Archetypes as reference points for a postmodern social reality

Tarot archetypes

Contemplating social reality needs head space, time, wine and useful points of reference. It’s a tough job. I’m not entirely sure I want to do it, but rediscovering postmodernism keeps me going. The virtual worlds I co-inhabit offer alternative realities postmodernists could only dream about. You can’t hold the internet in your hand but it exists. Being online connects us. The limitations of time and distance get lost. We become ethereal. Virtual reality is performances within a world wide web of forms; a replica, a simulation of the Real. The Other becomes us. We become the Other. Wow!

Cultural eras have retrospective names; renaissance, enlightenment, modernism. As the 20th century evolved into an knowledge network society, we became post-industrial and post–modern. Technology has taken over, integrating humans and machines.  When will we become Posthuman?  If only Marshal Mcluhan could see us now! Public information, welfare, health services all follow ‘digital first’ policy and practice. Education, finance, leisure, retail have moved online.  We live virtual lives.

The postmodern condition was inevitable but postmodernity got hijacked by academics. Those working with postmodern concepts invented new ways of understanding social reality and their theorising became obscure and difficult. Yet no amount of intellectual posturing can change the fragility of the world; academics provide more ways of seeing and being but can’t answer the big questions. No one can.

I’ve been reflecting on archetypes. There are few certainties in life but ageing is one of them, as is death (shhhh….cultural taboo) and I wonder if the consistencies of archetypes can suggest anything about what it is to be human. In the postmodern world of machines, and the cultural condition of postmodernity, archetypes shouldn’t work. They suggest qualities which are innate, constant, universal; the dark side of positivist essentialism. But you can’t count or quantify them. They’re slippery and difficult to grasp. Conceptual. Abstract. Yet we all recognise the hermit, hero and trickster. The tarot’s major arcana is full of instinctive archetypal images; strength, justice, priestess, pope, wheel of fortune, fool. Archetypes exist beyond culture; similar to Plato’s Forms and Aristotle’s Essence. Philosophers have been arguing about them ever since and this is where I need to lie down in a darkened room. My head isn’t big enough and there so much else to do.

Archetypes are constant but interpretation is individual, personal. The way we think about the fool or the trickster is culturally influenced which is in turn historically situated.  The separation of the signifier (word) and the signified (attached meaning) creates the space where postmodern social reality is located. Where alternative interpretations are abstract yet real for each of us as individuals. This – I think – is how a postmodernist lens works. The world becomes fractured and full of possibilities for meaning, which can’t be fixed or finished, but within that fluidity there are always the archetypes;  shared ways of understanding the human condition. I’ve had enough now. My head hurts. Where’s the wine?

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