Thursday, March 25, 2010

Postmodernism: Epistemic Tribal Warfare

My AP English class is currently making its way through J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, a postcolonial allegory set in a frontier post of a nameless Empire. The protagonist, an aged representative of the Empire known only as the Magistrate, finds his comfortable world turned upside down when the Empire sends Colonel Joll of the Third Bureau (the rough equivalent of the CIA in this imaginary world) to determine whether or not the rumors about a barbarian uprising in the frontier lands are true. Colonel Joll quickly rounds up random barbarians and aboriginals and tortures them until they deliver up the “truth” that the Empire demands: the barbarians are preparing for war. Consequently, the Empire prepares a preemptive offensive campaign against the phantom barbarian threat. From this point on, the Magistrate struggles with feelings of alienation from his cultural narrative. The ripple effect upon the Magistrate is immense leading him to a hyper-examination of every aspect of his life including his sexuality, his perception of time and history, his interpretive mode of thinking, his obsession with dream analysis, and a general existential crisis of his individual and collective selfhood.

Coetzee, as a member of an Afrikaner family of Dutch descent, grew up deeply at odds with his rabidly prejudicial patrimony, the apartheid culture of South Africa. Coetzee’s fiction clearly conveys his confusion and alienation as a product of such an oppressive worldview. He, like the Magistrate, probably struggled with the incongruities, inconsistencies, immorality, and glaring hypocrisies of his colonial heritage. However, his progressive view, like the Magistrate’s, does not immediately enable him to identify with or access the narrative and perspective of the Other, the barbarian, the indigenous population of South Africa. He and the Magistrate share a feeling of being caught between two worlds, two cultures, two narratives, one of which he is running away from and the other of which he may or may not be running toward. His cultural conditioning shapes his view of the world and makes a true connection with the barbarian difficult, if not impossible.

Ultimately, the Magistrate takes a stand for the barbarian people and suffers the painful consequences of the Empire imposing its retribution upon him. The imperial narrative proves to be so self-destructive that by the end of the novel the town has been overrun and exploited by the very forces sent to serve and protect the people of the Empire. The imperial troops turn out to be more dangerous than the barbarians. Perhaps the imperial troops are the real barbarians in the novel. Ironically, at the end of the novel, the Magistrate finds himself restored to his prior role as a bringer of justice in a depopulated and virtually abandoned frontier post. He will have to forge a new path into the future without the help of his defunct cultural narrative.

Symbolically, the novel captures many of the essential features of postmodernism: (1) the skeptical attitude toward cultural, political, and religious grand narratives that seek to assert an exclusive claim to objective truth (atheist materialist framework); (2) cultural narratives possess little or no objectivity, for they are subjectively constructed and communally-enforced fictitious assertions of power (power = knowledge/ “truth”); (3) narratives are, nonetheless, vital tools for human life for man craves meaning through communication, whether it be subjective or objective in value, whether it be read, written, or simply spoken; (4) false dichotomies within cultural discussions, such as civilization vs. barbarian cultures, should be discarded for all cultures possess dignity and meaning and equal weight within the contexts of their respective subjective structures of meaning (i.e. multiculturalism, postcolonialism); (5) the value and limitation of competing modes of rationality, varying perceptions of time and history, the ebb and flow of animalistic appetites for food and sex, and the shifting notions of self (radical skepticism).

Discussing all of this with my students has proven extremely taxing and draining for me. It requires every ounce of my intellectual stamina to process these ideas myself, let alone effectively communicate them to my students. I did try to help them see the relevance of these notions in the next phase of their education. Universities today are intellectual battlefields. A plurality of narratives can be found in higher academia, many of which undermine the core foundation of the university. The very term, university, originally refers to the Catholic (universal) assertion that there is an objective, independent truth flowing from God’s personhood. The student’s primary task in the university should be to contemplate and discover truth in order to train him or her to be a liberal man or woman, a free person capable of positively contributing to society and striving for sanctity and holiness on the pilgrimage of life (“The truth will see you free” mantra).

This religious narrative slowly lost its force and was superseded by the Enlightenment narrative, which asserted that there was indeed an objective, independent truth, and this may or may not flow from God, but the primary purpose of students was to use reason to make the world a better place through technological and scientific progress. Postmodernism, however, is skeptical of both the religious narrative and the Enlightenment narrative. Its adherents assert that there is no universal independently objective truth. Aside from a few laws of nature and science, truth is subjectively created rather than objectively discovered. If truth is a construct, this reality paves the way to relativism, and if truths are relative, then no one narrative has any claim to exclusivity. This, in turn, leads to a plurality of truths wherein each aggregate group of individuals mobilizes their collective will to power to assert the veracity of their narrative’s subjective truth. In this way, the epistemic tribes of postmodernism have come into being in the university today, though they are directly at odds with the core principles of a grand narrative (women’s studies, ethnic studies, racial studies, sexual studies, etc.).

It is not that these courses don’t shed light on real problems in the political mythologies of the contemporary world, but it is that their claim to truth is a brazen attempt to politicize knowledge and reshape the world according to their brand of truth. This may seem harmless, even desirable, initially under the banner of multiculturalism, but what it ultimately leads to is a breakdown of society into tribalism of an epistemic sort. My truth vs. your truth may seem ecumenical, but it is the first step towards civil war because this is basically equal to the philosophy that “might makes right”; it’s just a slight tweaking to “might makes truth” or an inversion of the Baconian principle to “power is knowledge.” Sooner or later, one epistemic tribe will grow weary of merely proposing an alternative narrative and will try to dominate the others, and we’ll be right back where we started with another grand narrative.

The university serves an essential role in the market place of ideas as an anchor in truth, but if that anchor loses its mooring this does not bode well for the rest of society. For make no mistake, without the safe harbor and standard bearer of objective truth, you are in real danger, for ideas have very real consequences, even if the ivory tower might think or tell you otherwise. There may not be an ivory tower for long in a world consisting purely of subjectively created truths. Tyrannical narratives cannot broach naysayers. Say what you will about the university and the Western narrative, but it has always had a place for self-criticism. I am not sure the same can be said for these newly emergent epistemic tribes who have a taste and a hunger for war.

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