The Argument

To borrow a phrase from Deng Xiaoping, here are the ``four post-modernizations,'' the already existing trends which, from their birth in California in the 1960s, have begun sweeping the globe, starting from the bottom up, with the young. young.
  1. Extreme neophilia. Not only is the new good, but the past drops almost totally from the mental horizon; everything seems unprecedented. The alternative is extreme neophobia: not only is the new evil, but the past drops almost totally from the mental horizon; everything seems unprecedented - and hideous. In either event, ``the past is dead.''
  2. . Apocalyptic ideology. The world is doomed, or on the brink of the millennium, or both; at the very least we have reached a great crisis, a turning point. Most of these ideologies are not as elaborated as those of the nineteenth century, like Marxism or Spencer - think of environmentalism - but others can match any product of the past for arcane terminology, metaphysical gibberish and general academic owlishness (e.g., Deconstructionism.)
  3. Mysticism, superstition and anti-rationalism. One can be arbitrarily irrational, indeed, a prize loon, without being anti-rational. Your garden variety crank, your Veilikovskian or your Bacon-wrote-Shakespeare man, while his demonstrations show nothing, his proofs do not prove out, his argument does not hold and his evidence is nothing of the kind, at least respects the forms and appearences of rationality. In fact, he will often make a great show of reason and method. For the anti-rationalist, on the other hand, reason and intellect and science and facts are useless, oppressive, life-destroying, and generally vile. William Blake is perhaps the most eloquent member of the tribe. Fortunately, these enemies of life are now quite senile, ``outmoded,'' ``obsolete,'' one or even two paradigms behind the Zeitgeist. Even the normally enlightened Vaclav Havel has said (in the New York Times, no less) that the ``era'' of objectivity and rationalism is over.
  4. Explosive technology and obession with it. This is, I admit, something of a catch-all, since the electronic media, computers and drugs all fall under this category. (Anyone who thinks LSD or cocaine are ``natural'' has been using too much of them.)
It is, I hope, clear in outline how these feed off each other. Technology, for instance, provides the channels through which the others spread. (For pharmaceutical mysticism, the technology is essential to the belief.) Because it is explosive, it helps to justify the extreme neophilia, and the apocalyptic ideologies. Anti-rationalism is very often a reaction to the consequences of the technology, which are frequently not that pretty.

Note that I said ``explosive technology,'' and nothing about science. Science is not post-modern. (If I wished to commit academic suicide, I would write, ``Science is eternal.'') The sciences are going great guns right now, and many of them are critically dependent on the new technology, especially the computer; the situation was lucidly documented by the late Heinz Pagels. Little filters through to popular thought, and what does is twisted to fit the prevailing fixations. ``Ecology'' means pollution, the destruction of rain-forests, the ozone hole and global warming, and never food webs, the carbon cycle, succession, the geographic distribution of species. (Incidentally, I predict that a survey of random adults will find a very large fraction think the ozone hole causes global warming.) Similarly, consider the ``sciences of complexity'' of which Pagels wrote. It would be more accurate - if unwieldy - to call them the sciences of apparent complexity, for their goal is to show how complicated appearances have simple (or at least simpler) explanations. Chaos theory is the most advanced, and bulks largest in the popular mind. The lesson the public has received, however, is not that even very complicated things have an underlying simplicity which we can grasp, but that the best scientists now say knowledge is a pointless fraud - see, for instance, Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park. The connections to anti-rationalism, apocalypticism (``The Decline and Fall of Science'') and even neophilia are plain.

Except for some aspects of technology, I don't like these very much, and the century approaching looks grim. We turned the twentieth century into history's abattoir with far less power at our disposal, and only a few massive ideologies. With hundreds and thousands of small, virulent ones, we may avoid the truly titanic conflicts that embroiled the planet for most of this century, only to have a handful of Vietnams and Cambodias, a dozen Bosnias, a score of Lebanons, and a thousand increasingly violent and destructive Jonestowns. The sanity of the human race as a whole has been steadily declining since, at the latest, 1914, and there is nothing in the current trends to suggest a recovery - indeed, three of the four post-modernizations are forms of lunacy.

Of course, this is an ``if this goes on'' prediction, and our saving grace, if we have one, is that things don't go on. We could make ourselves more rational, or kinder, or both. If worst comes to worst we could find more peaceful obsessions. Ideas and effort are not ineffectual, we can become makers of our future rather than pose as its prophets --- of course. I know. But even that tepid optimism becomes far more difficult to hold to, when every passing day brings unlimited information, automated expertise, tailored life-forms, and grey goo, one step closer to the likes of Reagan and Mao, Pinochet and Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung and David Koresh.