Postmodern Politics

In world of multiple perspectives on reality, what is "truth"?
How one postmodernist sets his political rudder in questioning times

One of the articles in Reclaiming Politics (IC#30)
Originally published in Fall/Winter 1991 on page 32
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

If you’re getting dizzy spells trying to figure out how the world works these days, Walter Truett Anderson’s latest book – Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be (Harper & Row, 1990) – could come as something of a lifeline. The book’s subtitle sums up its contents: "Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World." In it Anderson describes how most of what we consider to be "reality" is socially constructed (hence he’s a "constructivist"), how pluralism is now a fact of contemporary life, and how the political and cultural structures we’ve created are being rocked by our growing disbelief in systems of belief.

So what is the "postmodern world"? One short definition is provided by the French critic Lyotard, who defines the postmodern as "incredulity towards metanarratives." In more chewable usage, "postmodern" refers to a vast maelstrom of trends in architecture, music, literary criticism, political theory and other intellectual and popular currents. These break away from the traditionally "modern" ideas of linear progress, rational control, and one right (usually white, male, European) way of doing things. What seems to bind these currents together, at the center of the vortex, is a question that has no absolute answer – or the act of questioning itself. (Confused? Read the sidebar on page 34 first.)

Walter Truett Anderson is a political scientist and writer whose other books include Rethinking Liberalism (1983) and To Govern Evolution (1987). He’s also a true postmodern: raised a Nevada cowboy, he worked as a Hollywood reporter for TV Guide in the early 1960s, and in the late 60s and early 70s he led encounter groups and trained psychotherapists. We met at the First International Conference on Public Policy in the Postmodern World, and conducted this interview at a kitchen table on a quiet Sunday morning while an attempted coup in the Soviet Union was collapsing.

Alan: What kind of world is it that has given birth to postmodernism?

Walt: It is essentially a world that is becoming one world in spite of itself. And it is a world still living with an extremely primitive set of concepts about what a culture is, what a society is, and what reality is.

One of the most important issues in human life concerns our need for some sense of universality – that is, some truth that is true for everybody. This has to do with our need to be sustained and supported by the people around us. It also has to do, I think, with one of the essential conditions of human life – the fact that our individual consciousness is not individual, but relational. Consciousness exists, and knows itself, only through the process of language. We can only support our understanding of reality by continually referring to others. Even an internal dialogue is a social process, since we learn language from others.

What I’m suggesting is that human consciousness is continually in contact with the social environment, and that means with the symbolic environment. We need that desperately, and we have tended to understand that as a need for contact with other people who are pretty much like us.

Throughout the modern era we’ve had these big belief systems in search of universality, all of which have had their prophets who claim that their truth is for everybody: "The Marxist revolution must conquer the world!" "We must Christianize the world!" "Universal Islam!" Such notions have supported a lot of imperialism, and they still do to some extent. But most of the world is beginning to see that it’s not going to work out that way. The whole project of universality has collapsed.

Alan: These days it’s a truism, especially in certain contemporary subcultures, to say that there are many paths to truth.

Walt: I agree. But among some of those subcultures – such as the New Age or Ecological subcultures – there are an awful lot of new prophets proclaiming new universalities, or the coming of some new universal consciousness. Much of "New Paradigm" thinking is essentially making the same mistakes the Marxist and Christian prophets made, because nobody, at this point, knows how to colonize the world within a universality of belief, whose symbols are universally agreed on, whose language is universally accepted.

So as one approaches the concept of global civilization or global culture, the first thing that’s necessary is a great deal of humility. For example, I’d go so far as to say we’re all on the same planet, facing certain common problems – but beyond that, I would be very economical, very spare in my proclamations of universality.

Alan: But where exactly does a constructivist worldview meet up with the objective world? When an ancient forest is logged, for example, there are many different stories one could tell about the meaning of the act – but in fact, something is dead that once was alive. So after acknowledging and embracing pluralism, how do we agree on values and make political decisions?

Walt: People often dismiss the constructivist position as silly and wrong if they understand it to be a kind of absolute relativism, or the idea that every perspective is equal and there are no values. But another fundamental thing about the human condition is that we are essentially and irrevocably valuing creatures. We construct reality in every nanosecond of life, and then say "this is good" and "this is bad."

All of us are engaged to some extent in some kind of communication about issues like forests. What is the ultimate source of truth about that issue? How do you make a judgment? Well, a constructivist approach says to make that judgment, you can’t get outside the context of society or your own consciousness. Your judgment will always be contingent on these factors.

But as individuals, we still take strong positions. I take a lot of positions very strongly – but always with the knowledge that they express who and what I am. In other words, I never think of myself as speaking for God, or Nature, or History – but I am speaking as history in a sense, because I’m inseparable not only from the history of my own life, but from the culture that produced me. I don’t have any absolute authority. I just mobilize the best facts and values I can in the language of our times, and I have to live with the outcomes of my actions.

Alan: There’s a whiff of radical individualism in what you’re saying.

Walt: You could call it radical individualism or you could call it the opposite – say, radical contextualism. I am continually in a context. I am, for better or worse, a fifty-eight year-old, white, American male of the Western United States educated in the traditions of Western civilization, Western philosophy and Western literature. I can’t make sense of the world except by holding hands with people in those traditions, though I can in some ways move beyond or away from them.

But despite all I’ve said about speaking from within a tradition, I should also note that if I weren’t here with you at the moment, I wouldn’t be precisely the same person I am. This is the context that we exist in today, now. We move around in so many different contexts that we can feel totally lost and confused – we recognize that the nature of human consciousness in our time is to be in some context.

Alan: So given the world you’ve just sketched out, what is "postmodern politics"? Is it another ideology, like Marxism?

Walt: Certainly not. First, I use the term "postmodern" with some misgivings. It’s as good a one-word handle for the enormous complexity we’re in as any other term I know, and I use it as a shorthand reference to all the various realms of postmodern thought, including constructivism and deconstruction. [See sidebar.] But what it is not is a designation of a clearly agreed-upon belief system. Postmodern politics is just whatever is happening at the moment.

Marxism has its tomes, its leaders, its capability to purge wrong thinking. But everybody has a different idea of what is meant by postmodernism or constructivism – that’s as it should be. Radical pluralism is what we’re talking about, and if we can’t have pluralistic definitions of the thing itself we’re missing the point. We have to be on guard against turning this new way of thinking into a cookbook for living.

So what political situations are most exemplary of the postmodern condition? The Russian one certainly comes to mind. We’re witnessing the total collapse of an ideology – a story that explained where things were going, why, and what had to happen in the future – and so there must be an awful lot of people there now wandering around feeling lost. Marxism was really the apex of the human attempt to create a vast edifice of sociological thought that explained everything. It was political chutzpah on a grand scale, and I can’t imagine that any edifice of that sort will ever be built again.

Another particularly postmodern aspect of the Soviet situation is the vitality of its ethnic and national identifications, which were submerged for so long. While they’ve caused a hell of a lot of wars, these national identities provide symbols, songs and languages that help to prop up people’s sense of who and what they are. Now their desire for national self-determination is bobbing up to the surface again as historically unfinished business.

But I don’t think that business is ever going to get finished. It’s no longer clear what "national self-determination" means, and it’s no longer that easy to achieve. Just about every piece of land occupied by one national group is also occupied by another, because one of the things the modern era has bequeathed to us – along with other new forms of cultural flexibility – is plain old human mobility. There are Russians living in Lithuania, Croats in Serbia, Asians in Canada …

Alan: and just about everybody in California.

Walt: Right. In terms of sheer numbers, we’re probably in a period of greater human mobility than has ever existed.

Cultural or ethnic self-determination is problematic now on another level as well. We have a tremendous ability to communicate around the world via networks, and somebody in a traditional community that’s in the process of rediscovering its ethnic autonomy simply may not care to participate. There are many people in those communities who just aren’t excited about being "traditional."

And of course, there’s a dark side to any ethnic national religious group having autonomy, because they impose that "autonomy" not only on the ethnic minorities (the Palestinians in Israel, for example) but on the consciousness minorities of one kind or another – people who are considered different and discriminated against because of it. Women, for example, are a very large consciousness minority, and I think they’ll be doing the most to subvert the autonomy projects of any identifiable group. Gay people are another example, as are contemporary Bohemians, radicals, or dissidents who simply don’t want to be a part of that culture and don’t want to salute its flag or sing its song.

So these marches toward self-determination are going to bump up against pluralism again and again. They’re also going to bump up against the complexities of a world that has more ways of living human life than can be defined or managed within traditional value systems.

Alan: Postmodernism feels more and more like a puzzle that can never be put together. What are some other major pieces?

Walt: Understanding technological change is absolutely essential to making sense of the postmodern world. As a result of technology’s advance, there are no more simple pyramids of governance that go from local to regional to national to global. Why? Because some people are place-rooted and some are placeless. Some people are deeply involved in local societies, and some people are really most grounded in international networks. Some of our systems of governance are geographically based, some are economic networks, some are religious networks, and some are networks of ideology or purpose. There are some kinds of organizations that we can barely spot at all – they interpenetrate and overlap in all kinds of different ways. The women’s movement is, again, a good example that cuts across many boundaries. That is the political system we’re looking at today. We just can’t use our two-dimensional maps any more.

Alan: Let’s look at a hot political issue – say, abortion – and analyze it from this perspective. What hope is there for political consensus on abortion, given the multi-dimensionality you’ve just described?

Walt: Well, you can look at this from three or four different perspectives. I think there is some possibility for achieving consensus on the notion that abortion isn’t the best way to control unwanted pregnancy. Education about birth control alone can reduce the number of abortions. But not everybody is in agreement even on that, because birth control technologies and sex education are as much anathema to many people as abortion is.

But even the rules that define abortion are changing, because the issue is defined by the technology to some extent. So along comes a new technology like RU486, the so-called "morning after" pill. By some definitions taking RU486 does not constitute an abortion, because it prevents the fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus, so pregnancy has not yet started. Of course, that depends on how you define pregnancy, but it’s not causing the abortion of a fetus in the way we usually mean "abortion" today.

Now, there are two ways to split off from here. One way leads to the proliferation of boundary-line arguments, and every boundary is a social construction of reality. If you say that a human being starts at the moment of conception, you’re creating reality that way, because all such boundaries are, in a sense, artificial – they are the product of some social agreement. One of the curious things about our time is that we can’t get much social agreement on when a human being starts. Some people say conception, some say third trimester, and a libertarian activist I knew years ago said that a baby was not a human being until it had developed consciousness and a sense of relationship with others. People taking his position would find infanticide as morally justifiable as birth control. So one characteristic of postmodern politics is the increasing visibility of such boundary issues, and the instability created by our increasing awareness of their arbitrary nature.

Shooting off in the other direction – and further complicating the issue – are these technological changes. I mentioned RU486, but there are many other attempts to develop new kinds of birth control technology. As time goes on there will be as many approaches to birth control as there are ways to record voices for music – and that will further destabilize the whole argument.

So a hardline, ideological "pro-life vs. pro-choice" argument is a kind of fist fight in a rowboat. Winning or losing won’t be an issue, because the whole nature of the dialogue is shifting in the ways I illustrated. Like many great political conflicts, the argument will, in retrospect, seem historically quaint.

Alan: But meanwhile these opposing belief systems are creating real conflict and real pain.

Walt: A great deal of it. They deal with real babies, and real people’s deep issues, and I care very much about them and am deeply involved in them. One of the characteristics of an engaged postmodern consciousness is to be deeply involved in such issues, despite their complexity and difficulty.

Alan: Given this multiplicity of voices and models of reality and value systems, are the governance structures that we have adequate for reaching new social contracts?

Walt: I think so. We’re probably going to do more improvising with our existing structures than tearing them down to create new ones. It takes a lot of time to agree on a new set of structures, and more social consensus than we are likely to get.

Right now in Russia, where everything seems to be up for grabs, we’re seeing a great deal of such improvising: with parliamentary government, for example, which is beginning to emerge as a fairly common language everywhere.

We must recognize the great human tendency to plagiarize. We are much more prone to eclecticism than we are to the creation of pure structures that have never existed. We just keep borrowing stuff from somewhere else. Christianity, for example, is notorious for slapping together aspects from paganism and other older religions. If we really understand that, we’ll get a lot less upset about the purity of this or that teaching.

Alan: Someone once said that 99% of creativity involves knowing whom to imitate.

Walt: Which is fine, as long as we don’t get confused and declare something we’ve built from a lot of stolen material to be the pure truth, or the one way that reality or the truth reveals itself.

Alan: In this turbulent sea, how do you set your political rudder? You advocate taking strong positions – but how do you sort through the complexities and competing values systems to know where to stand?

Walt: First off, you make some choices. Certain issues, for whatever reasons, have a lot of energy for me. Lately I find myself less involved with mainstream environmentalism but very involved in biotechnology issues, which are getting neglected in a lot of ways. So I put my energy where it feels like some difference can be made.

I think the scare talk about biotechnology has prevented people from understanding what a tremendous revolution is going on in the life sciences, and how important this will become in the very near future. I’m especially interested in exploring ways biotechnology can be applied to sustainable development projects in Third World countries.

But I don’t necessarily expect to move the world. And I also make deliberate choices about issues that I’m not going to play a part in, because I just don’t have that much of me to spread around. We have lot of choices – more than most people have ever had to deal with – about what game we’re going to play, or what theater we’re going to take a part in. But as I’m fond of saying, we don’t have a lot of choices about having a lot of choices. And consciousness of this range of choices is simply a fundamental part of the joy, as well as the stress, of being a person in the postmodern world.

Postmodern Thought:
A Brief Orientation

What is "postmodernism"? There is no easy answer, since mapping the entire postmodern territory would be an undertaking on the scale of the human genome project. What’s more, the vocabulary employed by scholars and academics – the most prominent participants in the debate – is often intimidatingly intellectual at best, practically a foreign language at worst.

To make matters worse, the "postmodernists" have found much to disagree about – but there do seem to be one or two common hooks where the majority of postmodern thinkers all hang their hats.

As the word suggests, postmodernists make a distinction between the present state of Western culture and the "Modern" era. Historical epochs don’t simply arrive with the posting of a new calendar, but the postmodern position turns on the idea that we can’t continue to understand our world using the principles and doctrines of the past.

For much of the last 2,000 years, religion and theology – Judaism and Christianity in the West – were the dispensers of truth. The church defined morality, adjudicated the law and governed the state.

But the Enlightenment permanently diminished the role of the church as the glue holding society together. Eighteenth century thinkers like Kant and Rousseau, taking cues from Copernicus and Galileo, contributed to the substitution of man and science for God and theology.

Thus the modern era evolved, bringing with it a tradition of scientific inquiry that was adopted by social thinkers as well as those concerned with the natural world.

For intellectuals of the early- to mid-20th century, Marxism seemed the next logical step in "the Enlightenment Project," humanity’s rational attempts to arrive at the true nature of things. But the excesses of Stalin, the propensity for Marxist revolutionaries to pave the road for tyranny, and the stagnant bureaucracy of the Communist system ultimately demanded that intellectuals reassess the idea of social progress – and the framework outlined by Marx and his successors to realize it.

The branches of progressive critical thought which then grew away from the Marxist trunk led in many directions. On a very broad level, this accounts for at least some of the varieties of postmodernism.

Generally postmodernists do not bother to critique Marx, nor are they concerned with shining a light on why Judeo-Christian theology, while claiming to uphold the virtues of tolerance and love, has often lent itself to imperialism and tyranny. Instead, they contend that the problem with these systems of thought is their claim to explain the world – its natural and social laws, its true morality, the course of history, the natural qualities of the human being – in universal terms that apply to all people in all places.

Today, science reigns in our systematic attempts to organize the world, and it too claims to get at the objective "truth." But even science has not been spared the postmodern critique, thanks to the questions raised by quantum physics and environmental degradation.

Postmodernists, united in their rejection of any universal interpretations of culture, stand convinced there are simply no absolute truths on which to agree. From here, they quit their common ground to join the various camps currently participating in the postmodern debate.

The deconstructionists, critics of language and text, attempt to understand how the vocabulary and media we use to represent our thoughts fail to mean the same thing to all people. The constructivist position, meanwhile, is resigned to forfeiting attempts at getting to "the truth." Constructivists recognize that since we can’t universally identify reality, we may define or "construct" it however we choose – and that we are constantly doing so anyway.

This position fits tightly with the revival of pragmatism which has taken place within postmodernism. Pragmatists trace their history to the intellectual individualism of Americans like Emerson, James, and Dewey and suggest that the loss of universal truths is a good reason to embrace local community. For the pragmatists, postmodernism provides a rationale for growing closer to the only concepts and beliefs that we can know – those indigenous to our own cultures.

And the list goes on. These are simply a few of the terms of debate, none of which represents a definitive account. Whether we choose to call them postmodern or not, the world is clearly replete with – and in need of – new ways of thinking.

How does this affect politics? Debate over free speech on college campuses, or over how to approach natural rights, suggests that our most time-honored principles are being questioned every day. Even within the recent Supreme Court nomination hearings, one heard it viably suggested that both Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill were telling the "truth" as they saw it.

And the postmodern debate – confusing and academic as it is – can have relevance for political involvement. It suggests we can – and must – grow, adjust, create new ways of doing things. Postmodern criticism itself offers no models or frameworks for future political systems. But it does open up some space for a more inclusive politics – one more responsive to the needs of our increasingly diverse society.

– Chris Davis

Chris Davis, an explorer of postmodernism, is an intern at IN CONTEXT.

The Limits Of Our Stories

Our minds are always looking for patterns and stories. Brain research indicates that the narrative form, or story, arises out of the way we process information. And the fact that most of our stories begin with "Once upon a time, in a land far away" lets us know that story is bounded by time and space.

But while we have become accustomed to thinking analytically about the stories that shaped bygone cultures, we have trouble assessing our own more recent formulations. These stories – especially those concerning our religious traditions, scientific methods, and political ideologies – need close scrutiny. Alternatives to the mainstream stories have always existed, providing a counterpoint to the harmony of the prevailing worldview, and today’s alternatives include liberation theology, goddess spirituality, and creation-centered spirituality in the realm of religion; new story cosmology and the new physics in the realm of science; and green movements, ecofeminism, and visions of spiritual democracy in the realm of politics.

What is lacking in these thoughtful new stories, however, is thinking about thinking itself. When such new stories arise, what seems to survive – sadly – is not the process of questioning and discovery, but a new dogma, a new piety, a new "worldview."

Constructivism, and more radically deconstructionism, asks questions about the cultural forces that dictate our views of reality. But we also need to know how we know what we know. Are there biological, as well as cultural, limits on our ability to know? How can we communicate knowledge that is itself in process and, ultimately, live with trust in a world where competing, contradictory, and collapsing belief systems are suddenly the norm?

Obviously, our enthusiasm for stories is part of the problem. As we get "caught up in the spirit" of any story, we forget that our feet must stay planted firmly on the ground. If we are to engage meaningfully with the realities of our time – disappearing cultures, species, habitats – perhaps we should look at our stories more for what they tell us about ourselves than about our world. As we increasingly acknowledge that the world does not follow any script of ours, we might be better served by living more lightly with all of our stories – the new as well as the old.

– JoAnn McAllister

JoAnn McAllister is currently at work on a book that will examine social change in a postmodern culture. Her article "Choosing Wonder" appeared in IC #24.

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