A Self between Other and Ego

Postmodernism and the Other

April 10, 1998

Ziauddin Sardar constantly entertains by being a wonderful example of everything he seeks to vilify in his book. For years teachers have sought a good, accessible account of what postmodernism is. Unabashed by charges of false essentialism, Sardar gives it to us in his introduction, based on The Prisoner TV series. He captures excellently the vagueness of it all. Is postmodernism a period, a world-view, an episteme? What it is not, Sardar maintains, is a religion of salvation for the Other. By discounting reality, it helps to conceal what is really going on and by its relativising undercuts moral judgements. Sardar preserves the unfashionable belief that there is something really going on out there, and it is a sign of the times that he feels the need to argue the matter so strongly.

There follows a series of essays ranging across politics, history, religion, advertising and television. Typical of the PoMo he rejects, Sardar sees representation as being at the heart of everything and the future of the world as to be glimpsed darkly through a Body Shop shampoo bottle. Abstract nouns stamp angrily across his pages in seven-league boots, fully equipped with demands, intentions and hidden agendas.

He is at his least good with contemporary history. While asking who is the "we" of postmodernism, he offers us little more than an ill-tempered recension of standard anti-Orientalism. All victims are Muslims and the imperialist history of Islam is quietly expunged. The West is guilty for interfering in the Gulf, for not interfering in Bosnia and then setting up the "safe havens" that were an obscene joke. Sardar feels no need even to mention those other safe havens set up to discourage cuddly Saddam Hussein from further starving, terrorising and gassing his own minorities. It is all the West's fault anyway for having immigration policies. The result is one of the "designer histories" that Sardar eloquently accuses postmodernism of producing: selective, convenient to the agenda of its writer, falsely universalising of the culturally specific and insidiously demonising.

He is much better on the inequalities of world trade, swapping allegations of economic abuse for the West's standard ones of human rights abuse and neatly bringing to life issues of intellectual property theft disguised as "giving the Other a voice".

Yet his true forte remains tracking the deep currents that lie beneath cultural froth. Like most of the postmodernists he attacks, he is a lit. crit. theorist eager to be politically relevant. His lengthy analysis of Disney's Pocahontas is a fine example of its kind, and he succeeds here in forging candy floss into an offensive weapon. I particularly liked the insight that the trussed and stuffed turkey of Thanksgiving represents the Native Americans. Again, in typical postmodernist fashion, he seeks real Truth in fiction and is a dab hand at literary and linguistic mugging. Works that do not question history as they ought are punctuated out of existence. So Borges, Fuentes, M rquez, are dismissed as "more European than South American''. China and India have "civilisations'' while the West has merely "populations".

The same technique is used in later offerings on western science as a tool of oppression. A straw-man version of positivist science is set up and dutifully knocked down. Western science has nothing to do with the Greeks, who were not "European" anyway. It is Muslim science that has its roots in Greek science. There is a great deal of double-think involved in Sarder's re-evaluation of non-western knowledge. While Body Shop was earlier deemed guilty of appropriation in putting indigenous herbal knowledge into shampoo bottles, western science is guilty for neglecting all other forms of wisdom.

The sadness of the book is that it leaves no moral position open to the West. Sardar seems to live in a world where even mass conversion to Islam would be just another vile western appropriation, meriting instant damnation. The last chapter is called "Surviving postmodernism'' but survival, it is made clear, is only for the non-West. It lies in a proactive tradition, distinct from the traditionalism that leads to empty fundamentalism. It lies in a Self that is not mere Ego but culturally authentic. It is a little vague.

Nigel Barley is assistant keeper, Museum of Mankind.

Postmodernism and the Other: The New Imperialism of Western Culture

Author - Ziauddin Sardar
ISBN - 0 7453 0748 5 and 0749 3
Publisher - Pluto Press
Price - £14.99
Pages - 346

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