Brave New Postmodern World
by Chellis Glendinning
(Taken from the book 'My Name is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization)
As I read Mander's report of these places, I could see how certain wings of the deconstructive postmodern ideology articulated in academia, the media, and the New Age movement do not just reflect the experience of living in a technology-encased planet; they have the effect of preparing people to accept an even more technologized world one in which life forms may be manipulated to reflect a corporate vision of "perfection"; in which anything, organic or inorganic, may be instantaneously disintegrated by invisible machines; in which people will be able to mentally remove themselves from the trauma of everyday life with predetermined techno-visions; in which the Earth will be entirely tamed and human-created.
The roots of the confusing, seemingly boundariless world civilization now emerging lie not in the Industrial Revolution or the era of colonialism, as some commentators have suggested, but in the domestication process that originally catalyzed both of these processes. As domestication turned expansionism into an accepted, even touted institution of the western world, and subsequent technological development made global travel, trade, and communication the everyday experience rather than the rarity, the concept of cultural relativity as mindful respect for the miraculous array of human differences fell by the wayside. In our lives today, the accepted truths of conflicting ways of life are constantly rubbing up against each other: we watch Yanomami protesting mining in Brazil on our Japanese television screens while doing yoga in our Guatemalan peasant pants. An Indian man I know lives with three generations of his extended family on his nation's land, speaks his native tongue, practices traditional ceremonies in a traditionally built mud hogan-and listens to the Bob Dylan bootleg tapes, flies Tibetan prayer flags, and drives a hot black car with black-tinted windows. During the Earth Summit one particular Associated Press photo ringed the globe: an Amazon Kayapo Indian, dressed in jungle garb, drinking a Coca-Cola.
Because of unrelenting cross-cultural exposure made de rigueur by technological expansion, cultures themselves have become subject to the fragmenting process that is inherent in the technological way of life. The result: no culture is left wholly intact, and each fragment that survives, or is exported halfway around the planet, loses its original value. Out of context, it can be viewed in only the most superficial way, perhaps as a souvenir or a piece of exotica, as a consumer item or a "ritual."
The upshot is the next step beyond the agricultural mind. Here we have the "postmodern mind": a rootless, undigested perception of life whose hallmark is the absolute relativity of all human-made experience the very opposite of the primal matrix's caring respect for the nature-inspired differences among cultures and the penetrating sense of archetypal patterning that binds them. This new worldview rather purveys a shaky sense of meaninglessness, a bizarre commitment to the notion that all of reality is "human-constructed," and for all the grandstanding about global community and Earth citizenry going on in the mass media, a profound sense of homelessness. After watching E. T. on television in his rapidly technologizing hometown, a Balinese boy told an American tourist, a friend of mine, "I feel
like E.T. I want to go home."
Granted, the postmodern philosophy emerging out of the technological juggernaut has afforded us unparalleled perceptual tools for deconstructing what most needs deconstruction—mass technological society itself. Educators Yvonne Dion-Buffalo and John Mohawk champion this development, asserting that the postmodern discourse is "positioned in opposition to domination and therefore … seek[s] the reversal of conditions of oppression." Such discourse is essential; in fact, this book is part of it. And yet it is the postmodern world, not a philosophy springing from it, that so disorients its inhabitants that they become prone to relativizing and deeming human-constructed not just the engines of dysfunction, but everything in existence.
In his treatise on the postmodern mind-set, Reality Isn't What It Used to Be, political scientist Walter Anderson explores this disorientation. "[The postmodern experience] fills our lives with uncertainty and anxiety, renders us vulnerable to tyrants and cults, shakes religious faith, and divides societies into groups contending with one another in a strange and unfamiliar kind of ideological conflict: not merely a conflict between beliefs, but about belief itself." According to Anderson, this breakdown of both old and more recent belief systems constitutes the first step in a global process that is leading to the emergence of deeply felt conflicts about the nature of human truth conflicts such as the now well-aired argument about education between old-line supporters of European classical values and supporters of Afrocentric and other ethnic perspectives, between those favoring more community and those favoring more individualism, and on and on. These seemingly unresolvable controversies, Anderson predicts, will eventually lead to the establishment of a world culture in which "all belief systems look around and become aware of all other belief systems, and … people everywhere struggle in unprecedented ways to find out who and what they are."
I'd like to give you a couple of examples of what this deconstructive postmodern mind looks like in everyday life, and in the telling, I'd like to convey how its appearance is a dangerous and misguided addition to an already dangerously addicted and unecological world. A few years ago a Santa Fe man attacked his former girlfriend in the street. Unprovoked, he came at her shouting, "Cunt!," jamming her against a wall, and when she tried to escape, coming after her in a high-speed car chase. After his rage was quelled by an injunction from the county sheriff's department, he began to attend New Age workshops where he was told, and eagerly accepted, that "you create your own reality."
Fortunately, this simplistic and one-dimensional posture is increasingly being revealed not as the new social truth its purveyors would have us believe, but as a shortsighted and reactive urge for control and self-definition against the uncertainties of contemporary life. "Many voices can now be heard declaring that what is out there is only what we put out there," writes Anderson. "More precisely, what I put out there— just little me, euphorically creating my own universe. We used to call this solipsism; now we call it New Age spirituality."
After taking dozens of workshops, at a financial expense that had to top twenty thousand dollars, the attacker received a request from the woman that he pay the medical bills she had accrued from the unfortunate event. His response, and he fully believed its veracity: "You create your own reality. You're responsible for your reaction to the attack. I don't owe you anything."
In another strange encounter in the postmodern world, a young man who recently graduated from a top Ph.D. program identifies himself as a "postmodern anthropologist." This means he believes that every aspect of human life is socially constructed and therefore relative, mutable, and by implication meaningless. Nothing is universal. No shared human needs or ways exist. Any similarities among world cultures are merely random. When a physicist tries to explain to this man that the nuclear industry categorically denies the medical and environmental impacts of radiation, our postmodern anthropologist denies the existence of denial. He eagerly cites instead cultural differences between those inside and outside the industry, thereby denying the medical and environmental impacts of radiation himself. When I try to talk with him about how child rearing in a hunter-gatherer band in Venezuela better answers the long-evolved expectations for human development than child rearing in technological society, he snaps, "Those stages of development don't exist. They've long since been debunked. People are blank slates, we're infinitely pliable." When I tell him about my own process of recovery from childhood trauma, he disputes that trauma is a complex, biologically rooted experience and suggests that all anyone has to do to feel good in today's world is to "change their mind."
Such postmodern thinking reflects both the detachment, hubris, and fragmentation of the technological mind-set and the denial, grandiosity, and dissociation of the traumatized personality which are, in the end, one and the same. The overlooked factor underlying this bizarre twist of human consciousness is that while it touts human reality as entirely socially constructed and therefore infinitely mutable, its very presence as an ideology relies on something that is not mutable at all. Essential to the existence of deconstructive postmodernism is the predominance of technological society over all other ways and cultures. As Theodore Roszak puts it, "We are, in ways that have been expertly rationalized, pressing forward to create a monocultural world-society in which whatever survives must do so as an adjunct to urban industrial civilization."
Without the technological developments of the last three hundred generations, we would most likely still see the world, as we did for 99 percent of our history as human beings, through the lens of the soft cultural relativity Larry Emerson describes when he speaks of traveling from Dine' country to the Ute Nation. This is a relativity that respects variety, grasps the archetypal foundations underlying nature-based cultures, and emphasizes the relatedness of all life. By contrast, our experience in today's world, and the psychology and philosophy that grow out of this experience, create an unprecedented kind of cultural relativity that is extreme, ungrounded, and ironically absolute. There is no human body that can be harmed, it asserts. No primal matrix to listen to. No Earth to care about. No interconnectedness among people to tend to. No unfolding of our stories into the story of the natural world. No anchoring of human experience in the patterns of universality. No morality.
On a one-to-one scale, we see this approach being used by a deeply disturbed man to deny responsibility for his violence, and this is painful enough. On a social scale, we can see the potential for its use by sanctioned professionals to convince an increasingly dissociated and disoriented public that creating our own reality with genetic, molecular, techno-visual, and shopping-mall constructions would be equally as satisfying as living in the wilds of a mountain valley.
The Big Questions
In the midst of such developments from the first acts of domestication some ten thousand years ago to this final enclosure in a postbiological, posthuman, postmodern world questions arise. These are questions that challenge the current unearthly notion of human nature. What if the way of being we know in mass technologial society is not normal? What if the personal and ecological cycles of addiction and abuse that define our lives are not representative of human nature at all, but rather are symptoms of profound woundings and grave pathologies? What if these painful expressions represent desperate attempts to cope, and even to heal, by a people who find themselves in an extreme and untenable situation? And what is that extreme and untenable situation? It is, as the Balinese boy so succinctly expressed, our homelessness. We want to go home.