Paradigm Drift

I was recently inspired by my friend Kim Covert’s article about bias in the press (or lack of it) to discuss the idea of paradigm. In Wikipedia, my favourite go-to site for definitions these days because it tends to be free of geopolitical bias (the subject of another article and its great contribution to our collective epistemology) paradigm is defined simply as a distinct concept or thought pattern. During the postmodern period of human thought, a loosely connected and largely incoherent corpus of intellectual theory of the late twentieth century that attempted to deconstruct and demythologize world views of any sort, be they political, philosophical, artistic, etc, “paradigm busting” was great sport. The idea stood that the world was viewed by most human beings through a vast and distorted lens of cultural and historical  bias informed by our experience, our biology, and our intellectual and emotional conditioning. “Deconstructing” a literary text or historical narrative was paramount. We could only see the truth by relentless criticizing and questioning every piece of information laid across our plate to discern the bias of its origins, from social constructs and history (Foucoult) literature (Bahktin) and signs and symbols (Derrida.)


Good, as far as it went. I’ve often read that the grand narratives of country and aesthetic that led to the Second World War, and the deaths of 52 million people, flagged by John Keegan as the biggest event in the course of human history, was the catalyst for this mass rejection of paradigm. We fought because we believed. We believed because we were taught. We were taught that the world is a certain way. And we believed what we were taught because the paradigm we were taught under eliminated certain truths or facts that might be inconvenient to the seamless development of this narrative. So postmodernism attacked what it knew all the lies rested upon–the narrative itself.

Theodore Adamo famously said that “writing poetry after Aushwitch is barbaric.” But in truth it was the novel that died there. Without paradigm the novel cannot survive.  Its soul rests upon it. I barely can read a book, thanks to my postmodern tutelage, without deconstructing it.  I look for the author in its pages. What he believed. I check out Vronksy’s teeth constantly, like some literary dentist (or veterinarian, more accurately. Vronksy always seems a bit horsey to me) and wonder what Tolstoy was getting at.  And yet what postmodernism did, and why it eventually died the same death as every intellectual movement before it, is that in deconstructing everything it eventually deconstructed itself. Like the infinitely divisible,  postmodernist critics eventually realized that tearing down paradigms was in itself a paradigm, a kind of crazy 20th century patchwork narrative, and like footnotes, and cockroaches, each paradigm  you step on spawns a thousand more. Our brains are in a sense narrative machines, and if you tear down the basis of human thought you are eventually left with nothing. In some sense, a more balanced nuanced narrative must be built eventually, and it will always fall under the rubric of somebody’s paradigm or other, no matter how inclusive we wish to make it. We are limited creatures who express in sign and symbol. We rely on metaphor and device to express anything and everything to ourselves and each other. At the base of every human narrative of origin there is a deux ex machina, which postmodernism kept uncovering and then conveniently ignored. We still say the sun “rises” in the sky, when almost every single one of us knows intellectually it does not, but rather that the earth rotates more fully into its view. We all maintain that “humanity” is somehow more important than every other species on this planet, even though this fallacious insistence is killing us by accelerating degrees. Our narratives shift slightly; we become more inclusive, if we’re lucky. Pluralistic, but not too pluralistic, lest we abandon judgement and discernment altogether. We maintain bias simply to keep ourselves from going crazy. As someone once said, if you have too open a mind nothing will stay in it. But this increasing knowledge that our most cherished beliefs are founded on bias, if not intellectual then at least biological, but that without them we are directionless and signify nothing, is causing a collective cognitive dissonance in us. How to be tolerant of the intolerant? How to understand the incomprehensible? How to cherish the best of your humanity when you know it has been allowed to flower only because other species and races have been exterminated in its wake and, in some ways, for its sake?

This might seem all pretty far removed from an article on bias in journalism. But I believe that instead of deconstructing narratives to expose their fallacies (an impossibility if you’re trying to tell a story of any sort) journalists in the postmodern era began to give both opposing narratives equal credence in order to avoid the pitfalls of paradigm. The problem is,  if we give a weak narrative equal stature to a strong one, even if to avoid accusations of bias, do we give it equal power? Do we needlessly  polemicize points-of-view that otherwise might have otherwise pleaded no contest?

Among the many tenants of posthumanism is the idea that the concept of the human in general is a construct, a paradigm, and the very last one at that. Take away the idea that human beings are somehow privileged with respect to, and yet separate from,  the rest of the universe, and you deconstruct all narrative forever, because, at base, all our narrative is human narrative.   It is the story of the origin of the species, from Darwin to the Bible and the Big Bang, or the story of the destiny of the species, from the Nationalist Socialists, to the tar sands, to Echart Tolle. Posthumanism suggests we reject the concept of the human and all its narratives entirely, and–this is important–without deconstructing them. It is literally embracing the dissonance, rather than rejecting it in favour of another flawed and incomplete world view. It is giving up control. It is practising intellectual rigour when we know, and instinctive reasoning and self-abandonment when we don’t. Ken Wilbur, the philosopher, calls this kind of thinking “two-tiered consciousness.” Holding two, or more, distinct and opposing ideas in mind without privileging one over the other but without divesting either of their innate meaning by objectifying them either. It is a strange way of thinking, and a little tough to explain in language.  The Buddhists probably come closest, when they suggest relishing food but focussing on your waste when relieving yourself, or enjoying the sensation of breath in your body while picturing your corpse riddled with living worms after you die.  We are star-stuff; and we are also recycled carbon, the excrement of the universe. My apologies. It’s an obtuse subject, and I can’t put it any better than that.

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