Where are we?

Bhutan began its official journey of modernity in the early 1960s just as the world was entering a new historical period of postmodernism. Then, Bhutan was in ‘splendid isolation’.

French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard broadly defined postmodernism—an antithesis to modernism—as an “incredulity towards metanarrative” while the American philosopher and Marxist political theorist Frederic Jameson put it as “the loss of the deeper meaning/depth model”.

Today, the world seems to be transitioning to another epoch, which many refer to as metamodernism. In Notes on metamodernism, published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker state: “Ontologically, metamodernism oscillates between the modern and the postmodern. It oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naiveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity”. 

Our lives have never been so fleeting and the existential pang so palpable. Tomorrow seems too far away to imagine. The only present we live in is the virtual world where the aliens are abusive and the humans full of toxic positivity. There is a sense of dread and despondency everywhere. There is confusion, futility, and abandonment of trust. The rich have become richer. While the politicians have become barer. Rinpoches and khenpos are busy building their own empires as if life is permanent. However, stress, anxiety, and depression remind us daily that life will be any moment impermanent. Suicide and rape cases are on the rise. Toxicity used to be an affront, now it’s a job. Empathy has become a rich man’s noble pretension, charity (as a spectacle of moral superiority) has replaced generosity, and cynicism reigns supreme. Nationalism and populism, power and profit magically pave the way forward and can even inoculate the wily ones with glorious talent overnight. The uninitiated has nothing but misinformation while the power plays with clever disinformation and ‘we, the people’ are left to scrimmage and make sense of the broken ‘information ecology’. 

The pandemic brought the world to its knees and we are yet to come out of it. The meanings of lockdown and lockup have blurred. In the meanwhile, Russia invaded Ukraine and the spectre of nuclear holocaust looms large. It’s as close as a ‘button’ away. 

We also live in the age of ‘viral’ afflictions. The virus went viral and the pandemic brought home a message that we are now an integral part of the globalised world. I guess it’s safe to say that we are no longer the last Shangri-La.

Are we experiencing an existential crisis?

If we are going through some kind of an existential crisis, then perhaps, the metanarrative of Gross National Happiness (GNH), as an overarching guiding philosophy, is not enough to make sense of the reality around us, and of our lived experiences. At the centre of the GNH system is the bureaucracy that philosophises, formulates, translates, articulates, and connects our needs (internal and unknown) and wants (external and known), our individual and collective perspectives, and our subjective and objective realities to the grand narrative of GNH. At the end of the day, concepts need to be transmuted into transformative experiences. Can a concept carry a life? Is GNH losing sight of localised micro-narratives even as it relentlessly pursues global grandiosity?

The bureaucracy has been at the centre of modern Bhutan for more than six decades. The bureaucrats were our ‘sensemakers’, the crème de la crème of our society. Isn’t it an irony then, to say the least, that more than 50% of these privileged individuals in the highest echelons of the civil service are suddenly deemed to have no leadership qualities and the knowledge for the positions they were selected to occupy? Could it then be surmised, by the same statistics, that a similar percentage (about 15,000 individuals) of the entire civil servants are not fit to be in the positions they currently occupy?

The bureaucracy is bound to be suffering from systemic suspicion and collective cynicism from within, as its constitution is largely stacked up on the interplay of hierarchical power, domination and authority. Respect and dignity are aligned more with power than with knowledge and integrity. Further, the bureaucracy could not adjust to the emergence of the new democratic power shift, which created a vacuum in a system that essentially functions and relates on power dynamics. The wave of chain reaction of submission to authority is largely responsible for the disappearance of accountability.

The bureaucracy always had the potentiality of the danger of a single story. As homogenised as they are, they also lived in a fortress where they acted both as the guard and the prisoner. Ask any 30,000 civil servants what GNH is and each one of them will regurgitate the same exact answer, to that frightening degree of conformity. The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story”. 

Our bureaucrats live in ideological echo chambers and develop tunnel vision, which in turn constricts their critical thinking and creativity, and in the wake of ignorance and apathy there opens a fertile ground for corruption and short-sightedness. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy. The system has been waiting to crack under its own weight of hubris and sense-making malaise. Sadly, the bureaucracy is an impersonal social order and it does not have the emotionality to heal itself.  What we are looking at is perhaps only a ‘manifest content’. Obviously, more immersive reflection is needed.

Are we living in a ‘society of control’?

Novelist and poet Ocean Vuong wrote in his novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, “Freedom… is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey”. That ‘distance’ seems to have disappeared. Today, we live in a society that is regulated and watched by the new kind of ‘crowd-sourced panopticon’ gaze. A system based on ‘voluntary self-exploitation of the masses’ not on coercion or force. Now, we all are hunters. So, we need a false enemy. The prey is our civilization. The casualty is the truth.

Freedom has lost its reason, that logic. We forget that we also choose to be good. To choose is also to be free. And stories are meant to be set free. If there is no freedom of speech, the purpose and use of language is detracted and communication is reduced to a game of empty words. Without language we could not externalise or exchange meanings. And without meanings we could not make sense of the world around and within us. Therefore, the inability to synthesize time (as life measured in moments) and space (as a sense of place) into a coherent narrative will result in schizophrenic experience of one’s past, as Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that ‘life can only be understood backwards’. This incapacity to historicize will cause fragmentation of meaning that will ultimately result in cultural disintegration and dissolution of the societal and political cohesion. 

There is a kind of meaning everyone agrees to by the false virtue of being agreed by the ‘society of control’. It is the meaning of the herd, by the herd, and for the herd. The meaning injected by the sheer power of number and validated by the confirmation bias of a frightened society. Then, this false meaning is used as a mask to cover up its shame for being false. We become beings with no access to each other. The stage then is open for politics of performance. This superficial experience of life slowly gnaws away our moral fiber. 

Do we have a cultural direction?

We live life based more on cultural evolution of value systems and by adapting to the needs and habits of the time than through biological evolution. We live by imagination. What is culture? In simple terms, as the Jamaican–British cultural theorist Stuart Hall said, it is simply “experience lived, experience interpreted, experience defined”. 

We have religionised our culture. Tradition and the past, as eternally glorious and morally perfect as we project them to be, are used as a barometer to judge your moral presence in the national narrative. Just because preservation of our cultural heritage is important doesn’t mean we have to live in the past and stop being a cultural being in the present world. Any cultural products that do not fall within or subscribe to the accepted narrative and conservative system are put through religious moral cleansing (also called censorship) before it is opened for discourse. This is a very dogmatic and static understanding of culture where everything is forced to the unquestionable comfort of conformity. If you are modern you are not traditional, and if you are traditional then you are not modern. If you are not us, you are them. It’s the binary mode of thinking. The choices are formulated for you. Every thing is played to the gallery. We no longer make art. We live in a culture ‘industry’. We are no longer human beings. We are human resource. We produce art like any other commodity and mindlessly reproduce the same thing again and again and again that you are trapped in a loop.

Art is a gift. It travels in circles. “Gifts pass from hand to hand: they endure through such transmission, as every time a gift is given it is enlivened and regenerated through the new spiritual life it engenders both in the giver and in the receiver”, wrote the novelist Margaret Atwood. Pass it on and preserve the circle. 

An artist aches for the aesthetic experience, that philosophical inquiry into art and beauty, that momentary brush with the sublime. That sublimity is part of everyone’s aliveness. On the contrary, for example, a film is made like a bottle of Coca-Cola and mindlessly consumed like a bottle of Coca-Cola. If there is any message, it’s the plastic bottle that is left behind in the fragile ecology of our minds. ‘That’s what the audience wants’ is a recurrent justification.

 It is like saying the audience is dumb, so, lets keep them dumb. It’s the consequence of diminishing cultural capital that we celebrate and glorify mediocrity, because we have replaced depth with surface, because we are incapable of deep, contemplative attention. For, we don’t know what meaning feels like.

Culture, as much as it is collective, is also an individual consciousness, an interaction between oneself and the world. After all, truth is an individual experience. And so is happiness. 

Conclusion – are we the meaning?

Our sense of reality and who we are takes the shape of a narrative. Every story needs to be told. Every story deserves to be heard. Different perspectives, different views. In fact, it’s diversity that gives the possibility of identity. We don’t have to agree with each other every time and every day. Pluralism is about identifying with the other. It’s a celebration of being different. Everyone has the right to be an individual. Everyone has a part to play. We have to find a way to add without taking away. To unify without fracturing. To give meaning without fragmenting. And at times, to sing and be unknown.

In his book, The World We Create, Tomas Bjorkman wrote: “The world is entering a new technological, social and global age and it is our ability to create meaning which will decide whether we face a bright future or a tragic decline”.

Of course, our mind is a battlefield. But, that’s where the meaning is. How will you win the battle if you are not in the battlefield? We must have the courage and confident humility to be an antidote to meaninglessness. 

It’s not that far to recall when our parents’ day began with a prayer and ended with a prayer. What we need is a sincerity of a prayer. Whatever the circumstance or situation, a prayer comes from within, that present. It’s the present that unlocks the past. The present is also the future. We need to feel what the present feels like. As our compassionate and beloved King said, “We all love our country, but, remember to love your country is one thing but quite another to love your country in the most intelligent manner”. Therein lies the meaning.

Contributed by

Tashi Gyeltshen