Thinking in post-normal times

Farida C Khan

Finally, these times and the networks that they create can also lead to self-organised popular movements. Mobile phones, email, and Facebook have created quick systems of communication and allowed unusual forms of modern secular protests to show up as forms of resistance to various undemocratic practices prevailing in societies or a call for justice as in Shahbagh last February. But these movements, in contradiction to what they intend, can also lead to a hardening of the very parts of the society that they seek to question.

ZIAUDDIN Sardar has recently defined our current time as that which is ‘post-normal’.
Today we live in a time when all of the assurances and regularities that we have been accustomed to no longer exist. I would like to go over some aspects of how he defines the concept of ‘post-normal’ and suggest to the reader how this may be relevant to Bangladesh.
When we were young, there were certainties that pervaded both our existence and our thinking. Let’s consider some of these. Everyone could find water to drink; the majority of people had a homestead — no matter how humble; if you put your child through school the next generation would be materially better off; a middle class family had a decent life with enough to eat and a house to live in. The list could go on and on, but limits are essential to move on. It was in those certainties of life that we grounded our proclivity towards progress, betterment, and our notion of decency — a middle class bourgeois notion wrapped in a soft religiosity, despite the experience of partition that left a deep mark on the soul of our land and people.
How did this change today in a time that Sardar now calls ‘post-normal’? He outlines ‘post-normal’ with the help of three ‘c’s — complexity, chaos and contradiction.
Let’s consider complexity — this does not mean a difficult problem with differential equations — that is usually solvable if you see it the right way — rather, complexity involves problems with perhaps no solution at all, situations that are interconnected with matters that are outside the control of the systems at hand. The fact that there is no water to drink without causing people the possibility of disease and early death in most of the coastal belt is a complex problem. The water is too saline or laden with arsenic and filtration systems can only serve as a temporary solution. The water table is not being regenerated at a sustainable pace and most surface water has too many phytoplankton blooms and chemicals to be potable. Having non-poisonous water available to drink would constitute a normal assurance. However population pressure, climate change, irrigation, and dams that have changed the flow of rivers have rendered potable water into a scarce commodity. We are unlikely to return to a time from when water will be abundant and we can count on drinking water being widely available. This is connected to water being used for new purposes — irrigation or a dumping ground as well as connected to global climate change, which has raised the sea level and the extent of salinity in coastal waters.
What about chaos — the rapid increase in urbanisation in Dhaka needs little explication. The increase in construction, packing thousands of people into low-roofed, non-ventilated concrete spaces that are often without power, have no escapes when there could be a fire, and can crush any and all because they are often built on wetlands or with steel and reinforcements that have uncertain origins and certification. Traffic in Dhaka has its own chaotic path, as do the trucks that race through highways delivering goods that promise higher growth for the nation, killing men, women, and children on the way. Such occurrences have never been considered common in the past and if we were to normalise them in our mind, we ourselves would reach psychic ‘post-normalcy’.
This brings me to an important point. A possible reason why we call these times ‘post-normal’ is our inability to bring our thinking and minds in sync with the structures and environment today. We retain an attachment to past notions of what was normal. We refuse to give in to the fragmentation, the breaking down of what we were taught to consider moral, ethical, or decent in the past. We forget that a normal life today entails excesses that would put our ancestors to shame. Think of the food, clothes, electronics, stuff and splendour that we have now set as the standard for a normal life. A decent middle class life of the past looks bleak compared to this new norm. And yet we delude ourselves into believing that nothing has changed fundamentally. We continue as though we have never veered off the old path, but are simply making a little more progress. We are ironically still enamoured by what our gadgets can do (despite having so many that we lose them here and there) or by the shine of the marble that reflects the gold and tinkle of wedding parties. We overlook the indecent contrast between this high living and the tarp covered squatter nests that outline railway tracks leading in and out of our megacity. Our psychic denial of post-normality could simply be an inability to come to grips with the current times or might itself be a manifestation of how bereaved the post-normal mind is. The uncertainty of which one the correct diagnosis might be itself mirrors the times.
The ideas of post-modern, post-development, post-structural, or post-colonial are not irrelevant for us. ‘Post modern’ thought lets go of the notion that the modern trajectory of progress that we held in reverence will reap the fruits that they promised. We subscribed to modernity thinking it would yield heaven on Earth. Instead, modernity simply uproots us and overturns all that hold humans within moral and decent lives. The promise of material progress, of technology, and freewill in fact backfires by fixing us dogmatically to science, unnayan, and a discourse of modernisation not too dissimilar from blind faith, although we think that we have surpassed ‘all that backward thinking’. This is why ‘post-development’, a critique that says the development process is guided by Western interests and reflects the pattern of Western hegemony, is more suitable to understand and innovatively negotiate post-normal times. The ‘post-structural’ also tries to find answers outside the existing and tedious structures established in our everyday thinking, repeated and regurgitated ad nauseam in our educational systems. Finally, let’s consider the ‘post-colonial’. A Google search yielded this description; ‘the general purpose of engaging in postcolonial criticism is to open a space where the residual effects of colonialism can be resisted. It is not a question of restoring pre-colonial cultures, but rather showing how former colony and colonizer can establish a mutually respectful relationship in a postcolonial world. An important facet of this criticism is to expose and deconstruct the racist and imperialist assumptions of colonial logic that still influence relations between nations.’
What do these approaches do for us? They allow us to consider that an absence of criticism and careful consideration of where we are headed as individuals and collectives may be responsible for these post-normal times. We are no longer decent ‘victims’ that deserve progress in the Third World. We have become rampant predators — squandering resources, perpetuating inequalities, and slavishly following consumption patterns in wealthy countries and criminally demonstrating those patterns to impoverished people who live near us, work with and for us, and think that they too can aspire to these lifestyles. Post-modern, post-development, post-structural and post-colonial thought can facilitate a hesitation to subscribe to post-normal times. It can give us a ticket to say, ‘I want to get off this train — it’s not going to a safe station.’
Let us now turn to the last ‘c’ posed by Ziaudddin Sardar. Contradiction. Despite our access to knowledge, we seem to know far less than before. We instrumentally restrict our learning to only what is covered in the media or concerns our commercial interests. Despite all the time-saving devices we have purchased, we seem to have less and less time as the years go by. Another contradiction is that the smooth spaces that we have created in current times are the very ones that have hardened into imprisoning traps, when in fact we were promised and expecting freedoms. Let me explain this further. Our expectation from our progress and growth is that we will lead better material and fuller lives. We will have many more tangible things, pleasures, and exchanges and know more novel, stimulating, and higher ideas and products. But those who have material and other forms of wealth must enjoy these things in caged settings — within the confines of their homes, offices, and cars. There are few public places for the middle classes (and definitely not the affluent) to enjoy — there is nothing called the outdoors unless we drive to the countryside, and there too some can only go to their private, gated estates. The affluent classes in Bangladesh are unable to have anything more than an existence within a narrow, suffocating enclave. They must fly out of the country to act out ‘normal lives’, given that their lives in their own homeland are ‘post-normal’.
Finally, these times and the networks that they create can also lead to self-organized popular movements. Mobile phones, email, and Facebook have created quick systems of communication and allowed unusual forms of modern secular protests to show up as forms of resistance to various undemocratic practices prevailing in societies or a call for justice as in Shahbagh last February. But these movements, in contradiction to what they intend, can also lead to a hardening of the very parts of the society that they seek to question. The Islamist response to Shahbagh, the direct conflict between the Hefajat and the police, and the outright hostility between the secularists and the Islamists has shifted the political terrain Bangladesh. It may have opened the door to a new form of random violence based on the very forces that Bangladesh sought to liberate itself from. Such is the contradiction of the post-normal.
Our predicament is real and our exits are few. What was certain, clear, and caring has been replaced by chaos, complexity and contradiction. It is of foremost importance to align our thinking with the ‘post-normal’ terrain. This does not mean succumbing to cynicism, but rather looking to sages who can provide us with the tools to navigate unknown territory. This may mean examining both our past and other places to find thinkers who have contemplated larger questions and come up with novel ways to live inventively and ethically in old and (now, our) new times.

Farida C Khan is professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

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