Post-postmodern Politics - A Going Under

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"God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?" - Frederich Neitzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

 

  A picture of Frederich NietzscheIn his work of 1882, The Gay Science, the great German philosopher Frederich Nietzsche pronounced, with no small rhetorical flourish, that God was dead. Of course, those with some degree of familiarity to Neitzsche's work will understand that the philosopher's bold statement was not a literal reference to the demise of a theological God. Rather, Nietzsche's words are meant to signal his own deconstruction of an authority for truth that exists externally to human beings: be it the declaration of Kings and Monarchs, the word of a divine God, or the universalizing totality of rational categorization. As Nietzsche himself said, 'There are no eternal facts, as there are no absolute truths.'

More than one-hundred years ago, Nietzsche, often acknowledged as the father of postmodernism, diagnosed the fundamental freedom  and utter anguish of the human condition: we have nowhere to look for an understanding of the world other than ourselves. It is our job, then, to figure out what exactly we are to do with that freedom -- from the scope of this essay, sepcifically in the field of politics.

It is fitting, then, that our discussion of a post-postmodern politics starts with Nietzsche.

One of the ways that we might seek to understand Nietzsche's insight is by acknowledging that we live in a dynamic world that, while maintaining a degree of stability and constancy, is also constantly evolving and emerging in a plethora of ways. Despite an ever expanding cupboard of subtle and comprehensive ideas, there remains no theory that has not, at some point, found its conclusions challenged by the emergence of new evidence and/or new insights. The doveish liberalism of fomer US President Jimmy Carter, in many ways a natural extensions and logical conclusion of Lyndon Johnson's 'great society' politics found its real life anathema in the economic and geopolitical moras of the late 1970s. The trade liberalizing, deregulating, and foreign policy excursionism that marked US Presidents over the next twenty plus years, from Carter's successor Ronald Reagan, all the way thorugh George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and, coming full circle, George W. Bush, has now, in many people's eyes, wrought its ghastly conclusion in the twin quagmires of Iraq and Afghaistan, as well as the recent planet shaking economic melt down.

In the controlled chaos of our world, there is no such thing as a final answer, no conclusions that are not vulnerable to the shifting contexts of a complicated (and complicating) world.

In short, there is no system of knowledge that is not ultimately contingent upon the intricacies of exploration available to the conscious human being. And insofar as we are prepared to acknowledge that all of our systems of knowledge are contingent upon the emergent evidence of our own exploration, there must we also acknowledge the demise of our traditional notions of externalized and wholly objective Truth (read: God, according to the traditional modes of understanding against which Nietzsche was straining).

What, then, does Neitzsche's and, ultimately, the postmodern insight about Truth tell us about the practice of politics?

The ideologies that are predominantly at play in our political discourse are, in their origins, modern. Whether one is looking at the classical liberalism of Someone, the contemporary liberalism of Ted Kennedy, or more progressive variants such as Howard Dean circa 2004; the social conservatism of Rick Warren and James Dobson, economic conservatism of Newt Gingrich, or the strictly political strain of Mitt Romney in its paleo (Pat Buchanan), neo (Dick Cheney), or populist (Sarah Palin) inflections; libertarianism of a moderate or vociferous inclination, such as Bob Barr or Ron Paul, respectively; or even the ever receding dearth of socialists, communists or anarchists, each of these systems of thought and analysis believes that it is a paradigm leading to a revelation of truth that obtains under all circumstances. Regardless of the situation in which  we might find ourselves, today's modernist ideologies are convinced that they have the answers to right the ship based on the prescriptions outlined by their various first principles or underlying truths.

One need only look to the partisan echo chambers of contemporary political discourse and debate to see what Prussian German statesman Otto Von Bismark once called, 'the art of the possible' playing out as the clash of worn and tried tropes be it in regards to healthcare, economic policy, foreign policy, or social issues. Every actor has their line and they deliver them with the vacant certitude of someone who doesn't really understand the play in which they find themselves.

To be sure, each of today's active ideologies will, at some point or another, illuminate a vital insight into a given state of affairs based upon its means of analyzing and interpreting the correct subset of variables at play. Which is to say that when it comes to austere political prescience, every dog has its day, such as FDR's New Deal or the Reagan revolution. However, not all dogs have their day on the same day and not every dog can sniff out the truth for every given day's shifting contexts in a dynamic world.

As is illuminated by the Nietzsche quote from above, even the precious first principles of ideological sophistication are context bound, resting, inevitably, on a set of often unspoken assumptions, most often orbiting around human nature. But at least as often as these assumptions are right, they will also be wrong and we are in a poor position to determine a priori which will be the case because, again, we don't have any external arbiters towards which we might turn for guidance, only posteriori outcomes whose interpretation is, not surprisingly, heavily coloured by the ideological biases we bring to the table. In short: we never know whether we're right or wrong until we know whether we're right or wrong.

And so depending on whether you happen to be a "glass is half full" or a "glass is half empty" kind of person, one might be inclined to see this cyclopic melee of first principles and ideas as an intermittent opportunity for ideological cheerleading, or the anguished reality of the fundamental fracturing of truth.

The postmodernists tended to fall primarily into the latter camp.

Looking at two of the twentieth century's most renowned postmodernist political philosophers, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, the outcome of this partially blind ideological cat-fight is not a scrambling for truth, of either an inherent or contingent nature, but rather a constant maneuvering in the service of the application of power. Power, in these terms, is not primarily an obvious or overt entity, though its ornamentation in the form of elections, presidencies, committees, or legislative initiatives will often appear gaudy and obtuse in their pantomiming representations. Influential though they are, these socio-political artifacts function primarily as decorative digits in the application of power. The real corporeality of power lies in the much less tangible, but all the more ubiquitous ability to enforce a certain version of reality through a particular calculus of perception.

A picture of Gilles DeleuzeAs Deleuze says, rendering his description of capitalist society in Anti-Oedipus, 'It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. What a mistake to have ever said the id. Everywhere it is machines - real ones, not figurative ones:machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections.' Given that, for most postmodernists, each ideological perspective really only differs over the fine print, overlapping more often than not, they all merely become heads of the same hydra: conforming and confining power. Machines driving other machines, each automoton trundling along, convinced of its on unqiue individuality, but hewn to clockwork of its meta-reality. Just another head of this industrial hydra.

The result, again not surprisingly, is largely a rejection of mainstream, systematized political action and discourse and a movement away from these ideological modes of enquiry and understanding.

One of the predominant themes underlying much of postmodern political philosophy is that of freedom. If the practice of mainstream political discourse is the application of power as a means of molding the parameters and contours of reality itself into autopoetic dance of self-referentiality, then the role of the postmodern political actor is to fight back against the conforming embrace of that power via acts of true and novel freedom and creativity.

 picture of Michel FoucaultSays Foucault, 'I try to carry out the most precise and discriminative analyses I can in order to show in what ways things change, are transformed, are displaced. When I study the mechanisms of power, I try to study their specificity... I admit neither the notion of a master nor the universality of his law. On the contrary, I set out to grasp the mechanisms of the effective exercise of power; and I do this because those who are inserted in these relations of power, who are implicated therein, may, through their actions, their resistance, and their rebellion, escape them, transform them—in short, no longer submit to them.'

Whether we look at the emphasis on acts of resistance at play in Foucault's work or the deterritorialization/lines of flight in Deleuze's writing, it becomes clear that the only worthwhile endeavour in a political sense is to struggle towards an existential and epistemological space untainted by the tentacles of power and conformity where in the authentic self lies and might flourish unhindered.

As Delueze suggests, 'instead of gambling on the eternal impossibility of the revolution and on the fascist return of a war-machine in general, why not think that a new type of revolution is in the course of becoming possible, and that all kinds of mutating, living machines conduct wars, are combined and trace out a plane of consistance which undermines the plane of organization of the World and the States?'

In light of this emphasis on the need for freedom through an escape of the application of power, it becomes clear why so many postmodern foxholes have been set up on the fringes of discourse, as per, say, Foucault's early predeliction towards communism and Maoism, and why so often the rhetorical soldiers there inhabited have developed such a predeliction towards liminal experiences of counter culture, such as Foucault's sado-masochistic sexual preferences, and fascination with mental disorders like schizophrenia such as those present in Foucault's Madness and Civilization and The Birth of the Clinic: these offer the most tangible and relatively immediate instances of freedom and escape from power. The mainstream political apparatus is left to rot, bio-political Borg appendage that it is.

No good, in the minds of the postmodernists, can spring from the inevitable group think that pervades our most powerful, and therefore decrepit, ideological scaffolding; these ideas have taken root in the arid soil of a vampire's game whose only purpose is to suck the blood and vitality of whatever victim might yet wander by as the only means of maintaining strength, and therefore control. In the words of Deleuze once again, 'machines driving other machines, machine being driven by other machines.'

Power, it would seem, is the legal tender of the parasitic.

And indeed, the postmodern critique is not without its razor sharp points. The modernism of our prevalent political ideologies makes them poor tools for grappling with the complexity, nuance, and dynamism of a postmodern world.The major political ideologies treat the clearly open system of the world in a closed system fashion, as though any constellation of thought could ever neatly wrap up all of the variables at play in understanding the ebbs and flows of socio-political phenomena that face us now and in the future.

A health care reform protesterTake the Republican approach to the US healthcare debate as a recent and useful example. At a time when it is broadly agreed that the system of healthcare in the United States is in a drastic state of disrepair, failing, largely, to meet the needs of Americans, keeping tens of millions of Americans without access to healthcare insurance (and therefore healthcare), and in bad need of reform, the Republican and conservative response to Democrat and liberal efforts to realize such reform has been purely and exclusively obstructionst. So myopic is the conservative perspective in government involvement in imporoving accessibility to health care , that a 'public option' – a pale reflection of the comparable systems in Canada and the United Kingdom – becomes a hill to die on in with nary a constructive conservative idea presented.

This all consuming beliefe in a subset of particular axioms – in this case, any government involvement in the provision of healthcare is bad – utterly blinds conservatives from exploring the contours of the situation as it is (fully government run healthcare as it exists in the United Kingdom might not be the best course of action, but isn't there, perhaps, an argument for a government supported option in the case of those who can't afford a privately funded option?). The universalizing worldviews of the major political parties (from these axioms, all answers flow) rarely provide the space or inclination to explore such questions and nuances.

The problem; however, is that the pre-eminent postmodern philosophers fall prey to a subtle version of the very essentialism their own critiques are designed to counter. In the case of both Foucault and Delueze, the whole purpose behind any political action/discourse is to escape the panopticon of power and achieve a state of freedom and authenticity.

Following on the quote from above, Foucault goes on to say, 'Quite on the contrary, I think there are a thousand things to be done, to be invented, to be forged, by those who, recognizing the relations of power in which they are implicated, have decided to resist or escape them. From this point of view, my entire research rests upon the postulate of an absolute optimism. I do not undertake my analyses to say: look how things are, you are all trapped. I do not say such things except insofar as I consider this to permit some transformation of things. Everything I do, I do in order that it may be of use.'

This trajectory of sincere political action assumes that just such a state exists and is possible to attain, a variant on the Manichean theology that supplants good and evil for power/oppressed and freedom. Experience, on the other hand, tells us that things are not so simple.

In reality, the ability to gain a degree of freedom is a sense of false hope held tight by those who have articulated the context bound nature of our understanding and, indeed, existence, but are unwilling to grapple with the ultimate and logical conclusion of those realizations. Not only our understanding of the world, but our very experience of and existence in the world are bound within the context of a particular set of experiences. We can seek to expand the boundaries of our experiences, but the finite nature of our reality makes the kind of omniscience required to overcome our contextual circumstances both physically and logically impossible.

To suggest that we can somehow escape the context of power accumulation and application is to suggest that, on some level, we are not involved in or a part of the fluctuations of that power, that our identities are not, in some senses, made up of and of the same confluence of forces that generate that power. But, as the postmodernists realized: context is king -- and those contexts that act as incubators for power and its machinations are the very same contexts that give birth to our own understandings and identities. (example? see above)

Whether we like it or not, we are stuck with -- or, perhaps, within -- those contexts. Us, our notions of authenticity and freedom, power, and the banalities of our every day lives, all part of the same basic process and intimately interconnected because they are in a constant and necessary state of interaction. This is the grizzly and natural conclusion of the postmodernist critique, Nietzsche's proclamation denotes it in no uncertain terms: God, and all his promises of salvation, are dead.

What, then, are we to do?

A picture of Winston ChurchillAs Winston Churchill once so famously said, "If you're going through hell, keep going." The notion of liberation through a rejection of the state of affairs that face us is a hallmark of almost every mode of understanding throughout all of history. Human escapism, if we may be so bold as to label all of humanity with this tendency, in some inflection or another stretches back about as far as we might care to look. From the philosopher Plato's other-worldly Forms, to the promise of an afterlife present in most of the world's religions, to the Enlightenment's triumph of universalized reason untainted by the banalities of life as lived, to the aforementioned postmodernist strain, humans have, it seems, always sought a path out of the human condition and the challenges and struggles there within contained.

From a post-postmodern perspective, if there is a yoke that we are charged with throwing off, this is it. And nowhere, frankly, is that imperative more pressing than in the realm of politics. Insofar as politics is the means by which we negotiate a shared space of living, so much more is the importance of facing into the movements of those negotiations in a sincere and unbiased manner. And while it is true that new tools of analysis in that collective exercise continue to emerge to expand upon our understanding of the various options with which we are presented, we also have not just an obligation, but a requirement to familiarize ourselves with the tools already at our disposal from a sincere perspective.

Which is to say that a post-postmodern politics is largely about engagement and re-engagement, not just with the political perspectives we have most recently placed aside (for some, the influence of religion in public life, for others an unquestioned belief in the welfare state), but also those that have lain dormant for many of us over decades collecting rhetorical and intellectual dust. A post-postmodern politics seeks to examine and re-examine all of the various political arguments and perspectives available to us so as to paint the most complete picture possible in understanding our political predicaments.

One step further, we must engage with the different perspectives not just from an intellectual level, but also and equally as important, from a felt space of values. Some elements of political perspectives will contain argumentation or beliefs that cannot be accepted (discrimination, xenophobia, colonialist impulses), but each perspective also arises as a means of expressing a specific truth for a speific set of people at a specific time. By engaging in these perspectives in a felt manner, bu understanding the values that underwrite each perspective, we are endeavouring to understand and include those truths in our political analysis that might be of value and provide a more complete picture of our political and human condition on any given issues, while not blindly accepting or rejecting every truth associated with a particular perspective.

As has been outlined, none of those systems has a monopoly on nor, frankly, access to Truth as we have previously conceived it, but each of them provides a different paradigmatic approach to truth illumination through an emphasis on different contexts of experience.

In this fashion, while we might not be able to construct an ideological edifice that will provide us with Truth, we can, rather, develop a method of ideological pluralism (a political variation on Ken Wilber's (integral methodological pluralism) that is able to reveal the dynamic connections between contextual truths in the service of constructing a network of truths to be used in in constant process against the backdrop of our evolving world.

One step further, our engagement cannot simply be on the intellectual plane, rather we must re-enter and sincerely participate the arena of politics as it is practiced, from the grandest overtures – such as national decisions to go to war -- to the minutest of machinations – such as decisions of zoning in our local communities, and everything in between. A post-postmodern politics not only acknowledges our embededness in a network of political contexts, but also seeks to engage the network of relationships and potential interactions that our embededness offer to the fullest. Politics and political activity cease to be dirty words and our political life with all of its diifficulties, challenges, and frustration become themselves a cause célèbre.

A picture of a town hall meeting

Our engagement is one of mind, body, and spirit, exchanging with the multitude of actors in the political arena where they are, appreciating the elements of life that they are best positioned to understand and express, and preparing ourselves always to be instructed by a host of teachers of whose limits we are always well too aware.

This, then, is our post-postmodern politics, a grounded and stoic, yet joyful and celebratory engagement of the world as it is, in all its imperfections, with the end goal of using those insights available to fashion a politics of skillful means that is, at its core, always aware of its partiality and open to revisions of emergence and shifting conditions.

As if to come full circle, we are reminded of the impetus that informed and initiated the adventures of Neitzsche's Zarathustra and note how, in his remarkable prescience, Neitzsche managed to predict the journey that now graces us. Wrote Nietzsche,

"When Zarathustra was thirty years old he left his home and the lake of his home and went into the mountains. Here he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not tire of it. But at last a change came over his heart and, and one morning he rose with the dawn, stepped before the sun, and spoke to it thus:

'You great star, what would your happiness be had you not those for whom you shine? For ten years you have climbed to my cave: you would have tired of your light and of the journey had it not been for me and my eagle and my serpent. But we waited for you every morning, took your overflow from you, and blessed you for it. Behold, I am weary of my wisdom, like a bee that has gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to receive it. I would give away and distribute, until the wise among men find joy once again in their folly, and the poor in their riches. For that I must descend the depth, as you do in the evening when you go behind the sea and still bring light to the underworld, you over rich star. Like you, I must go under -- go down, as is said by man, to whom I want to descend. So bless me then, you quiet eye that can look even upon all-too-great happiness without envy! Bless the cup that wants to overflow, that the water may flow  from it golden and carry everywhere the reflection of your delight. Behold, this cup wants to become empty again, and Zarathustra wants to become man again.'

Thus Zarathustra began to go under."

It is time, too, for us to go under. Let us start that journey.

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