Tuesday, November 07, 2006

One Step Forward; Two Steps Back: Part One - Endings of the Amazon Princess

Back when I was at university, a bunch of us used to meet up in a café to conduct our seminars. One particular occasion we were chewing over postmodern philosophy a bit, trying to get our heads around it (or at least some of it). We were looking at the idea of ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, a suspicion of anything that seeks to instate itself as the ‘grand story’ of what is and isn’t legitimate knowledge, the engendering of a state of questioning awareness, and scepticism of theoretical certainties. It was like studying finesse, always just about graspable, but it just had to feel right. It was also the makings of something of a paradox. For those of you familiar, and those of you interested even if not, one of the greatest critiques always fired at postmodern philosophy is the idea that postmodernism itself runs the risk of becoming a metanarrative, the kind it seeks to critique; it runs the risk of becoming arbiter to correct and incorrect modes of thought. By recommending scepticism of the rules, is it instating a rule? And the way postmodernism seems to flout that criticism is in its evasive style, in being enigmatic, and in the process, more than a little bit vague. Postmodern philosophy does a lot to critique, but does very little to suggest, to replace, to reinstate. It tears down houses, like science, like metaphysics, and it doesn’t bother building you a new one. In that way it, perhaps, avoids being accused of being a metanarrative, but it does then leave you thinking you’re out in the cold. If there are no true ways of doing things, no grand story of how things are supposed to be, what are you left with? Pragmatically, what do you do with postmodernism? If postmodern theoretical work does manage to escape the accusation of being a metanarrative, what alternative does it represent? If we are to remain incredulous to attempts at creating foundations of thought, what are we left with? If we’ve learned to question everything, if we’ve got the tools to cast down our most certain ideas, how do we move forward? And most importantly, how do we change the world?

The latter question bugged the hell out of me. I wanted to change the world. I still do, in all the idiosyncratic ways people do. I want people to be happier, and I want to celebrate difference without reifying it. I want to open things up, and get rid of a lot of other things altogether. I want to get rid of pineapple on pizza…(sorry Timmy), how does my incredulity, my critical finesse, my distrust of statements of truth help me change the world? How do I change the world if not by making up rules, by being certain and setting up foundations of thought and sanctioned forms of knowledge? The answer is lying in the pages of number 225, volume two, of Wonder Woman. The answer, is incrementally.

Throughout the issue, Athena takes us on a journey from the grand to the personal, she speaks to us of the crumbling of the Gods, and the endurance of Diana, not simply as their champion, but as her own. For those of you taking note, Athena’s appearances during Rucka’s run often portrayed her as playing chess with the characters of the storylines, pitting them against each other and manoeuvring them towards her endgame. The game of chess, as it begins, is open-ended. It has rules, but it also has a multitude of outcomes, dependent on the players. And as they are moved across the board, those outcomes become few, they become streamlined, and inevitability comes into play (the parallel between that process and the solidifying of discourses in the social world only just occurred to me). Athena plays the game of fate with the people on Earth, including Diana.

By issue 225, Athena’s chessboard is nowhere to be seen. She tells us that this is an end to the story, as it has been written from the beginning. The board is not gone because this is the end, nor is it gone because she has achieved her endgame. The board is gone because Athena’s quite possibly had a change of heart. For now she speaks to us of endings, plural. She’s done playing the game of fate, and with it goes the idea of a grand play in which all the cast have played a part. The Gods, as she informs us, are withdrawing from the stage, taking with it the certainty, finality, foundation they represent. She goes us a step further, she undermines the Gods to the reader, reducing them down to characteristics of pettiness and vanity. And in so doing, Athena encourages us to challenge what they represent, she gives us the encouragement to be incredulous, to critique, to question, by exposing their flaws. And then there is Diana.

Athena speaks of Diana with a curious turn of reverence, using the kind of devotion and deference in her exposition we would expect Diana herself to use in referring to the Gods. Athena is worshipping Diana, not as a God, but as a representative of humanity, as a champion of the personal and the individual. Athena, lovingly perhaps, speaks of Diana’s own strengths and flaws, hinting at her tragic complexity. Just as she speaks of the retreat of the Gods, she juxtaposes it with the endurance of Diana. And why is it that Diana will endure? Because, she contains within her the gifts of her Gods, without actually being one. Diana is a part of the grand story and ancient tradition, but she is not it. She will not stagnate, because she will always grow. She contains the ability to change and adapt that the Gods do not.

In the final pages, Athena speaks to us of change, and the great task of trying to change the world we live in. How, she asks, do we measure the success of a mission that seeks to change the cast of humanity’s heart? How do we change the world when it is so set in its certainties, in its foundations, in its Gods, in its metanarratives of what is and isn’t the right way of doing things? Incrementally. Bit by bit, piece-by-piece, person by person. Diana returns from her meeting with the Gods to be greeted by her friends and her supporters. Each has travelled far to see her, to offer support. She addresses each one, not as a mass, but individually, requesting names, asking them where they’re from. She does so because it’s the only way to do it, heart by heart. She’s going to change the world, and she’s going to do it by paying attention to each and every narrative of the people she meets. And she’s going to change with it in a way the grand stories never get to do.

In that single issue of Wonder Woman there seems to be that inspiration for my answer to the postmodern conundrum. I can’t hope to defend such a philosophical and theoretical framework against its critics. I’m not even going to try too hard. But I can change the world a little bit by sharing the things I feel I’ve learned, the questioning part of me, the critique, the incredulity to certainty. And by being comfortable with the uncertainty it has engendered (as I’ve mentioned before) and open to the conversations always already implied in my movements in the world, I stand the chance of learning to change as well as be changed.

alex x


Alabaster Crippens said...

A great post, I've often had troube trying to defend post modernism to people for this exact reason. Intuitively I think I understood the kind of answer you propose here (if it is an answer) but found it difficult to articulate. Thanks for once again clarifying things that were already in my head. Thanks

AlexinWonderLand said...

Hey you,
sorry it took so long to see your post (i'm rubbish at this moderation thing, far too scatterbrained). I wanted to say a huge thank you, because you're always so attentive to share something. When you mention intuition with regarding my argument here, you describe very much how the process of reading postmodernism and poststructuralism can be for me. its always about a feeling for the text, about being moved and feelings and intuitions for the text and having grasps on the tip of your tongue. as a theoretical pursuit its elusive, it makes sense that it manifests an understanding in people that isn't simply a 'grasping of the facts'. if i've managed any of that with your reading, i'm well pleased, and always very happy

alex x