07 July 2009

Ecology and the End of Postmodernity (George Myerson)

It appears that we do not need to be so hung up about the future. The cult of the future belongs to the future, with all its gross and insatiable apocalyptic yearnings. Nobody needs to complain of the frozen present. It’s all what we have for the moment.

In George Myerson’s slim book, there is initially a temporal confusion when the author first announced that “ecology is not postmodern at all” but that it heralded “not the death of modernity but the end of its shadow, postmodernity.” The 80 pages of argumentation in Ecology and the End of Postmodernity can be viewed as a precaution against embracing postmodernity and all its attendant discontents of the past. It cautions against a forward leap to postmodernism without addressing first the problems of the present.

Myerson assumes an unorthodox view. Postmodernity is backward, and modernism must strive to recapture its old standing. Postmodernity is simply defined as the end phase of modernity. It is the theory that modern philosophy and society have finally reached the end of the line. The book’s central thesis then is radical in the sense that it inverts the normal thinking associated with environmental outlooks. That ecology, instead of ushering in postmodernity, in fact terminates it.

Presumably the science of ecology exposes the toxicities that man introduced into the environment. It questions the culture that allows this pollution and suggests ways to mitigate it.

Myerson devised new ways of looking at the modern-postmodern divide. He built on the previous arguments of social theorists like Ulrich Beck and Jürgen Habermas. He labelled new environmental movements to explain why ecology spelled the end for the postmodern condition. We are given, as first illustration, “Ecological Relegitimation” (after Jean-François Lyotard) to describe ecology’s legitimization of the mainstream. We also have “The Ecopathology of Everyday Life” (after Freud) to explain the rise of radical ecology.

Published in 2001, the book has adopted a millennial flavor. It gives a special, and not arbitrary, emphasis on the year 2000, the cut-off point, after which “we stopped being postmoderns.”

Myerson started his defense of his thesis by sketching some of the key theories behind an anticipated narrowing of the modernism-postmodernism gap. Readers unfamiliar with postmodern theories are given a brief survey of it.

Myerson sketched the thoughts behind Lyotard’s “grand narrative” which is the amalgamation of little stories depicting the “heroic epics” of scientific discoveries. When people started losing their faith in the narrative, they also began losing faith in literature.

We might as well say the end of the novel. For this book, the end of postmodernity is likened to the beginning of a new narrative. The works of Milan Kundera and Salman Rushdie are thought of as embodying the postmodern vision. Myerson’s thesis then has two implications: the environmental-philosophical implication and the literary implication.

(Yes, Myerson’s critique of postmodernism has important implications not only to the future way of life but to the map of that way of life, literature itself. One can deduce from his analysis of Lyotard’s grand narrative of the postmodern, dubbed as “postmodern fable,” a strong inclination against the genre “hard science fiction.” Lyotard’s postmodern fable is “elaborately scientific”:

"The point was that no scientific story could have a human or humane meaning. Science still tells stories, but there is nothing we can do with them. We cannot use them, in particular, either to justify or to criticise our way of life, our political order."

Beyond hard sf, the consequences of this new regard to modern and postmodern fictions are of course another speculation. But tying the two together – ecology and literature – is the subject of relatively new fields of eco-literature (or green literature, if you will) and ecocriticism. How “eco” has become the prefix of the day, annexing itself to any unsuspecting word, is perhaps a symptom of the Ecological Relegitimation in literature.

The grand narrative is written in metalanguage and this can be specified as metafiction. Metafiction brings self-consciousness to the art of narrative. In so doing, it destroys the act of discovery and gives suspicion to the metalanguage in which it is clothed. Perfect examples of this narrative are Italo Calvino’s novels Invisible Cities and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.

Radical ecology may also have a cognate in literary movement. The discontent “postmodern” writers felt for the modern world is also symptomatic of what the critic James Wood calls the mode of hysterical realism. As pointed out by Wood, the fictional narrative is now exhibiting a hardening toward hysteria and detail-mania, a cartoonish and journalistic approach to narration, hysterical realism in fact. This is not exactly radical realism or a rebel literary form, but more like a mannerism of the moment. Perhaps it can’t be helped as the grand narrative was shaped by the age.)

Lyotard’s views on legitimation hinged on the profusion of knowledge to counter “incomplete knowledge.” To this end, mass media became the stage where the conflicts of power and legitimacy are enacted. The interplay between science and mass media is well-suited to the investigation of the acceptance of Lyotard-Habermas ideas. This will enable the philosopher to weigh the balance of power wielded by the scientific authority, the state authority, and the people. All he need do is read the papers and watch the news to test the validity of the grand narrative as precondition or grounds for “legitimacy” and thus “legitimation” of a political claim.

For Myerson, the millennial event culminated in the United Kingdom on September 13, 2000. This date saw the height of a massive protest and blockade in Britain due to the rise in fuel prices. This period, said Myerson, demonstrated the postmodern desire for a protest. However strongly supported by the public the call to action was, it was doomed to fail. The protest was not sustained to leave any effect.

The issue of legitimacy was finally decided by events following the sudden end of the protests. The issue of global climate change (which in 2000 already has the backing of the acknowledged scientific authority, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) was splashed on the headlines following a period of flooding which beset the UK. The fact that this happened right after the massive protest on fuel prices is fortuitous, but the connection is not lost on Myerson. Talk about perfect timing. Green taxation was made a perfect excuse for the rise in fuel prices and so the protests did not have a legitimate footing to begin with. Without green taxation, the fuels would have been very cheap to buy. More consumers will be more encouraged to buy petrol, and in effect, more greenhouse gases would have been spewed to the atmosphere. Global warming sets in, global climate change is jumpstarted.

The chips were now stacked in favor of the political authority, which was previously losing face when it was beleaguered by the massive protests. The state who implements green taxation now found an ally with the science of weather. Myerson hailed this event as the relegitimation of ecology in the mainstream.

Was it? The reports of flooding undermined the previous massive protest as it gave “concrete” justification for the rise in petrol prices, namely the imposition of high green taxes on the fuel. Yet in the first place, the protest was not directed against the science of climate change. The issue of green taxation was only highlighted after the protest. The protest was motivated by the rise in fuel price which affected the consumers’ ability to better provide for themselves basic needs.

Myerson’s use of Lyotard’s theory of Legitimation in the face of the protest and flooding may be too much of a philosophizing streak. However, his contention of state acquiring legitimation in this manner may be warranted if only to highlight the relationship between global warming and market-based instruments, such as green taxation, which can be effective ways of curbing consumer behavior. When the people were made to suffer the consequences of a fossil fuel lifestyle, can they be blamed for the mass action that they initiated?

At this point, when the previously beleaguered state already acquired new legitimation, Myerson then started to reject Lyotard’s rejection of the grand narrative. This can finally lead to the legitimation, or simply the recognition, of ecology and the primary role it plays in society.

Myerson’s affirmation that science is “the necessary reference point for any legitimate political response” is supported by the ensuing events of flooding. But we are still in the world of risk and uncertainty and what plays out in the mass media is what people really expect to believe. What is clearly demonstrated is that scientific backing can buy a government some free time from criticism of its policies.

In this respect, Myerson succinctly summarized the quality of the ecological grand narrative. Mainly: its ability to process and synthesize knowledge and thus unify scientific information. And since the main source of the ecological narrative is the news headlines, the rise of the mass media and information and communication technology played their vital roles as well to the dissemination of timely information.

Science is becoming a new power bloc in influencing the reception of information. This in itself is not a cause for alarm. But it makes one wary of the possible omissions that can be made especially if scientific uncertainties are not even mentioned in news reports. The translation of scientific information for mass consumption is one aspect of journalism that needs to be further investigated.

To prove the Ecopathology part of argument against postmodernity, Myerson focussed on the next big issues in UK: the mad-cow disease and the foot-and-mouth disease. These health issues demonstrate that radical ecology can easily enter the mainstream because the issue is one that involves great personal risk. It is collective fear that perhaps fed the Ecopathology of a society.

Like any reactionary ideology, Ecopathology can suffer from extremism. Myerson is quick to point out that “Ecopathology … finds great significance precisely where everyone else sees none at all.”

This is a sobering assessment of radical ecology. It overturns common sense to find a “deeper” explanation to commonplace events.

(This elevation of the trivial moments and its subsequent abandonment is likened by Myerson to the fictional techniques of Milan Kundera. In fact postmodernist tricks and playfulness in fiction are further embodiments of a discontent not only with the present, but with the future as well. That is perhaps the failing of writers such as David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo. Their elevation of the mundane using metafictional methods and prose reflected only the despair of modern life without recourse to hope. In the face of “millennial expectations,” perhaps optimism is the blind force which rejects postmodernity to accommodate the pragmatism of the modern present.)

Myerson’s explanation of the Ecopathology of Everyday Life was based again on what are being said in the news. His distrust of this strain of modernity, wherein great significance is given to the commonplace, is apparent. For him, there lies in Ecopathology a tendency to violate common sense. This is harder to detect as this mental state is being displayed not in the mainstream but in the snug confines of the living room, or the shopping mall, or the office.

It would have been better if Myerson explained more on the flow of ecological ideas from the mainstream to everyday living. That is, the immediate connection of Relegitimation with Ecopathology. As it is, his short discourse was already full of provocative ideas on (post)modern encounter between humans and the environment. His expressed ideas and grasp of rhetoric are very well taken. Even so, the reckoning is not over, for ultimately ecology is not the new world order. Man is.

(Image by Sam Haskins)


  1. Hello rise! What a very comprehensive review. I get a high just reading it.

    How are you finding The Shadow of the Wind?

  2. Thanks, Peter. I’m really liking The Shadow of the Wind. For a thriller, I’m reading it at a slow pace. I think Carlos Ruiz Zafón pushes all the right buttons in his book.

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