Yuri Tarnopolsky                                                                                                                          ESSAYS

Essay 46. Postmodernity: Postmortem for Modernity

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Essay 46. Postmodernity: Postmortem for Modernity



What is postmodernity? This Essay presents my personal intuitive view and cannot be a source of information about postmodernism (pomo, to distinguish it from the live postmodernity).

Postmodernity is the period of Western history from about 1950-1970 until today, as viewed by postmodernist thought concentrated mostly in European academia. The main source of knowledge about postmodernity is just the life around us.

There is no consensus regarding when exactly postmodernity started, what it actually is, and whether it even exists. It is certainly real in the sense that our perception of it in terms of pomo is real. But as we follow the postmodernist perception of the world, we lose the firmer  grounds of pre-postmodern philosophy and sociology, very much divided into private plots, as well as the commons of science.  I am not sure we have to leave the paved with stone grounds of logic, but this is quite possible because postmodernism, in my view, is art.  It proves the point by self-exhibiting, acting on a stage, gathering a crowd, demolishing a piano, waving from the window, but not by reasoning. Art is a man-made interruption of the life routine. Art is as divine as the lightning and earthquake had been before we knew their physical mechanisms.   

The very term "postmodern" is irrational because modern means present, current, and up-to-date. Postmodern means nothing but future—something that has not yet learned to nexist. Nevertheless, I believe that postmodernity is real and postmodernism is one of its derivatives. There is an  indisputable change in the world after the WW2, especially accelerated by the advent of computers and information technology.  History, like biological evolution, moves ahead step by step by partial deletions and additions to the roster of the social organization.  Only with time we notice a loss after an addition and an elephant in the room after a loss.

A complete radical overhaul of an evolving complex system  (ECS, X-system, exystem: life, mind, society, science, language, economy) is impossible. These systems move ahead by preserving most of its body while replacing a limb.   The change is always local and  I regard this as a basic definition of structural complexity. The concepts of local and global, however, should  be thought in not geographic, but abstract terms: as topological relations. For more about this, see History as Points and Lines. We may speak about the cause of change as global in geographic sense, but in terms of X-systems  this means external. Thus, global climate change or global  exhaustion of oil resources are external to an evolving complex system, unless we speak about a system of cosmic rank, like planet Earth.

Although postmodernism sounds like a postmortem of "modernity,"  recited over the autopsy of the rational world view of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, "postmodernity" (what an ugly word) is a continuation of the previous human history resulting in some additions and some losses.  There are always a few of them (the consequences could be many) and they can be described  in terms of abstract concepts of function and structure, which I call ideograms.  Thus, fluid circulation  is a very abstract concept, blood circulation is less so, but still abstract, heart is more concrete, but only a particular observable heart of a patient is what can be called fact. Computerization is an abstraction.   See APPENDIX 1.

Suppose, postmodernity is a new turn of history. Can anything really new happen?  The answer is: when a new combination of old elements emerges, the history takes a different turn, but when a new basic element of an existing category emerges, history enters a new stage.   See manuscripts in complexity.  At a very high level of abstraction, however,  far from the  terminal  facts, novelty becomes a rarity.  Thus, the Industrial Revolution was a huge novelty, but from a distance it looks like the same kind of event (pattern) as taming the fire and making first tools. In a sense, there is nothing new under the sun, but in what sense is a matter of personal choice: it depends on how high you can perch and look down on the world of facts.

Here are my three points regarding postmodernity.  They fall into one categorythe consequence of growthbut of course do not exhaust the subject.

1  Techno-human symbiosis

We are a symbiotic life form. In this sense we are similar to lichens consisting of fungi and algae or some crabs living on a mollusk shell. We remember ourselves as homo sapience since we started using tools and fire.

We are the talking and manufacturing primates (Homo faber) in symbiosis with technology.  For about a century, but especially in recent decades, this symbiosis has been increasingly turning into a fusion, at least in the West . We are as inseparable from technology as the crab from its shell. In America, we cannot exist without a car, except in the cities, and we cannot even give natural birth in 30% of the pregnancies.  Medicine develops into maintenance and repair engineering.

In most of the world we procreate less and less, given  the choice between children and  less demanding and ostensibly subservient products of technology. Things multiply incomparably faster than humans. They use a digital code, which is a counterpart of organic DNA, and do it in more efficient ways than we who are unable to function without daily food, water, and night sleep. 

The Things obliquely vote in elections, without going to the polls, and citizens can forgive the government anything but  the collapse of production of Things that sustains humans. This is what we consider the twentieth century civilization and the postmodernity is in no way different.

Initially an extension of animal limbs, technology has been moving closer toward the classical biological kingdom. Domain could be a good term for the four levels above kingdomlife, society, Technos, and ideasfor which the reproducible and convertible into digital form codes exist.

The species of Technosfrom a toothbrush to the giant EMS Queen Mary 2have acquired a digital code, similar to RNA and DNA of biological forms. Not only the clones can be expressed (brought to existence) from the coded message at appropriate  conditions, but also mutants and recombinants. Moreover,  many aspects of human behavior can be codified in a digital form, as in the infamous US Tax Code, the Queen Mary 2 of American bureaucracy. 

The natural hereditary codification of behavior is an ancient biological feature, which in humans took a new form as the laws of Hammurabi, Bible, Talmud, Confucius, and Koran. Separated from human bodies and put on stone tablets and paper, some of the codes engaged in an independent and vigorous evolution, while others have been dragging their feet.

The digitized technology, previously completely controlled by human minds, moves toward more independence and even competition with humans.  We depend much less on the weather than on the stock market indexes. Our life runs under the despotic ticking of the clock and the menace of the neo-Hammurabi codex of schedules and contracts with severe punishment for a breach. 

The literary production becomes standardized, industrialized, and combinatorial.  I find the list of titles by Nora Roberts, author of over 160 novels in 25 years (100 in the first 15 years), very illustrative of this process: "Naked in Death, Glory in Death, Immortal in Death, etc., total of eighteen species of In Death  family.  Then go the species  Born In ( Fire, Ice, and Shame),  Key of (Light, Knowledge, and Valor), Red Lily, Black Rose, Blue Dahlia,   etc.  The titles look like mathematical function: y=f(x), where f is: Death, Born, Key … etc, part of a code for 3D-printer. It may seem that, unlike Isaac Asimov, the author of 500 books, who used scientific sources for many, Nora Roberts taps only her imagination, but some of  her books are well equipped with technical stuff, for example, gardening in Blue Dahlia, my first and last encounter with the author who inspired me to write this Essay.

We evolve by gain and loss. It is good to be in equilibrium with your time. It is bad to live in times of stress and turmoil, although, as Rhett Butler says in Gone with the Wind,  "I told you once before that there were two times for making big money, one in the upbuilding of a country and the other in its destruction." 

This is by no means good or bad, but just how it is. We evolve by gain and loss. It is good to be in equilibrium with your time. It is bad to live in times of stress and turmoil, although, as Rhett Butler says in Gone with the Wind,  "I told you once before that there were two times for making big money, one in the upbuilding of a country and the other in its destruction." 




1A. Humans and their technology are parts of a larger evolving complex system (ECS, or X-system) over which humans can exert only a limited control.  Moreover, they may not want any strong control at all. This idea was first expressed by Heisenberg:  Werner Heisenberg, Technology: Intereffect of Technology and Science. In:  The Physicist's Conception of Nature. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1958., p 16.  Also published in 1970 by Greenwood (Westport, CT). 


1B. As result of acquisition of digital code in postmodernity, technology, i.e., non-human component of human condition, is gradually diverging from the human component.  Things do not work for us anymore. We work for Things. We acquire the habits of Things and their highly ordered ways of life, following ultra-orthodox religions. They acquire our reasoning, but not yet our creativity and anarchy. 


            See   The Visible Hands. Homo Faber and the Chemistry of History 


2.      Numerization 



The radical increase of productivity of information processing is exclusively postmodern.


The following is taken from : http://bestsellers.about.com/od/authorprofilesaz/p/roberts_profile.htm


Trivia from Nora Roberts' Official Web site:

·       There are enough Nora Roberts books in print to fill the seats of Giants Stadium nearly 4,000 times. If you place all Roberts’ books top to bottom, they would stretch across the United States from Los Angeles to New York City nearly 11 times.

The increasing productivity and output have been the obsession of Western capitalism since the times of Karl Marx. The main goal of Soviet Communism was also production. Asia has joined the club of Mad Hatters in postmodernity. 

There is a jump of production and productivity everywhere: in education, medicine, science, law, industry, trade, transportation, politics, and arts. Computers play the role of powerful catalysts in this process because they speed up codification, mutation, search, recombination, packaging, and transfer of information, and they do it by instantaneous manipulation of big blocks. This kind of work, for which the humans are notoriously unqualified,  requires practically negligible supply of energy for each act, but already a significant amount overall, interestingly, for cooling the computers, too.

This intensification of  dematerialized procreation  creates flows of information so enormous that they cannot be processed by humans.  Congressional documents that cannot be actually read word by word because of their size are a good example.  If the US Constitution were written today anew, it would be, probably, the size of Britannica.

Midgets and monsters materialize from the secret dreams of computers in such overwhelming numbers that they cannot be consumed, even if they are bought.

The corridors of academia swarm with bright and ambitious people most of whom cannot even count on taking the prestigious tenured offices with good view from the window.  Yet they do dream, and the corridors are full of tension. 

The growth of productivity alone and the phenomenon of overproduction are by no means new.  The new aspect is the radical acceleration of information processing.

The postmodernity is a natural result of  enormous jump in information productivity, which distinguishes the second stage of Industrial Revolution. The productivity explosion multiplies everything: educated and articulate leaders, art, movies, books, scientific discoveries, technical inventions, things for sale, culinary experience, ignorance, and spectacular disasters and crimes. This productivity leads to huge loss of human effort, see  Essay 34. On Loss.  The tree of civilization looks like a mature oak dropping  thousands of acorns  every year, of which maybe dozens germinate, but  only a few grow into tree.  Moreover, if the oak grows in a park or your backyard, the chance of new growth is nil.  At the same time, in some backyards of civilization, death and misery reign and people chew the bark and chaff.

As result, humans, things, and ideas—each of them only a part of this system—fiercely  compete for an  advancement to the top. The advance in postmodern times has a clear, unambiguous, continuous, and universal numerical measure: money.  This is something neither modernity nor pre-modernity knew. Socrates,  Shakespeare,  Kant,  Mozart, and  scores of  the greatest creative personalities of the past would fail under the postmodern yardstick of success.  They were revered in the liberal pre-postmodern society outside the eternal cult of money.

The tyranny of number is today universal. Thus, Isaac Asimov consciously pursued the magic number 500.  The publishing output in academia is the numerical measure of scientific level. For comparison, the ethics of Confucius  (see Essay 43. On Numbers ) would not provide a numerical measure for virtue and vice. It would teach you, however, how to compare two deeds.

I believe that the trend toward numerical measures is one of the most significant postmodern developments. Since everything grows, it should be counted. On the surface it just simplifies and speeds up the process of selection of individuals or response to an input. If we take a complex mechanism like an airliner or a complex system in an approximate equilibrium (economy, army, government, or company over a short term) it is able to function only because its components communicate with each other and environment in the language of numbers, sometimes only one and zero.  We still encounter measures like large, extra-large and jumbo, but not surprisingly they can be disappointing.  The numerization, which opens an easy way to digitalization, is a sign of a society freezing into a hybrid of an organism and a mechanism. 

The preferred range of numerical properties assigns to an individual a social or professional  status with the same ruthless tyranny as the feudal class system.  Democracy is founded on numbers. too. One of a few areas where we are blind to numbers is casting a vote for a presidential candidate or a pop idol. But then our numbers create presidents and idols.  A rich, non-elected and powerful person is what links us to the entire previous human history. 

There is a curious social result of the numerization.  Since the scale of wealth is continuous, it creates an impression that the democratic capitalist society is classless.  Anybody can move  up or down, one dollar at a time.  Nevertheless, by adding a digit to the summary income we make a significant step in quality of life, but not yet in power. After a certain threshold, we make a step toward power. At the next level, we acquire real global power, as George Soros once did.

On the logarithmic scale, taking $10 000 as the lowest income and $100,000,000,000 (one hundred billion) as the highest, we can calculate the number of social classes in America as exactly seven. There were three classes ("estates") in France before the Revolution.  There were four or five classes in the czarist Russia and three (or two: commoners and nomenklatura) in the Communist one. Probably, after 1,000,000 we should take two digits as the class boundary. Dozens of billions means real power and Bill Gates and George Soros have already left the idealistic but not yet completed cases of its use.  One conclusion we can already draw is that in order to apply financial power for a useful result, you need a certain social technology, a kind of a machine, usually absent in the objects of application. When you apply money for a domestic change, as George Soros tried against President Bush, you get a battle of machines, see Essay 43. The Cold Civil War in America and the size decides.  The true picture is more complex than that, but still nobody has compounded a price list for revolutions, reforms, and coups d’état. The reason lies in the idealism, chaos, and anarchy of individual human mind, the very essence of humanity.

What the Nobel Peace Prize of 2006 winners Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank did, apparently, with a success, was to provide a poor individual with a little social machine working for this individual alone, free from the heavy hand of the government. 

Interestingly, the Republican revolutionaries have widely used the same pattern of local action by working with individuals, detecting sympathizers, and nudging them to vote by knocking on their doors.  This is pure technology.

The domination of the quantitative measures for human qualities in postmodern life oddly contradicts the postmodern skepticism and mistrust of truthanother pomo foible meaning that everything is just a matter of interpretation. One cannot argue with  the result of measuring with a wooden yardstick. 

What would you do to make a move along the scale of success in the only possible direction: up?  You would fight, yell, grimace, elbow your way, run naked, wear peacock feathers, lie, steal, destroy, exploit, and  advertise yourself.  If you do not do anything, others would.  By the end of the day, you could have a clear, unambiguous measure of your success or failure: a number. 

This great linear asymmetry of postmodern times is symbolized by the brushmobile from  The Rusty Bolts of Complexity: Ideograms for Evolving Complex Systems  on this site. Although chaotically shaken, the brushmobile moves in one direction only.


2A.  Postmodernity means the life under the tyranny of the naked number:  money, a universal measure of all things. What  has no monetary value is outside the system and the sensors of society are anesthetized to it.

2B.  The clear continuous numerical measure is standard for physical and chemical systems. Competition is typical for biological systems. Our civilization becomes more and more embedded in mechanical and statistical systems that we, with our mind, spirit, and inimitable humanity, have been so proud to stay apart from for centuries.  Our chaotic impulses are a source of shakeup and mutation in these systems, and our hands and rational minds are just enzymes for assembly lines.

2C.  Numerical measures for human condition, combined with the universal digital code, create a typically postmodern  system which is less and less is regulated by human reason, will, and whim and more and more by the overall  trend toward stability. 

 3          Meso, or Artification, Commodization, and Interposition

There is a particular ancient economic mechanism that has come to prominence during the postmodernity, as result of growing productivity and increasing flows of money and information. I call it mesoderm effect or meso, for short.  On mesoderm, see  Essay 43. The Cold Civil War in America.  The oldest example is  the merchant,  a middleman  between  a buyer and a seller.  Meso, or interposition, for a more academic sound, means that a third party (organ, tissue, organization, agent, gate keeper, interpreter, check point sentry, broker, etc.) emerges and grows between any two communicating parties. 

Examples: literary agent, credit bureau, employment agency, political consultant, financial consultant, advertising firm, inventor's assistance,  lawyer, salesman, activist cleric, mutual fund, TV news networks. Nothing in this list is specifically postmodern. But we can add to the same list a cable TV box, power drill, power steering, gas mask, rubber gloves, computer, TV itself,  medical imaging devices, packaging, remote control, all kinds of automatic devices, and all the other products of technology that interpose themselves between two people, two machines, two things, a machine and a human, a thing and a human, and all the other binary combinations. In short, all that is technology.  Even Isaac Asimov, practically forgotten as a popularizer of science, was a meso between science and the man from the street.

Mesoderm effect, or interposition, is a cessation of a direct contact between individuals, things, institutions, and other components of a system and the growth of an intermediate component that provides communication and interaction.  Interposition (also known as specialization) is the general trend of biological and social evolution.

The formation of a specialized organ or trade is usually regarded as gain for both initial parties. There is no reason  to lament about the voluntary and desirable loss of human independence. New generations always adapt to a change and do not see it in terms of gain or loss. 

The growth of productivity is all-encompassing. Everything multiplies and diverges in developed societies except the humans themselves.

The import of humans by Western Europe and America could be the most consequential  historical event, with the bloody American Civil War and the quiet collapse of the Soviet Union as historical precedents.


Concentration of wealth in private and corporate hands creates powerful flows of money, which economists compare with ATP (adenosine triphosphate, the universal currency of energy in living organisms, see APPENDIX 2). The money is created in cycles of investment, production, and trade. The cycles are ultimately run by food, oil, and coal. The faster the turnover of money, the larger the figure on the bottom line, the more goes to the next cycle.  This cycle, typical  for the phenomenon of life,  more and more  defines  the human condition, the forms of politics, entertainment, education, art, and family life.  

The meso diverts a part of the flow in exchange for speeding up the flow.

Both the merchant and the remote control perform the same abstract function of catalysis.  They speed up the movement from our desire to its fulfillment, or, more generally, from instability to stability. 

This is all trivial. Is there anything new after antiquity and Karl Marx, then? The numerization is, see Point 2. The judgments tend to be done on the basis of hard formalized data and not immediate perception.  There is certainly a gain side to it. If we voted for a presidential candidate basing on a kind of political credit report, it would only benefit democracy. But most voters trust the image of the candidateor an issue—which is prepared by a  meso, similarly to a preparation of the body by the undertaker.

In other words, the postmodern novelty is the shift from the knowledge and functionality to art: an artification (the term makes only a few appearances on the Web) of the systemic function.

Artification of a function as the function of the meso in general is a big subject, with still unsettled terminology.  I  give here only a few examples of the postmodern meso effect apart from political campaigning. .

1. The "modern" (i.e., pre-postmodern) advertisement used to be a demo and an explanation of properties and advantages, not necessarily real, of a product. The traveling salesman demonstrated his vacuum cleaner in action. The postmodern advertisement is a piece of art, often of admirable quality, which may not have any relation whatsoever to the product but attracts attention to it in purely artistic way.  This is the art made by humans for the consumption of things.

2. The postmodern artpostmodernity for art started  earlier than for the rest of  the cultureis an object of art that is inseparable of the presenter and  interpreter of the art. Without the art meso, a man from the street may not recognize it as art at all. There are extreme examples, but Andy Warhol is most typical. Art is a fine seismograph  that registers the heavy steps of distant dinosaurs.

NOTE:  Art, one of the most fascinating topics for me,  has been one of the main focal points of pomo (see Michel Foucault and, especially, Jean Baudrillard), with the discourse on art turning into a pomo art itself.  I try to stay away from this subject and present only my own observations. Nevertheless I am obliged to mention some parallels visible through the fog of the pomo obfuscation of which I am in no way critical. One cannot be critical of art, but only of performance. 

3. The previous examples were rather trivial, but I have recently noticed something more subtle.

I am deeply impressed by everything the historian Niall Ferguson has written and expect more from him. All of his books (I have passed over only the one about the Rotchilds, but I will get to it, too) are highly readable, eloquent, provocative, and stimulating, with the just right dash of irony. One of his latest books, The Colossus (Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price Of America's Empire, Penguin Press, 2004) , by the way, well quantitatively illustrated, reads like good fiction and is hard to drop.

The double entendre around fiction was not initially  intended, but on some deliberation I begin to think that if it reads like fiction, it probably is, at least in a sense. The author's signature device is not so much counterfactuality as allofactuality (or isofactuality?): let us imagine that A is not B but C. We will probably learn something about A, B, and C, which we would not be able to see from the hard facts alone. This  is a method  that  I can greatly appreciate as a chemist. Chemistry is based on choosing between alternatives and requires a lot of imagination even with a computer on hand.

I am in no way critical about Niall Ferguson, a writer of undeniable brilliance. For some reason, another prolific writer, stern, humorless, and pain to read, comes to mind: Noam Chomsky. Chomsky's method is somewhat different, but allofactual pattern is the same. Let us take the definition: A is B.  Then C is B. Thus, Chomsky in his  Middle East Illusions (Roman & Littlefield, 2003)   takes a definition of terrorism from some old military manual, declares is good enough, and then shows that USA is a terrorist state (p.236).  Of course, in the process we may re-learn a lot of  well-known facts about the USA. But there are scores of other definitions of terrorism and no consensus in sight.

Both Ferguson and Chomsky, by the way, legitimize references to the Web, the source of unbridled and unchecked imagination, as well as hard facts and disciplined analysis.

So, let us imagine that America is an empire. It is impossible to know whether it is or not because it depends on how we define empire. But if we admit that, we can compare it with other empires. In the process we learn a lot about  America, as well as about the modern world. Otherwise we would spend a lot of time and effort from the  cornucopia of facts and parallels that the historian selects and orders for us, maybe sometimes tongue-in-cheek.

Is it possible to know anything for sure? Yes, of course. Oxygen is a chemical element and water is a chemical compound. This follows from the definition of what those terms meanconsensual definitions that agree with the facts.  Definition is not a truth: it is a convention.

Niall Ferguson, in essence, does the same as Noam Chomsky. He takes an exemplary empire of the pastBritishand compares it with the present American "empire," although the two are separated by a period of radical global change, not to mention a lot of other features. The British Empire was a colonial overseas empire. The Soviet Empire was a walk-over empire. So was the Chinese Empire. The American "Empire" does not have a single political satellite, as far as I remember.     

And yet the method of Ferguson is justified in my chemical eyes, while the method of Chomsky is not. The reason is that Ferguson takes a fact and compares it with another fact, while Chomsky takes an arbitrary definition and applies it to a fact.

Ferguson, a half-serious advocate of globally proactive America, and Chomsky, a dead serious advocate of  globally inactive one, seem to be two opposites. I mention Niall Ferguson and Noam Chomsky because some of their books illustrate in my eyes the fine note in the bouquet of postmodernity. A historian,  chemist, businessman, politician, scientist, artist, musician, and actor do not just do their professional job according to modern tradition but they do something else: they advertise themselves in the deafening pandemonium of postmodern world. They perform.  To performance, unlike science, the notion of truth does not apply.

Noam Chomsky is perfect in picking up and cataloging internal contradictions (i.e., lies) in American policy. That politics, starting from the election campaign, is art of legal deceit and fraud, is both a definition of politics and a political statement.

Postmodern reality and "truth"  are so complex that a man from the street cannot distinguish performance from the truth. Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist (and actor), is an author of popular books and a TV show on some problems of modern physics, such as string theory. The performance is brilliant, but you cannot understand what string theory is, unless you are an elite physicist.  I take it as an illustration of the cardinal feature of postmodernity:  there are things so complex  and confusing that they cannot be understood by outsiders. There are no Isaac Asimovs for them. But they can be performed. 

The third distinguished author of postmodernityGeorge Sorosis very modern in my eyes because of his noble insistence on the doubt (fallibility), which created modernity itself, together with science and even business. His world view, however, is not so simple and deserves a separate take.  He is also modern in the sense that he dares to say inconvenient truth and do dubious functional things.

NOTE (November 2006). Having finished  The War of the World by Niall Ferguson, I must say that the book is an example of brilliant artistic performance and another evidence of the great creative talent of the author. I simply admire it. There is absolutely nothing belittling in the word performance. As any great performance, it has left a deep impression on me. Ferguson has written the score, directed an orchestra and the choir of dead voices, and resurrected the sound of the epoch most of which coincided with my own life.




 3A. Postmodernity includes the substitution of artistic performance for function and knowledge.

3B.  Postmodernity makes the interposition of a middleman, who manages the relation between the truth and its appearance, a universal phenomenon of culture.

3C. A  postmodern creative personality  takes up the function of his or her salesman or hires one.  See    APPENDIX 3.


Is a postmortem for modernity premature?

History is a continuous process. Historians divide evolution into episodes, chapters, periods, and eras, quite like paleontologists, but with the advantage of tracking the relatively recent episodes in real time. As far as the episodes are concerned, they have a beginning and end. They are, so to speak, terminal entries of historical hierarchy, the physical matter of history. Events are factual, sensory, tangible, and recordable. The WW2 had a beginning and an end, which could be disputed only within narrow margins. The war was documented day by day. The pre-war and post-war periods, however, have only one clear-cut edge each because the connections between the war and other events outside the war range are abstractions. Moreover, WW2 itself as a whole is a generalization.  


This detailed vision of history goes back, probably, for two centuries. When time is counted by millennia, only rare flickering lights are seen in the dark. Remarkably, the current story of humanity, in spite of the flood of information, seems murky and confusing.  History obviously needs a sufficient distance between the observer and the events. Impatient, we bite on the sour apples of history  because our spiritual parents taught us that history was good for our health. The fruits of history need to mature to appropriate bitterness.

The borders between pre-modernity, modernity, and post-modernity are much more diffused and debated than those of WW2 because the two last periods, as any large historical period, are highly abstract. The richness of detail gives a lot of fodder for arguments. For comparison, a rule of a king or a presidency is as clear-cut as any universally recognized fact. Of course, the pomo in the Petri dishes of academia, where the cultures of thought grow, can mutate in all directions and dispute anything. Postmodernity, however, is in the air, and we can measure it like the concentration of the carbon dioxide, its companion.

I believe that the extremely diffuse, controversial, and disputed distinction between modernity and postmodernity emerges from the changing human condition, which includes the changing world view. It is hardly possible to separate the result of observation from the scale of measurement. We also have here an analogy (noted by George Soros) with the uncertainty of measurement in quantum physics: our observation changes the object.

Thus, the entry on Postmodernity in Wikipedia lists the following features of the period:

These features include globalization, consumerism, the fragmentation of authority, and the commodization of knowledge

We can see that all those features are really pertinent to our time, but by no means are they unique to it. Medieval universities sold knowledge, too, while globalization and consumerism are simply new terms for eternal human urges. History is a record of expanding contacts between nations and people, and as soon as there is something to consume, people start gorging on it. The discovery and rise of America was a spectacular event in globalization. So was the Silk Road through Asia. Democracy is just one of synonyms of fragmentation of authority. The royal courts of France left some benchmarks of opulent consumerism, which we are trying to surpass by Golden Opulence Sundae, the epitome of numerization.

High class is 1 followed by a pageant of zeros: 00000000000. 

opul    <<<       Golden Opulence Sundae, $1000.

To take a well-defined example, Industrial Revolution was a process going back to discovery of fire. Looking back, a historian can see a borderline between crafts and mass production, use of wood and use of oil, making small steel things commensurable with human size (sword) and large ones (bridge, steamship).  After the mid-19th century, the pace of history accelerates, maybe simply because we record and remember the recent events better.  The assembly line was a bridge into postmodernity and remains a fundamental ideogram  for both biology and technology, as well as for mass culture.

In order to achieve at least a semblance of a base for consensus, we need to develop numerical  non-monetary measures for the features we discuss. For example, we can measure the process of consumerization by the fraction of an hour a TV network allocates to commercials. We can measure the dynamics of optimism/pessimism by the number of  "The End of..." books per decade.


A search on Google for [ "the end of" book amazon ]  gave me about 152,000,000 for "the end of" book amazon,  including the end of books, history, art, democracy, irony, globalization, oil, and, of course, the world itself.

The number itself has no relation to the actual number of book titles. It tells me about the enormous redundancy of our postmodern civilization, which is one of its few fundamental features. I suggest a term for it: fecundity + futility = fecundility.    [2009: Results 1 - 20 of about 1,650,000,000 for "the end of" book amazon ]


The fecundity of the oil drenched, ambition tilled, and greed fertilized postmodern soil produces a field of grass in which only a few give seeds and the rest wither by the nightfall, barren. Suppose you are standing at the edge of the field and need to find those few.  Or suppose  you are the intelligent  shot of grass  and want  to leave  progeny in this field. Of course, you roll up your sleeves or hire a handyman.


We can really study history as a natural process by using quantitative measures (the idea of Pitirim Sorokin, see Essay 27. The Existential Sisyphus)  and although I am surprised that, as far as I know, nobody has systematically explored the modernity-to-postmodernity transition with modern methods, I have a provisional explanation that postmodernism in humanities by its very essence does not look for the so-called old-fashioned truth.

As a historical fatalist, I regard it senseless to grumble about new times and celebrate the past. Our loss could be not somebody's, but our own gain. All the more, the past never goes too far away.  History, contrary to James Joyce, is not "...a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,"  but the only firm ground among the swamp of time.

Postmodern times, like the Middle Ages, are the times of dark oracles, eloquent prophets, snake oil peddlers, bards, and traveling acrobats. Remembering history, however, we need not to despair if  our times look like the Middle Ages. History today is as fast as the electronic payment, not as a horseback messenger .

So, is a postmortem for modernity premature?  It is premature to tell.


APPENDIX  1 .   Facts and abstraction

The distinction between terminal inputs and next combinatorial levels is fundamental in various areas of knowledge from neurophysiology to computer science, mathematics (terms and expressions of a mathematical system), and philosophy.

The abstract divisions of historical periods, if they are not based on events, emerge when a researcher looking at two adjacent episodes notices that something has changed and, tracing the chain of events back and forward, concludes that this something becomes even more pronounced along the timeline and much less pronounced backwards from the breaking point.  This something is an abstraction and is open to interpretation. Large blocks of historical frameworkcapitalism, socialism, democracy, tyranny, terrorismseem elementary, but everybody understands them differently.  There are many smaller blocks, like increase, expansion, production, conquest, defeat, collapse, conflict, alliance, dependence, debt, etc., which constitute less disputable and more consensual items of historical equipment. I would call themand not eventsthe atoms of history. They are atomic stages of the evolutionary mechanism.

My view of the world is chemical. It means that I see the world as a set of elementary atomic units (points) connected in a particular order. The act of change is  a transition to a different or the same set  connected in a different order. There are only four "elementary particles" of structural change: formation of a bond between two atoms, breakup of a bond, appearance of a new atom, and disappearance of an atom.


APPENDIX 2.  ATP, adenosine triphosphate



ATP is a carrier of chemical energy in the form of high energy phosphate bonds. (The anhydride links between the phosphate groups in the figure above.) NAD+ is a carrier of hydrogen and electrons and is involved in many oxidation-reduction reactions in the cell. It can pick up and transport 2e- and 2H+ when loaded. You can think of NAD+ and ATP as little trucks that transport energy around the cell.

Another common metaphor for them is money. NAD+ and ATP are the energy currency for the cell. Money is a medium of exchange. People assign work for us to do, we receive money for doing it, and we convert that money into things we want or need. The cell takes its energy source, converts it into NADH and ATP, and then uses them to perform needed tasks in the cell.  Source:http://dwb.unl.edu/Teacher/NSF/C11/C11Links/www.bact.wisc.edu/microtextbook/metabolism/BasicEnerConcepts.html

Nearly all bodily processes do not run on the fuels mentioned earlier. They run on the conversion of ATP to ADP, which makes ATP the energy currency of choice. You can see the fuels mentioned as things you could barter with and ATP as actual money.  Source: http://ds9a.nl/metabolism/conversion.html

So, quick quiz: What is one thing that all living things have in common? ATP? Right!

That, says Professor Yount, is because ATP is the universal energy "currency." If sugar is your savings account, ATP is the cash you get when you withdraw money from the account.

Life requires a lot of that currency. Every one of your cells contains a billion molecules of ATP!     Source  : http://www.wsu.edu/DrUniverse/food3.html



APPENDIX  3.  Life in a pandemonium


The paradox of postmodernity is that individualismthe greatest invention of Renaissance and Enlightenmentturns into the entrepreneurship. The individual  acquires split personality and has to manage his or her individualism by creating a private company of one with secretary, shipping, receiving, public relations, finance planning, library assistants, image advisor, and makeup artist. The equipment consists of a powerful computer with lots of peripherals, which is able to extract, process, combine, remix, and print out information, so that book, article, or proposal writing becomes a kind of automated collage pasting. A successful postmodern individual is an enterprise, a piece of art, and an ingenious device, a sun surrounded by planets, comets, asteroids, and just trash.  With a little of surplus of success,  the person turns into  a real corporation with human staff, which sells the image. Oprah Winfrey, Howard Stern, Martha Stuart, and  the rising star of lively Rachael Ray are typical examples. The individual cannot succeed without developing a web of contacts.


Niall Ferguson,  Noam Chomsky, and George Soros are already postmodern intellectual institutions. So are Charlie Rose and Bill Moyers, whose function is quite different: they are mediators. They guard the gate besieged by an enormous crowd of individualities and they establish some kind of ranking for them in the same pattern sense as Oprah Winfrey ranks human misfortune and Martha Stuart ranks cake recipes. They are the operatic voices in the pandemonium of growth.


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