Long Wide Load: Navigating the Postmodern Turn A review of Best, Steven, & Kellner, Douglas. 2001. The Postmodern Adventure: Science,Technology and Cultural Studies at the Third Millennium. New York: Guilford.
We live in “interesting times,” perhaps wished upon us by the ancient and overworked curse that opens The Postmodern Adventure; and it just keeps on getting, well, more interesting. As convenient as the turn of the Christian calendar was for periodizing Western history, the dawn of the 21st century—the so-called new millennium—did little to orient our understandings of the world in which we live.
During the past couple of decades, many have taken comfort in a notion that with new times would come ascension to the rapture of a postmodern, postideological (Wilson, 2002), era.Yet periodization is problematic for cultural studies; cultural “shifts and turns are not breaks and ruptures” (Best & Kellner, 2001:104) in the flow of time. Jameson (2001) suggests that periodizing which delineates postmodernity diminishes the fact that it is an extended and important phase of modernity and, whereas the latter is of such importance to the shaping of the human experience, we ought not to think it has passed.
Steven Best and Douglas Kellner have been prolific (cf. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, 1991; The Postmodern Turn, 1997) among scholars who have contributed understandings of the milieu to which the label of postmodernism is affixed. While The Postmodern Adventure (2001), might at first seem an attempt to prolong the agony and the ecstasy of the discourse, Best and Kellner—who in 1997 contextualized the turn toward postmodernity by theoretical review—now veer away from mapping by periodization and toward studying both the turn and the terrain in popular culture and contemporary developments in science and technology.
Framing this latest effort in a breathless tour of the scientific, technological and cultural discourses of our times—of human adventure less as successive eras and more as accel- erating transitions—Best & Kellner claim this structural triad illuminates those theoret- ical and political perspectives best suited to a sustainable future society. They argue for a “reconstruction of theory and politics that combines the most useful modern and post- modern perspectives” (Best & Kellner, 2001:5). Humanity stands in opposition to the natural world, in part through an evolution of technological tools, and at the same time our interest and understandings of our natural selves is invigorated, sometimes to our amazement and even faith.
What postmodernism often rejects of modernity would, therefore, be better served by “reconstruction and improvement of the best elements” (6). Best & Kellner employ a “dialectics of the present”—an eclectic array of theoretical and cultural texts—with a critical eye to both the “continuities and discontinuities” (12) of the current era that capture the complexity and conflicts which “dramatize the novelties, challenges and possibilities of the contemporary situation. [Their] project is to combine critical social theory, science and technology studies, and cultural studies in a multiperspectivist and transdisciplinary framework that illuminates the dynamics of the present moment”
To get there, they take the reader on a wide-ranging, and therefore often superficial, journey of what they project as the current social condition. There’s a great deal of information to digest from The Postmodern Adventure, fashioned in an informative and imaginative manner that cautiously praises scientific and technological achieve- ments while maintaining a decorum of social advocacy. The adventure, they say, “provides new powers and capacities … [yet it requires] limits on the excesses of capitalist modernity and its sciences and technologies … to sustain life on earth” (11). They claim a new space (how very postmodern of them), a mapping of an informed dialectic, by perusing other theoretical, aesthetic, affective and literary mappings while avoiding the imposition of “crude ordering schemes” (273) inherent in modernity. Evoking a panorama of scholarly, artistic, technological and fictional texts as landmarks, The Postmodern Adventure is a veritable road rally of the contemporary, although almost entirely Western, urban and technologically mediated experience.
For the scholar and lay reader alike, fictions illuminate hidden connections and medi- ations of everyday life and, as is most often the case in science fiction, contain expres- sions of resistance—the “revenge of nature” or the “rebellion of technology” (129) and the like. Their expansive notion of “critical cultural studies” permits a borderless recon- struction that analyzes the “styles, texture and surface” of the appointed texts with interpretation of “content, ideology, and normative values” (19) beginning with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and ending with their take on globalization and the restructuring of capital (chap. 5). In between, Best and Kellner contextualize Carl Sagan (1994), H.G. Wells (1866-1946), Philip K. Dick (1968), Octavia Butler’s science fiction trilogy (1987, 1988, 1989), Jurassic Park (1993), the Vietnam and Gulf wars, Mary Shelley (1818), Donna Haraway (1991) and David Cronenberg.
The postmodern adventure may be illuminated just as well by wars and other crises as “legitimate objects of analysis for cultural studies” as by high and popular culture. As
cultural texts (and as understood before September 11, 2002) the Vietnam War and the 1991 Gulf War were the “spectacles of our time” (62), particularly the latter cybertechnowar. Here Best and Kellner are less circumspect about what is “postmod- ern,” using the term fully to describe the Gulf War, while at the same time that conflict had attributes of an extension/acceleration of the modern. The blurring of the real and the virtual is a popular signpost of postmodernity, but here it should have been noted that the determination, the raison d’être for the action and the reduction of humanity to data, was/is a function of modernity. In the end, modern or postmodern, violence and capital have their own discursive aura.
In chapter 4,“Technological Revolution and Human Evolution,” the postmodern adven- ture is manifest in what Best and Kellner describe as a “fifth discontinuity,” the portent of “mutation of existing life forms or the creation or discovery of altogether new species” (129). Mazlish’s 1993 treatment of modernity involves the “dramas and conflicts of crossing four ‘discontinuities:” the Copernican inverse of earth and sun as the centre of the universe; the Darwinian moment recognizing in nature, not in God, the creation of humankind; the Freudian reconception of reason as determined by will, instinct and the unconscious; and late 20th-century spectre of human-like comput- ers and robotics, which causes us to question our “self-proclaimed ontological divide from machines” (129). In each case,“rational man had to rethink its identity to over- come false dichotomies and illusions of separation” (129).
Best and Kellner find in the fifth discontinuity, the possibility of future machines more intelligent than their creators, the possibility of new species creation through genetic engineering; and, more speculatively, the possibility of finding that we are not alone in the universe and of encountering life more intelligent than our own. The fifth discon- tinuity is being played out in all manner of implied texts—fiction, entertainment—as well as applied texts—bioengineering, xenotransplantation, artificial intelligence, war. Again invoking literary genius—H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley, to name but two—and “second genesis” (171) of genetic cloning, Best and Kellner portend a society of the “interactive spectacle” (233) where objects communicate with objects, humans inter- act with objects and information, and where human to human interaction is electron- ically mediated.
The contemporary world of “Globalization and the Restructuring of Capital” (Chapter 5) for them requires a new dialectical way of thinking that can discriminate between the rhetorics of cyberphobes and cyberphiles, between the emancipatory and the limiting uses of science and technology for domination or for democratization, between spectators and participants.“As science, technology and capitalism continue to coevolve into an ever denser global network, the ultimate question is whether we can reshape the driving forces of change to harmonize the social with natural evolution, such that diversity and complexity grow in both spheres” (279).
The Postmodern Adventure is an appreciable effort to contextualize the anxieties manifest in Western discourse—a collection of literary, theoretical and phenomeno- logical mappings of the contemporary epoch. It’s a less than satisfying glance toward the future, because theory and science fiction are not predictive, rather they comment on the present. The prescription is a kinder, gentler, more holistic worldview that
119 120 writes a human story emphasizing responsibilities to the larger biocommunity. Follow- ing Sagan, Dick and Butler, Best and Kellner suggest that people need to balance their “joint kinship with animals and machines” not fearing “permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (Haraway in Best & Kellner, 2001:271). More than ever, we can determine that humans are already cyborgs and have been since first picking up a pointed stick in self defence or to do violence to prey, predator and foe. But their sugges- tion that we let machines “do” what machines do well seems a bit naive, if not deter- ministic, and ignores what I had anticipated as their (Best’s and Kellner’s) main political criticism of the postmodern turn—the economic machine.
At the same time, in their laudable effort to stake out a middle ground for the post- modern adventure, between modernity and what will follow, and in trying to avoid phobic determinism, the wheels of their arguments strayed onto the soft shoulder from time to time. The suggestion that only since Darwin have we come to understand the “forces of life and human identity” ignores the cosmologies of numerous cultures. I’m also bothered by their under-theorized notion of “coevolution” of humans and technology that calls for “the mutual unfolding of all realms of life, such that nature is integrated into social, technological, and human development” (14). Nature is to be integrated? The environment barely rates a mention in The Postmodern Adventure—isn’t that what got us into trouble in the first place?
Further, they rest some of their optimism on the suggestion that the Internet is a cornu- copia of free knowledge, which conflicts with understandings that while some content may not come for a price, it comes at a price. Like the issues of race, gender and poverty, discussion of the World Wide Web’s digital divides were also largely absent from The Postmodern Adventure. Phobias highlighted by the co-authors—such as the disturbing trend to the commodification of mediated evolution and patent wars over genetics, for instance—would be better and more forcefully served by focusing further on the inherent disparities in the new capitalism underscoring Western social organi- zation today.While it’s a not unpleasant ride over a vast, albeit Ameri-centric, terrain, The Postmodern Adventure is a bit like driving your SUV with the windows up and the doors locked. References Best, Steven, & Kellner, Douglas. 2001. The Postmodern Adventure: Science,Technology and Cultural Studies at the Third Millennium. New York: Guilford.
Jameson, Frederic. 2001, March. Modern, Modernity, Late Modernism. University of Toronto Humanities Centre lecture. Toronto. Wilson, Edward O. (2002). The Future of Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.