Mantriatic Reality and Living After Postmodernity
It seems clichéd to address any present socio-cultural description, analysis, or insight through postmodernism. One would expect that a term, which is now at least 50 years old, should have shown symptoms of transformation or of becoming outdated. However, a struggle to point to any true new form or broad movement in culture worthy of characterization is palpable. The so-called fluidity of “existing after modernity” is unmoving.
The primary issue of this condition is precisely in its inactivity, not its uncertainty. While an aspiration for the advancement of culture is clear, there are few instruments for true invention. As the postmodern has become increasingly contradictory in its liquidity, a passive attitude has taken over any scrutiny on creation, and cultural producers rather overemphasize the relevancy of a progression or futurism that feels uneventful. What has happened, is not a turn of the objective towards the subjective, but of the subjective into infinite redundancy.
Consequently, the need to understand what happens after postmodernity is not necessarily a pursuit for the novel, but if progress lies in different and unearthed insights, it cannot be addressed without a new condition being described.
Where philosophical branches, like critical theory, have lacked in providing a vocabulary to the present; postmodernism remains the most accessible springboard for the portrayal and ontological examination of contemporary behavior, morality, virtues and values, language, ideology, artistic precepts, psychology, politics, and more. While modish concepts like late capitalism or capitalist realism, point to some updating on the depictions of the present, or a general sense of modification perceived in culture, they nevertheless only continue to describe an enlargement, rather than new forms. The postmodern condition’s evolution has exclusively been identified as more layered. The folds described by Gilles Deleuze, addressing Leibniz’s monad, seem to better represent these fractal-like forms of speculation and atomization of reality(ies) experienced today. Not to mention, an often neglected disappointment with what both present and future “is”, or has to offer. Consider sci-fi’s fascination for the portrayal of dystopian futures, where radically changed societies can be envisioned, versus the anticlimactic release of tech’s biggest developments. One is subject of aesthetic craving, the other of satire.
Let’s also look at the unimpactful resolutions of media narrative events, or the entertainment industry’s use of familiarity and rebooting over creation. For example, the pandemic’s affirmation of a “new normality” seems little to do with different behaviors, policy or future business models, and more with interim tendencies and debates that are now overstaying their welcome.
Another example: the multiplicity of streaming services and media hubs that are used for the franchisement and development of known and recognizable names and brands, yet achieve no extension or diversification. With as much technological prowess and focus on representation in the contemporary, there is little to show for it.
The discovery of new forms in any facet of culture is quietly anticipated as a hopeless endeavor, rather to be addressed by reactionary course correction, happy-go-lucky nihilism, or camouflaged postmodern affection. So what’s changed?
In postmodernism, the remix of culture’s own flux is valued. This description seems tame, as now the outcomes of this process are treated either as non-important or as unrealized potential. “Realities” are created by individuals in relation to social relevance, and not by the allure in the combination of elements. In other words, what is popular and compatible, and not what wants to, or could, be made. The market is driven by a hybrid between a sense of individual authority and an illegitimate collective that is continuously subverted, yet validated. A creation obliged, not inspired. As Ortega y Gasset put it “man believes himself fabulously capable of creation, but does not know what to create.” Popular culture appropriates scientific notions such as relativist theory and the multiverse, as style and commodity, but not exploration. Futurists exchange idealism and cutting-edge values for the fiscalization of media products.
Whereas postmodernists would support fluidity and antithesis as a means of expansion and variation, we now encounter one of the central consequences of postmodernism. Coined by Jürgen Habermas and expanded on by Jean Francois Lyotard; the “legitimation crisis”.
An individual struggles to describe itself as anything, when the definition itself is regarded as rigid, violent, and its meaning fluid. Therefore, one can only describe oneself as nothing, as anything else would be an exercise in discrimation or marginalization of something else. Society scrambles to create complex assemblies of valuable subjectivities, without having any of them be truly valid. Contradiction is not a means to support multiplicity, but to asymmetrically authenticate, as the pursuit for proof and recognition is seen as a deficiency. Efforts for identity and representation experience this discordance often, as they simultaneously look for the subversion of hegemony, yet need its validation. They look to break away with language, while calling for the legitimization of their own. This is not to say, for example, that the last decade’s effort in advancing civil rights by its introduction into the mainstream as a means to shift institutionalized culture, was not critical, yet it now experiences a gridlock provided by its inherent condition.
More traditionally, the crisis of legitimation can be seen in the individual’s attempt to validate knowledge. Experts struggle to play that role, as it would not justify an identity, but rather alienate their audience. Preparation or application does not matter as it is not objective. Thus, the expert can only operate as another subjective reality in casual dance with its interlocutors. Furthermore, the role of the expert is not only covertly desired, but also passively enacted as it is not virtuous, but inflexible or authoritarian. For example, a group of “gurus” now gather to timidly talk about their experience and expertise. It is offered as a collective resource, but truly is employed as a masked branding or marketing strategy, for what they wish they could just plainly advertise. A market of sellers with no buyers.
Another example can be found in the role of the artist. The art ethos has developed both classical and subversive rules and etiquettes. Today the creator’s role is supposed to be democratized and an “anything goes” mentality is common. If so, who gets to play the role of the artist? It is not to say gatekeeping is a noble affair, but the crisis of legitimation is experienced in this arena by having artists who are not perceived by culture as artists, and perceived artists too ashamed to call themselves artists. The subjectiveness of the role does not work to multiply the identities within the role, but to devalue the theater where the part is played.
This also replicates in social media. Individuals hustle and share through a micro content of private affairs that is humiliated by the act itself, and so it masks itself behind an unintentional or self-ridiculing tone.
Virtue in postmodernity is placed upon a casual and disinterested relation to meaning, or “the thing” itself. We do not answer the “why” of what we do, but attribute it to a stream of consciousness. Nothing is intentional. Nonetheless, these meanings or “purposes”, are the only thing that is coveted. Although the atomization of “realities” is portrayed as a supportive framework for all possibilities, with no need for validation or centralization, the problem does not lie in one’s right or imagination, but in the definition of an individual within a now illegitimate yet shared reality.
How do you make sure your truth is true when it is addressed by the other’s truth? A new condition might begin to be described by the response of people towards this delegitimization. The global pandemic has also exemplified these struggles to operate within a collective, where self-determination is the most important asset to protect.
Today arguments and disputes are not contested throughout political rhetoric, dialectics, or scientific method, but simply an enactment or performance of individual belief. A “mantriatic realism”, echo chamber, or repetition of one’s perception, as to validate individual ideology or reality, as subjectivity is held as the most precious and confused with the freedom of individualization.
The mantra, by definition, can or cannot have literal meaning. It is embodied by reiteration and its intrinsically fluid over time. This is how individuals can now define and legitimize belief in response to a present where concrete meaning is discouraged, and the postmodern offers only contradictions. Perhaps the skepticism of grand narratives in postmodernism, as well as their disappearance, is accurate as a collective purpose, but not as a support system. Concepts are revised and reshaped, but their meaning is reactivated when used as signs and designations of intent.
The meaning, or thing itself, is not truly believed but only employed situationally. One does not believe in horoscopes, but in an identity with a spiritual flare. One does not believe in flat–earth, but on discovering a converted truth and manipulation. This secondary intent, the sub-text, is also easily understood and not often secretive. However, it is disregarded to allow for a capacity of argumentation.
For instance, politics and politicians are often declared by the public as self-interested, corrupt, deceitful and absurd. All the same, when one’s own priorities are linked to a political stance or opinion, the public debate turns to the face-value, objective, traditional meaning of things. Morality, competence and honesty are brought up again. Once more, the sub-text is still present and understood, but is disregarded in favor of the weaponization required for one’s own subjective validation.
The archetypical liberal persona can now denounce capitalism, yet hopelessly support it with a hustler mentality. It can highlight the importance of truth, praising journalism, science, and research, while delving into casual spirituality and magical thinking. Not for the act of belief itself, but to manifest individual subjectivity. On the other hand, an archetypical conservative persona can now exist as a practical, austere, and moral identity to support their day-to-day reality, yet delve into conspiracy theories and hedonism, as they provide a sense of speculation and subversion to their own perceived hegemony. Therefore, validating their individual subjectivity.
But how are any of these realities employed?
Mantras as an evolution of sloganeering, cultural reference, idioms, or gossip; how culture continues to reinforce this ideological macro and microcosms, in difference and repetition of meaning. In the contemporary world, the postmodern belief in symbols as a way to explore and know the universe is maintained, yet it is also tied to strategic knowledge. Whereas sloganeering served typically as propaganda, the repetition of mantras now operate as abstractions to portray an individual reality lived in, an identity experienced, and a tribal denomination or worldview. It simultaneously seeks validation and subjectivity. The possibility of things real, while admitting intangibility, as if part of a greater and clearer narrative. An identity supposedly reinforced by the ritualistic utterance of a mantra does not only fail to represent the individual in the commons, but to anesthetize a Žižekian “silent admission of defeat”. The contemporary mantra is not a meditation but a self-hypnotization. It is not the “crude thinking” Walter Benjamin would dive into for a closeness to reality, but an obfuscation of itself.
As Andrew Hoberek would describe, there is a “tendency to locate postmodernism’s decline not in the waning of its forms but in their successful cultural diffusion”. And if postmodernism has already been surpassed, as some would argue, then this new manifestation at least carries some of the same characteristics, as postmodernism did with modernism. New forms are arguably fraudulent, but the beginning of description for a new estate of culture is plausible. Conviction to document the expression of the overlap, the “fold” alone, might be the only source of birthing an authentic vocabulary for details. Truly, postmodernism has become one with mainstream and commercial culture, not with innovation. This is crystallized by looking at our present cultural and political gridlock. While futurists celebrate the advances of culture and society in the economics of internet-based art and jagged virtual worlds, monetary decentralization has turned into a speculative stock market, and AI’s potential is most commonly applied to home appliances.
The symptoms of a new condition, not only seem to be a mantriatic one (different and repetitive), but in a cynicism for culture’s own ability to legitimize collective reality, and the avant-garde, as a process for any degree of originality or discovery. Mantriatic reality looks to address the future, simply by blending the folds, while the mixed has already been remixed.