Saint Mary's College of California
There are three categories of response that I can contribute to thinking about what might follow postmodernism. The first is to note that we need to move beyond a politics of resentment. The need to do this is highlighted now that there is some room for a variety of viewpoints in the public discourse. We once again are confronted with identity politics, which often seems scarcely an improvement over the politics of dominance it seeks to remedy. In some circumstances it is a decidedly worse alternative. It is not enough to observe that those who strongly hold to a particular and limited point of view are not good enough conversationalists, or that they rely on conventions they feel free to undermine. These can be accurate critiques without touching upon the more important issue. As William Blake made clear, it is a holy crime to crush the creative energies of the weak. Unfortunately, those who have been crushed do not emerge from that condition knowing how to lead the rest of us into a new set of relations. We all face that challenge together.
The notion of resentment carries the flavor of the problem, which has both positive and negative sides. The knowledge that one has been harmed for another's benefit first comes as a moment in which awareness shifts. The knowledge potentially opens the field of one's attention. It would be impossible to abandon this moment, yet it is not a sufficient ground upon which to build complex human relations. It is not really a ground at all, but it is a step toward locating a new ground. That individuals or groups hold to this step as if it were a ground or a goal in itself, is not surprising. Is another way of proceeding visible? Social relations that have been thought to be positive ones are now seen to contain too many sacrifices on the part of some, while promoting the apparent interests of others. This is not an alternative to identity politics in the eyes of those who feel the imbalance. Finding our way out of this stalemate requires some ability to notice what goes into the positive aspects of social relations, even when the worst aspects of identity politics reign. Most who attempt to do this seek to reestablish the domination required for orderliness, instead of seeking clues that can be fruitful for a postmodern condition. The goal should be to allow the multiplicity of voices, or the cultivation of a variety of creative energies. How can the moment of resentment become a stepping stone to this goal within a better set of relations? How can we avoid the trap of undoing or unraveling every possibility, and still avoid the reestablishment of domination?
The re-enchantment of the world
Although postmodern critiques can seem to increase rather than limit possibilities, from another perspective we have vigorously continued the project of analysis and evaluation to the point at which virtually any concept can be dismantled. This can destroy the possibility for an organismic whole--a whole whose parts have lives of their own, and yet are also both indispensable to and inseparable from the whole. The aspect of thinking found in postmodern critiques that is destructive to the notion of an organismic whole is not unique to postmodernism, but is a more fully extended version of what has existed in critical thought as it has developed over time.
My own attempt to survive this destructive element within the academic training in critical and analytic thinking has led me to the idea that some form of re-enchantment of the world is needed. I find myself thinking with whatever I am considering, before applying known concepts to it. I also allow a lot of room for some form of imaginative play with whatever I am thinking with and about. The wild steps my thinking takes form a path toward getting to know whatever it is I am thinking about, without any claim to knowing it yet on its own terms (or even an approximation of its own terms). Both of these moves imply entering an enchanted relation with whatever I am thinking about, one characterized by mutual influence and surprise.
I offer the notion of re-enchantment here because it can work in two ways relative to postmodernism. First, postmodernism moves in the direction of finding what I have described as an enchanted relation to what is being considered. Both the critical and playful aspects of postmodern thought can be seen as attempts to move toward a more inclusive whole, a whole with a less rigid composition, one to which the disenfranchised can find a relation.
The second is my conviction that an antidote to the destruction of meaning and the end of thinking involves a kind of re-enchantment. This applies to postmodernism and to the potentially negative aspects of rational thought that postmodernism highlights.
I want to posit a way of holding oneself that is both inwardly attuned to a bodily felt sense, as in Focusing, and is also attuned to the way what is within is in relation to what is outside oneself. While the overall impression of things that comes through practicing this way of sensing is different from the functional or practical emphasis of common sense, it resembles common sense in its simplified expression of complex matters. Threshold sense involves stepping into a way of relating that does not exclude centers of meaning other than one's own, even while one is centered in one's own way of understanding. One can touch the periphery of another, and therefore the influence of the center of meaning that is there. Attending to the reverberations of that touching, and that meaning, is what threshold sense is about. We can stand on the threshold of what lies outside us, and when we do, everything is understood in a different light.
Although putting oneself into this sort of relation is always a unique event, there is a commonality to the positioning or place from which it happens. This is a positioning or place that can provide a real ground for what seems not to have one. It is like what happens in the process of Focusing, when one asks oneself a question to better understand one's particular sense of being completely flustered. If one lets the answer to the question come from the fuzzy sense of the upset that is located in one's body, one has already found a new position that is beyond the upset. There is some distance from being flustered, and some acceptance and room for a response to it. A listening or holding presence has made an appearance. In a similar way, practicing threshold sense locates a position or place that moves beyond the impossibility of a whole that can hold disparities or parts that we have come to think of as unrelated or contradictory, or that we have not been able to hold in our minds at all.
To practice threshold sense is not to happily fit all sorts of things together. It is more meaningful and more surprising than that, and is unique to what is touching. Finding a ground is not the same as resolving differences. But it does imply locating a place from which some sort of relation of meaning is possible. I do not want to engage at the moment in a discussion of all the philosophical issues that are raised or seemingly violated by the positing of threshold sense. Instead I want to point to a way of seeing and understanding that we make use of any time we see an organism. We see a whole, and only later find out, upon closer inspection, that we have had only the fuzziest inkling of all the important details of that organism's existence and life. Yet this later view does not invalidate the earlier one. Without ever having seen the whole, we would not have a good understanding of the details we later find out about. Similarly, we must begin to see and understand the importance of the fuzzily sensed relation of things. We might then find a basis for living with the clarifying details about these relations that are now available, or make room for better clarifications.
[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]