Beyond the Postmodern: Any Futures Left for Muslims and Others? (1998)

By Sohail Inayatullah

(The Communication Centre, Queensland University of Technology. From: 1998, “Beyond the Postmodern: Any Futures Possible?” Periodica Islamica (Vol. 5, No. 1, 1995), 2-3.)

 While scholars, critical theorists, scientists debate the Islamization of knowledge/science project, this debate has all but been made trivial by new technologies and techniques creating a postmodern world where the future has arrived, making history and the idea of the future, as the space of another possibility, another culture, all but obsolete.  The larger context of this debate is now postmodernity, the derealization of the modern world for some, the final exaggeration for others, the last breath before a new global, ethical, integrated world comes to be for the idealistic few.

Postmodernity is primarily characterised as standing in opposition to the traditional and moral worldview.  Reality once considered stable is now virtual; truth once considered eternal and universal is now fleeting and local; the natural once defined by evolution and nature is now socially and technologically constructed; sovereignty once contoured by civilization and culture is now porous with global capitalism ubiquitous.  Finally, the self, once certain of its mission in life, is now merely a collage of impressions, created and recreated by the desire for hypertime and hyperspace.

This world comes to us in many forms and figures. Perhaps most prominent are the new global archetypes. They are Michael Jackson, the totally artificial person, created, designed by surgeons who well understood the call in the Movie, The Graduate, that plastics is the future.  They are Michael Jordan, the basketball player, whose coming out of retirement sent the world markets millions of dollars higher. Jordan can jump and never land, defying the moral utterance of “when one rises too far, one falls.” They are Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Disneyland, the friendly fascism of the future, where all sites and smells, entrances and exits are contrived, where one can but smile for one is in a different land, where nothing matters.  “It is a small world after all,” one leaves singing, as the billboard of American Express passes the gaze of one’s illuminated eyes.

But this is not the illumination the Prophet spoke of.  We are not seeing the veils of ignorance torn aside and a new world given to us. This is not even the existentialist veil, as presented in Sartre’s Nausea where man realises that his life is utterly meaningless.  Rather our eyes themselves are torn apart and our selves manufactured otherwise.

However, even as postmodernity continues the values of modernity–the empirical, the West, militarism–it contests them creating new forms of self and culture that are far more liminal, far more interactive and potentially participatory, two way, if not multiway, methods of dialogue.  As Asian VTV Bangra rap enters our television screens, attempts to recreate a fixed traditional culture become impossible.  But it is not cultural melange nor a “multi-identitied” self that we should fear, indeed, this promises a renaissance in the third world, possibly through the appropriation of the West within the categories of Asian culture; rather, it is the grander assault on the possibility of an alternative future different than the linearity of Western materialism that is our problematic.

While religious authorities and humanists have decried that science runs at a faster rate than culture, science now  is not only making culture obsolete but redesigning evolution itself.  Imagine a hand, wearing a glove, writing with a pen. The hand represents evolution, our body; the glove culture, our elegance, our protection; and the pen, technology. The pen has now turned back on the hand and redesigned it,[i] making culture obsolete, merely technique.

There is thus much to be feared.

While the Islamic world debates, developments in genetic engineering soon promise to transform the private space of our individual genes to public space, where they can be bought and sold:[ii] not only will plants and other resources be patented by the technologically advanced so will our very selves.

In recent news, California doctors have successfully corrected genetically inherited defects at birth, setting the stage for genetic control of the 3000 congenital disorders found in children worldwide.  Doctors have also perfected a growth hormone which can now add five to seven centimetres to the final adult height of short children. The worldwide market for this drug is expected to be in the billions.[iii] Simultaneously a recent critique of Western developmentalism argues that it is not just that the West uses all the world’s resources because of their consumerist lifestyle, but because they are taller.[iv] Shortness is better since shorter people consume less and use less space. Should we then engineer shorter people? But this latter argument will unlikely win out as parents, in their obvious self-interest, flock to genetic disease prevention and genetic enhancement of who we can be.

While the first step will be genetic prevention, it will be a quick and slippery slope to genetic advancement. The State will certainly monitor our genetic blueprints, controlling where and when we can travel.  However, genetic prevention will reduce diseases, but under the mantle of an objective, universal, theory of everything science, a mantle which claims perfect knowledge.  Perfection will be defined by conventional materialistic, fetish (Milan, Paris and Harvard) definitions. We will terminate life based on the possibility of future diseases with the State eventually stepping in to ensure equally access to genetic intervention.  Why should it stop there? It won’t!  Birthing will be done in hospitals.  But rest assured, we can watch the baby grow in one’s very own family birth cubicle, a womb of sorts. Instead of a thin layer of skin separating the foetus from “parents” it will be even a thinner more sensitive layer of organic plastic.

Developments in genetics when linked with virtual reality and artificial intelligence will make it to enter hospital turned design factories and visualise our baby’s future extrapolated through holography. We will be able to watch him, her, or it go through various life stages seeing crucial lifepoints where certain diseases might develop. But it will be a particular model of the life-cycle that will be given to us.

For Muslims, the postmodern world will not be familiar, making the estrangement of the modern world minor by comparison. For Statist Islam, there will be no easy West to use as a ruse against its own population as in modernity, postmodernity will not exist in such easy dualities. While power might be in the hands of a world government, most likely it will be more difficult to encircle, with large information-genetic corporations giving out passports for travel in their owned worlds.

As Muslims, and as individuals of different faiths, committed to the possibility of a global ethics, there is little to rejoice, except that these transformations might in themselves lead to new technologies that destroy modernity. However, most likely we will live in perpetual modernity–postmodernity always becoming modern–the idea of alternative futures (the future as a real space, a call for transformation) merely becoming part of an atemporal world, where all is allowed and thus nothing is possible.  Certainly not a global ethics based on values other than profit or the short term needs of the few.

However, we should not be seduced by humanism either and outright reject new technologies, otherwise we will be further silenced.  Humanists look at this artificial world in creation and recoil in horror. They long for a simpler, gentler world, when cricket lasted five days, when gentlemen were gentlemen, when time was slow—and–when the Other provided material comforts.  But the classical world many humanists long for existed because it could exploit the colonies, take away labor and ideas, and impose slavery and civilization. It was violently hierarchical.  Colonisation, of course, has moved away from such amateurish efforts. More sophisticated is the appropriation of cultural diversity, the appropriation of difference for the continuation of liberal capitalism.

In the movie Alladin, we learn how the servant of God is appropriated by Californian culture. By the last scene, he asks to be called just “Al.” This is the trivialisation of the Other, at one level, and at a deeper level, the secularisation of the holistic Islamic worldview, its appropriation, not for the synthetic and creative task of envisioning a new planetary culture, but the use of history for the rationality of Hollywood.

But if we dispense from the humanist reaction to postmodernity, where then is the reality check, the reality principle?  As trillions of dollars search the planet every second for a home to maximise their own profit, to fulfil their ontological needs for interest, work becomes increasingly passe’.  Virtual reality, genetics, telecommunications, and the world’s financial speculative markets have all created a world in which the real is no longer real. In fact, it may be that Disneyland exists as fantasy to shore up the actual unreality–that of the neorealist model of national identity, as Baudrillard and others argue. Disneyland is constructed as fantasy so we evade the conclusion that current models of governance, of nationalism, of wealth generation are in fact grand fantasies, existing only as real because we have official fantasies in which they can exist in contrast to.

Sovereignty too becomes passe’. Nations can no longer control pollution, national culture, capital, or the import/export of nuclear weapons. For nations which have had the chance to develop and prosper, the new globalism promises further cultural expansion; but for third world nations, who  search for a sovereignty impossible in an unequal global division of labor, the porousness of the nation-state is a further tragedy, especially as old dynastic dispute prevent the creation of an Islamic community, the creation of a moral, even virtual, community.  Instead, instrumental rationality prods us all into directions we choose not to go.

The message of the Quran while signalling the need for another space, where critical consciousness and submission to the Divine gives direction, but in a world where direction has been made meaningless, where we live in heterotopias–many contradictory spaces at the same time–direction is both evasive and a matter of life and death.  The loss of space as a refuge, as direction, destroys culture–sacredness is lost. For the modern, all space must be commodified and for the postmodern all space must be relativised, as one discourse among many.

But we can gain some strength in remembering that postmodernity in itself is merely the logic of late capitalism, a stage of chaos, merely an end game.   As Ibn Khaldun reminded us many years ago:

At the end of a dynasty, there often also appears some (show of) power that gives the impression that the senility of the dynasty has been made to disappear.  It lights up brilliantly just before it is extinguished, like a burning wick the flame of which leaps up brilliantly a moment before it goes out, giving the impression it is just starting to burn, when in fact it is going out.[v]

It might be then that the postmodern even as it extends the modern signals its end. As reality becomes uncomfortably decentred, an ethical worldview can provide a centre, a point of reflection, in which decisions can be made outside of instrumental rationality.  This becomes the reality principle.

We thus should not powerlessly accept the instrumental rational of the science and technology revolution, believing that it is just one more in the latest revolution that will change who we are, since, after all, that is what history is about.  Evolution is changing us, let us go for the ride, it can be to easily argued.

We can in defence of our identity investigate the cultural basis of that revolution, asking what are the values that inform it, that drive it, that govern its knowledge base? We can ask who participates, who does not?  Based on these questions we can begin to create an alternative voice in science that looks at how knowledge subjugates, that understands how the categories we use to see the world are borrowed, are not authentic to our histories.

But this then should not be an excuse to not deconstruct our own history, it is not an excuse for imperial power within our own culture, but an opening up of Islam and culture.  We thus need to deconstruct our own history, to see what has been romanticised, what used for dynastic or personal glorification. This will allow for the creation of futures more familiar to the needs of Muslims. An authentic culture must be open to transformation even as it commits to basic principles of what it is.

Thus as we recognise that the future is being created by Centre, Western culture at the expense of the Other, we argue for a guided evolution that brings in the values of other cultures in dialogue with technology, biology and civilisations. This vision reimagines the future based on the possibility of eradicating powerlessness, on the need for a larger unifying global project–that is, a science based on our physical, mental and spiritual potentials–of which science and technology can play a role in.

This is, however, not an argument for a new “story of stories” an ahistorical blend of various grand narratives.  We must remember that stories come into being because they represent long battles, deep histories, heroic sacrifices, and primal myths.  A story of stories, while potentially rewarding, if created in condition of an authentic meetings of cultures, is likely in the contemporary framework to merely be a victory for liberalism, for reductionist science.  While the story tellers weave, the geneticists and cybernauts will have already created the New Story.

Will Muslims, indigenous peoples, and others committed to an alternative spiritual (integrated) ethical worldview be part of this story, perhaps, but most likely, as caricature, like Alladin, ready to become just Al.

I hope however for a different story, what I have elsewhere called a post-Asian dream.[vi]  It is a vision of unity and of global dialogue, of multi-epistemological world–of angels, virtual worlds but still grounded in the fundamentals: dignity, basic needs, and the direction which a spiritual oriented worldview gives.  It does not reject genetics and virtual worlds in total but does call for the application of the reality principle, of human suffering and human transcendence. In my vision it is Alladin–the servant of Allah–who will frame the possibility and choice of Al, and not, not, the other way around. For when all is said and done, it is the Divine that is our strength, that can guide technique, nourish the heart and create a more just society.


[i].   I am indebted to Susantha Goonatilake for this metaphor.

[ii].  I am indebted to Astrid Gesche for this observation.

[iii]. Mike O’Connor, “Gene therapy beats defects,” The Sunday Mail (14 May 1995), 52.

[iv].  Thomas Samaras, “Short is Beautiful,” The Futurist (January-February, 1995), 26-30.

[v].   Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Translated by Franz Rosenthal. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1967, 246.

[vi].  Sohail Inayatullah, “Integration and Disintegration: the futures of asian culture,” coordinated by Eleonora Masini, The Futures of Cultures.  Paris, Unesco Publications, 1995.