Justin Thacker

Meriam Ibrahim and the end of postmodernism

save meriam ibrahim

In a few weeks’ time, I’m speaking at an academic conference where I’ll be suggesting that postmodernism is coming to an end. At that conference, the primary evidence that I cite is the reality of climate change as I point to the fact that the way the debate is framed is primarily in terms of rational, scientific truth. That talk of ‘truth for me’ is literally meaningless when we both face a tropical cyclone.

It strikes me though that the same yearning for the absolute is also evident in the worldwide condemnation of the Sudanese government’s actions in relation to Meriam Ibrahim. In the last 24 hours, rumours and counter-rumours have spread that her death sentence for apostasy has been annulled and she would be released. Whatever the eventual outcome, what has been entirely consistent is the worldwide outrage at her incarceration. The twittersphere continues to trend with concern for Merian and international leaders are lining up to describe as deplorable the behaviour of those ruling in Khartoum.

What is noticeable by its absence in all this is any talk of cultural relativism. From prime ministers to the populace there is a universal cry that to condemn someone merely for holding a particular faith is absolutely, categorically wrong. She should and must be released is the sole injunction of the supposedly postmodern world.

And that is my point. Postmodernity was meant to strip us of such categorical imperatives. While no doubt the scientists held on to some measure of objectivity, chastened by some form of critical realism; ethics was the one branch of thought that clearly was perspectival – at least according to much postmodern rhetoric. Yet, here we have a situation where no-one in the postmodern world challenges the notion that the Sudanese government is simply, absolutely wrong. We have before us, in other words, an ethical absolute – something that postmodernity wasn’t meant to countenance.

A few years ago, Edward Docx wrote a brilliant article for Prospect Magazine entitled ‘Postmodernism is Dead’. His focus in that essay was the way in which the desire for expertise was returning in the arts. He wrote,

We desire to be redeemed from the grossness of our consumption, the sham of our attitudinising, the teeming insecurities on which social networking sites were founded and now feed. We want to become reacquainted with the spellbinding narrative of expertise. If the problem for the postmodernists was that the modernists had been telling them what to do, then the problem for the present generation is the opposite: nobody has been telling us what to do.”

It seems to me that the worldwide reaction to Meriam’s imprisonment indicates the same thing. Postmodernism was fun when it was all about dethroning pretentions to power but of course the only thing that really defeats a bully is an alternative locus of strength, and that means to stand somewhere and make judgements. And one of those I’m proud to make in thoroughly modernist tones is that Meriam’s treatment is absolutely, universally wrong. There are, I would suggest, some ethical absolutes to which humanity has access – and if that is anything more than a culturally useful statement and actually has some purchase on reality then the era of postmodernism is well and truly over.



01/06/2014 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , ,

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