Keling Maya: Post-traditional Media, Malaysian Cyberspace and Me, presented at the Aliran Semasa Symposium, 2013, at the National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur.
In a paper titled Beyond Art History* presented at the Singapore Art Museum in 1995, I called for an approach to contemporary art in Southeast Asia that went beyond the historical approaches of chronology, stylistics and teleology. Given the persistence of traditional and sacred art forms, in the face of the disruptions and displacements of colonialism, I suggested that the study of contemporary art in the region should emphasize metaphysical and social approaches over conventional art history. Then, in Vancouver, I convened the New Forms Festival conferences of 2004 and 2005 which addressed,the relationship between culture and technology in local and global contexts. These conferences were premised on a post-traditional media theory which is represented in the diagram diagram above and outlined in the text that follows.
As the 19th Century became the 20th, it seemed that the pre-modern or traditional world was being erased and replaced by the modernity. The birth and passage of this modernist view are represented in the timeline above as the Modern Worldview. Then, there was the arrival of the Postmodern Worldview, in which modernism was deconstructed, decentered and retrospectively devalued. This moment is marked, after architectural historian Charles Jencks, by the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe complex in 1972. Postmodern fragmentation and reorientation was accelerated by the arrival of the ubiquitous and instantaneous communications of the World Wide Web.
The sociologist Anthony Giddens challenges the view that postmodernism constitutes a break from the modernism in his assertion that is is simply a tertiary development of modernism. He suggests that ‘postmodern’ is a misnomer for ‘late modern’ and posits that both categories are properly subsumed in his Post-traditional Worldview (1). While I concur with Giddens’ conflation of the postmodern and the modern, I reject his truppeting of the ‘end of tradition.’ I also oppose his characterization of tradition as being merely superstition and irrationality, something that modern society is fortunate to be released from. In my own Post-traditional Worldview (2), there is a more nuanced understanding of the ‘modern moment.’ For me, it the start of an era in which it is no longer possible to hold an insular and self-satisfied view of one’s own tradition. My ‘post-tradition’ indexes a plurality of traditions that are cognisant of each other.
I suggest that this new self-aware and relativistic sense of tradition emerged due to the sudden acceleration in the exposure of traditional peoples to the material cultures of others around the turn of the century. This heightened awareness of others occurred in the context of the integrative communication flows of colonial economies, as well as the emerging representational technology of the Cinematographie. This new post-traditional condition was first hidden behind the edifice of the modernism/ postmodernism complex. I argue that it took the startling events of 9/11 to reveal this reality, retrospectively, and the present theory is presented as part of the effort to share this vision. The destruction of the Twin Towers at the dawning of the 21st Century, marks the convulsive realization that the hubris of modernism had been just that, a Western imperialist gloss on a vibrant, even violent, post-traditional world. Indeed, a plurality of traditions have survived modernism and have re-surfaced, rhizome-like, as an array of neo-traditionalisms and fundamentalisms, reducing the once transcendent modernism to being just another tradition in the mix.
This post-traditional theory was first presented in an unpublished paper presented at the New Forms Festival conference in 2004. A summary appears in the Convener’s introduction** to the conference programme. It offers a transhistorical or ahistorical framework within which to integrate traditional, particularly sacred, paradigms with the contemporary discourses around representational and communications technologies.
* Niranjan Rajah, “Towards a Southeast Asian Paradigm: From Distinct National Modernisms to an Integrated Regional Arena for Art,” 36 Ideas from Asia: Contemporary South-East Asian Art. (Singapore: ASEAN COCI [Singapore Art Museum], 2002), 26–37.
**Niranjan Rajah, “Convener’s Passe-Partout: Developing Discursive Protocols for Media Arts in Post-Traditional Scenario” (Vancouver: New Forms Media Society, 2004), 22.