“Post-” Society

(Note: The following is a draft I submitted for publication in a magazine. After some back-and-forth with the editors, I decided not to publish it through that route. I was trying something different, with this text. It was meant to be heavily edited after the fact but it was also a deliberate attempt at mixing things up. A later version, after getting feedback on this draft, has a type of internal dialogue serving as commentary. Wasn’t trying to be cute, but I was playing with a few things.)

Post-industrial, post-Rock, post-colonial, post-PC, post-War, post-Impressionism, post-structural, post-digital, post-colonial…

Perhaps more than any other prefix in the English language, “post-” serves as an index of social change. While it may denote a phase in personal development or bodily function (“post-prandial” might be my favourite), it often pinpoints pivotal events of a social scope.

The issue of scope helps bring up a key characteristic of the “post-” prefix, at least in the way many authors use it. The period it defines would seem to be general, global, universal. Such an assumption of universality represents a key sign of ethnocentrism, a culturally-rooted perspective deemed to apply outside of culture. The notion that “the whole World” lives through the same social change calls for some nuance. Though World War II had impacts globally, the term “post-war” means different things in different parts of this globe. Uncritically assuming the relevance of a “post-” term regardless of context collapses a large variety of social dynamics into a simplified, “worldwide” phenomenon.

Conversely, social commentators apply several of the “post-” terms exclusively to their own contexts, using these terms to delimit a specific social system to which they assign global significance. Though different from the assumption of universality, this distinctive use of “post-” terms demonstrates further forms of ethnocentric thought. Calling one society “post-racial” to the exclusion of other societies deemed to be “racial” serves as self-congratulation more than as insightful analysis.

The case of the term “post-industrial” deserves discussion. Unlike many other “post-” terms, this term denotes a fairly straightforward phenomenon: a shift away from the manufacturing sector, occurring at the end of the 20th Century, accompanied by an emphasis on the service sector and on information technology. Though the term has attained some relevance in non-specialist contexts, some usage patterns come from academic discourse.

For instance, sociological textbooks use the term in diverse contexts. In some of those contexts, the term refers to a general principle, according to which some broad social changes accompany the end of industrialization, across the world.

In other contexts, “postindustrial” takes an evolutionary meaning, marking a key step in the inexorable evolution from “preindustrial” and ”industrial” social systems. This usage follows ideas proposed by Gerhard Lenski, who based his “societal taxonomies” on technological distinctions. Though not in itself deterministic, such an emphasis on the power of technology to define social evolution plays admirably into technological determinism. North American popular culture promotes a similar view of history, with societies advancing from one stage to the next along with appropriation of diverse technologies. Sid Meier’s Civilization games propose a clear version of this model and developers could substitute “Post-Industrial” for “Future Era” (though the presence of a “Modern Era” after the “Industrial Era” may complicate this progression).

Those usage patterns bear some of the marks of ethnocentrism. Whether the “post-industrial era” represents a worldwide or country-specific phenomenon, a notion coined in a given context comes to apply to a much broader scale.

The diversity of views on social change make this ethnocentric tendency all the more problematic. Archæological research, at least in its popular forms, proposes a view of social change occurring through a switch from one historical period to the next. Though widespread, this notion has a decidedly non-universal application. Apart from favouring a linear instead of cyclical view of time, “post-” terms imply complete, abrupt, and irreversible changes.

Here lies the crux of the “post-” concept. “Post-” implies a radical shift in social order, a point of no return, a clear boundary between an “after” and a “before”. Though used while focusing forward (toward the future), the “post-” terms cling to preceding events. “Post-Apartheid” underlines the importance of South Africa’s segregationist regime, while “post-Soviet” underscores the secession from the USSR at the end of the Cold War. Though emphasizing change, “post-” terms maintain the memory of past events all the while cutting bridges to the past. In this sense, events labelled through “post-” terms may sound like adolescent rebellion. “No, really, I’m totally a different person, now.”

Labels for artistic genres (and eras) help foreground the rebelliousness of many “post-” terms. From “Post-Impressionism” to “Post-Grunge”, artistic branding proceeds by a rejection of some artistic developments immediately preceding it. Whether or not artists themselves use those terms, their art appears as a reaction to a certain body of artistic activity. Describing novels as “Post-Romantic” and bands as “Post-Bop”, literary and music critics put artistic creativity in a special type of box. Not only do artists typically dislike the attribution of restrictive genre labels to their production, but the “post-” prefix poses a further issue to creators looking forward instead of back. Like a ball and chain, a “post-” genre label restricts movement.

Clearly, creative endeavours involve combinations of ideas and forms regardless of the eras in which they appeared original. Artistic usage of “postmodern” connotes such combinations. Though some may perceive postmodern art as a reaction to modernism, its incarnations bring together forms originating in diverse eras. In this view, postmodern art revolves around mashups, remixes, collages, and other forms of reappropriation. Such a context makes “genre-defying” into a cliché, genre labels appearing quaint to practitioners of postmodern art.

Here, the boxed-in version of social change becomes increasingly awkward. Instead of stable periods separated by radical shifts, postmodern art proposes an intermingling of old and new, of contemporary and ancient elements. Going back and forth between different sets of æsthetic precepts, the postmodern artist can break the shackles of genre labels. Though similar attempts at mixing rules may characterize transition periods between other eras in art history, postmodernism can make this type of blending into an artform.

The output of postmodern creativity can occasionally sound like that of “premodern” art. Yet, as Pierre Menard’s Quixote (described by Borges), the appropriated version differs from the original through the difference in context. Used in “Jungle” music, a sample from a funk and soul version of a gospel-inspired song takes on meanings very different from the original. Similarly, a collage including a replica of a classic painting brings new significance to that element.

This mixing of elements from different eras may make life difficult for archæologists trying to date a piece of postmodern art by focusing on external features alone. Thankfully, archæological research uses more data than an object’s mere appearance.

Postmodernism in social sciences acknowledges the potential for a blurring of distinctions, whether they concern historical periods, political entities, or social identities.

Part of this revolves around breaking rules, or at least questioning them. We can go back to the teenage idea, from earlier. Postmodernists in social science often make it their duty to revolt against authority. As with postmodern art, this reaction goes beyond the succession of historical eras. Though postmodern thinkers might perceive modernist authors as the main figureheads eliciting insurrection, the rebellion needs not focus on a given cast of characters.

Applied to social contexts, “postmodern” matches “postindustrial” as described above and several social scientists use the terms interchangeably. Postmodern societies focus on information technology and deemphasize manufacturing. Tracing back connections between industrialism and modernism, a peculiar view of history emerges.

Among “post-” terms described here, “Postcolonialism” may have the least currency in mainstream Euro-American discourse. Yet, the notion of a “postcolonial” present opens a new dimension in thinking about social change.

Unlike “postindustrial”, “postcolonial” involves no linear, preordained evolution. Few scholars would perceive the transition away from colonialism as a necessary and natural progression. Teleology needs not apply. Like post-Soviet states and post-Apartheid South Africa, postcolonial societies bear the scars of problematized pasts. Though individual members from all of these political entities (Uganda, Belarus, South Africa…) may nostalgically bemoan the loss of past structures, the general theme of independence from former powers resonates with talk of progress. Like other “post-” terms, postcolonialism marks an irrevocable transition.

Post-colonial theorists, like Frantz Fanon and Edward Saïd, go beyond the study of post-independence states. Given an association between colonial and “Western” thought, decolonialization entails a move away from Eurocentrism. Here, nuance and the acknowledgment of diversity help break the moulds in which colonialism has tried to place ideas. In this sense, postcolonialism shares with postmodern art a propensity for boundary defiance.

We can find a peculiarity of postcolonialism, among “post-” terms, in that scholars who use the term consider colonial aspects in the present time period. In other words, despite the “post-”, postcolonialism occurs in parallel with colonialism. Most “post-” terms imply a finished state, equivalent to perfect verb forms in English grammar: “We have done this (modernism, Grunge, industrialization, Impressionism…) and can now move on”. Colonialism, in post-colonial theory, moves on.

Feminism provides a useful angle from which to tackle postcolonialism. Over the last several decades, different phases of feminist thought have served as an academic equivalent to “disruptive innovation”. Though present in academic writing since its inception, feminism has only begun disrupting academia once scholars began acknowledging the impact of inequalities on their work. This acknowledgment corresponds loosely with both the onset of “Second wave feminism” and the so-called “Human Rights Movement”. Postcolonialism took roots during the same period, as diverse groups gained independence from colonial powers. Yet, more than sharing a 1960s timeframe, the feminist impact and the postcolonialist spark both demonstrate the power to challenge established order.

Postcolonialism, like Second wave feminism, problematize scholars’ complacency and obliviousness. In both cases, overwhelmingly large contingents (women and colonized people) have asked academics: “But have you thought about us?”. These contingents’ appropriate representation in academic contexts has preoccupied scholars ever since. Even more important, the notion that these contingents may have insight to share on a variety of topics served as a wake-up call for social scientists and other practitioners.

At this point, you may conceive of several “post-” terms as connected with one another to form a type of conceptual network. For instance, though postcolonial societies may differ from postindustrial ones (in fact, few societies belong to both taxonomies), links between the two concepts appear clearly once we take into consideration a basic tenet of Dependency Theory.

Similar to people associated with “post-” terms, dependency theorists rebelled against Modernization Theory which posited a linear and universal evolution toward modernity and postindustrial systems. As set out by diverse authors from Prebisch to Wallerstein, Dependency Theory claims (among other things) that material conditions of former colonies relate to the control exercised by those states most often classified as postindustrial. According to Dependency Theory, the postindustrial markets force other societies (especially postcolonial ones) to maintain industrial economies. In this context, Dependency Theory represents Modernization Theory’s “post-”.

Several “post-” terms act as temporal indices, marking the passage from one historical phase to another. Dates can then fill conceptual gaps between them. Occurring simultaneously but in distant locations (say, Estonia and South Africa), significant changes necessitating the creation of new “post-” terms may serve as contexts for one another. Because of this synchronicity, certain time periods in the recent past appear particularly significant. The formula “X occurred; meanwhile, Y happened” strike many observers’ fancy. For instance, the early 1960s marked the beginning of diverse independence movements throughout Africa and the early 1990s marked the end of both Soviet and Apartheid regimes. Causal connections exist between some of these events, especially through yet other historical events (World War II and the Cold War serving as major turning points). Unsurprisingly, connections between these significant events have provided fodder for proponents of linear views of history. At the same time, though, these connections allow for alternative views of history, some of which may not strictly follow linear thinking.

More specifically, event-based “post-” terms provide a context for debates about discontinuity and continuity. Do the shifts implied by these “post-” terms cause the disappearance of the conditions which made possible a previous orders? Can modern and postmodern, colonial and postcolonial, Rock and post-Rock coexist? What signs point to the end of a transition period from an era to its “post-”?

Siding with Michel Foucault’s episteme instead of upholding Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm” allows us to take into account coexisting frames of reference. Both Kuhn and Foucault talked about history of ideas, the temporal dimension of epistemology. However, a key distinction between them can serve to foreground the important debate about continuity through change. While Kuhn focused on what Stephen Jay Gould called punctuated equilibria, one paradigm succeeding another, Foucault left room for the type of complex interaction we have seen in postcolonialism and postmodernism. Though we may evaluate the relative currency of diverse epistemes, one episteme needs not replace another. Difficult to conceive, a mix of epistemes could evoke a postmodern collage or the dialectic tension between postcolonial societies and imperialism.

The current trend for “post-” terms (some would call it a “fad”) tends to emphasize radical shifts instead of complex blends. Used to the archæological and often teleological views of history, social commentators prefer clear-cut concepts like “post-War” and “postindustrial” to fluid ones like “postmodern” and “postcolonial”. However, looking at continuities instead of shifts may help us situate the deeper significance of “post-” terms.

Though narrower in usage than most other “post-” terms, the so-called “Post-PC era” merits some attention, here, as it evokes a radical shift while demonstrating the value of fluidity.

At its root, the “post-PC” concept revolves around a shift in form factor. Following the lead of a certain corporate executive, industry analysts know label smartphones, tablets, and wearable computers as “post-PC devices”. These devices require a “post-” term because laptops and desktops already own the term “PC”.

Personal computing still matters, probably more than before, but new devices differ significantly from devices commonly labeled as PCs (laptops and desktops, for instance). In the 1990s, we could have labelled “personal digital assistants” as personal computers. Post-PC devices share many characteristics with PDAs. The distinction between the two types of devices relates directly to events unfolding in the meantime. To stretch the analogy, a PDA released today (with the same technical specifications as those built in the 1990s) could represent both old technology and a post-PC device.

The term “post-PC” indexes a transition, as we speak, from personal computers to other computing devices. Such transitions have occurred throughout the history of computing. Together, they provide support for Kurzweil’s (and, to a lesser extent, Vinge’s) version of “technological singularity”. The assumption of a grammatical perfect, embedded in “post-” terms, connotes a key distinction between the Post-PC era and the transition periods which preceded it. Despite comments to the contrary made by the corporate executive who popularized it, the term “Post-PC” would seem to imply an expected end to personal computers as we know them. “We have done personal computers, now we can move on.” Of course, computer makers will continue to build PCs alongside “post-PC devices” in the foreseeable future. But the radical shift announced by the “post-” term may make it impossible for PCs to retain their original significance. As we have seen with other “post-” terms, objects change their meaning through radical shifts. In practice, one might expect that PC usage will shift as “post-PC devices” increase in importance: some may become personal servers or hubs, while others could be shared in distributed systems (“Can you imagine a Beowulf cluster of these?”).

Implicitly, the post-PC concept applies globally. In line with a popular version of Modernization Theory, this concept implies that “one day, everyone will join us in the post-PC world”. As with a common reading of Everett Rogers’s Diffusion of Innovations, technophiles assume that adoption of certain tools will reach saturation once “laggards” follow the lead set by “early adopters”. Even if this pattern may help predict market penetration, it provides little insight on the human dimension of technology, which includes knowledge and usage.

Tools on their own signify close to nothing. They become meaningful technology through such things as use cases, literacy, and subversion. Not only may the same tools mean different things according to context, but people often use diverse sets of tools to accomplish the exact same goals. The concept of “technological appropriation” involves both usage and knowledge, the human components of technology. Appropriating a tool involves placing this tool in a broader context. Unintended uses of a tool represent a remarkable form of reappropriation based on usage. Skills needed to master a tool (a smartphone or a saxophone, for instance) contribute to technological; so does the tool’s design. By creating a new tool, a user displays a high level of knowledge related to that tool. Such an appropriation pattern runs at the core of Steven Levy’s “hacker ethic”.

In that sense, people around the world may surprise observers by their use of PCs and post-PC devices alike. One part of this surprise may come from John Perry Barlow and Nicholas Negroponte have bothe the “leapfrog effect” (itself a partial challenge to stricter versions of Modernization Theory). Using post-PC devices requires no prior use of PCs, the same way that cellphones need not follow landline phones. Further, as Heather Horst, Mizuko Ito, and others have demonstrated in the case of cellphones, tools find diverse applications across the World, often challenging assumptions about patterns of technological adoptions. Then, those devices which some label as “post-PC” may in fact open possibilities outside of personal computers as we know them.

On the other hand, reappropriation of personal computers may also surprise those who believe in a post-PC future. As conceived from a folkloristic perspective, one of functionalism’s key insights lies in the fact that social groups maintain a practice if (and only if) it fulfills a function. Personal computers may still fulfill a function in the future, though that function may be radically different from what we currently consider to be personal computing.

Already, shared use of PCs has shifted their place in computing. A family’s desktop computer, with or without separate user accounts, serves a purpose quite different from that of the original personal computer. A cybercafé’s terminals represent another case of PC reappropriation. You can find further examples of reappropriation in case modifications and even subvertive uses of PC cases (the “Macquarium”, for instance). Reappropriated PCs may become something new, sometimes quite unlike a PC.

Examples of creative approaches to technological appropriation abound. In Amélie, Raymond Dufayel’s use of a camcorder as a clock may appear as a waste, given relative prices of clocks and camcorders. Conversely, milk crates used as bookshelves connote thriftiness.

Some reappropriations (often imposed by external conditions) have problematic consequences, as documentaries on “E-Waste” make painfully clear. Technological appropriation takes many forms, often unexpected ones. Teleological approaches to technological development, as the one embedded in the term “post-PC”, often mislead.

Several “post-” terms lead us to think about Globalization… as a “post-national” notion. Defining “global” in contradistinction to “International” helps us along the way. Global corporations differ from multinational in working at a such a high level that national governments matter less than production, distribution, and consumption networks. Most of these enterprises may have corporate headquarters located in specific countries, but entrepreneurial activities may happen outside of these headquarters, distributed across facilities located around the World.

Globalization and postnationalism do differ. Opponents and defenders of worldwide trade can play a semantics game, as they position themselves along dividing lines. Social scientists opposed to economic globalization often support (or even predict) a move to “democracies without borders”. Conversely, economic globalization’s defenders may very well oppose a postnational system of governance, on the grounds that it could lead to totalitarianism. Still, the core notion behind both postnationalism and globalization remains stable, regardless of ideology: a significant decrease in the relevance of nation-states.

Though taken as an ancient concept, the nation-state constitutes a relatively recent innovation. Whether or not national identities resulted, as Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson have argued, from sociopolitical maneuvering, the strict association between a country and its exclusive “nation” (descendants of the same “people”) mostly came about during the last 200 years, in the Americas and Europe. Prior to this shift, states consisted mostly of kingdoms and empires, with other political entities working outside of the state model. (Since Elman Service, cultural anthropologists have defined these other models as bands, chiefdoms, and tribes. Though Service meant his typology to be evolutionary and these models display increasing complexity, most contemporary scholars use these terms without evolutionary undertones.) , Basing themselves on national identity Instead of a monarchic order, nation-states restrict ethnic diversity.

The national era shrouded key concepts in mystery. Though used interchangeably, “citizenship”, “nationality”, “ethnicity”, and “national identity” differ considerably. The potential for confusion came from the fact that nation-states focus on ancestry, with the core citizenry belonging to a single ethnic group. Thus, Italians traced back their roots to Etruscans and French people got West Africans to talk about “Our ancestors, the Gauls”. Many claims to national ancestry serve nationalistic self-interest more directly than historical accuracy. When the nationalist creation of Germany led Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm to collect fairytales, the Brothers Grimm likely had no idea that many of these tales had diffused from Asia and elsewhere.

At the present time, almost all human beings belong to sovereign states yet few of these states adhere even loosely to the nation-state model. Somalia, Japan, and Armenia have limited ethnic diversity. In this sense, most of us already live in a postnational world. National identities still matter, possibly even more than in the recent past, sustaining ethnic pride or causing conflicts. Yet nation-states now appear mostly as figments of nationalists’ imaginations.

Editors of The Alpine Review describe their publication as a “post-digital” magazine. I agree that we can only conceive of this publishing model once digital forms have taken hold. However, the “post-” term could mislead if it gave one the idea that we have already gone “beyond digital”. Of course, diverse authors propose different versions of the term. Deloitte’s usage deviate’s widely from Roy Ascott’s, though both relate to economic conditions. The core point remains that digital technology only defines part of our existence.

As “post-” terms go, though, “post-digital” relates more directly to continuous co-occurrence like “post-PC” and “postcolonial” eventful shifts like “post-Impressionism” and “post-Apartheid”. It seems clear to most that digital and print (in its post-digital version) will coexist for a while. More generally, digital and analog maintain their relevance, regardless of technocentrism. Digital technology may affect us deeply, but we remain as physical beings.

Alex Enkerli

Unless, that is, we all become “post-humans”.