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Two Constitutive Movements of the Postmodern Era

The postmodern era may be seen as an epoch characterized by the gradual emergence of a trend which seems to be questioning the existing natural underpinnings of modern culture and civilization. It no longer appears to be a mere part or an echo of the modern times: new creative stimuli tend to go beyond the integrating capacities of the modern stereotypes in thinking and behaviour, and their self-correcting potentials. Postmodernity can no longer be dismissed as yet another incident of modernity's internal revolt against itself; its stimuli are no longer marked by romantic escapism or protesting for protesting's sake – they are not complementary with modernism, they are fundamentally different.

Viewed in a broader perspective of postmodernity, the modern life is deprived of its fascinating exclusivity: it is peacefully confronted with other, spontaneously emerging alternatives in lifestyle. The postmodern era did not emerge in any programmed fashion, as an implementation of some avant-garde intentions (the principle of such a „mastery“ is – on the contrary – quite common in modernity). Postmodernism itself is only a more or less comprehensive and revealing philosophical reflection of a spontaneously originating action.

In this sense, postmodernity is a tacit defiance of all the modes of civilizational and cultural directiveness – not through any new „revolution“ but rather through a final sobering-up of the entire progressive spirit of modernism.

Today's penetration of postmodernist tendencies from what seems to be a creative spiritual latency to the very surface of everyday life has, however, been long time coming – in some respects ever since the time of the Nietzschean „liberation of life“. Its title was coined in the first half of our century (1917 – Rudolf Pannwitz: postmodernism). Postmodernity first cry-stallized into the shape of a shared and coherent attitude in the field of arts and literature (since 1960s) before blossoming out (in the 1970s) into a cultural and civilizational trend with a potential of penetrating all walks of life.

This long-running symbiosis between outgoing modernity and emerging postmodernity attests to the essentially non-violent, natural character of the ongoing changes, while providing an opportunity of blaming manifestations of degrading modernity on someone else. That is why it is essential to make precise distinctions. An attempt will be made here to outline the basic traits of a genuine innermost identity of the nascent postmodern era by depicting two specific complex movements which establish and identify it as a social and at the same time a spiritual phenomenon.

1. Release from the system societal links

States are modelled as machines; people are turned into statistical sets of voters, producers, consumers, patients, tourists or soldiers.

Václav Havel

How to break out of the technical reduction of a state, from the impersonal rationality wherein political power has anchored its claim to permanent innocence before personal consciousness?

Václav Bělohradský

It can be observed that over the past twenty years, citizens of the advanced Western countries have been promoting „alternative“ lifestyles whose essential component is no longer participation in the mechanisms of the functioning of society as a whole. This holds true of environmental protection just as well as assistance to the needy or cultural or religious activities; all these spheres are being developed to a growing extent outside the main sectors of the existing social system – without the inevitable involvement of the official „structures“ and economic values. Ever more citizens nowadays stay away from voting, engage in non-profit types of earning their living, evolve activities in independent self-help associations. In actual fact, in this way they tend to question the very legitimacy of political representation, the meaningful-ness of economic growth and the correctness or adequacy of professional solutions to human problems.

Thus, they problematize the three main functional underpinnings of modern society, which represent its specific features. Criticism and reluctance is directed towards the very principle of their functioning – to the very principle of modernity – which consists in a technical systematicality (with the indispensible element of totalization and automaticity) which has been perfectly elaborated in all spheres of modern society. This principle serves aims originally formulated in terms of the Enlightenment: the emancipation of man and the mastery of the world. During the modern era, these aims tend to justify all efforts for the achievement of the hegemony of Western civilization (as the „culminator of historical progress“). The harmful course of the process of attaining both objectives has, however, gradually and very convincingly concretized the mastery of the world as its objectification, appropriation and depletion, down to the irreversible phases of a universal ecological catastrophe, and the emancipation of man as his control, education and care for him, down to the irreversible phases of a universal spiritual crisis. The modern ideas have thus been gradually discredited while the technical systematicality – continuously operating in the programmed direction – persists.

Postmodernity can be understood as a vital basis of an inner detachment which allows to weigh the new, hitherto marginalized possibilities. This is a new quest for – no longer the shaping of – a human identity, a new acceptance – no longer the designing – of a human situation. All the signs are that in this search human identity is not „universal“, systematically graspable in the modern sense of the term; it is an unarranged plurality of mutually non-transferrable subjectivities which co-shape most diverse relationships. What used to languish under the reign of unifying and streamlining modern projects is now enjoyed as a basic reality. Territoriality, out of which man naturally grows, and spirituality, to which he freely turns, form the vertical axis of the identity of a person, a group or a nation, an identity which is not totally transparent to any – inevitably horizontal – system. The former no long identifies itself with the latter and therefore is not subordinated to it. Communication growing therefrom is no longer mediated by a mere totalizing neutrality of the „generally valid“; it respects the differences, „letting be“. – However, the unusual stress caused by the spreading mentality of lonely search without authoritative streamlining, with a shortage of life's fixed coordinates, gives rise to tendencies to escapism of all sorts, to drugs in the broadest sense of the term. The plurality of ideas often operates as a vacuum of ideas, causing distress, anguish and subsequent regression to a sectarian or even totemistic premodern mentality. The postmodern era has to learn how to come to terms with these specific risks by using its own spiritual instruments.

2. The Breaking of Horizons of Modern Reason

Each tradition seems to contain all the other traditions. Relativization of being into a single „conceptual system“ which is closed, separated from others and as if inambiguous crippled genuine traditions and creates chimeras.

Paul K. Feyerabend

Contemporary science seems, to an ever growing extent, to be spotlighting the yawning gap betwen the objects of science and the subjects of experience, (...) a divorce between the real and the truthful, between what is accessible to experience and what is acceptable from a scientific point of view.

Gianni Vattimo

Postmodern knowledge simply is not an instrument of the authorities. It tends to refine our sense for differences and strengthens our ability to tolerate the incommensurate.

Jean F. Lyotard

The confusing synchronous variety of thought processes of the postmodern era offers convincing evidence of the disruption of the sovereign status of modern rationality both in its theo-retical and practical manifestations. Its universality and, at the same time, exclusivity was socially sanctioned through its initial role of an unbiased neutralizer of the great controversy – religious wars at the dawn of the modern era. It established itself as a rationality capable of attaining a „higher synthe-sis“. Modern rationality succeeded in covering up the controversies of the two Christian teachings by its own secularized anthropocentric construction of the ultimate goal of history and the reliable means of achieving that. Instead of religious uncertainties, humankind was offered, with the best of intentions, the utopical rational certainty of a project converging with the most human values man's reason could ever appropriate from the Christian heritage. In the interests of human emancipation, efforts were made to promote the imposing science-based image of the world as a foundation of success of all technical interventions into the natural and social spheres. During the two centuries, the efficiency of the economy and information has been greatly increased – to the detriment of an ecological balance, at the cost of a reduced subsistence level of the members of other civilizations and at the cost of the underdeveloped spiritual horizon of the members of one's own civilization. The Western man has thus proved the universality of his reason by becoming an actual master of his world but, among other things, at the cost of becoming a barbarian himself: Within the average of his population he has become, at best, nothing but a skilful manager and indifferent consumer. The spiritual support provided to mankind by modern rationality has eventually turned out to be too rickety and too artificial.

It seems that in the present era the medium of a genuine spiritual universality, not aiming at the totalizing of performances but rather at establishing an inner contact with each counterpart, can no longer be an impersonal scientific and technical reason but a personal, non-anonymous intellectual sensitivity. It is on its strength that postmodern internal and external plurality fashions the possibilities of natural understanding. In accordance with the new spirit of this intellectual sensitivity members of the Western civilization are beginning to display a certain distance from their own civilization privileges, giving up their cultural monologue. Even within their own society they are beginning to respect attitudes formerly branded as „abnormal“, „irrational“ or „incomprehen-sible“. This breakthrough is associated with a theoretical suspension of the abstract neutral subject of modern rationality: the situation is such that there is always an „I“ who is aware of one's own limits, and there is a „You“, different from me, whom I want to understand. Postmodern thinking is a recuperative dialogue among various rationalities which modern rationality is not in a position to grasp because in its own eyes it had „over-come“ them a long time ago. Everything it has discarded or crip-pled on the path of its self-confirmation is thus, once again, given a chance to express itself. The ordinary worlds of human illusions and approximations are once again taken as a foundation and a point of departure for a search, not as something which can – before all the serious effort of thinking – be disposed of all at once by the mere negative logical procedure. The issue of truth is once again open and virtually anybody can hear all the other opinions. An attitude to truth can thus be established as a humble personal quest which does not make its path easier by reducing the truth to heard claims of an expert authority. The principle of dialogue is thus preferred to the principle of power, the right to differ is valued more than the principle of homogeneity.

At the same time, an unusual problem arises. The postmodern explosion of cultural exchanges has sent into circulation so many new meanings – all the historically and geographically differen-tiated cultures suddenly meet almost simultaneously in a single melting pot – that the joy derived from the released plurality changes under their fire into exhaustion and resignation. Percep-tion is becoming more superficial. The sharpening of sensitivity can thus be turned into its loss – into a new dumbness; into short-circuit instinctive solutions of too complicated problems; into a mere registering approach to matters which could have otherwise addressed us very strongly; into the fake of a dialogue by reducing it into mere dilly-dallying.

There is a danger which is to a certain extent connected with the coexistence and intertwining of the attitudes of modernism and postmodernism. A typical modern reaction is to conquer, at a hectic pace, something which is, in terms of human capacity, a matter of long-term maturation. Quite understandably, a modern mentality also tries to exploit or „colonize“ in its own way the postmodernist contribution by transforming it into a commodity; manipulating an interested person into the role of a consumer who simply has no time to realize that his contact with other cul-tures or subcultures is not communication but once again an act of a conqueror, who exploits and discards. – The contribution of a genuine postmodern mentality comprises respect as one of its key elements. Within its context, that which is different is accepted in openness: it remains in its ultimate dimension a mystery.

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