Postmodernity, Simply Explained

We’ve all heard about postmodernism.[1] This popularity is probably a result of the fact that it’s the dominant pop worldview in the West. Our culture hosts several worldviews, but it’s postmodernism that’s widely pervasive on the popular level. One of the most memorable, brief descriptions of postmodernism is also the title of Walter Truett Anderson’s Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be.[2] Postmodernism attempts to reengineer reality.

Many of us know that postmodernism is associated with relativism: there’re no moral absolutes. It’s also akin to multiculturalism, which is actually relativism as it pertains to societies and civilizations. No culture or civilization is superior to another. But to get a deeper understanding, we should know a little more about how postmodernism came about.

After modernism

Postmodernism literally means “after modernism.” What is modernism? It’s a way of thinking rooted in the Enlightenment that developed in artistic fields late in the 19th century. The mantra of modernism is Ezra Pound’s “Make it new!”[3] Every generation, every era, must privilege its own unique situation and standards. It must break sharply with the past.

Artistic modernism began with the Impressionist paintings of Monet, Renoir, and Manet. Many young artists in 19th century France found the traditional canons of realistic art to be imperious, restrictive, and boring. They wanted to break out and start something new. Over time this idea spread to music, literature, theater, dance, and even theology. The past was suitable for its own time, but not theirs. Tradition is passé. It has nothing useful to teach us.

Edvard Munch, The Scream  (1893)

Postmodernism, interestingly, also started in the field of art early in the 20th century. It was a new way of painting, or better yet, a new way of representation. Up into the modern era, people accepted the idea that man can truly represent reality. You draw a picture (say, of the Madonna or of a landscape) and it was believed you can represent the reality of the object in that picture with relative accuracy. As the 20th century and modernism moved on, however, artists became less convinced that they could represent reality objectively. The artist himself was believed to be a part of the world that he depicted. In other words, there was a conscious meshing of the objective and the subjective in art. An artist inescapably puts a part of himself, of his own perspective, into the picture, whether he wants to or not. Subjectivity became meshed in objectivity.  The artist merged with the world he was trying to depict.

Refusing to depict the inability to depict

Then we get to something deeper. Whenever we draw things, whenever we depict things, whenever we mold things, we have in mind other things that cannot be depicted as such, things that are beyond our capacity fully to depict — truth, beauty, omniscience, love, hope, evil, even life itself. These are concepts that we can each conceive in our minds, but they cannot fully be depicted. We can show examples of each one — justice in the movie The Magnificent Seven, or love in the play Romeo and Juliet, or mystery in the painting Mona Lisa — but we can only get a visual representation, not the actual concept itself. In other words, we can think of things that we can’t present or depict. We might call these things the sublime. Modern artists knew that they couldn’t depict the sublime, but they still wanted to reveal it in some way, so they tried to show that they cannot show it. For example, the Russian Modernist artist Malevich painted a white square on a white background. He was trying to show that some things can’t be shown. The modernist still wanted to get a grasp of everything, even if he can’t depict it. He wanted to be able to use the medium of art to convey the picture of “real” reality — even if he can’t show it as it “really” is. He wanted to use art to depict what cannot be depicted.

Kavimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918)

Now, the postmodern is different. He knows there is the sublime, that which cannot be depicted. But instead of trying to show that he cannot show it, he employs chaotic forms to show that man cannot show it. In other words, the postmodernist attacks the modernist, who thinks he can depict all reality by not depicting it. The big point is that the attempt to show what cannot be shown, to try to capture everything in the sublime, is false and foolish and dangerous and tyrannical. It’s part of the modernist urge to control everything.

But the postmodernist doesn’t just want to show that there’s something you can’t depict. He wants to show the folly of thinking you can depict that lack of depiction! He says that man must leave some things alone. Man cannot have the sublime at his fingertips.  Man must know that he lacks knowledge and that he can never depict that lack and shouldn’t try. We must live with no overarching sense of reality. This also implies that there can no worldviews.

Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring

The war on progress

Because modernists still believed in the sublime, still affirmed the reality of worldviews, they were committed to progress. Human reason that was elevated at the Enlightenment was to be the engine to assure that every generation is superior to the previous one. Modernism was like Darwinism at this point, but the mechanism was entirely different. For Darwinists, progress occurs by biological evolution. For modernists, it happens by the relentless use of reason. Reason continually emancipates from the tyrannies of the past, even the recent past. Musical modernists included Claude Debussy, Arthur Schoenberg, and Igor Stravinsky. They were consciously trying to break with the classical tradition. People still called their music “classical,” but it’s very different from what went before. It’s often intentionally incoherent in its atonality. It’s dissonant music. The goal is to be unique, even revolutionary. The same spirit animated the architectural modernists, Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the German Bauhaus school in Weimer Germany. This is equally true in poetry, theater, fiction, and even the church.  Modernism in Christianity meant breaking with Christian orthodoxy of the last 1700 years and adapting the Faith to both the scientific and romantic age.[4] This is how almost every major denomination in United States went apostate in the 20th century. Modernistic apostasy in the culture was paralleled by modernistic apostasy in the church.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater (1937)

Modernism was optimistic in crushing the past and marching toward a glorious future. But modernism got its own comeuppance in postmodernism. How? What if modernism itself became the past that needed to be crushed? Modernism was committed to unceasing, improving, progressive change. But what if the change were to be that there is no longer improvement, progress, and change? This is largely what postmodernism proposed. Postmodernism is really hyper-modernism’s attack on its predecessor. Modernism birthed postmodernism, and then postmodernism committed patricide. Or, to alter the metaphor, it’s the case of the snake devouring its own tail.

Emancipatory individualism

Emancipatory Individualism

Modernism was committed to utopian visions: for instance, international communism or nationalistic Nazism or global democracy. We can create society as heaven on earth. Postmodernism shifted from utopian society to emancipatory individualism. That is, the important thing was not so much a social vision as an individual vision, which society should guarantee. Society should guarantee that I can create my own reality. I am a producer and consumer of reality. An endless supply of options should constantly be available to me. I can be married or unmarried, homosexual or heterosexual, introverted or extroverted, passive or aggressive. I can be anything I want to be, and if for some reason I cannot, someone else is at fault. I am entitled to a multitude of options.

In all of its bizarre, tradition-crushing program, Modernism had maintained a unified theory of the triumph of reason, progress by constant, unremitting improvement. Postmodernism depicts life as fragmentary, chaotic, balkanized. There are no universals, only particulars: particular people, particular institutions, and particular communities.

Anti-conservative anti-collectivists

If you think about it, this last part sounds a lot like original conservatism. The original conservatives like Edmund Burke opposed the French Revolution and Enlightenment because they tended to uproot individuals and their family and cultures in favor of a universal, cosmopolitan, global viewpoint. After all, the Enlightenment wanted to level everything before universal human reason. The postmodernist saw what happened with universal reason and the quest for utopia that it spawned. They identified Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia with Enlightenment totalitarianism.[5] The problem with a shared vision of the good life is that people disagree on what the good life is. So the only answer is to retreat completely to the individual. In this, postmodernism is the child of Existentialism. And like the Romantics, the individual is the self-creator.

The postmodernists are anti-conservative anti-collectivists.[6] This might sound contradictory to us. When we think of conservatives, what immediately comes to mind is their strong sense of individualism in the face of the collectivism of, for example, communism or fascism. The American Founding was largely individualistic. This is a tenet of what we call classical liberalism.[7] The true conservatives stand for individual liberty against the collective.

So it might seem odd that postmodernists could be anti-collectivist. They are, in fact, radical, left-wing individualists.[8] This is a way of thinking that some modern conservatives have never encountered. They assume that if we oppose collectivism, or statism, for example, we will have a better society. But that is far from the truth. Postmodernists want radical individual freedom from authority, freedom from morality, freedom from creation, from almost all of constraints. All they need the state for is to guarantee that freedom. (This, by the way, is how postmodernism intersects with Cultural Marxism.)

Incredulity toward metanarratives

Jean-François Lyotard famously summarized postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives.”[9] A narrative is a story, an account. Postmodernists believe that we all live by stories, create our own stories, exist within our own stories, and revise our own stories.[10] We create our own reality. The problem comes when we allow someone else, or group, to create one, large overarching reality that everybody else is forced to live within. This could be everything from Christianity to the Enlightenment to “patriarchy” to Western Civilization. So postmodernism contends that all such big stories are simply invented, and that they can (and must) be subverted and discarded. It’s simply better to allow each individual to invent his own story, his own reality. This prevents tyranny. Individual narratives squash metanarratives. 

What metanarratives need squashing? Well, the inevitability of male dominance, for one thing. Throughout history, men have been the leaders in church, politics, family, business, and much else. Women have vital roles to play, both inside and outside the family, but men have been dominant in the most visible ways. Postmodernists don’t believe this is a result of creation or nature. Rather, it’s simply a long-standing metanarrative that women have submissively accepted. What they should do is subvert that narrative and show that men and women are fungible, that is, interchangeable. In this way, sex is simply a social construction. In the words of Anderson, “The women’s movement — I think more than any political effort in our time — is an attempt to change, not only laws and power structures, but social constructions of reality.” Women’s studies is prominent on many campuses, as well as black studies, gay studies, and so on. The idea that there is a shared reality isn’t popular. Why would you want to share your reality with somebody else when you can create your own?

Hermeneutics of suspicion

Metanarratives imply power and domination, so postmodernism is committed to subverting overarching social power everywhere. In this way it has developed a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” No one can speak objectively. Behind every assertion is a motive to dominate somebody else. If postmodernists were reading these lines, they would say, “The reason you’re writing like you is because you’re a white male educated in Western ways of thinking. If you were a black African female, you could never hold (or have held) these views.”  They couldn’t simply argue that I’m objectively wrong. They wouldn’t say, “Let’s look at the facts and discover whether you’re right or wrong.” No, they would say that I can only speak from my own limited perspective, and I have no warrant to impose my perspective on anybody else.[11]

Friedrich Nietzsche, father of the hermeneutics of suspicion (1844–1900)

Perspectivalism

All postmodernists are perspectivalists.[12] None of us can speak objective truth. We’re all shaped and work by our historical situation. If you think about it, this means there can’t be any substantive, transcultural communication. Everything, to use the language of Nietzsche, is a will to power. Here’s an irony. Postmodernists see society as a big power game, and they work to subvert the powerful, prominent worldviews. But since they don’t believe in objective truth, they must hold that power alone dominates. You can’t reason somebody into your viewpoint as classical liberalism believed. So in the end, might makes right. This is why postmodernists feel justified in shouting down Christians and conservatives they disagree with. There’s no basis for reason or dialogue. There’s only one perspective versus another perspective, and one must win out. (Theirs, of course.) But that doesn’t mean theirs will last. Somebody else will come along with more power, and squash the latest will to power. There’s no truth. There are no objective standards. There are only options. There’s only a will to power.

Playful laziness

Because postmodernists have no interest in working hard to arrive at the truth (which is unattainable anyway), they become very playful.  What other people would call a quest for the truth, they simply would see as entertainment. Their point is to subvert any serious intellectual quest. This is where deconstruction as a literary theory came from.[13]  There’s no objective truth in a text. Why should the author have the authority to dominate what he writes? I as a reader have just as much a right to determine meaning as he or she does. So postmodern literary theory deconstructs the text, that is, it shows it could have any one of a number of meanings, very different, in fact, from what the author intended. Presumably the deconstructionists want readers to take their own writings about deconstruction just as the authors intended them, but this blatant inconsistency is apparently a trifle nobody should be concerned with. In any case, postmodernists are unconcerned with the great theological and philosophical questions of humanity: who is God, what is man, what is justice, truth, beauty, and love? There’re no objective standard by which to answer these questions. This leads to the conclusion by Kevin J. Vanhoozer that if the besetting sin of modernism was pride, for postmodernism it is sloth.[14]  Postmodernists are intellectually and morally lazy.

Conclusion

Postmodernism is profoundly pessimistic. Modernists believed that the proper use of reason could destroy all oppression, breaking with the past, creating a perfect future. Postmodernism recognized the demonstrable fallacy of this faith and replaced it with individualized self-creation projects. The world itself doesn’t matter. Human society doesn’t matter.[15] All that matters is my own reality.

The postmodernist begins by giving up any objective truth and ends with no standards by which to judge anything. And this means that while postmodernism is opposed to worldviews, its opposition to worldviews has become a worldview. Its suspicion of metanarratives has become a metanarrative. It has come to be a dominant power in society, crushing everything, including biblical faith, in its path.

It’s the new snake eating its own tail. And this is equally true of all the other non-Christian Western worldviews. Sinful man rejects God’s authority, believing it oppressive, but when he throws off God’s authority, he installs man’s authority, which ends up enslaving and demeaning and destroying man. God alone knows what causes humanity to flourish, because he is man’s Creator. This means that the only way to satisfaction, joy, and happiness is the Christian way. Everything else leads to degradation and destruction. The blood and resurrection of Jesus Christ alone, which dictate the Christian worldview, alone will save man.


[1] For a genealogy and description of postmodernism, see David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1995), 3–65.

[2] Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What it Used to Be (New York: HarperCollins, 1990).

[3] Peter Gay, Modernism, The Lure of Heresy (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2008), 3–4.

[4] Donald E. Miller, The Case for Liberal Christianity (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981).

[5] Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Turn (New York and London: Guilford, 1997), 6.

[6] Ibid., 11.

[7] J. G. Merquior, Liberalism Old and New (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991), 37–67.

[8] R. R. Reno, “The New New Left,” First Things, October 2014, 3–7.

[9] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxiv.

[10] Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What it Used to Be, 102.

[11] Stanley Fish, The Trouble With Principle (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999), 292.

[12] Modernists also were perspectivalists, but they believed that all of these perspectives contributed to a deeper unified reality. Postmodernist lacked that faith. See David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, 30.

[13] William R. Schroeder, Continental Philosophy (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2005), 280–287.

[14] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Theology and the Condition of Postmodernity: A Report on Knowledge (of God),” The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, Vanhoozer, ed. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 23.

[15] Humanity’s annihilation is the price postmodernist John Gray is prepared to pay in order to avoid a unified vision of life. See his Enlightenment’s Wake (London and New York: Routledge, 1995, 2007), 274.

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