A Fireside conversation at Vichaar Manthan’s Sustainable Narratives Conference 2020
With Kushal Mehra
by Gaurang Bhatt
This fireside conversation with Kushal Mehra aimed to shed some light on an intellectual movement that characteristically eludes clarity — postmodernism. The aim of this discussion was to address a few key questions about the movement: how did postmodernism come to be, who are the key thinkers of the movement and what are their key ideas, and finally, how have these ideas manifested in Western society?
How did postmodernism come to be?
The predominant intellectual movement from the 17th to 19th centuries was “modernism”. Modernism can be defined by three important tenets: belief in an objective truth, reason as the valid route to that truth and an emphasis on individual liberty. However, after the deeply scarring events of the 20th century transpired — namely, two world wars and the Cold War — modernism was put under the microscope. With ideas of modernism being seen to lead to two devastating world wars, along with the downfall of Marxism at the hands of liberalism, a reactionary intellectual movement, the postmodernists, came into full swing. As a result, we can define postmodernism as the antithesis to modernity, an absolute rejection of the aforementioned tenets.
Who are its key scholars?
Kushal Mehra cited three primary scholars that define postmodern ideas: Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Lyotard defined postmodernism as “scepticism towards meta-narratives”, instead favouring what Kushal called “smaller narratives” which are localised to an individual. “Meta-narrative” here is defined as a grand story; an overarching narrative that binds a society or creates a direction for a society to go in. Derrida’s work on deconstructionism notably included a critique of foundational concepts such as “morality” and “truth”, proposing that they were entirely relative concepts. As deconstruction was intended as a literary tool it provided no constructive alternatives. Finally, Michel Foucault studied the relationship between knowledge and power. Arguing for scepticism of knowledge claims, whether that be the truth spoken by a ‘messiah’ figure or knowledge obtained through science, because of its essential relationship with power. As a result, according to Foucault, knowledge and the means of obtaining knowledge is defined by institutions or individuals that wield power.
What are the main ideas of postmodernism?
Kushal Mehra explored the notion of questioning meta-narratives by explaining that when questioning the meta-narratives of Western society, we are questioning religion, science and morality (to name but a few). Although questioning these fundamentals is not inherently detrimental, Kushal went on to say that the breakdown of these fundamental narratives is especially destructive if other valid narratives aren’t offered in replacement. A prime example here is religion. Although not without its flaws, Kushal claimed that what religion had provided was a strong sense of community and a value-structure for all to draw from. However, the death of religion, without an equally compelling narrative to replace it, has contributed to an uptick in nihilism in Western society.
Along with the scepticism of meta-narratives, the view that the powerful define knowledge is equally deleterious. Here, group knowledge takes precedence over the individual, thus validating “group-think”, or tribalism. Additionally, since society can now be defined purely as a set of groups, society can be interpreted through the lens of “oppressors vs oppressed”, lending credence to scholars such as Robin de Angelo and her ‘white fragility’ argument.
How did postmodernism gain a foothold in our society?
The momentum of the postmodern movement has multiple factors. One of these, as Kushal explained, is that in the 60s and 70s academics in the social sciences were able to publish a large volume of papers with little critique. Postmodern ideas protect themselves from critique too, with the argument that if you oppose their ideas, you are complicit in oppression, because knowledge and the means of obtaining knowledge is defined by those with power. As these ideas reached a tipping point in academic circles, we now see teachers and key-figures in society holding these ideas.
Over the course of this fireside, Kushal Mehra voiced his concerns with the postmodern movement. He described postmodernism as a dangerous set of ideas that threatens to tear down the fabric of society without providing any alternative. We may take away that ideas must be explored in an earnest and robust fashion to ensure only the best, most sustainable ideas inhabit wider society.