Films & music, Social commentary

‘Don’t Look Up’: have we reached Peak Post-Modernity?

by Matthew James

At first impression, the Netflix film Don’t Look Up, is just another disaster movie. It’s about a comet heading on a collision course with Earth which will cause an Extinction Level Event.

It could be seen as a sort of Deep Impact on steroids. But that would be to miss the point of the film.

The comet really isn’t the star of the show. Rather, it is the reaction of the social-media-infused humans on the ground that takes top-billing. The movie is a searing indictment of the sorry state of the Post-Modern mindset.

The modern mindset

My definitions may be inadequate, crude and incomplete, but a brief word on “Post-Modernity” before I continue.

The ‘Modern’ mindset was significantly forged by the 18th century Enlightenment which tended to insist on the ‘knowability’ of absolute truth, placing its ‘faith’ in scientific facts and the power of reason. There was an emphasis on there being knowable, objective Truth.

Post-modernity

In contrast, Post-Modernity views such things as relative. It could be summed up by the phrase “Well, that’s your truth and it works for you, but this is my truth and it works for me”.

Modernity sought objectivity; Post-Modernity is unashamedly subjective.

In its earlier stages, Post-Modernity was largely a philosophical phenomenon confined to intellectuals and academic circles. It was the subject of all-night discussions in student halls of residence about moral relativism, deconstructionism (Derrida et al). It was generally limited to the metaphysical-epistemological world.

Uncorked genie

The advent of widespread use of social media has seen this genie decisively uncorked into ‘the real world’.

It culminated in the phenomenon of the Trump Presidency and its mainstream deployment of terms such as “post-truth” and “alternative facts”. Now we witness its flourishing in the polarised responses to the present twin threats of Covid and anthropogenic climate change.  

Don’t Look Up explores the pernicious consequences of these tendencies when hitched to the corporate wagon and its associated greed.

Mainstream conspiracies

Many have considered Post-Modernity as harmless when it remains in the metaphysical sphere e.g. in discussions about moral relativism or theology. But it becomes deeply problematic when attempted in the physical realm. When it impacts power, politics and policy.

Of course, conspiracy theories have been around for decades e.g. JFK’s assassination, David Icke’s Lizard People. But they have generally been the preserve of a small minority of weirdos.

Particularly in the last 5 years, the rise of QAnon, anti-vaxxers, climate change denial or “Scamdemic” responses to Covid have become far more mainstream. Covid lockdowns have exacerbated this as people have more time on their hands and their lives are affected on such a practical level.

‘Peak Post-Modernity’?

Does this mean, though, that we have hit “Peak Post-Modernity”? Is the film illustrative of Post-Modernity having “jumped the shark”?

(A side note for those not familiar with this cultural reference: “jump the shark” harks back to the episode in Happy Days where The Fonz goes water-skiing and jumps over a shark. The show was deemed to have lost its way thereafter and the phrase entered the lexicon to describe something which has lost credibility.)

Only ‘future hindsight’ will tell whether we are at that point. But it does seem that there is an increasing appetite to push back at Post-Modern perspectives. Today, we are more likely to hear “you’re entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts”.

Don’t Look Up brutally satirises the nonsense that extreme Post-Modernity leads to. At a time when the comet is visible to anyone on Earth who looks into the sky, the polls report that “37% of people say the comet doesn’t exist”.

The role of faith

What, then, does this mean for those of us who call ourselves Christians?

It is fascinating that it is often religious conservatives who espouse conspiracy theories when they have been complaining about moral relativism for years.

But I think we may be witnessing the start of another quantum shift in how society interacts with truth: a swinging back of the pendulum towards a more objective engagement with such matters.

Truth and depth

In Don’t Look Up, this is perhaps best epitomised by Yule, the lapsed evangelical who leads the other main characters in a prayer at the end of the film.

At a time of chaos and destruction, when no one else knows what to say, he speaks words of depth and Truth.  There is no cynical twist. The words unite the group and in response all say ‘Amen’.

…………………………….

Matthew James is a solicitor, married with three children, who lives and works in southern Hampshire

6 thoughts on “‘Don’t Look Up’: have we reached Peak Post-Modernity?”

  1. I do not think we have yet reached the peak of post-Modernity. The real dangers are yet to come with the appearance of deep-fake video techniques and the ability to use social media to compile and present fake news, propaganda, etc. It will soon be almost impossible to know what is factual and what is not. It may be at some point that the pendulum will swing back. There is already a desire in many people for this, but it will not be an easy road for many to discern the truth amongst all the competing narratives.

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  2. It is a very interesting conversation. My Doctorate leans heavily into the work of a Sociologist called Bauman who argue that what we have is “liquid modernity” in which every truth, loyalty, commitment we have is easily discardable. It’s very uncomfortable position to think about. But let’s apply it to Christianity as it is the origin of this discussion. Are there core truths which one has to believe in to be a Christian? Are there things one has to do? People would probably argue the “Golden Rule” might be one. Yet in heavily Christian America I wonder how much common ground there is between the approach to life of those in different parts of the country? All of whom think they are following such rules?
    The question is, I suppose, are there areas of absolute truth and areas of perspective? Personally I believe we expwreince the world through an episotomological world-view which is the summary of all our experiences. We are always “in-the-world” and “off-the-world” and we can never step outside of it. We are both out bodily experiences and our cognitive process. A kettle boils at 100 degrees but for me the interesting bit is that we know it is a kettle, and it exists to boil things? Obvious? Perhaps? But could just as easily be for washing out hair or growing a plant in. But never occurs to us that is its purpose
    No answers for you – just meanderings

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    1. Hi Paul – good to see you on here! Hope all is well mate.

      On matters of faith, the internet and social media are definitely changing the dynamics of religious faith. In the Middle Ages the only people who had access to Bibles were Priests who could read the Latin and basically be the sole interpreters of ‘what God said’ which gave an impression of unity and a lot of concentrated power. The democratisation of faith through the printing press and translation into ordinary, common language was fiercely opposed by the Roman Catholic church for one reason because it increased variations of interpretation and of course was closely linked to the Reformation and the splintering of churches into countless denominations.

      The internet age is similarly as seismic a change. It facilitates countless different, personal positions which may or may not be linked to any form of formal church. This has many strengths but also many weaknesses as all kinds of wacky ideas gain currency. We pretty much live in a ‘post denominational’ world now where these formal differences between C of E, Baptist or Methodist mean far less than they have ever done.

      I think the positive thing is a focus on the person at the centre of Christianity – and on what he considered the core: loving God and loving your neighbour. This gives plenty to be getting on with!

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