What is post "postmodern"?

shot upsidedown

at the mirrored ceiling

in the sf moma elevator



(Hot Topic For Post Moderns)


One hot topic in Post Modern circles is how to rid ourselves of the term "Post Modern". No one wants to be identified primarily by what they are not, or what they object to (unless of course, you are a Protestant, but I digress).

It has been important to keep the term up until now to make it clear that the rationalistic assumptions of Modernity have been rejected. Despite impressive technological and medical advances, the utopian goals of the Enlightenment failed. The grand experiment where humanity shook off the fetters of religion and took up the reigns of existence only resulted in advanced bloodshed, world wars, the A bomb and now terrorism. What started with such loud promise at storming of the Bastille, finally died with a whimper two centuries later with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

So it is understandable that many of us want to identify ourselves as Post Modern. But the term itself is limiting and we need a new term, something beyond Post Modernism. A new term might help us understand the new freedom and possibilities that are in front of us.

And I have a suggestion.

The Suggestion

Note that it is a suggestion, and a hopeful one. The trick is to make it truly open ended enough to be inclusive, yet also formative enough to make sense. Then, of course, it has to resonate and be fair to all parties.

The idea first came to me in the late 80s. I was reading Gregory Bateson's book "Toward an Ecology of Mind" and trying to see if I could get his ideas to "talk" with my understanding of Ernest Becker's world view as presented in "The Denial of Death", (which is one of the most important books written in the 20th Century). In order to see how these two great minds might meet I had to do a great deal of translation, in much the same way that you might place the Buddha's teaching on non-attachment next to Jesus of Nazareth's teaching about the "lilies of the field". You expect some divergence but are looking for some legitimate connections and different angles on the same truthes.

In the background of my mind was Becker's stated desire to form a uniform science of humanity, something that would allow for a multiplicity of voices on any given subject, and integrate exploration via all disciplines instead of pitting them against each other. Becker's vision for this was cut short by his untimely death, but has always seemed one of the most noble projects I had ever heard of.

I mean, imagine for a moment if instead of going into a humanities class and having them castrate or exclude some of the great world traditions, they actually included them and looked for correlations?

Now this was, I think, 1989, which means most of us had no idea how the world was going to be changed by this thing we now refer to as "the web", but ironically it was just that image, the image of a web, that came to mind at the time, just a much simpler image. Instead of the hierarchical and competitive system which Modernity championed, this approach would be horizontal and relational.

An example

Here is a simple example within one discipline, psychology. I was a psychology student in the late 70s and was regularly amazed by how zealous and nearly religious were the wars within the department. Each "school" of psychology was a war for dominance in the department, the Behaviorists trying to understand all aspects of human existence within their own narrow view, and the Humanists and Existentialists doing the same. It was an ideological war with no winners because no one was open to other ways of seeing.

But what if the Modernist model of competition and rational argument had given way to a Post Modern sensibility? What if those professors had laid down their philosophical armaments and started to talk with one another and look for correlations in their work? What if the Behaviorist could have seen his own view as merely one lens among many and valued the Humanist's lens, and the Existentialist's lens? Would they not go deeper with three lenses as opposed to the one? And then what if they had interfaced what they saw through the lenses with other lenses? What if they consulted with the award-winning nutritionist on staff in the biology department, and the social theorist in the sociology department?

I realize that may seem simplistic, but two great sayings by Einstein help here:

"Imagination is more powerful than knowledge," and;

"Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

We'll take the second first. It's simpler that way.

A Simpler Model

Instead of a highly competition and rationalistic model we have the option of adopting a horizontal and relational model that consists of a flexible web of lenses from which to explore existence and the questions which resonate most for us. These questions can be about anything, from ecological concerns, to deep existential questions about the meaning of existence, to how to create a new pastry or float a toy boat out in the harbor.

I mentioned that this workable model is horizontal. The other thing I said is that it is relational. This is key. It not only does not seek to compete and exclude other ways of seeing and interpreting, it LOOKS for them. Much like search engine "spiders" this flexible web of lenses is always looking for connection, and when it finds it, it celebrates and is able to go deeper..
It is looking for relationship.


By now you may be frustrated with me. I mean I promised a new "term" beyond Post Modernism, and instead I have dragged you down this path with seemingly no end in sight. My apologies, but I think it necessary because as Einstein notes "imagination is more powerful than knowledge" and what we are talking about here requires more imagination than it does brain power.

Post Modern sensibilities have made this possible by rejecting the rigid assumptions of Rationalism, re-introducing irony (and thus humility), and creating a new pluralism that is, potentially, non-reductionist. In other words, we can dream about something both useful and achievable. It's an exciting and open time.

So imagine that the universe, everything around us, and also us, is essentially relational.

Just sit with it for a moment, and understand that by relational I am not saying "personal". That's a whole other matter.

Keep it simple but not simpler.

The universe is relational

Twenty years ago, and under Modernity's iron grip, I would have proceeded to "prove" this to you from a variety of sources, all of them good. I could have argued from almost any platform, from the disquieting notion that human babies die if touch and interaction are withheld, to the fact that astrophysicists talk openly about the relational nature of all energy. Or we could appeal to any Creation myth from any culture and the same relational element would be present.

But in a Post Modern world I am not limited just to such arguments. Just ask yourself "Am I not relational by nature?" Aren't our days and ways filled up by the question of relationships? And don't we have a stunning array of them?

So to return to our emerging model, we can take our flexible web of lenses and seek what we can see through them looking for relationship between the pictures they deliver

I've been trying to think of a modern phenomenon that is both simple and playful to illustrate this. I think perhaps the Super Bowl is just such a model. Well not so much the game itself but the broadcast of the game itself and all the different lenses that are used to bring as full a presentation as possible to as many as possible.

A variety of lenses are used to record data which is then relayed into a central hub. Some of these lenses are able to record more relevant data than others at various times. So some of the main cameras down on the field at strategic spots get hours of emphasis, whereas the camera outside the stadium is only used twice for a few brief seconds, and the camera that views the city in which the event is held is used only once.

To these camera lenses are added work that has been done by other lenses prior to the game. There are interviews with players, with wives of players, and with the high school coach of the superstar quarterback upon who the hopes of the city reside.

What decides which cameras are emphasized?

Relevance and resonance.

Two weeks after the Super Bowl, the whole crew and all the equipment are shipped to cover the Democratic National Convention. There are no footballs, and the agenda is completely different (except of course that someone wants to win and others to lose).

The same general parameters are used to covert the broadcast, only now the longer range cameras that were so effective two weeks earlier, are not as useful in a more intimate environment. Other cameras that are more mobile and light weight become the best lenses from which to record and broadcast information.

The choices are fairly easy, and, as before, all the same equipment is used, it's just that some lenses are more useful in this situation than they were at the Super Bowl.

Now I have little doubt that some part of this illustration may break down somewhere, but it is meant to illustrate really only one point, and that is the effective use of multiple lenses and how they interact to derive as much relevant data as possible in a non-competitive manner.

Apply the Flexible Web

Below is an illustration of the flexible web. This model is meant to be explorative not normative. Consider it like a simple but extremely adaptable probe. The sort of probe that if sent into the unknown would have the flexibility to mutate, on the fly, as it encountered new and unforeseen environments

An example?

Okay, let's go back to our psychology department, only this time they have gone through Post Modernization and have seen the Enlightenment experiment for what it was…just one lens, and a limited one. In it's stead is a new model. It is not called Post Modern, it is called Relational.

There I said it

A possible new term is Relational. You can make it an "ism" if you like, but I kinda like it the way it is for reasons I'll address shortly.

But back to our school. The department has decided that the focus of the program for that year will be depression. Instead of a competitive system with each school of thought trying to out leverage the others, they meet to put forward the best information they each have on the causes and remedies of depression.

The Behaviorists bring relevant data on conditioning; another professor puts forward medical models based upon chemical imbalances; yet another, a Humanist, notes that the philosophical notion of freedom and free will carries with it the inherent problem of trying to sustain meaning, and that the crisis of meaning for human beings is closely tied to depression. The Freudians talk about family dynamics and unconscious urges which effect emotional stability.

All the while they are looking for relationship between this different ways of seeing depression. At the same time, new questions arise about social factors. For this they will need the Sociology Department to help them see more. One student who has been sitting in on the discussion as an aid asks about a culture he read about in his anthropology class that have almost zero cases of depression. Instead of being laughed at, a call is placed ot the author of the book

Other lenses pop up as well. The biology department is doing a study on endorphin and serotonin levels based on new dietary finds. Another best selling book includes remarkable testimonials of those who have been relieved of depression by prayer or meditation.

Every one of these lenses is used to gather as much information as possible which is then brought into the mix looking for relevance and resonance.

The beauty of this model is that it is flexible, malleable, non-competitive and is open to lenses outside of strict rationalism, while not rejecting its benefits.

It is also non-reductive and therefore truly pluralistic in the best sense of the word

Beyond Post Modernism

We are not Post Moderns, we are Relationals. The universe is inherently relational, and as self-conscious and curious beings within creation we are too. It's why we care about the meaning of our lives, and how we relate to each other and this universe. It's why we have children and why love is so important to all of us. It's what lies at the core of being human and our questions about God's existence and what our lives mean. It's what we think about and dream about in some way every day of our lives and are trying to find answers to. Modernity gifted us with many things, but it is time to move beyond it's confines. There is serious and deep work to be done, and it is relational.

© Azotus 2002

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