Discovering Postmodernism

Postmodernism seems to have as many definitions as the number of people who encounter it, and that’s just not very useful. It’s less useful still when people with ulterior motives control the narrative. I’d like to take back the narrative and offer a succinct definition or description and offer reasons why some of the competing definitions are fundamentally incorrect. My journey commenced on my Descriptive Postmodernism post.

Each year, I start with a new notion to explore. For 2021, it’s postmodernism. I identify as practicing postmodernist, but it seems to have a nebulous definition, and many people assume it means different things. Some definitions seem to comport and others are curious takes. I am well-aware that some people in this space have opinions at least as strong as mine, and many have deeper and/or broader exposure than I do. Nonetheless, I feel confident that my logic will resonate.

As I pursue this definition, I will explore a line of inquiry that I hope will help to frame the issue.

These are my initial questions:

  1. What is the core definition of postmodernism?
  2. Why hate postmoderns?
  3. Why can’t postmodernism be constructive?
  4. Why do postmoderns deny Truth?
  5. When did postmodernism, a critical, dis-integrative concept become identified as being integrative?
  6. How does one parse the theory of postmodernism from the personality who espouses a perspective on it?

Postmodernism can be viewed as a reaction to so-called modernism, but it’s not so cut and dry. Postmodernism as an intellectual pursuit was in full force in the 1970s and 80s. But Modernism was still the main thrust, as is remains today. Post- is likely an overstatement, as it did not supersede. In comparison, post-Enlightenment thought—reason and logic—still competes with pre-Enlightenment thinking—metaphysical and superstition—, but even persons holding post-Enlightenment views still cling to traditional beliefs. Contrarily, people holding modern beliefs are not likely to simultaneously hold postmodern beliefs and vice versa. For moderns, postmodernism is a hot button, trigger item. For this cohort, any association will set them off.

What is the core definition of postmodernism?

From early on, postmodernism has been used as a pejorative term by its detractors. Many academics associated to postmodernism do not identify as postmoderns. They have been categorised as such, as something they have said or written is heretical to the Modern orthodoxy.

These days—if not from the start—postmodernism is nebulous. It has long since lost its brand to detractors, and its definition is undergoing some revisionist history by this cohort. What started as a perspective or lens to disintegrate content and context is now seen by many as possessing a point of view for constructing, for building.

The Condition of Postmodernity
Before defining philosophical postmodernism, let’s first exclude a possible source of confusion: postmodernity. Postmodernity is a periodical distinction, a cultural state where it occurs chronologically subsequent to the period referenced as Modernity.

Postmodernity is a condition or a state of being associated with changes to institutions and conditions and with social and political results and innovations, globally but especially in the West since the 1960s, whereas postmodernism is an aesthetic, literary, political or social philosophy, the cultural and intellectual phenomenon, especially since the 1920’s new movements in the arts and literature.

To be fair, the philosophy of postmodernism is a reaction to the philosophy of Modernism, but there was a diversion of the periodic reference from the philosophical. If we adopt this definition, the only requirement for inclusion is to have been active in this period. Since Feminism and Marxism were coincidentally prevalent phenomena, it would be easy to include these by virtue of chronology, but it doesn’t follow that these fall into the philosophical notion of postmodernism. It may be a simple matter of the ambiguity of language.

Some social theorists and sociologists—Scott Lash, Ulrich Beck, Zygmunt Bauman, and Anthony Giddens—deny that there is a postmodern condition. Instead, they suggest that modernity has simply extended into a state of late or liquid modernity.

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward meta-narratives.

Jean-Francois Lyotard

To establish a grounding and because he got there first, let’s see how Lyotard defines it in the introduction to his Postmodern Condition:

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward meta-narratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds, most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it. The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements – narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on. Conveyed within each cloud are pragmatic valencies specific to its kind. Each of us lives at the intersection of many of these. However, we do not necessarily establish stable language combinations, and the properties of the ones we do establish are not necessarily communicable.

The simple definition is captured by the first sentence. The rest is exposition. But let’s rewind for a bit and establish a frame. Admittedly, even at the start this is ‘simplifying to the extreme‘. Moreover, the context is relative to hard sciences. Lyotard admits he was over his head. In fact, he later referred to the book as his worst. But books have lives of their own, a sentiment with which Barthes might agree.

The central point here is to question metanarratives. Period. Full stop. The next task is to ask how a postmodern might accomplish this task and what might be their perspectives and tools?

In Reclaiming a Scientific Anthropology, Lawrence Kuznar claimed that « the primary tenets of the postmodern movement include: (1) an elevation of text and language as the fundamental phenomena of existence, (2) the application of literary analysis to all phenomena, (3) a questioning of reality and representation, (4) a critique of metanarratives, (5) an argument against method and evaluation, (6) a focus upon power relations and hegemony,  and (7) a general critique of Western institutions and knowledge. » [See end note 1]

Postmodernism is a disintegrative system. It disassembles, deconstructs, atomises, and lays bare. It is suspicious of underlying metanarratives—and I’d be willing to argue that it is equally suspicious of stated narratives as well. It questions who is served by a given narrative, who gains and loses power by one interpretation over another.

[tools and systems]

In the end, a reader may disagree with what I am proposing here, and the reader may even be correct in claiming that my definition is too reductive. Perhaps, I should abandon the postmodern label and simply recast my definition as Disintegrationism or some such. Deconstruction is already taken, so why not?

Why hate postmoderns?

One problem I notice is that postmodernism, long being applied as a pejorative term in a similar vein to the use of SJW, is a way to discredit personalities and ideologies they disagree with. We see entire ideologies being besmirched as postmodern theories. We might see Stephen Hicks misrepresent postmodernism and conflate feminism with it. Moderns are by nature traditionalists or conventionalists, so whether postmodernism, feminism, Marxism, and the like, these are unconventional. It may be a simple heuristic trick to paint all of these with a broad brush. Nuance and difference be damned. [See end note 2] Jordan Peterson‘s bete noir is cultural Marxism, that he insists is part of the blight of postmodernist thought.

Many have attempted to conflate social theories with postmodernism, whether Marxism, feminism, identity politics, and so on. But this is inherently wrong. Lyotard provided postmodernism with its original definition in his book, but detractors have been annexing other unpopular concepts to it in order to create a sort of critical mass for the uncritical opposition.

Why can’t postmodernism be constructive?

Postmodernism necessarily can’t be constructive, because after one disintegrates a perspective into its primitive elements, any reconstruction needs another narrative to serve as a foundation. It is true that one may reconstitute a disintegrated narrative through a different lens, as cited above Marxist, and so on, but all this does is to shift perspective, point of view, and creates a new power play.

There is nothing wrong with this approach, but neither is there a reason to privilege this interpretation over the original or some other. A Marxist perspective may resonate better with Marxists, and Feminist perspective with Feminists, but this doesn’t make the interpretation better or more generally applicable. It just brings it into clearer focus for that cohort. As near-sighted lenses help the hyperopic and far-sighted lens aid the myopic, neither is inherently better outside of the defined context. And each solution would create a distortion for a person neither near- or far-sighted. There is no lens that is all things to all people.

On balance, I think it’s fair to say that postmodernism is descriptive and not prescriptive, so whilst one can play at disintegrating and reintegrating, but this is simply to gain a new perspective and new insights. In literature, we might consider, say, Philip K Dick’s, The Man in the High Castle. In this, Dick explores what might have been if the Axis led by Nazi Germany had prevailed. This alternate historical rendering can be evaluated as a postmodern exercise. Dick is not promoting this outcome, he is merely playing what-if—reordering the actors to create speculative new narratives. Although the Amazon.com version takes liberties and injects additional narrative perspective, the reintegration is still evident.

As well, postmodernism cannot be constructive because it would be infinitely recursive. For each construction, there would exist a deconstruction. All that’s occurred is a rearrangement. From the same Lego pieces, we apply a new map—a new narrative. From the position of purpose, one construction may be deemed better or preferred, but this is not likely to persist from another.

Disintegration – Reintegration Cycle

Whilst I am more interested in the philosophical, postmodernism has much application to literature. This might be better defined as poststructuralism.

Why do postmoderns deny Truth?

Some people have argued that postmodern thinkers don’t believe in the notion of Truth.

There are a few things to clarify first: the definition of truth and the context of a truth claim.

There are different and competing theories on what truth is—whether correspondence, coherence, or some other version—but that’s beyond the scope of this content. Some people use ‘truth’ as a synonym for ‘fact’, but in the name of clarity, we should separate the two concepts even if idiomatically the terms can be used interchangeably. [See end note 3] In creating this bond, it’s easy to see how these people might be confused. Virtually no one is proposing that ‘facts’ are not ‘facts’. It may be that postmodernism should have a weak and a strong version.

If the colour red is defined as the reflection by an object having a wavelength between 625 and 700 nanometres and a corresponding frequency between 400 and 480 THz, and a ball as a 3-dimensional object where every point on the surface is the same distance from the centre, and all of the incumbent terms are similarly defined and accepted with concordant definitions, then a sighted person with no colour vision perception deficiencies in an environment with natural full-spectrum lighting, will agree with the fact that the sphere is red. If one prefers to label the correspondence of a red sphere and the perception of the red ball as true, then this trivial relationship is valid.

2-dimensional render of a 3-dimensional red sphere

It may be a correct assessment that some thinkers deny all truth, but it’s more likely that these thinkers are suspicious of the person claiming to know the truth because of the relationship between truth claims and power. Although Lyotard’s commentary was directed at hard science and underlying metanarratives such as progress, most postmoderns are more concerned with claims of moral truths.

This is related to the context of a claim. Per Foucault, if one context gives me power, I am more apt to adopt that perspective in order to manifest that power. I am not going to delve into some political discourse at the moment. Apart from this, Truth—where synonymous with fact—is contextual.

Using a typical example, one can evaluate the moral claim that killing another human is immoral. In fact, many—not all—people may agree with this as a general principle. But when we apply context—say, self-defence, military action, or capital punishment—, we discover that some of the same people now evaluate that killing another human is moral. So, we arrive that this moral assessment is subject to be either true or false depending on the context it’s evaluated in. Myself, being a non-cognitivist, I find moral claims to be lacking truth aptness, but that’s another story.

When did Postmodernism become a constructive rather than decompositional philosophy?

I’ll reserve the option to finish this section later. A quick internet search finds that David Ray Griffin coined the term constructive postmodernism. Griffin appears to have an agenda to return to modernism, particularly, it seems at first glance, Pragmatism.

My initial thought is that it was not thinkers fully invested in postmodernism; rather it was people with ulterior motives. Infusing Christian elements appear to be the most common thread. This line of thought is entirely speculative, so please stand by for an update or retraction. Metamodernism appears to have similar attributes, though perhaps simply metaphysical rather than Christian in nature.

How does one parse the theory of postmodernism from the personality who espouses a perspective on it?

Many people identified as postmoderns don’t self-identify as such. Kuznar labels postmodern anyone whose thinking includes most or all of these elements, but there is a compositional challenge inherent in this claim.

There are several compositional problems. First, one can apply postmodernism to a narrow domain and operate fully as a modern in the rest—perhaps even the majority of situations. Second, one can apply a postmodern lens theoretically, but be more pragmatic in more mundane matters. Third, one might apply a postmodern lens among many lenses, defending each in turn. Fourth, one may have had strong postmodern tendencies at one point in life but not held this perspective at other points.

Taking Foucault as an example—as well as one who eschewed the postmodern label—, he did disintegrate history and did question the underlying narratives, hitting all of Kuznar’s touchpoints. For one, I would categorise him as a postmodern thinker. Moreover, his disintegration led to the discovery of a common power thread throughout. Much of his writing was focused on this power relationship and illustrated how it was manifest.

Foucault was also a vocal Marxist. This is a constructive (integrative) worldview. This perspective gives privilege to Marxism, which is antithetical to postmodernism. As a rational interpreter, Foucault determined that this was a better form of government—but clearly, that’s because he accepted the underlying narrative and historicity proposed by Marx. Does this invalidate his postmodern credentials? Do we revoke his PoMo card?

Disclaimer

Excuse me for occasionally using this space as a scratchpad, but it serves the purpose well. I’ve never delved deeply in to critical theory, though I suppose I suppose that at least some of it resonates with me.

Note that I approach this as a stream of consciousness. It’s not meant to be a robust academic treatment. Although, I do cite source documents in some cases, many of my points are anecdotal or pulled from memory, understanding fallibility and so on. I expect to return to flesh out some details, but I figure I’ll publish my thoughts now and make updates in future. I may even correct spelling, grammar, and redundancies.

My goal at the start was two-fold (at least). First, is to describe the domains of postmodernism from the perspective of a proponent (as opposed to accepting a definition imposed by detractors). Second, is to assess where critical disintegration diverged to an integration theory. It’s obvious that you hold that deconstruction and discourse analysis fall within the domain. They are certainly orthodox post-structural concepts, so I suppose a third goal might be to define the boundaries of poststructuralism relative to postmodernism.


Endnotes

[1] Postmodernism and Its Critics, Daniel Salberg, et al.

[2] This modern cohort has a similar tendency to paint any form of Socialism as Communism, and they see the Soviet Union’s failed experiment of whatever they attempted to do as Communism. Therefore all forms of Socialism are destined to fail. The failure to appreciate nuance and detail is the common thread. I might posit that it’s similar to the phenomenon where, on average, women tend to perceive more colours (or colour names) than men.

[3] Aping logical empiricism, idiomatic language allows for broader definitions of truth and allows it to be synonymous with fact. This is similar to the idiomatic similarity of sex and gender, though this distinction is necessary for technical and academic discussion.

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