The Tsunami Disaster and the End of Postmodernism

In a recent report to the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, on how to radically reduce poverty and hunger within 10 years, UN advisers claimed that the potential of science and technology for tackling poverty is much more than governments realise. In an interview with the BBC, the report’s lead author, Professor Calestous Juma said: ‘Scientific and technical capabilities determine the ability to provide clean water, good health care, adequate infrastructure and safe food.’

I believe that statements such as these, brought into tragic prominence by the terrible destruction of the Tsunami disaster, signal a fundamental reorientation in our thinking; the final end of postmodernism.

In the 1970s and 80s influential thinkers such as Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard declared that the ‘end of modernism’ had arrived, and that the ‘grand narrative’ of science had run its course. They argued that the ‘grand march’ of progress had lost its way, and that in a world of exponentially increasing information flows, we could never again seek certainty through science. This was an influential view that somehow caught the mood of the times. Writers like Rushdie and Kundera embodied it in their novels; the pundit Francis Fukuyama even declared the end of history . By 1999 we were all postmodern, decentered; we had lost the destructive over-confidence of modernity that brought us the atom bomb and a global ecological crisis.

However, as the writer George Myerson noted in 2001, when the UK faced crises such as the foot-and-mouth epidemic, BSE, and the autumn floods of 2000, it was to science and scientists that they turned for answers. Confronted by unexpected, violent, and seemingly out-of-control phenomena – disasters with both natural and man-made aspects – it no longer seemed reasonable to consider the truth-claims of religion, superstition, or art (no matter how valid they might be in other ways) to be as legitimate of those of science. As we reflect on the events of the past two weeks, and consider how to deal effectively with the terrible aftermath of the Tsunami Disaster, it seems we must rekindle our belief in the ‘grand narrative’ of scientific progress. The postmodern era ended on the 26th of December, 2004.



12 comments


    Mark Brake

    January 11, 2005

    Steve’s fascinating contribution reminded me strongly of a
    recent radio interview I gave for “BBC Radio Wales”:http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/radiowales/ on 31 Dec 2004. Invited to talk about the Tsunami Disaster, the BBC wanted to know my opinion on the lessons to be learnt of such devastation.

    One is first, of course, struck by our seeming powerlessness
    when faced with nature, red in tooth and claw. On an even
    larger scale the means by which we demark the periods and
    epochs of “geological time”:http://faculty.vassar.edu/mehaffey/academic/animalstructure/outlines/history.html are extinction level events, though thankfully life on Earth seems rather tenacious. Its a fact of scientific life that impact catastrophes litter life’s pathway on our home planet.

    The post-mortem of the devastation associated with the
    Tsunami Disaster makes one question the direction of science
    research. Between 1983 and 1999 public research funds in the
    UK decreased in real terms by 20%. But perhaps the most alarming development is the fact that Britain’s universities are being increasingly colonised by corporations.

    Today in the UK there is scarcely a science faculty whose
    academic freedom is not compromised by its corporate funding
    arrangements. The public have a right to be sceptical in such
    circumstances. They have a right to ask whether we’ve got our
    priorities right.

    Science research is less interested in big questions that may take
    many years to answer, and more concerned with small questions
    with marketable answers. Civil society is not high on the science
    research agenda. Let’s do we all we can to change that.

    mearso

    January 11, 2005

    I’m not sure you can argue for a grand narrative for science
    because it in turn is dominated by corporate imperatives.

    This isn’t a new thing. I was struck whilst watching the BBC’s
    documentary on Auschwitz, on how the scientists at IG Farben
    were very keen to use the labour and physical resources the
    nazis supplied.

    my tuppence worth..

    Like the blog, and the thought provoking posts.

    Mike Reddy

    January 11, 2005

    As Steve and I have discussed lately, giving something a label
    (mostly historically done, with the exception of DADAism) is a
    sure-fire clue that it is dead. “Post-Modernism”:http://www.cultsock.ndirect.co.uk/MUHome/cshtml/general/pomodet.html is an exception, in that the proponents of PM
    were trying to distinguish themselves from Modernism. It can be
    summed up with the phrase “What’s the point?”

    I think that it is very easy to fall in with this cynical
    manipulation. The Gulf War (and its sequel) were argued as
    being Post-Modern Wars (a la “The Gulf War never happened” by
    “Baudrillard”:http://www.geneseo.edu/~bicket/panop/baudrillard.htm

    What seems evident is that Media coverage made the war what
    was seen rather than what happened. The Tsunami seems to
    have been more of the same, but is subtley different. I
    remember footage of parents desperately trying to hold on to
    their children, only to see them washed away considered
    acceptable material for showing on day time TV. It is OK to show
    the victims of a disaster; almost desirable in fact. Where were
    the victims of the war?

    We are entering an age of what I call “New Realism” – a term
    which I first found used by Arthur Scargill in his pamphlet “New
    Realism: The politics of Fear”:http://lisweb.swan.ac.uk/swcc/man/person9.htm , which argued that “New Labour”:http://www.greenleft.org.au/back/1992/65/65p17b.htm was a
    recycling of the 1920s Mondism. In fact, the term is starting to
    be used in a variety of contexts:

    “The Vatican’s New Realism about Islam”:http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=10582

    “Later Philosophy”:http://www.bartleby.com/227/1033.html

    “The ‘New Realism’ and American Foreign Policy”:http://www.apsanet.org/PS/post911/kim.cfm

    “Springtime for Realism”:http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?pt=jTilbs%2BFlyQGecbcvWavVh%3D%3D

    “A New Realism”:http://www.worldpolicy.org/steel.html

    Many of which are inexplicably tied up with national security and
    US foreign policy, but it must be remembered that New Realism
    is also a variant of Realism in the “Art world…”:http://www.newbohemia.net/

    More “What’s the point?” in a way, but this time being ‘realistic’
    about the manipulation of truth. A form of post-post
    modernism, because seeing that truth can be dependent on the
    perceptions is a useful tool in combating propaganda. The
    cyclical use of Science as Saviour is just as double edged as
    religion or pseudo-science. “New Realism” is to be combated
    because it is an inherent collaboration between the Public and
    the Media. We should not see the victims of the Tsunami as
    powerless, nor Science as the solution. Science is flawed because
    it is implemented by people, and they are flawed.

    Robert Andrews

    January 11, 2005

    Interesting… very interesting.
    However, the idea that there could be an “end” to postmodernity
    is an idea rooted in modernity (linearity) itself.

    It’s worth contextualising what Lyotard and Baudrillard were
    saying. They were espousing new theories of culture – hence,
    new ideologies that were to challenge and usurp the old order.
    In fact, the ideas they put forward came to nestle more humbly
    alongside modernist hypotheses in a large culture.

    A large element of the postmodernism they were defining was
    talking about the _cyclical_ nature of culture… what’s modernist
    and new, as fashion wanes, becomes outmoded and passe, but
    is later reappropriated by new forms. For example, hip-hop
    culture is highly postmodern because it re-uses older songs as
    samples. The Simpsons is postmodernism embodied because it
    frequently relies on other elements of pop culture.

    In this sense, if you look at the broad sweep of cultural time
    rather than the here and now, postmodernism and modernism
    will always co-exist, one after the other, side-by side.

    There can, therefore, _never be_ an end to postmodernism.

    On the science issue… I would say that science exists as one of
    the grand modernist narratives, before it is tainted by those
    corporate imperatives. Advancement (through science) is one of
    the driving human characteristics; business is science’s parasite
    as well as its benefactor.

    Interestingly, the period Mark notes as the high water mark of
    postmodernity, was also characterised by the wild ambition of
    scientific drive during the Silicon Valley computer revolution of
    the 80s and, later, the dot.com boom of the 90s – both highly
    dependent on venture capital _and_ modernist scientific
    research and development.

    mearso

    January 11, 2005

    Perhaps post-modernism has always existed, but only really
    became definied in opposition to modernism.

    Rob – do you assume that the motives of science are pure until
    tainted by corporate desire ?

    I think Mike made the point elegantly – Science is flawed
    because it is implemented by people, and they are flawed.

    Robert Andrews

    January 11, 2005

    mearso – I think science as framed by modernity _is_ an
    untainted ideology (of advancement, simplification,
    problem-solving, efficiency).

    But I think science’s R&D imperatives compel it to get in
    bed with business at a very early stage. In fact, the two
    worlds may now be so closely linked that the distinction I
    seem to be making is pointless?

    markbrake

    January 11, 2005

    Taking up the first point of mearso. I was not arguing for a
    grand narrative for science because it in turn is dominated by
    corporate imperatives. Let’s untangle the points. Post-
    modernism promoted a form of cultural relativism that all points
    of view and perspectives were equally valid. There was no
    special dignity or case to be made for science. But, I think
    Steve’s contribution suggests, what else do we have to turn to in
    the wake of the Disaster but the rational narrative of science?
    The trendy viewpoint of post-modernists is looking sickly,
    flaccid and bankrupt.

    My associated point on the question of science research is based
    on the question: in whose interest is science practiced? Now we
    can happily bury PM, and turn to the rational for solutions, one
    has to ask probing and difficult questions about the use and
    abuse of science. Mike may have a point about science being
    flawed, but where is the accountability, where is the concern for
    civil society, and where are the safeguards that may help science
    correct itself where it can?

    Surely, one of the strongest arguments for the public
    involvement in science is that they better understand the
    research being conducted in their name with their money?

    Robert Andrews

    January 11, 2005

    _”What else do we have to turn to in the wake of the
    disaster but the rational narrative of science?”_

    Humanity? The tragedy has brought together the whole of
    the world; what I hope we’re seeing is a breaking down of
    cultural barriers that demonstrates our global similarity.

    So I think we turn to interconnectedness, brotherhood,
    community. I’m seeing a change in _perception_, a
    broadening out of isolationism into a more shared world
    view. A mental change. We turn to… each other.

    What are we saying is science’s role in the post-tsunami
    environment? The implementation of an early warning
    system in the Indian ocean? The fact that mobile networks
    send SMS messages to missing persons’ mobiles? You’re
    saying we need to devote more resources to seismography?

    I think science is an enduring grand narrative. I recall
    similar “end of” observations post-9/11. What does science
    offer a hurt world this time around?

    markbrake

    January 11, 2005

    Yes, of course we have that internationalism. And its exactly the
    sort of spirit of community that inspires us to ask whether we
    have all our priorities right. Since science may provide us with
    the most practical means of averting such disaster in the future,
    one is then tempted to ask challenging questions about the
    priorities of science research.

    mearso

    January 11, 2005

    “Illuminating Exposition”:http://www.stevedenning.com/
    postmodern.html of some of Lyotard’s ideas on science.

    One of the points that he raises is that whilst science can
    undoubtedly help, it flits, in varying degrees, between the role of
    saint and sinner.

    A role that I think science fulfills very well is to precisely frame
    questions to get clear answers. How you frame the question
    seems to me to often show how much or how little one knows
    about a subject.

    Mike Reddy

    January 11, 2005

    When faced with Mark’s question:

    “What else do we have to turn to in the wake of the disaster but
    the rational narrative of science????

    Robert Andrews argues:

    “Humanity? The tragedy has brought together the whole of the
    world; what I hope we???re seeing is a breaking down of cultural
    barriers that demonstrates our global similarity.”

    The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, was supposed to have
    brought together the whole of the UK. It was portrayed that way.
    And yet, it was just smoke.

    In the aftermath of the Tsunami, we have stories about illegal
    trafficking in orphans, debates about which charities to support
    (with the frequent discussion about secular v religious charities),
    links to global warming (?) and decisions about where to put the
    aid, based on political considerations.

    External links:

    “Indonesia tightens Aceh controls”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/4167087.stm

    “Will Indonesia seize its chance?”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/4157393.stm

    “Delivering the promise: aid problems”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/4152285.stm

    “World debates tsunami debt deal”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/4166727.stm

    “Tsunami child sale bid foiled”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/4167537.stm

    “Temple sold to raise tsunami cash”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4164915.stm

    “History’s other great relief effort”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/4164321.stm

    “Asian disaster: How to help”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/4131881.stm

    “Media Linking Killer Tsunami to Global Warming”:http://www.crosswalk.com/news/1303696.html

    Thaddaios

    January 11, 2005

    Interesting…

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