Comments to the "Religion and Spirituality" Roundtable of the ECO-ED World Congress for Communication and Education on Environment and Development, held at the Metro Toronto Conference Centre, Toronto, Canada, October 16-21, 1992.
by Adrian Ivakhiv
The topic of "Ecology and Spirituality for a Postmodern Planet" is best approached, I think, by way of its weakest link. "Ecology" and "spirituality," however vague and heterogeneous the meanings of these words, at least evoke some kind of general impression, though opinions may vary about the nature of the relationship between the two. But what in Earth's name might a "postmodern planet" be?
"Postmodern" is one of those terms we hear so much - for the last decade especially, first in academic circles, now increasingly in popular discourse; yet its meaning is vague, ambiguous, very difficult to pin down or to grab a hold of. And curiously, as its usage increases, the term becomes ever more vague, an amorphous mass that swallows up everything in its midst.
It seems that every week a pile of books arrives in academic bookstores with titles like The Condition of Postmodernity, Post-modernism and the Social Sciences, Feminism/ Postmodernism, The Postmodern Scene: Excremental Culture and Hyper-Aesthetics, Postmodernism, Or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, God and Religion in the Postmodern World: Essays in Postmodern Theology, The Reenchantment of Science: Postmodern Proposals, Postmodernism: The Twilight of the Real. This is a mere sampling of books I found in a couple of local bookstores just last week. And then there are the popular and journalistic usages of the term - calling "postmodern" everything from the stylistic eclecticism of recent architecture - such as Philip Johnson's Broadcast Centre for the CBC [Canada's national broadcasting corporation] on King Street in Toronto, or the buildings presently taking over the campus of my own university, Toronto's York University - to the sculpture decorating the new police headquarters in Toronto, which the Toronto Star recently called "postmodern" - to "postmodern parkas" being advertised in Elle magazine - to Ronald Reagan and later George Bush both being called the first "postmodern presidents." Just when you thought you had a sense of what postmodernism was, it eludes you once again.
"Postmodernity" is supposed to be a characterization of the world we live in today; yet, like all things postmodern, the term is often used with an ironic, self-referential, and ambivalent awareness of its own strategic nature. Part of what being postmodern is about is being aware that what you say is full of contradictions, that the nature of language itself, the nature of the way we describe the world, is elusive and riven with contradictions, that anything we say is necessarily a rhetorical strategy, a construct, a gesture, and that any claim to the truth of any statement is never completely innocent: all such claims are always already implicated in the play of surfaces and images and facades, the play of rhetorical manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres, the play of power. Even calling this paper of mine "Ecology and Spirituality for a Postmodern Planet" seems improper, if not absurd: how, after all, can something as solid and material as a planet be something as elusive (and anthropocentrically historical) as the term "postmodern" suggests?
Speaking about "postmodernism" is equally questionable - it would be better to speak of "postmodernisms" in the plural. There are many postmodernisms, many attempts to break out of or loosen the shackles of a modern worldview that is somehow associated with bringing about the present global crisis. There are deconstructive postmodernists, like French philosopher Jacques Derrida and his many imitators, playfully yet relentlessly conjuring away modernity's most cherished metaphors and truths by unveiling their linguistic elusiveness. There are fatalistic postmodernists, like Jean Baudrillard, who point out that in the world of media images, amidst the seductions of advertising and marketing strategies, and the unconstrained quantification, the buying and selling of everything on the planet, we ourselves become shadowy images produced by the consumer strategies that we buy into. There are constructive postmodernists, like David Ray Griffin, who speak of a new worldview emerging from work being done at the leading edges of the sciences - optimistic New Age postmodernists, we might say. There are critical, politically motivated postmodernists - feminist postmodernists, neo-Marxist postmodernists, Third World postmodern deconstructionists, and so on. In its blurry vagueness, the postmodern remains a contested zone, contested between those who are for it and those against it; those who see in it possibilities for escaping or resolving our present dilemmas - environmental, political, spiritual dilemmas - and those who see it as an embodiment of those very dilemmas; those who celebrate it for its liberating dizziness, and those who bemoan it for its relativistic nihilism.
What, then, is this "postmodernity," and why speak of it at all?
Let me begin again, by asking, Is it ever possible to define and characterize the world in which one lives? We speak of the "ancient world," the world of the ancient Greeks, for instance. We speak of the Medieval European world. If we can speak of the "modern world" in the same kind of way, from a distance, as it were, as so many historians and cultural commentators today are wont to do, does that mean that we are no longer living in the modern world? Can one speak of a postmodern world - or of any characterization of one's own world - without implicating oneself within it, as inexorably caught in its grasp? How can we characterize the horizons that surround us, but which we can never view all at once, because we are always somewhere between them, moving about pursuing our various life projects and interests, caught up in our desires, hopes, fears, preconceptions and so on? And we are surrounded by the confusing and contradictory blur of media images, of data and desire, information and titillation - the whole spectacle of news-bits, pop-culture icons and celebrities, and so on: how de we make sense of it all? Do we resort to well-worn, all-explaining truth-systems like secular humanism, liberalism, Marxism, scientific progress, or one of the numerous resuscitated religious truth-systems vying for our attention? Or have these all succumbed to the media spectacle, the pick-and-choose, cut-and-paste, buy-and-sell profusion of consumerized, commoditized "virtual realities"? What about the scientific dream of knowing ever more and more about the universe until one day we know everything - did something happen to this dream, something like a car accident? Or can we still solve everything, explain and control everything, until there is peace on earth and happiness for all - or at least for all of "us," whoever that "us" may be?
So, the times in which we live - unclear and uncertain as they are - it seems, are best defined in reference to what they are not, or more precisely, to what they follow, what they come after, what they are post to: that is, to Modernity. What, when all is said and done, can be said of the Modern Age, the Modern epoch? Whence comes this postmodernity that is delivered onto our doorsteps, C.O.D., as implied by its very prefix, post? What was the pre that pre-ceded this post, ceding (/seeding) us with, or sending us, this ambiguous package of postmodernity that we grapple with today? (Forgive the Derridean wordplay: once one gets the hang of it, it becomes difficult to resist at opportunities like these.)
Bracketing an age, an epoch, framing it as a completed event, allows us to get a bit of perspective onto it, so as to be able to recognize the threads that hold or held it together. The Modern Age, according to those who speak of it as if it's over, was held together by several meta-ideas, Grand Narratives, that might have included the following:
(1) The Belief in Progress: Through scientific advance and the human project of increasing our objective knowledge and control over the world, we, the human species, are endlessly improving both ourselves and our world.
(2) The belief in the privileged position of humanity in relation to the rest of nature: We, the story goes, are the "crown of creation," gifted with language, advanced consciousness, technical reason and rationality, and it is our right and our destiny - and particularly that of the leading, white, European, male-dominated, wing of humanity - or mankind, as it prefers - it is our right to control and determine the course of life on this planet. As humans, made in the image of God, or, at least, made in our own priviledged image of ourselves, we share in some kind of timeless human essence or nature. Part of this essence or destiny is that we are creators of history, we are its heroes, at the centre of a great cosmic drama.
(3) The belief that our knowledge of the world is grounded in the solid foundations of rationality - grounded in the rational subject's ability to know the truth about the objects of the world: According to Descartes, the only locus of truth and certainty is to be found in the human subject; all else - other creatures, and "nature" in general - are cast into doubt, and, therefore, relegated to the realm of objects.
The views of modernity, of course, are hardly distant from us. Descartes' notion that the mind is a rational, spiritual, doubting and thinking ego that finds itself in an object-body that is no more than a lump of matter set in motion; Newton's billiard-ball conception of the universe as an empty space filled with moveable objects; the views of Bacon or of any of the other high-priests of modernity - we have most certainly inherited their worldviews, whether we like them or not.
But - and this is a significant "but" - who are the "we" that have inherited this modern, European, scientific view of the universe? Postmodernity throws all this into question: whether by way of developments within that same tradition - such as Einsteinian relativity and quantum physics, uncertainty principles and indeterminacy theorems, chaos theory, Nietzschean relativism, and so on - or by way of the recognition of other traditions - and we are all, to some extent, representatives of some of these "other" traditions: Asian, African, aboriginal, Third World, postcolonial, "other" by virtue of being women and therefore largely excluded from the inner sancta of traditional Western power and knowledge, "other" by virtue of being poor and similarly voiceless, "other" by virtue of our nontraditional sexual preferences or minority ethnic identities. Canada, no doubt, is the best example of a multicultural, multi-ethnic postmodern society.
Postmodernism, then, can be seen, or heard, rather, as the clamour of "other voices" rising up to fill the void left by a receding white European, male-dominated, nominally Christian (to a degree), scientifico-rational, world-ordering, world-colonizing enterprise.
Is modernity in recession, then? Or is modernity on its last breaths? Who is to say? The postmodernist impulse is the one that would step back from the guiding assumptions of modernity, bracket them out, so as to put them into question, and to ask: Are they valid for us today? Do they still hold? What does, in fact, hold for us any longer, now that any social consensus on absolute truths has quietly disappeared? Or, in other words, is there (still) an "us" who share some such consensus on the world, truth, reality or whatever it is we may speak of? Previous consenses - the kind the Catholic Church may have defined and perpetuated in Medieval Europe, or the kind that the uneasy and shifting alliance of church, state, capital, and science may have defined since the Renaissance in Europe and later America - these, like Nietzsche's God, have left us: what, if anything, fills the vacuum of their absence?
Postmodernists argue that we are living through a crisis of representation, a profound uncertainty about what constitutes an adequate description of "reality." Reality is no longer describable by a single grand narrative, a story of the rise of humanity through a unidirectional history that culminates in modern Western civilization, for instance. Reality is subject to multiple interpretations, multiple readings and uses, which are always already uninnocent, always implicated in relations of power and of dominance. Reality comes to be seen less as an objective "world-out-there," measureable, describeable and knowable via the instruments of science, but rather as a text, as a story that is itself many stories, intertwined yet never fully commensurable with each other, always and ever interpreted - interpretations built on other interpretations "all the way down," as it were. And we are the multiple, clamoring, dissonant voices of its storytellers and interpreters.
There are those who complain that such a view of the world - the world as text and as infinite interpretation - leaves us cut off from any possibility of moral foundations; it leaves us drifting in a nihilistic, valueless abyss. But this dichotomy - either we believe in objective universal values (and particularly my own objective universal values) or we are left with absolute relativism and nihilistic chaos - is this not a false dichotomy, a product of modern dichotomous thinking? Clearly, there are values which we live through our lives - values that are embodied by us, situated and localized in our own particular contexts, our own communities, subject always to negotiation and interpretation. Our values, our fears and desires and motivations, postmodernists would argue, are written into us; they are present in us consciously and unconsciously, present in our bodies and in our languages. Present in all their contradictions. Postmodernism opens us up to a new humility in the face of the multiplicity of texts and of stories and of ways of articulating and of valuing our worlds.
And it is here that I wish to talk about ecology. Because, of all the sciences, and perhaps of all the candidates for a new political philosophy, it may be ecology which so radically puts into question the dominant assumptions of the Modern worldview. The story told by ecology - in some sense, by ecology the science (though I'd hesitate to make too much of this, only because I know some ecologists who'd cringe at the thought), but in a more obvious sense by ecology the philosophy or worldview - is a story that shows all the parts of the world, all of the actors that make it up, as being fundamentally interrelated and interdependent, as being never purely subjects, independent observers, and never fully objects, lumps of inert matter and nothing more. Rather, they/we are all intertwined in some strange and never fully explicable way, interpenetrating each other, feeding on each other, back and forth and around again in a complex process that can never be completely broken down into its component parts and can never be fully understood as if from some objective "outside." In ecology, there is no "outside." There are always multiple and overlapping relationships, and the strength of the whole system, insofar as we can speak of such whole systems, is in its diversity, in its multiplicity - most crucially, in its relations.
Prior to the rise of the modern worldview, the natural world might have been seen as an orderly, organic whole, or as "mother," as "goddess," or as a world of interconnected narratives sung into existence in the "Dreamtime." Probably there was much less of a separation perceived between "nature" and "culture." In time - if I can be allowed to tell a story about the rise and fall of stories - in time, there emerged what we might call Imperialistic Stories, Truth-stories that competed against each other for believers and followers (and more recently, for consumers and addicts). The rise of modern science, in any case, initiated as a reaction against the abuse of clerical power within one of those jealous Truth stories, but it continued to manifest many of the earlier tyrant's tendencies. For modern science, the world of nature became a clockwork mechanism, a Machine to be dissected and measured, and, finally, a Reservoir of Resources for human use and consumption. In the process, what was forgotten was precisely the relations and the subjectivity and the ultimate mystery and unknowability of the "others" who became the scientists' objects of study. When the discipline of ecology emerged within the framework of science, it also treated the "others" of the natural world as mere components within the machinery of Nature, as producers and consumers of solar energy, and so on. Science's objectifying, mechanistic gaze imposed itself on all of the other possible tales that could be told.
Postmodernism itself is also guilty of telling a totalistic truth tale: Its story is a kind of historical story, an anti-historical history. The postmodern story asserts that Modernity was a historical episode that emerged in certain circumstances and is now disappearing or mutating into something new. But in this postmodern story, there is never anything truly "new": everything is already a restatement, a recombination of other things, other texts and stories. Because the story of "the New" is really a continuation of the Modern Story of the forward march of Progress, and our postmodern temper no longer believes there is any place left for Progress to march, no frontiers left to conquer and explore. What about outer space, you might ask? What about cyberspace, virtual reality, nuclear fusion, brain drugs, the whole plethora of new technologies on the horizon readying to further revolutionize our already revolutionized post-industrial landscape? For the healthy postmodern skeptic such high-tech developments herald no new solutions, no new messiahs to rescue us from ourselves. Yet, there is a strain in postmodernism that celebrates such techno-whiz developments, simply because they add to the diversity and multiplicity and intensity of experiences that the postmodern temper finds so liberating, if disorienting as well.
On the other hand, an ecologically informed postmodernism would sharpen certain critical faculties and would recognize that in valuing difference and otherness - the postmodern program of those "other voices" clamouring to be heard in the void left by the receding Modern story - postmodernism ought to open itself up to the stories being told by the very different "other voices" of our planet. These are the voices from the earth's oceans and its rainforests, the stories being told in the languages of birdsong, the undersea cetacean language of sonar and whalesong, the nighttime language of echo-location, the languages of hypersonic sounds and strange smells and tracks in the snow and gestures and body heat, and so on. These stories are profoundly more interesting than the stories of cyberspace and of virtual reality, because they are so vastly different from the stories we two-legged city dwellers are ever capable of telling. They are stories we will likely never be able to understand fully, and yet therein lies their richness and value for us. If we truly value difference and multiplicity, as the postmodernist sensibility seems intent on doing, then it is these ecologically informed interspecies differences that surely provide the best testing ground for a postmodern ethics.
The postmodernist celebration of otherness, then, opens us to the multiplicity of ways of speaking the world into existence, ways that include those that are quite different from the human. Postmodernism allows us to admit that the claims of modernity were, in fact, very powerful and forcefully articulated tales, stories. Such stories as the separation of subject from object, of observer from observed, of knower from known in the enshrined truth tale of scientific knowledge - such stories have their consequences. And viewed in the light of our environmental crisis - retold, that is, in our contemporary story of environmental crisis - these earlier stories, stories that purported to be truths, appear particularly questionable.
I have been trying to articulate a model of the world - a metaphysical model, if you like - that is emerging from the debate in and around postmodernism. This is a model, a story, that understands what we call the "world" to be a textual affair - by which I mean that this "world," which is really a plurality of "worlds," is created by the narrations and stories we tell ourselves and through which we image it all into existence - whether consciously or unconsciously, whether through something we call our individual "free will," or through the internalized values and power structures and ideologies that work themselves out through us. These stories and narrations are never entirely ours: they are always intimately related to earlier and other stories; they are always in the process of negotiation and contestation with other, similar or different, competing stories; they are always slipping and sliding, reweaving and unraveling, ever eluding our grasp. Yet, if this textual model is a valid way of understading the "world," then surely, to some limited extent at least, we can choose the stories we will live by. We can choose them, aware that they are stories, perhaps no "better" or "truer" than any others - for what is the basis for objective comparison? We choose them because they make sense and are meaningful for us, because we will them and desire them.
And here I'd like to make the connection with my third theme, that of spirituality - which, in a sense, is precisely about making connections, between ourselves and our world, between our actions and their effects and cosmic implications, and so on. What I'd like to suggest is that perhaps - though here things get so much more slippery - perhaps we might be able to agree on a larger story, a story about stories, a story about the emergence of and interrelationships between different stories, a story about how the revealed truths and religious and ideological systems we have inherited are themselves stories that have been heard from some Cosmic Storyteller, picked up on our metaphysical radio transmitters and passed on through the generations. This Cosmic Storyteller, we might even agree, is equally, at one and the same time, the Native American trickster, Coyote - as He is the jealous, patriarchal Law-Giver; is equally the Great Earth Goddess of Birth, Death and Regeneration - as She is an unknowable, unnameable Other. (And, of course, is not at all equally any of these things.) This Cosmic Storyteller is both immanent in the world(s) around us - and transcendent of the world(s), because S/He is so uncapturable by the words and images and concepts through which we invoke the world(s) into existence.
If we could begin to agree that we are all storytellers - we and all the other never fully knowable "others" with whom we share this planet - then we might learn to appreciate good stories, multilevelled stories resonant with depth and meaning and beauty and paradox (whatever such valuative words might still mean for us). We might become less liable to get taken in by poor storytellers. We might slowly wean ourselves off our addictions to imperialistic stories, our fixations on the One True Story, which intends to subject the whole diversity of other stories to its own will. And we might learn to develop a bit of humility in the face of - or perhaps in the absence of the face of - the Cosmic Storyteller, that ever elusive Trickster who periodically throws us these apparent Grand Revelations, who sends us postcards from which we construct complete worlds, metaphysical systems and doctrines and ideologies. Yet behind these constructions, at the other end of the postal system that relays these picturesque tableaux to our doorstep, there are always the fleeting and ever disappearing footprints in the sand of that elusive Writer of stories - as elusive as the term "postmodernism" that I have tried to define here. And it is to Her (who may be a divinity), or to Him (who may be a planet), however we may prefer, that I dedicate this story I have told.
Thank you for your attention.
Adrian Ivakhiv 1992.
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