The Day Human Character Changed
On or about June 2016, human character changed, and I finally understood the meaning of postmodernism. When I emerged from the Underground at Tottenham Court Road, navigating the sea of black umbrellas towards the British Museum, I felt it. There was a hush, a heightened British reserve, as the men and the women went up and down the mechanical belly of tube stations. The escalators hummed as their faces descended, and I thought of Ezra Pound’s petals on a wet black bough. They hung there, suspended – like a sentence fragment, or a question: what was the EU?
Whether or not they know it, every person on that escalator is a historian. They spend most of their days documenting their histories. The selfie is the existential crisis of their age; the reflexive statement that says, with each repost, ego sum in Instagram ergo sum, I am on Instagram, therefore I exist. A quick glance at Instagram reveals photos of breakfasts, outfits, and cats – as though Instagram proves that they ate breakfast, got dressed for work, and fed their cats. Their feelings have been reduced to status updates; their surrogate mother, Facebook, asks them how they’re feeling, and pats them on the head throughout the day with each ‘like’.
Is it possible that we have become so obsessed with documenting our lives that we are incapable of enjoying the present moment? Somewhat hilariously, I observed that hardly anyone in the British Museum stops to look at the artifacts. Visiting a cultural institution is more like a drive-by photoshoot. We see so much of the world through an iPhone lens, that we confuse the real with the virtual. In this way, digitalism connects us to the Internet, and disconnects us from our bodily selves. Modern life is characterised by these three things: digitalism, globalism, and postmodern discourse.
Now of course, postmodernism encompasses digitisation and globalisation, which in turn are in dialogue with postmodernism. For those of you who are acquainted with me personally, or who are familiar with my work, you will know that I am not a postmodernism fangirl. For those of you who were not assigned French postmodernist readings during your third year, please forgive this digression.
While I can acknowledge the usefulness of postmodernism, particularly in dismantling hegemonic discourses which ostracize marginalised groups, I believe it is epistemologically unsustainable – in fact, the entire theory of postmodernism was founded on the premise that the premise does not exist, or as Jacques Derrida so famously put it, le centre n’est pas le centre, the centre is not the centre. The danger in subscribing wholeheartedly to postmodernism is, I think, in its potential to undermine our foundational understanding of ourselves. Case in point: Brexit.
What is Brexit? Brexit is a nostalgic cry for a Britain that no longer exists. Brexit is an attempt to break with the trend towards globalism by resurrecting the nation-state. Facebook reminds us what we ate for breakfast two years ago, but not of the Second World War. Brexit is the historian’s call to arms: to bring history to the public in a manner that is readable and relatable, while remaining accurate and politically unbiased.
I am going to preempt the comments here by saying that this article is not a condemnation of the Leave campaigners. To foreclose discussion is to disrespect democracy, which is the very foundation upon which our free societies are built. What does concern me, however, is the fear mongering and deception characterising the EU referendum, as well as the US presidential election. We live in a world where our political choices are determined not by whom we love, but by whom we hate the least. While postmodernism has empowered the LGBTQ community and racial minorities, it has also hyper-politicized everyday conversation. One can hardly make a comment for fear of offending someone, somewhere. Have we become so suffocated by the political correctness of postmodernism, that we welcome the racist rants of Donald J. Drumpf? When did bigotry become a refreshing change and a form of late-night entertainment?
We live in an age of anxiety which has become increasingly image-centric – destabilised by the discourse of postmodernism, where anybody can be anything, so long as they think it. This kind of ‘subjective morality’ teeters dangerously on the precipice of nihilism, where the signifier and the signified are fast becoming indistinguishable. What is real, we ask ourselves, peering into our phones like crystal balls, as we pour our lives, our very souls, into them. What is privacy, what is ‘in a relationship’, what is the European Union? In this way, postmodernism is just what humanists call entropy, which Stephen Hawking defines in his BBC Reith Lectures as “a measure of the disorder of a system, or equivalently, as a lack of knowledge of its precise state”. Postmodernism is all about the disorder of the system; it shows that concepts like ‘love’, ‘male’, and ‘female’ are fundamentally undefinable, because they are based on premises that don’t actually exist. Everything, every concept we have ever learnt, is a construction.
And indeed, this corresponds with other religious philosophies – certainly in Buddhism and Christianity – where emptiness is considered the highest spiritual achievement. We might define ‘emptiness’ as a kind of nihilism, in that becoming truly empty involves relinquishing the ego, or the self, the ‘I’ in ‘Instagram’. The Buddha realised sunyata, or emptiness, when he lost all attachment to worldly things. So postmodernism is not wrong in its claim that the centre is not the centre, or that none of us has an essential self. Many ancient world religions support this theory. Still, the notion that none of us has a core identity is frightening, and it is this fear that leads to extremism and the support of fascists, like Hitler and Drumpf.
It is easy to sympathise with the Leave campaigners who, motivated by fear, claim that the centre is the centre. There is an undeniable power in ritual and tradition; one of the foremost postmodern theorists, Judith Butler, writes that our identities are nothing more than a stylized repetition of acts. In this way, Brexit expresses a need not just for stability, but predictability through a return to tradition. Did such a Britain ever exist? Probably not – and even if it did, Britain is not a machine, it cannot be recalibrated. To quote a recent article from The Economist, the postmodern trilemma is that our “societies cannot be globally integrated, completely sovereign and democratic – they can opt for only two of the three”.
Some critics base their entire definition of modernism and postmodernism on a single passage by Virginia Woolf. Besides her impressionistic prose and an uncanny ability to capture subjectivity in writing, Woolf, like all great artists, is a prophetess. Four years before the outbreak of the First World War, she writes:
On or about December 1910, human character changed. I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and, since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910 . . . All human relations have shifted – those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change, there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.