A Double Shadow, Part IV
Posted by turmarion
I’ve used a discussion of the novel A Double Shadow (which you really should read, if you have a chance) as a jumping-off point for discussing various issues in contemporary society–previous installments are here, here, and here. In this post (the penultimate, by the way), I’d like to bring the discussion to an element of the post’s title: postmodernism.
“Postmodernism” is one of those terms that is overused and abused, and which often becomes a bugaboo or a reflexive way of showing disapproval or even approval. Nevertheless, I think it is a useful term, particularly in this context. Thus, as long as we recall that the term covers a lot of (often conflicting) phenomena, I think we can give a rough definition that will guide our discussion here.
Postmodernism, is, as its name implies, opposed to modernism, or the modern. In an intellectual or philosophical context, the modern mind tends to be the objective, scientific mind. One might broadly say that the modern world–the world that emerged in the late 18th Century during and after the Enlightenment–tends to view phenomena as objectively existing and subject to study by human intelligence and reason, most especially by the scientific method. To say that the world is as it is, and that things are, by and large, what they are intended to be–to say, in short, that there is a more or less constant, consistent, and intelligible reality, and that the best way of knowing it is not through mysticism or intuition but by sense experience and reason–would be characteristically modern. Postmodernism, then, is the inverse of this, developed in reaction to, and to some extent, in rebellion against, the modern world and modernism. Postmodernism tends to take a more relativistic view. There is no automatic assumption that the world is objective or objectively knowable; there is more emphasis on subjectivism and on the relative nature of perceptions and judgments. Postmodernist thought would range from the moderate view that nothing is fully objective and that reason alone is never sufficient to understand the world, to the more radical and extreme views that there is no objective world to be known, and that “reality” is subjective and relative at all levels.
Postmodernism has been influenced by such movements as deconstructionism and post-structuralism, both of which broadly tend to view texts as having no stable meanings or referents outside themselves (Derrida said, “There is nothing outside the text.”), and to consider the reader’s subjective response to the text as more significant than the author’s purportedly intended meaning. Language being intrinsically ambiguous, it’s not surprising that such forms of postmodernism have been more influential in literary and critical circles than in the sciences, which in fact postmodernism is often construed as attacking.
In fact, the conflict of postmodernist views with scientific outlooks became known in the 90′s as the Science Wars, one of the most famous “battles” of which was the Sokal Affair. Briefly, physicist Alan Sokal published a paper purporting quantum gravity to be a social and linguistic construct, succeeded in getting the paper published in the postmodernist journal Social Text, and then publicly admitted that his article was a deliberate piece of gobbldygook which he’d submitted in order to show the meaninglessness and bankruptcy of postmodernist thought. For exhaustive documentation of the whole business, see here.
At the time, I was a passionate supporter of Sokal and his allies; and I still side with them. I have come, over the years, to see ways in which postmodernist methods can have their uses. Human affairs are complicated, and what is believed to be often becomes what is. Moreover, nothing, not even science, is totally free of human motivations, desires, and preuppositions. Insofar as that goes, all reality is, in a weak sense at least, “socially constructed”. On the other hand, I still firmly support the idea of a relatively objective, real, outside world, even if we can never fully know or understand it. As a math major, I have no doubt of the objective reality of mathematics, at least, and certainly mathematics is about the least subjective area of human endeavor.
Moving away from science, postmodernism is most often encountered in literature and arts. Characteristic of such is a the tendency to mingle high and low culture and cultural references in an often absurdist manner (an early and excellent example of this is Monty Python’s Flying Circus; and nothing could be more postmodern than the Internet-age “mashup”). One might say that in some ways postmodernist art and literature are the spiritual grandchildren of Dadaism.
Moving back to the novel, one thing that struck me strongly upon re-reading it was that it is indeed very much a postmodernist novel. It plays with reality by having a framing sequence in which the real author uses the voice of a fictional author four centuries in our future explaining his motive in writing the novel within the novel, which is taking place nine hundred years after the “author’s” time (and thus thirteen hundred years after ours). The narrative style is dreamlike and generally written in the present tense, though it jumps about in space and (sometimes) time. It even includes many poems, both quoted and original, both in translation and originally in English. In fact, I’ve never seen so much poetry in a novel for adults outside of Lord of the Rings and its imitators!
More to the point, the society described is very much postmodernist in many different ways. There is no concept of any fixed morality, with society running on the concept of aesthetics. Even the aesthetics are considered totally arbitrary–some people choose to be “primitive”, others to use technology fully, some use the Vision, some don’t. The only criterion is not whether one’s aesthetic is “better”, or even more coherent, than someone else’s, but how well the individual holds to his personal aesthetic. Even holding aesthetic consistency to be “good” is in fact seen as also being arbitrary.
There is a remarkable passage in the middle of the novel in which Chrysanthemum, the “uncle” of Narcissus and the best friend of him and his sister/lover Cleopatra, gives a long speech before an art gathering. In this passage, the concepts of Martian aesthetics are clearly laid out, and their underlying nihilism not only explicitly expressed, but fully embraced. The lecture ends with Chrysanthemum unveiling his latest artwork–a “statue” which is, in fact, nothing but an empty pedestal. The nature of Martian culture is laid literally bare–the Emperor has no clothes, but in Chrysanthemum’s interpretation of the tale, given earlier in the speech, this is a good and ennobling thing, even though there is no such thing as ”goodness” or “nobility”!
Finally, the mashup, that quintessential postmodern act, is a fair description of Martian culture as vividly described. Among the main characters, Narcissus has a Greek name, Cleopatra is named after the Greco-Egyptian queen, Michael has a Hebrew name, and his wife, Snow, a rather hippie-type moniker. Names of other characters are equally varied–Hermes, Shadrach, Rokujo, Gunther, to name a few. Japanese cultural themes predominate–Narcissus is a kendo master and he and several other characters quote haiku incessantly–but the rulers of Mars are literal goddesses, the most prominent of whom are Greek–Aphrodite and Athena are main drivers of the plot. Architecture is a hodge-podge of all eras and cultures, and the novel opens with a presentation of a play based on Camus’s The Stranger. Eclectic, to say the least.
An even greater example of a postmodernist perspective is in the closing chapter and epilogue. I won’t give spoilers here, partly to save space in an already long post, partly as a matter of ethics, and partly to encourage everyone reading this to go out and read the novel (it’s still available at Amazon.com, and probably through inter-library loan, as well). Suffice it to say that there are several events–not exactly twists–which seem to violate the characters’ aesthetic codes (the very thing that has been driving the plot until now) even from their own perspective, and which throw the rest of the novel into interestingly ambiguous light.
Finally, the novel itself is very postmodern in that it is very “meta”. The author (the real one, Frederick Turner) carefully and deliberately describes Martian culture without either condemning or approving of it. So masterful is the treatment that it’s never completely clear where the author’s sympathies lie. He rather Puckishly conceals his own point of view while dancing around the issue as he presents Martian culture in its good, bad, and ugly, seemingly commenting on it at times, only to back off from the commentary and move on to other matters. He does drop hints, however. One of the most interesting is at the end of the chapter with the aforementioned speech by Chrysanthemum. Gunther, a minor character, has become scandalized by Chrysanthemum’s “statue”, indignantly accusing the former of fraud and the crowd of being snobs. The “author” of the book (the fictional author of the metanarrative) then speaks:
Poor Gunther is falling into the trap. Gunther is not stupid; rather, he is stupidly intelligent. He is an expert on the play-behavior of animals, but unable to play himself. He is himself one of those naive characters that writers like to put to show how much more sophisticated than that they are, but who say much of what the author believes.
This remarkable passage, I think, while not tipping Turner’s hand (he’s too shrewd for that), hints at tipping it. The novel, in my view, is a complex satire and critique of postmodernism, which does its job by showing, in a purportedly naive and unbiased way, what a truly and fully postmodern society, taken to its logical extreme, would look like.
What is most fascinating it the (dare I say it?) dialectic involved. As I hinted in speaking of the Sokal affair, science and postmodernist thought are, or at least are usually thought to be, completely at odds with each other, the objective and real vs the subjective and relative. However, Turner poses, if indirectly, an interesting question. The society he present to us has become omnipotent precisely through the application of science taken to a godlike extent (remember Arthur C. Clarke’s famous “third law“). Through science and rationality, Martian society has transcended both in its ability to do anything for any reason, making everything, even logic itself, arbitrary. I don’t think it would be altogether unreasonable to posit that Turner is asking if the continued pursuit of science and the power it gives us, unless anchored by some limitations or shared values, will lead to the destruction of the very values of objectivity and rationality on which science is purportedly based to begin with. Will our reason destroy itself? A sobering question to ask in the present time.
To conclude, I’d be remiss not to say that postmodernism is not all bad, though I’m not crazy about it and agree with what I think to be Turner’s warning of its dangers. I think it has provided us legitimate insights in terms of being careful to realize that any human endeavor is “embodied” in that it is a creature of its time and context, and not completely separable from human feelings, impulses, drives, and society. In this world, perfect objectivity is never to be achieved. Certainly, whether we like it or not, we live in a largely postmodern society (albeit one not as extreme as the one Turner portrays!) and in a sense we are all postmodernists now. On the other hand, beyond a point, I think that postmodernist thought and ethics, without other leavening influences, do indeed tend towards the sort of nihilism that Turner portrays in his novel. Many have inveighed against postmodernism, both as a philosophy and in terms of the art it has inspired. It takes a true literary artist to write a novel that believably shows us what a truly postmodern society would look like, and let us make up our own minds
Posted on 21/08/2011, in book reviews, books, ethics, metaphysics, philosophy, politics, social commentary and tagged A Double Shadow, book reviews, ethics, Frederick Turner, literature, philosophy, science fiction, society. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.