The Postmodern Adventure Science, Technology, and Cultural Studies at the Third Millennium
By Steven Best Douglas Kellner
The Guilford Press Copyright © 2001 The Guilford Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 1-57230-665-3
Introduction Between the Modern and the Postmodern
May you live in interesting times. -Ancient Chinese Curse
The road is always better than the inn. -Miguel de Cervantes
Seek, Seeker. The future is made of seeking. -José Ortega y Gasset
The past several decades have exhibited vertiginous change, surprising novelties, and upheaval in an era marked by technological revolution and the global restructuring of capitalism. This "great transformation," comparable in scope to the shifts produced by the Industrial Revolution, is moving the world into a postindustrial, infotainment, and biotech mode of global capitalism, organized around new information, communications, and genetic technologies. This epochal process includes the growth of far-reaching transnational corporations, intensified competition on a planetary scale, and the relocation of industry and manufacturing to the developing world. Globalization has produced a world economic system and trade laws that protect transnational corporations at the expense of human life, biodiversity, and the environment. It is accompanied by computerization of all facets of production and expanding automation,generating heightened exploitation of labor, corporate downsizing, and greater levels of unemployment, inequality, and insecurity.
As we enter the Third Millennium, we are thus witnessing the advent of a digitized and networked global economy and society, fraught with promise and danger. The scientific-technological-economic revolutions of the era and spread of the global economy are providing new financial opportunities, openings for political amelioration, and a wealth of ingenious products and technologies that might improve the human condition. Yet these developments may lead to explosive conflict, crisis, even catastrophe. Hence, the turbulent transmutations of the current condition are highly contradictory and ambiguous, with both hopeful and threatening features being played out on political, economic, social, and cultural fronts.
This novel situation and its myriad mutations are often subsumed under the label "postmodern," although few discussions link the condition to both wide-ranging scientific and technological revolutions and the global restructuring of capitalism. For us, the "postmodern" highlights what is singular and original in the contemporary era. It calls attention to discontinuities and ruptures, and signals that an extensive range of novelties are appearing that require fresh analyses, theories, and practices. But for the discourse of the postmodern to have theoretical and political weight, it must be articulated with the profound alterations of the day and given concrete substance and force. We will, accordingly, attempt to show that the transition to a postmodern society is bound up with fundamental changes that are transforming pivotal phenomena from warfare to education to politics, while reshaping the modes of work, communication, entertainment, everyday life, social relations, identities, and even bodily existence and life-forms.
Within politics today, one observes a broad expanse of events, ranging from local struggles over power and identity to new types of global conflicts and movements. The emergent movements against capitalist globalization challenge powerful sociopolitical forces such as transnational corporations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and formations like the European Union (EU) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The global economy and polity thus display new structures and alliances which in many cases surpass the power of the nation-state that became a key institution of the modern political order. Nonetheless, the nation-state arguably continues to be a much stronger governmental force than some theories of globalization indicate (see Chapter 5). Moreover, violence and political fragmentation in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, as well as in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and numerous other regions, have created a new world disorder fuelled by intense ethnic and territorial rivalries.
In the United States, the "New Deal" of the 1930s and the "Great Society" of the 1960s have devolved into a dysfunctional welfare state, which in the 1990s produced a disciplinary workfare camp and prison-industrial complex, while millions continued to fall through tears in the "social safety net." Around the globe, neoliberalism has replaced social democracy. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a predatory global capitalism and its hyper-commodified McCulture are now hegemonic, confronted with no alternative historical bloc. Yet novel kinds of spectacle, technopolitics, and multimedia are creating nascent oppositional public spheres and altering the locus and networks of communication and contestation. For decades, politics has been played out significantly in broadcast media. Now, with the Internet, cyber-culture, and digital technologies, new public spheres and domains of political information, debate, and struggle are arising (see Chapter 5).
On the level of society and everyday life, individuals are bombarded by a spectrum of technologies that are reconstructing every aspect of experience. The entertainment and information industries have created innovative realms of interaction, where TV zappers surf proliferating numbers of cable channels and computer users cruise an ever-burgeoning Internet. Within cyberspace, everything from UFO cults and video voyeurism of live sex and child pornography to myriad modes of politics, alternative forms of art, and interactive information networks are on display. These emergent cultural technologies, and a rapidly materializing virtual reality (VR), are producing highly original domains that alter existing notions of space, time, reality, embodiment, and identity. VR technologies can simulate any world or experience through sound, advanced graphics, and intensely immersive and interactive environments; they are already being used to transform architecture, medicine, art, entertainment, and even the activity of war (see Chapters 2-5).
Societal evolution is especially striking in the United States, the epicenter of global capital, and where we ourselves live and write. Recent years have exhibited a burst of new technologies and an erratic economy, with accelerated periods of boom and bust, displaying an ever-changing cast of winners and losers. The past decade of highly uneven economic development has seen escalating urban violence, a wave of teen murders, the proliferation of guns, intensifying hate crimes, a high level of drug and alcohol addiction, steadily increasing divorce rates, declining wages for many, unprecedented levels of consumer debt, and growing divisions between the haves and the have nots. In this grave new high-tech world, existence is becoming stranger and increasingly dangerous. The specter of apocalyptic war threatens, as more nation-states develop nuclear bombs, and rogue terrorist groups purchase weapons of mass destruction on the international market. In the global Western imaginary, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and other "terrorists" have declared a jihad on U.S. citizens and endanger global stability with biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons of mass destruction. In response, the U.S. government launched erratic bombing excursions on these demonized "foreign others," and conspired with NATO to undertake a full-scale air war against Serbia, while resurrecting a "star wars" missile defense system.
Cyberterrorism threatens the global economy, and the Y2K problem pointed to the potential collapse of the vaunted networked society. The bullish "new economy" seems headed for a sluggish recession as celebrated dot-com companies rapidly fold. At the same time, a dangerously unqualified figurehead, George W. Bush, assumes the presidency of the United States after stealing the election, with the aid of the U.S. Supreme Court, in an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy (see Kellner forthcoming). Furthermore, overdevelopment, overpopulation, rampant consumerism, ozone thinning, global warming, and rain forest destruction forecast massive species extinction and multiple ecological crises.
After an unprecedented decade of (admittedly uneven) development in the global economy and accompanying orgy of financial capital, during the early months of 2001 the economy went into crisis and stock prices dramatically declined. Market failures and financial malaise were accompanied by crises of the energy system, where deregulation and greedy energy providers produced a situation that led to frequent energy shutdowns in California. At the same time, globally transmitted viruses in the animal kingdom were producing epidemics of foot-and-mouth disease and mad cow disease, resulting in a highly controversial and, to many, barbaric wholesale slaughter of animals in Europe. Moreover, renewed dangers of global war emerged menacingly, as the Cold Warriors who took over the White House in 2001 proposed new weapons systems and accelerated political tensions to justify their military expenditures, provoking conflicts with North Korea, Russia, and, most dramatically, China in the opening months of their reign. These unsettling features of the contemporary era portend more dark and devastating dimensions to the postmodern adventure than its theorists have so far been able to countenance. In addition, the nascent "Biotech Century" is already undertaking "the most radical experiment humankind has ever carried out on the natural world" (Rifkin 1998: x). Gene therapy and biotechnology promise to cure numerous diseases, but also presage immense dangers arising from potential corporate monopoly control of the gene pool of plants, animals, and human beings. There are accordingly serious worries about the genetic engineering of the food supply and the creation of transgenic species, along with genetic pollution, eugenics, and genetic discrimination. As bioengineering technologies redesign life, the idea of "species" as something unique and inviolable is becoming obsolete and the notion of a "natural world" ever more problematic. Human identity itself is put in question with advances in cloning and the implosion of biology and technology (see Chapters 3, 4, Epilogue).
As dramatic socioeconomic, scientific, and technological developments occurred over the past decades, a paradigm shift has been underway in the realms of theory, the arts, science, and culture at large (see Best and Kellner 1997). By the 1980s, there were intense polemics over the importance of the postmodern turn, with some celebrating the evolving forms of theory and culture as an advance over moribund modern ones, and with others bitterly attacking them as irrationalist and regressive (Best and Kellner 1991). Many, especially in the older generation of theorists, went on with "business as usual," ignoring the massive alterations taking place and the controversies over their significance.
The postmodern turn thus arose in part as an attempt to describe the intense shifts and crises in many realms of life. The turbulent transformations of the present age have proliferated a bewildering variety of contending theories to explain and make sense of them. Responding to this situation, our studies explore what kinds of theory and culture can best account for the striking changes and impassioned conflicts of the current era, and what modes of politics are needed to realize contemporary potentialities for justice, peace, self-fulfillment, solidarity, and an ecological, sustainable society. Throughout this text, we raise the question of which theoretical and political perspectives can guide us into a better future and which are dead ends. Where are we going and what, if any, are our choices? Which turns lead to a viable and better future? Which paths lead to disaster and regression? And who are "we" and what are we becoming?
The many conflicting answers to these questions have generated controversies among advocates of modern and postmodern discourses. The polemics have circulated through academic and avant-garde cultural circles to media culture and everyday life, becoming a defining, albeit highly disputed, arena of the contemporary era. Theory today, like culture and politics, is a contested terrain with contrasting modern and postmodern theories claiming that they provide the most reliable account of the intricacies of the present. Leaving behind familiar guideposts and conventional wisdom thrusts us into a novel and uncharted territory. Consequently, the raging debates, controversies, and passions of the day have led many theorists, including ourselves, to interrogate the contemporary moment in order to produce fresh theoretical and political insights, to promote an incisive grasp of the prevailing situation, and to facilitate progressive social transformation.
Our two previous books documented the origin and proliferation of postmodern shifts from the 1960s into the 1990s and the rise of new paradigms in a wide range of fields. Postmodern Theory (1991) analyzed the genesis and trajectory of the discourse of the postmodern in philosophy and social theory and called for a multiperspectival approach that employed the best elements of modern and postmodern positions and politics. The Postmodern Turn (1997) analyzed mutations from the modern to the postmodern in society, culture, the arts, science, and politics, showing key commonalities across these areas. We attempted to demonstrate that the postmodern turn, far from being a fad or momentary fashion, is becoming deeper and wider in its range of influence. Aware of the extravagant and problematic positions taken by many advocates of the postmodern, we have always distanced ourselves from extreme versions of postmodern theory that postulate a complete break with modernity and a rupture between the modern and the postmodern. Accordingly, we will argue in this book for a reconstruction of theory and politics that combines the most useful modern and postmodern perspectives.
CRISES OF MAPPING AND THE DIALECTICS OF THE PRESENT
Investigations of various topics and levels of abstraction that are collected here are united in the intention of developing a theory of the present society.
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