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The A to Z of Postmodern Life, by Ziauddin Sardar

Drawing strength from the ruins of certainty

For better or worse, "postmodernism" has become part of the conceptual small-change of the developed world. What it usually means is the shoulder-shrug, the wry smile. Postmodernists say: "I can see the contradictions, but don't ask me to resolve them. They might not even be resolvable." Thus all media people, most astute politicians, a smattering of trendy bishops and almost no fundamentalists are postmodernists. They all play in the ruins of certainty.

For better or worse, "postmodernism" has become part of the conceptual small-change of the developed world. What it usually means is the shoulder-shrug, the wry smile. Postmodernists say: "I can see the contradictions, but don't ask me to resolve them. They might not even be resolvable." Thus all media people, most astute politicians, a smattering of trendy bishops and almost no fundamentalists are postmodernists. They all play in the ruins of certainty.

Postmodernism echoes the lost confidence of modernity: all that reason, routine and regularity, poisoned by Auschwitz and Hiroshima, subverted by millions of aspiring individuals. Those of us who have had great fun in these fluid times have used postmodernism like a transparent umbrella – a way to peer through the deluge, discern our way to the next corner, without getting too soaked in chaos.

There are several holes in this brolly right now, and Ziauddin Sardar, Britain's own Muslim polymath, is poking through them with this useful book. Sardar has a pointed take on postmodernism as a Western mindset: "How do we cope in a world where we have to run faster and faster to stand still?" His answer is that we must value the power of tradition; we must not fetishise individual freedom; we must accept we live in a world of plural cultures. It comes out of his long history as an adviser to Asian governments, which he has mixed with stints as a TV producer, an academic futurist and a jobbing journalist. So the paradox of his life is that he has lived the unstable, category-blurring postmodern condition to the full.

Yet though he is making the journey, he essentially loathes the destination. For all the pundit's breezy tone, his intellectual position is that of a strong-minded, developing-world Muslim. Often he explicitly conflates postmodernism with modernism, and it's not difficult to see why. Both are cultures of Western power; both presume that their cultural constants are the only ones that matter.

After 11 September, Sardar has found himself in demand, and rightly so. He has been trying to convey to Western audiences – in engaging and attractive prose – that there is a real diversity of civilisations that make different ethical claims. To smooth over these, in the blancmange of values characterised by postmodernism, is to indulge in a potentially fatal narcissism.

The entertainer in him enjoys railing at the lifestyle surrealism of the postmodern world. His chapter on voyeurism doesn't refrain from calling Jerry Springer a "callous, self-serving bastard". But the strategic intellectual delivers seminal essays on fault-line topics: multiculturalism, terrorism, globalisation, identity. Sardar informs white liberals that there are other rich conceptions of social order, human rights and collective meaning that precede (and sometimes exceed) the Enlightenment zero-years of 1776 or 1789.

He wants us to start our mutual discussions of what a "collective commitment to be humane" might be. His chosen method, splendidly demonstrated in this book, is to know us postmoderns better than we know ourselves. This is essential reading for those of us cowering under our gaping umbrellas as something more than cultural fluidity comes down from the sky.

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