region in China that required the government to send in troops to suppress them, the threat upon the average citizen and their way of life must be sold to the many to garner enough support for a preemptive strike.
War resources, then, has diversified to the point where the public relations front – the mixture of state and media reports diffused among the populace – has become another series of trenches that must be defended with carefully orchestrated propaganda and information. During the Cold War, the United States and The USSR faced off against each other in the form of proxy conflicts and wars (Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Afghanistan). For America, the justification was always the communist threat of nuclear annihilation. With the war in Iraq, the same line was trotted out but to lesser effect. There was no large superpower propping up Iraq. It was an extremely poor country suffering greatly due to the sanctions placed upon it, run by a corrupt and ruthless military dictator.
Justification came in the form of evidence of weapons of mass destruction whose authenticity was questioned almost immediately. Weapons inspectors and many intelligence officials were reluctant to make any convincing assertion that Iraq posed an immediate threat to any other nation. Some segments of the Western populace dismissed this accusation simply because it was made by an administration who had made no secret that they were looking to take down Saddam Hussein, despite what they said in the past. Recalling back to the notion of ‘the erasure of history’, it would only take a bit of research to discover that those wishing to dispose of Hussein in 2002/2003 were enthusiastic supporters of his autocratic regime in the 1980’s – even supplying him with chemical weapons – when Iraq was engaged in a war with Iran. Those in power did conveniently not address this previous relationship –including footage of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with the dictator – in the run-up to the 2003 invasion.
To further pluck the heartstrings, it was stressed that Hussein assisted Al Qaeda in the World Trade Centre attacks. While no proof this has ever been found – and the fact that the religiously conservative terrorist organization openly deplored the comparatively secular rule of Iraq’s leader – by early 2003 a poll showed that a third of Americans believed this to be true.
Despite the increased concentration of power in the hands of a few corporations and those that head them, in such large-scale efforts such as war, the importance of the public’s assent cannot be understated. While there was a healthy segment of the Western populace against the 2003 war – which was promised to be led ostensibly by an international ‘coalition of the willing’ – a CBS/New York Times poll showed that if diplomatic means failed, 60% of Americans favoured a military solution. The support of the masses is essential for such endeavours, as it is from this pool of citizens that the troops that fight the war are primarily drawn from. When the conflict was at its low point in 2005 and 2006 and the army was having difficulty meeting requirement goals – having to lower testing standards – talk of re-introducing the draft was quickly denied, as polls showed that a vast majority of the country objected to such measures, despite the realities of the situation in Iraq.
It is this fine line between manipulating the masses and bowing to their carefully measured opinions that the leaders must walk. This fluid relationship of supposedly static forces shows that – as postmodernism dictates – that even information fragmentation and manipulation has limits. The role it plays in widening the gap between the powerful and powerless in Western countries is large, but not indomitable. But there are other aspects of postmodern culture that have clashed with the historically unchanging role of military life.
While no one can doubt that the mortal danger of fighting on the front lines in a violent and unstable region of the world remains the same as ever was, retreating back several miles to the respective military base one finds amenities that collapses the gulf between the wildly divergent worlds of the average soldier. Military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan offer American fast food and Starbucks coffee. The use of the internet is commonplace not only on bases but on personal phones that soldiers are now permitted to carry. A New York Times article from February 2011 observes that soldiers are now able to instant message their friends and family back home while on patrol, possibly to detriment of the job at hand. While obviously a great boost to the morale of the troops, higher ranking officials are concerned that such side effects will be seen in men and women being overly concerned with their personal lives thousands of miles away than the work that is in front of them. (Dao, 2011)
The role of the soldier – perhaps one of the most straightforward positions in terms of being given orders through a rigid chain of command – is now being compromised by having them simultaneously balance a personal life with the notion that they are part of a large unit or machine, meant to achieve their goals without question. Johnson is concerned with how this traditional unit of military defense (and offense) relates to the rest of the state, especially in contemporary society:
“This phenomenon is common in some forms of political life [state propaganda to have people put complete faith in their leaders], as Arendt demonstrated in her most famous work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, but it is ubiquitous in military life, where, in order to prevail in battle, soldiers have been conditioned to follow orders instantly and to act as a cohesive group. In such roles, ‘Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their existence.’ This is one reason why democratic republics must be particularly vigilant about standing armies and wars of choice if, that is, they intend to retain their liberties.” (Johnson, pg.22)
What constitutes vigilance in a modern democratic state is rather difficult to say. Objections over participation in wars that never truly succeed in stopping the state from sending troops suggests in one respect that the cause is all for naught, but that can be chalked to the powers of the state either overlooking the public’ opinion – which is another problem for democracy entirely – or claiming that a large body of citizens passively support the drive to war. Let us not forget that there are certainly cases where a state has absolutely legitimate reasons to go to war, and here Johnson would certainly say that the vigilance should come in the form of the public doing everything in its power to look at the information from all sides of the political spectrum and decide whether the leaders are right in their claims for legitimacy. It is clear that Johnson’s concern is that the powers of the state are in a position where it is possible to manipulate the information that would make their bid for war tacitly authorized by the public.
It is essential that in all of these large, far-reaching decisions that a healthy semblance of support exists within the public (barring that a lack of extreme disenchantment could suffice temporarily). If this perception by the public fails completely, a question of legitimacy leads to the possibility of a failed state, which itself leads to the possibility of an internal conflict. The term used, however – ‘civil war’ – has lost all meaning, but this is not referring to oft-quoted observation that the term itself oxymoronic. Instead, it must be acknowledged that in such an interdependent global economic and political frame, no armed conflict that takes place wholly within a single country’s borders can be said to have occurred strictly because of internal strife. The influence that non-state institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank can have on an unstable country’s economy is unquestionably related to the government’s ability to provide adequate resources for the populace and keep it satisfied.
While one of the simplest arguments to keep peacekeeping forces out of countries in the midst of domestic insurrection is that it is none of ‘our’ business and could possibly stretch the participating countries’ already thin resources, there is no such thing as ‘our’ or ‘their’ business anymore.
This does not mean that there is an immediate obligation for the UN to petition all nations to assist militarily in bringing stability to such countries like Somalia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, but that there needs to be a strong acknowledgment that the policies instituted in dealing with these countries both before and during periods of extreme volatility has as much to do with the current destabilization as almost the internal actions of a possibly corrupt government or angry faction of rebels. Financial mismanagement and suppression of basic rights – a toxic concoction found in all the countries listed above to some degree – does not occur in a vacuum. Just as a single citizen can tacitly endorse corruption in their own state by not attempting to voice opposition to the practice, in an interdependent globalized world where information is available so one can understand the conditions of another state’s internal affairs, a developed country can tacitly support a brutal regime simply by doing nothing but look the other way and let business proceed as usual.
The United Nation is derided – sometimes with mountains of conclusive evidence – for being largely inefficient, offering the equivalent of traffic tickets for murder and gross abuses of power, but in many respects it is the only international body available for such operations. For better or for worse, the United Nations is a postmodern organization attempting to succeed in a postmodernist political landscape. An inclusion of all voices, neither being accepted as final and absolute, with each country being offered a single vote that is as good as any other, regardless of the size or power of the state. The data that is absorbed by all members equally and expected to be utilized to make key judgments upon is sprawling and difficult to properly categorize. Even if one looks at the permanent members of the Security Council, their effectiveness within that committee is largely ornamental.
While at first this might seem like a beneficial quality to have, being a postmodern organization in a postmodern world, in truth any dialogue between two nebulously defined structures will focus on little but the matter at hand, and as we have seen, sanctions and censures are the two most played hands by the institution, typically to limited effect. Postmodernism asserts that it is necessary to interpret every instance – in this case, the rise of possibility of a military conflict – as unique, with an ever-changing multitude of factors and effects. In other words, all previous work the organization may have had regarding diffusing possibilities of military conflicts can be of limited assistance. The UN attempts to claim it has its own history as proof of its success, but in the actual engagement with these issues, the UN does not and cannot have history. In a postmodern world, any organization’s past can be disregarded if it does conform to the whims of more powerful organizations and institutions at present (the UN’s inability to prevent the United States from invading Iraq – by finding a more diplomatic solution – is perhaps its most well-known black mark of the last decade).
Conclusion - Postmodernist Democracy
The oft-repeated contemporary metnarrative – that positive change is possible via traditional forms of citizen participation in a democratic society – is championed by those who believe it to be true. At the same time, many – including a large segment of the wealthy and powerful – believe that government has become inefficient thanks to a overwhelming amount of internal bureaucracy and corporate lobbying, which means that private enterprise is the most productive way to solve the problems of today.
Maddeningly, both of these suppositions are true, further supporting the notion that this international sociopolitical economy is mired in a postmodern quandary. What democracy means to 21st century western society has become an empty husk of bullet point clichés and pontifical shadowboxing that is resting on laurels it arguably earned many decades ago. The problem is that when any ideology nears its perceived goals, it eventually goes onto a sort of auto-pilot, regardless of whether it is a welfare-from-cradle-to-grave socialist republic or a fascist dictatorship. A comfortable and politically disinterested populace enables abusers of power in its passivity. As the laws of physics predict and unrelenting move towards universal entropy and dissolution, so do our political paradigms, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum. As postmodernism embraces this inherent failure, it can be said that it is one of the more realistic portrayals of the human condition, although hardly be considered an overtly positive one. Thomas Jefferson obliquely gave the estimate of twenty years as how often the tree of liberty must be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants, but any attempt to put a punch-clock on civilized society is an episode in futility.
The modern democratic state was designed to represent the will of all the citizens – we are already omitting the fact that participation in elections prior to the early/mid twentieth century was restricted typically to white males of a certain income bracket – in the state. Elected representatives were meant to replace the thousands and millions of people who could not show up in the halls of government in person to debate the issues of the day. The idea was that power would be diffused over a great number of people to prevent any one person – or small group of people – from becoming corrupted from all the power such a position would grant. The problem was that eventually the special interests and institutions of the privileged class – certainly a porous group of citizens, although mostly with common socioeconomic perspectives – grew so large that they were able to coerce and take command of most of this democratic body of learned citizens (where – with majority rule – most could therefore mean all).
Which means it became democratic in name only.
The solution is obvious but difficult. As information has splintered, the individual must take it upon himself or herself to bring the pieces together and understand their – and their nation’s – role in a hyper-globalized world. The role of the citizen in a democracy must not be a static one, but how an individual is to conduct himself or herself in such a state can be subject to a wide spectrum of opinion. In a democratic state – whether fashioned in a parliamentary or presidential system – there can now be considered three forms for this type of government to exist within:
Limited Participation – the role of the citizen is to vote in elections at the prescribed time. It is up to the citizen to be well informed of the ramifications of their choice, whether it be a vote on an issue directly, or a vote on a person representing a series of issues. After they vote, they have no say as to how political decisions are made and the nature of the discourse. Writing letters to your congressman/member of parliament or protesting in the streets because of the choices the government has made is not relevant, as the only time the citizen could truly speak was on the ballot (this is not to say that free speech and the right to protest are not permitted, only that they are ineffective ways at demanding reform, as the system can only be altered via elections).
If there are unforeseen issues that the elected officials find themselves addressing that run counter to the wishes of the electorate – and would have entailed a different voting choice had the position of those running been known at the time of the election – this is insufficient reason for a citizen to demand a change in policy. Only at the next election at the appointed time can the individual now express their displeasure by voting for a different voice. These shortcomings – insofar as one believes them to be shortcomings – are expected to be known by all the citizens of the respective democratic state.
It should be noted that this form of governance is close not only to the Hobbesian notion of the sovereign, but echoes the view of eighteenth century British parliamentarian and political writer Edmund Burke, who felt that he had little to no responsibility to his particular electorate after being voted into parliament. Rather, once those in his riding granted him power, he was free to vote on issues according to his own personal inclinations.
Constant Participation – despite the typical electoral process of voting for candidates representing either themselves or a political party, it is expected that throughout the politician’s term, the public’s voice is frequently heard and that the decisions made in parliament/congress reflect the majority of these voices. This can be measured by polling, sentiments in town hall meetings, and letter writing campaigns, so that the politician in question can know exactly how those in his or her district – whether they voted for him/her or not – feel about particular issues and so will then vote accordingly.
Assumed Participation – while stressing the connection to the voters in his or her respective district during the campaign, promises made on the trail are in fact little more than lip service, an effort to garner as many votes as possible. Once in office, the politician will vote consistently along party lines or be influenced by major donors and lobbying groups. The challenge for the politician under this form of democracy is to balance the demands of their electorate with pursuing policies in parliament/congress that support the positions of the party base and special interest groups that may actually be to the local citizen’s detriment.
It should be noted that of these three forms of democratic rule, the first is considered an antiquated notion of governance, the second is idealistic and naïve, and the third is extremely cynical while also – most would admit – closest to the truth, and what needs to be changed.
Postmodern assessment permits a multitude of theories as to why the state in question has stumbled, each with the ability to be held by its adherents as the ultimate truth, so it can be fitting that we end with no clear road forward, but with only a hierarchy of possibilities, each with positive and negative attributes.
What is important is that politicians, pundits, and citizens discuss these factors at great length, with hyper-partisan rhetoric being excised for the sake of a much-needed solution. At the same time, feel good, universal rhetoric can also be jettisoned due to its irrelevance. “We have forgotten what made this country great”, is an empty phrase, and can be loaded with very specific reasons as to why the state was perceived to be great at a certain time.
Nostalgia tempers even the most objective observations. The early twenty-first century can be seen through several lenses. Bloated government bureaucracy can be cited as a crippling force just as often as the theory of free-market capitalism and the domination of international corporatism. Widespread social programs can be proof that the best way to increase living standards is high taxation and government regulation just as easily as it can be argued that such projects constrain individual freedoms and leads the populace to a form of dependence and economic irresponsibility.
Are some of these positions more truthful and accurate than others? At this point, it matters only what is being debated in the public political discourse and whether large-scale decisions are based upon them with sufficient information backing up the aforementioned claims. In the postmodern world, truth is only a tool.
Compromise is often derided as the finest way for a government to disappoint everyone, and postmodernism perhaps holds the most frustrating disappointment of all. All of this inevitably is malleable, with the dominant discourse ebbing and flowing around whatever counts for the political spectrum at the time. Whether one finds sadness or relief in reminding him or herself that, “it can’t stay this way forever”, depends largely on their current lot in life. But if we remember that democratic politics – even in this postmodern era – is meant to make sure as many people’s lot is one of basic comfort and dignity, then that should be some sort of beacon for us all to strive towards.
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