In postmodernity, who are we?
Our Role In Postmodernity: Be Citizens
This prompt suggests that we are already definitively living in the post-modern world. This is not necessarily true and definitely up for debate. Even Harvey concedes that “Despite fundamental changes in the form of social life, we still live, in the West, in a society where production for profit remains the basic organizing principle of economic life.” While Harvey does concede that the philosophies of profit have stuck around from the modernist phase, he identifies a change and transition to postmodernity because of flexible accumulation and Fordism, where we have the power to manipulate time and space in order to maximize profits. To briefly add on to this definition, postmodernity is perhaps partly a continuation of the Enlightenment; we criticize everything that happened in our past, including colonial statues, whether we should celebrate Columbus Day, and whether some of our Founding Fathers deserve praise. For the purposes of this essay, I will accept that we are in the era of postmodernity to answer where we come in in this era.
The second necessary caveat to get out of the way is to define who “we” is. “We” in my mind is the seemingly-responsible electorate, the late-millennial Gen Z, the future leaders who will soon all have the power to vote (God help us….). I suppose that definition of “we” technically answers the prompt “In Postmodernity, who are we?” But while this defines who I have in mind for the purposes of responding to this prompt, I think it is more interesting to discuss what “our” duty is in this day and age. Our duty is to reclaim our citizenship, use the manipulation of space and time for more substantive purposes rather than aesthetic ones, and develop strong contrarian arguments with a willingness to listen and debate them.
In postmodernity, it seems that we have expanded the citizenry but we have all become mere subjects. Heller describes the difference between the two as citizens being actively involved in a democracy and subjects simply obeying as part of a society. Under the idea of more freedom in the postmodern age, we have been dragged from an early age from becoming potential citizens to subjects. We are more comfortable being subjects because we feel success and reward without active participation in our democracy. It is our job to change this. The first step, encouraging people to register to vote, is at times counterproductive. Registering to vote and even voting does not transform someone from being a subject to a citizen, even though it feels like it does. Placing a ballot in the ballot box is not active democratic participation. Filling out a sample ballot at home because of television advertisements and the talk of the town is not active citizenry. In the postmodern age, we have forgotten what it means to debate policy and the substance of candidates. A discussion in class suggested that politicians are dumbing down their language and rhetoric and choosing not to focus on policy because the constituency is less intelligent. We should not “decrease the franchise,” as someone jokingly (or not) suggested in class. Our role in postmodernity is to reclaim our role as citizens: As Heller writes, “taking responsibility for the present and the future are difficult positions to assume.” We must debate policy and force politicians to win our vote with ideas, not jokes and the mere surface of their character.
Secondly, as Harvey suggests, postmodernity includes a manipulation of time and space to generate more products. While he wrote his piece in the late 1989 and alludes to global business, franchising, and changing revenue sheets to minimize taxes owed in certain countries and in other cases wages paid, the dotcom boom takes his argument to new heights. With the creation of social media, the most intangible of all products, businesses have found a way to make a profit without having consumers pay for it. As the saying goes, “if you’re not paying, you’re the product.” Businesses use our personal information to generate billions in profits.
But social media gives us, the supposed-consumers turned products, a tremendous amount of power. It’s just that we have not used it entirely as efficiently as we can. Our role in postmodernity is to find the best way to use the intangible products of the 21st century not just for aesthetic purposes, but for substantive ones as well. Too often we go to a protest just to post a picture of it later on. We forget why we protest in the first place; or worse, we think our purpose for protesting is so we can post a picture. Just last week, one of my good friends who goes to school across the country made a Facebook post asking a legitimate question for the purpose of igniting a reasoned discussion on whether Supreme Court nominees should have life tenure. He offered his opinion and ended his post with the simple phrase, “I’m curious what people think.” He did not attack those who disagree with him, as is far too common today. While I along with many others commented on the post, one comment particularly caught my attention: “I’m here for a well-reasoned argument on Facebook!” Two people responded to the comment, one saying, “It’s really possible,” and another saying, “but altogether rare.” While this was one of the most substantive and civil debates I have ever witnessed on Facebook, I could not help but care about how many “likes” I received on my “substantive” post. I cared not only about explaining my position, but whether it looked like people agreed. This is one of the main problems with social media; we are too attached to the aesthetic inherently ingrained into anything involving it. Our role is to free ourselves from this.
Compare the substance of this debate with my other “friend” who posted the following on Twitter after Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court: “I legit refuse to date a white republican man and I’m not afraid to mf say it. Don’t care. Goodbye. And f** your party. Disagree = block.” She is of course entitled to hold an opinion against an entire race of people, but there is no substance to the tweet besides playing identity politics. The second part of the tweet, where she threatens to block those who disagree, is more problematic to me. Social media is becoming more and more of an echo chamber with no possibility of engaging in the substantive debate like the one in the first post I shared. Our role is to use social media not just for aesthetic, but also for substance.
This sort of bleeds into the last role I listed for “us” in the postmodernity age, one that fits along with Hitchens’ book: be a contrarian. While I don’t think that being a contrarian, as in always disagreeing with the mainstream, is something we should strive for in the postmodern age, I think that if everyone seriously weighs a topic on its merits, there will always be at least one person who will present an opposing view from the majority. In other words, we do not need the same person to always be a contrarian, we just always need there to be a contrarian. Every idea should go challenged, and there should be a record of disagreements made. In the postmodern age, the contrarian view to the strong young liberal movement with “radical” views appears to be contrarian when it is very likely to instead be the majority. In one of my other political science classes, we discussed a theory known as Social Desirability. It states that people will tend not to express their views if they believe that it differs from societal norms. This leads to a “spiral of silence” where nobody speaks up against an idea because they feel they are not worthy to contradict it.
I still remember vividly when I wanted to start my own opinion column back in high school. I was sitting in journalism class as a high school sophomore thinking about how I would pursue a weekly column. Our class went to a national journalism convention, and one of the talks available to us was by a columnist specifically about column writing. Of course, I attended. In the how-to section of the presentation, the columnist said it was critical for the columnist to lift themselves to the confidence of the expert. The columnist must think his opinion is worth the public read, the instructor said. This is very important in the postmodern age. Maybe not so much for those in the majority opinion, but those in the minority. Contrarians must not be afraid to express their opinion and they must value their opinion in trying to convince others of their viewpoints. Our role in postmodernity is to be that challenger when we truly disagree with something and not to be afraid of the social consequences. In that same vein, we must remember that it is ok to change our minds. As Heller says, we must be “aware of [our] fragility and the limitations of [our] insights absolutely.” This applies more to the majority opinion. There have been times where I have written an opinion column, discussed it with my peers, and subsequently changed my mind. It’s not something I am ashamed of. Quite the contrary, I feel more knowledgeable about the subject matter.
Of all the writers we discussed in this section, Heller describes our role in postmodernity the best: we have a “special privileged position in history” because we have a “heightened kind of responsibility.” With all the tools at our disposal, we have the power to have the most substantive debates and consider every possible viewpoint on a particular subject matter. But we must do so substantively, with no ad hominem attacks, and civilly. In simpler terms, our role is to reclaim not just our rights as citizens, but our responsibilities as well.