Several books have appeared in recent years that document a sweeping cultural shift taking place today, one that can be readily seen in science, medicine, economics, art, philosophy and other fields, but which has yet to percolate into public awareness. People like Fritjof Capra and Marilyn Ferguson have popularized the idea of a paradigm shift — a radical transformation of the underlying assumptions governing our culture — suggesting that we are in the throes of a major one now. But few writers and thinkers have delved into the historical roots of this change and helped to articulate its deep philosophical and metaphysical implications.
A noteworthy exception is West Coast scholar and philosopher Charlene Spretnak. In The Resurgence of the Real, the latest in a series of gracefully written and cogently argued books, she shows how the modern outlook handed down from the Enlightenment is now losing ground to an emergent worldview, one rooted in what she calls "the real" — the realities of nature, our bodies, and our physical surroundings.
Many of the social and political crisis of our time, she says — from post-Cold War nationalist movements to the breakdown of civic engagement and trust in institutions — are rooted in a profound and widespread questioning of the modern worldview, particularly its emphasis on economic expansion and technological progress. These crises often appear as sporadic, unrelated occurrences that need to be brought under order and control, she says, but they are actually part of a larger dynamic, one "that has the potential to effect a profound correction of the assumptions and conditions that have led to the crises of the modern era.
While the reaction against modernism has its roots in a number of social movements that date back to the eighteenth century, it has been fueled by three recent developments in particular: 1) new scientific insights into the nature of chaos, complexity, and systems dynamics which have effectively upended the classical notion of a clockwork universe; 2) a new understanding of health and healing that breaks down the traditional split between mind and body; and 3) a reassertion of the importance of community and place, exemplified in the call for sovereignty and self-determination on the part of Kurds, Basques, Tibetans, Chechnyans, and others, and in various grassroots efforts to stem the destructive effects of the global economy.
"The knowing body, the creative cosmos, the complex sense of place — all these are asserting their true nature as we increase our abilities to see beyond the boundaries of the modern worldview," writes Spretnak. While the modern worldview emphasizes the abstract — favoring the projections of the mind over the "constraints" of the body, technological "progress" over dumb nature, and cosmopolitan sophistication over the "backward" and "provincial" attachment to place — the new outlook emphasizes the real and the concrete.
In one of the book's strongest chapters, Spretnak distinguishes the emergent worldview from deconstructionist postmodernism which, though it presents itself as a formal critique of modernism, is essentially modern in character. As she sees it, deconstructionists are right in emphasizing how our collective narratives are "socially constructed" and often in the service of existing power arrangements in society. But too often they lapse into extreme relativism, failing to recognize that all human thought, social or individual, is situated in the processes of body, nature, and place. Rather than focus their critique on the violation, diminution, or distortion of the real, deconstructionists deny that humans have any access to the real to begin with. Not only do they fail to challenge the dichotomies of modernism -- human vs. nature, body vs. mind, self vs. the rest of the world -- they effectively deepen and intensify them.
As Spretnak points out, modernism "situates humankind in a glass box on top of nature, insisting on a radical discontinuity between humans and the natural world. It frames the human story apart from the larger unfolding story of the earth community. To be truly postmodern is to reject that discontinuity by opening the box to connect anew with our larger context: the earth, the cosmos, the sacred whole. Yet the deconstructionists move in the opposite direction." Postmodernism, if it were truly an alternative to modernism, would counter the ideological flight from body, nature, and place. It would be grounded, spiritual, and profoundly ecological in orientation and outlook.
The term "postmodernism" now means so many things to so many people, that it may be best to come up with a new term altogether. This book offers, if not a new word, at least a new way of conceptualizing what is at stake. Postmodernism, Spretnak seems to be saying, may be nothing more than a phase in an evolutionary cycle, beyond which the realities of body, nature, and place begin to reassert themselves. If that is the case, then Toynbee, Spengler, and Sorokin — the great speculative historians of the past -- may have had a point all along: the modern age is not so much a culmination as a passing phase in the eternal ebb and flow of human history.
Copyright 1998 by Scott London. All rights reserved.