We come to the end of our journey through postmodernism. What a long, strange trip it’s been.
We’ve seen its origins in the Structuralism of the early 20th century, we’ve surveyed a few of the ideas of a few of its leading proponents, and we’ve seen two of the most prominent objections raised against it. Postmodernism was contentious from the moment it showed up, and it remains so today.
If we return to our original question – “what is postmodernism?” – I think we are now in a position to give a more satisfying answer then the one we started with. Postmodernism has several meanings.
It means (1) a form of radical egalitarian skepticism pioneered by Jacques Derrida in the late 60’s, and applied by a generation of French and American theorists to practically every field of scholarly endeavor. Derrida viewed language as a constellation of signs whose meaning was arbitrarily derived from their relation to each other, not from any necessary connection to the world, and who also saw it as determining (not expressing) human thought. According to Derrida there is no meaning or purpose inherit in language, texts, the psyche, or the world itself – meaning resides in language, which does not express, but creates, all that we think and believe about reality. Differences in perspective are legitimate and inescapable, for meaning can never be fully articulated in words, and words always have subtlety and variety of meaning which escapes the speaker and the listener alike. Instead of repressing diversity of interpretation (and, indeed, of everything), we should celebrate it. More broadly, postmodernism is (2) a cultural condition arising from economic transformations in the industrial world, as described by Jean-Francois Lyotard. It is characterized by the view of knowledge as a commodity, by systematic institutional terror (“produce or die”), and by “incredulity toward metanarratives.” On this view Derrida’s philosophy does not create, but expresses, far-reaching changes in our cultural life.
Postmodernism (1) was hugely influential in American scholarship until the mid-90’s. Although there are still plenty of people who think of themselves as postmodernists, it seems to be recruiting opponents faster than converts, and in many fields it is definitely passé. This is partially because many people simply cannot get past its off-putting jargon or its sweeping claims about the nature of all thought and language, it is partially because it has been construed (in my opinion wrongly) as opposed to science, and it is partially because of the bitter ideological struggles of our time, which are tending to transform politics into a matter, not of mere opinion, but of identity and moral commitment. Under these circumstances all sides feel the need for an ideology around which to rally the base, and acknowledge, either openly or in secret, the need to suppress dissent. Tolerance for substantive differences in opinion is becoming increasingly unfashionable, and so too is a philosophy which resists all ideologies, and insists on the value of such differences. In this climate, postmodernism is subversive in all the wrong ways. Whether or not postmodernism (2) is actually descriptive of the economic and social context in which we find ourselves, I suppose you will have to judge for yourselves.
I’ve resisted the temptation to express my own opinions about postmodernism so far, on the theory that other people are more than capable of deciding for themselves what they think of it. Now that we are at the end, though, perhaps a few comments by way of assessment will not be out of place.
Postmodernism is in one sense the logical culmination of the critical project of the Enlightenment. In philosophy, as in anything else, it is easier to destroy than to create, and in practice the most substantial victories of the Enlightenment have been destructive. It is easy to show that existing beliefs and institutions are inconsistent, self-interested, and abysmal failures when measured by the impossible standard of our ideals. They have to be in order to be realized in a world full of inconsistent, self-interested people. For several centuries the Enlightenment has shown just this, both with respect to its original adversaries (church, monarchy, tradition), and its own proposed alternatives (political ideology, the state, progress.) The promise of the Enlightenment has always been, implicitly, that some ideal system or arrangement could be found, if only we saw into the problems of social life deeply enough. However, the ideal system has never been found, and, it is becoming increasingly clear, never will be. So, having destroyed every certainty, the Enlightenment has, at the end, nothing left to criticize but itself – hence the paradoxical attack on Reason in the name of reason, on Truth in the name of truth, and so on. This is not, in my view, an aberration. It was implicit in the Enlightenment from the beginning.
While all this destruction was going on, however, the Enlightenment succeeded in making itself the focal point of a new tradition, the adherents of which all share the same basic outlook – that Reason Discovers Truth and Makes Mankind Free and Happy. Much blood and ink has been spilled defining what, exactly, this means in practice, but it is in any case the orthodoxy of our time, shared by practically all thinking people. Ironically, this orthodoxy has tended to meet the challenge of postmodernism in the same way that orthodoxies have always responded to insurgents – by attacking the new idea as not just wrong, but unnatural, immoral, dangerous, heretical, and, in short, the end of the world.
That might be right, but I would like to point out that this is not an argument against evidence. It is an argument against argument – it is a command, ex cathedra, to stop thinking, lest our thinking turn us along dangerous paths. Thus, if postmodernism paradoxically uses reason to attack reason, its critics are often involved in exactly the same contradiction, for they tell us, in the name of reason, to stop reasoning, lest reason come to an end. I agree that the game of reason is a dangerous, uncertain business. Once we start, who knows where we’ll end up? But we’ve been on this path for several centuries now, and it’s too late to turn back now. We’re either serious about our principles and willing to go where they take us, or we’re not, and the Enlightenment has indeed been, as the postmodernists tell us, a sham from the beginning. In my opinion attacks on postmodernism as intrinsically immoral are simply not serious.
This is by no means the same thing as saying that we need to become postmodernists. There are other, better grounds for criticism. For instance, how, exactly, do we know that language determines what can be thought? Granted that it’s not an intrinsically absurd idea, how are we supposed to prove it? What about the slipperiness of meaning? Granted that we can never say just what we mean, isn’t every act of speech testimony to our ability to say at least some of it? Who says people can, or even want to, live without narratives? Indeed it seems to me that narratives are, as Arthur Danto said, “the metaphysics of everyday life.” A large part of our identity, both as individuals and as a community, is wrapped up in the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. It might be true, as Lyotard says, that official institutions have largely given up on narratives as a mirage – but it is by no means certain that this is a situation that will, or can, last. Further, though I’m willing to grant a legitimate role for difference in our social and political lives, I think that the idea that our differences bring us together, or should be celebrated for their own sake, is just obviously wrong. Our differences divide us – what brings us together is what we have in common, what we can recognize of ourselves in each other. That’s how we form communities. The different will always be, on some level, the strange, the incomprehensible, the dangerous, the other. There are some things we don’t choose – they’re simply handed to us at birth, as part of the human condition. And, however irrational or unsatisfactory, the need to identify like with like, and to keep the strange and different at arms length, is almost certainly one of them. In my opinion this is something that, like the irreducibility of interpretation, we ought to make our peace with.
There’s a lot more that could be said on this topic, but I doubt my opinions are as interesting to everyone else as they are to me. Perhaps we can end where we began – with questions. What do you think about postmodernism? Do you find it, or parts of it, persuasive? If so, which ones, and why? If not, why not? Do you believe we can discover objective truths? What does postmodernism mean to you?
Part of a Series on Postmodernism (XVI of XVII)