From a postmodern to a post-Kafka world - opinion

That biocentric and transcendent spiritual orientation Havel hoped for as a response to the postmodern world was pushed aside by post-Kafkaism.

Franz Kafka (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Franz Kafka
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The postmodern world has been replaced by a post-Kafka world. How did we get here?

In his 1994 Liberty Medal acceptance speech, “The Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World,” playwright, activist and politician Vaclav Havel said at Independence Hall in Philadelphia:

“I think there are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended. Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble....

“In this postmodern world, cultural conflicts are becoming more dangerous than any time in history. A new model of coexistence is needed, based on man’s transcending himself....

“Yes, the only real hope of people today is probably a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the earth and, at the same time, in the cosmos.”

National Library of Israel's Franz Kafka collection now online (credit: COURTESY OF THE LITERARY ESTATE OF MAX BROD AND THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL)National Library of Israel's Franz Kafka collection now online (credit: COURTESY OF THE LITERARY ESTATE OF MAX BROD AND THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL)

That biocentric and transcendent spiritual orientation Havel hoped for as a response to the postmodern world was pushed aside by post-Kafkaism.

Emerging during the second half of the last century, postmodernism brought an important critique and reappraisal of accepted modern beliefs – from culture and identity to history and language. “Question Authority’’ buttons spoke of the need to address and challenge societal structures of racism, sexism, economic oppression, war and other social ills.

Nothing was too hallowed or too revered within postmodernism to spare examination. Postmodernism was grounded in reality, even as it attempted to demolish sacred cows.

Essential for change to take place, postmodernism also contained a dark shadow: its scrutiny opened the door to question everything, including reality. Challenging cultural beliefs and values, along with the structures built upon them, is critical for important societal transformations to take place. Yet, when taken too far, that process can morph into questioning the facts of events and the facts of science – in short, the makeup of reality.

Writing in Rolling Stone magazine during the past US presidential election, Andy Kroll keenly observed how a legitimization of anti-reality had been embraced by the former leader of the free world and millions of his followers:

“The contest between President [Donald] Trump and former vice president Joe Biden is not a choice between competing policy agendas or rival ideologies. It’s a choice between reality and anti-reality. Fact versus fantasy. Amid a pandemic that has killed more Americans than World War I and Vietnam combined, an economic recession that has rivaled the Great Depression, and a reckoning over racism and police violence, Trump’s plan for winning reelection is to sell the American people not on a vision for the future but an alternate reality of the present.”

This anti-reality plays out in local, state and national political systems, debates over the climate crisis, and the response (or lack of) to the coronavirus.

Why does this matter? In Skeptical Inquirer: The Magazine of Science and Reason, biologist Betsy Sherman addressed “anti-intellectualism, a brand of anti-science that contributes to human suffering.... So what if science doesn’t inform the decisions we make as a country, a people, a world? The answer is that people suffer.”

One of the many tragedies of this alternate reality in this post-Kafka world is the blind eye to the anguish that viewpoint condones. It downplays over five million people who have died worldwide from COVID-19, including over three-quarters of a million people in the United States.

Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, [and] in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

In this new reality of anti-reality, it is very easy for us to believe we are not responsible. That orientation is grounded in an understanding that the individual is primarily what matters and counts, and not the sense that we live in a world of concentric and overlapping circles that place us in what Martin Luther King described as an “inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

JACOB BRONOWSKI wrote, “Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know, although we are fallible.”

By contrast, Post-Kafkaism has no room or patience with the conditional, the imperfect, or that which is nuanced or ambiguous. Rather, it understands the world in absolute terms, and in so doing provides the individual with a sense of power.

In Kakfa’s writings, the protagonist often lacks power when encountering the world. The opposite of that – a sense of believing one has power – is one of the keys of our post-Kafka age, created by believing truth can be found in whatever reality one creates or decides to trust. Such power can be intoxicating.

Educator Noah Tavlin points out in a TED Talk, “By fine tuning our attention to the absurd, Kafka also reflects our shortcomings back at ourselves. In doing so, he reminds us that the world we live in is one we create and have the power to change for the better.”

That insight can be the coordinates for the course correction desperately needed in this era.

The writer is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation, Manchester Center, Vermont, and a faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Bennington College.