In The Order of Things (1966), Michel Foucault formulated the concept of “episteme”, which referred to the aprioristic historical knowledge and discourses which “defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice”. It is the concrete set of assumptions within a historical and cultural framework which operates as a source of power and dominates all the epistemology about the world, along with all notions of “truth”. According to Postnormal Times (PNT) Theory, the current episteme has surpassed not only modernity but postmodern times, thus facing an “extended present” characterized by three core factors: complexity, chaos, and contradictions; these are shaped by an uncontrolled and uncertain change caused by globalization and the Internet, defined, in turn, by its accentuated speed, scope, scale, and simultaneity. Hence, the conditions of possibility of knowledge of our zeitgeist are circumscribed in “an in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense”. Namely, our episteme has become, in itself, uncertainty.
PNT Theory argues for a new typification of our contemporaneity that attempts to capture the systemic, paradoxical, and uncertain dynamics of the present era amidst its changing and unstable nature. This unique nature is due to the unprecedented interconnectivity which has consecutively influenced and determined past historical events, instigating the expiration of (post)modern modes of thought and behavior used to make sense of reality. In this sense, the transitional essence of Postnormal times is considered not only a rupture with past discourses, myths, knowledge, and believes, but the inability to grasp an undefined and ambiguous future with no clear convictions nor alternatives. Nonetheless, rather than subscribing to Mark Fisher’s acclaimed aphorism in Capitalist Realism (2009) by which it is now impossible to imagine a coherent alternative to capitalism as the neoliberal ideology has penetrated all epistemological and ontological realms – thus, disabling all capabilities for transcendent imagination –, PNT Theory advocates precisely for imagination and creativity as paramount components to face and govern postnormal times.
One of the most recent events in this time of postnormality is the war in Ukraine, sparked by the Russian invasion of the country on the 24 February. Taking into account PNT Theory, it is a crisis directly embedded in the character of such times and has proven its remarkable degree of worldwide interaction and interconnection at any level: geopolitical, migratory, economically, humanitarian, social, cultural, virtual, and beyond. However, the vast, immediate, and comprehensive global response to the situation in Ukraine was exceptional due both to these postnormal times, and the perseverance of old and modern orthodox discourses.
To begin with, the logistics of the international reaction – again, both material and virtual – relish from a developed infrastructure and technology as never seen in history. Nonetheless, the attention, resources, and policies put into effect at such an urgent scale are possible due to the construction of different subjectivities in the world order: the ones who deserve such pressing aid, and the ones who can be eventually ignored.
The presumed exceptionality of war in Europe – which also derives from an enduring modern understanding of history based on progress – acclaimed by different (mainly Western) media is entrenched in an assumption, precisely, of normality: what is normal, that is, what is the dominant way of considering what should – or should not – happen in Europe. Contrarily, there is a different normality regarding what we take for granted (and find hopeless) in other parts of the world, such as Syria, Palestine, Ethiopia, or Yemen. And that is, literally, because these subjectivities are disregarded and framed in the narrative of the inevitable by the socially constructed nature of their states, their cultures, and their history as opposed to the West or Europe.
In this regard, the material conditions in which the international community may act and the epistemological form in which we are now pursuing to discern reality – the myths, the discourses, the ideological explanations, the (mis)information on the media – seem to no longer coincide. Hence, the mismatch between the ultimate real dimension of the war and the metaphysical structure through which we make sense of it alludes to this idea of an in-between period.
Concerning the postnormal character of the Ukrainian crisis, then, one could argue that it is, in itself, ineludible as it cannot escape its own episteme. There has never been a war, in its broadest sense, with these features. But, per contra, no features or conjectural and contextual characteristics are sustained in time, as each historical event is defined by its specificity (and episteme). Therefore, albeit postnormal, the Ukrainian crisis is not exceptional.
Moreover, and following what has been mentioned earlier, the discursive nature of the war is strongly sustained by orthodox narratives: NATO’s supposed duty to save Ukraine (#NATOclosethesky), Putin’s Cold War rhetoric in its declaration of war, war as a profitable business for the arms industry and arms dealers , Ukraine’s sovereignty rights and the nation-state as the very center of the ontology of this war and current geopolitics, the weaponization of migration, the different policy approach to refugees by the EU depending on their origins… Hereof, while the New York Times published a column named “We Have Never Been Here Before” on the implications of the TikTok coverage of the war, The Atlantic issued an article titled “We Need to Relearn What We’d Hoped to Forget” on past war and nuclear terms to understand the conflict. Thus, although the traditional explanations remain in the public – and private – debate, the new nature in which the event is inscribed offers an abyss in our understanding of the situation.
As spectators, we are enclosed in a virtually interconnected and globalized world, and we consume news, tweets, videos, TikToks, images, and Instagram stories about the war, interspersed with contrasting and miscellaneous digital content at a speed that is impossible to assume. In the meantime, the real deaths of Ukranian people appear in videos after a reel on how to imitate Euphoria’s makeup, as if the images have become part of a collective Baudrillarian simulacrum where such representations seem to be just fictionalized commodities. And that is postnormal.
Nonetheless, even though it is precisely speed, scope, scale, and simultaneity that typify the current way we absorb and experience content, the unintelligible heavy flow of images is not new. I have recently been reading Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag’s 2003 essay on war photography throughout history aimed at exploring the relation between illustrations about war and the feelings they arouse. However, the book reads like it was written today, amidst the backdrop of the war in Ukraine instead of in reflection of the latest events in the former Yugoslavia. In it, Sontag reflects on the fact that “that we are not totally transformed, that we can turn away, turn the page, switch the channel, does not impugn the ethical value of an assault by images”. At the time, the Internet did not hold its contemporary capacity, but our inability to make sense of the experience of the way war is reported, together with the discourse it emanates remains the same. Still, as the postnormality of our world keeps growing, we must remember imagination and creativity as the sole tools to fight such confusion and concurrence, to sift through the inundation of media to find Sontag’s ethical value and bring its humanity up.
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FRIEDMAN, T. L. (2022). “We Have Never Been Here Before”, The New York Times, 25 February 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/25/opinion/putin-russia-ukraine.html
NICHOLS, T. (2022). “We Need to Relearn What We’d Hoped to Forget”, The Atlantic, 11 March 2022. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/03/nuclear-glossaryukraine-russia-crisis/627025/
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Elisa Menéndez is an International Relations graduate od Blanquerna - Universitat Ramon Llull in Barcelona and is currently pursuing a degree in Literary Theory at Universitat de Barcelona. Her areas of interest are mainly Critical Theory and Cultural Studies.