Modern Spectrum: 1 Dimension

I’ve been pondering how to effectively dimensionalise the spectrum that illustrates the relationship among premodern, modern, and postmodern—and potentially, metamodern. I was researching and happened upon a YouTube video from a few years back by Rick Durst, a Conservative Evangelical professor. He was diagramming the chronological path from pre to post.

I think at this point it’s important to distinguish between Modern and Modernity and PostModern and PostModernity1. I feel that the noun form, Modernity, can be used to describe the chronology whilst the adjective form, Modern, describes the philosophy. I’m not sure that this is a standard distinction. If I adhere to this difference, then Rick is discussing Modernity rather than Modern. Perhaps I’m being pedantic.

I’ve taken liberties to rerender Rick’s model.

In his view, the stages are from God to Man to Earth. I don’t fully agree with the transition from Man to Earth, but the God to Man or Humanism doesn’t feel very controversial. Although Rick is describing modernity against a temporal backdrop, this doesn’t invalidate the God-Man-Earth aspect—leaving open the possibility that it may be invalid for other reasons.

Following the chronology, Rick points out that the overlapping periods between PreModern and Modern and Modern and PostModern are not clean breaks. As I’ve suggested before, in illustration B, some people today retain PreModern beliefs and others hold PostModern beliefs. On balance, I feel that the Western world today remains substantially Modern, philosophically speaking. I am not sure that I am qualified to assess this relative to contemporary Eastern cultures.

Again, without otherwise critically evaluating Rick’s model, belief and God and in particular, Catholocism was the hallmark of the PreModern, PreEnlightenment world—the supernatural and superstition ruled the day.

Many consider Modernity to have commenced with the Renaissance, roughly from the 14th to the 17th century—describing it as early modern. Given the prevalence of superstitious beliefs, I’d be more comfortable with something more along the lines of proto-modern rather than modern. Scientific discoveries were evident, but this was reserved for the elite.

Given the Protestant Reformation that occupied the 15th century, it’s clear that a declaration of Modern should be considered to be premature. One might even argue that even with the advent of the Age of Enlightenment, which spanned the 17th and 18th centuries, Secular Humanism become the theme for the empowered elites, but the masses never relinquished their PreModern belief systems. If we are to start the Modern clock at all, this seems to be as good a place as any.

Although Modernism is marked by Humanism, in the United States, federal and state government is still predicated on PreModern principles, so it is not unfair, twisting Lyotard’s phrase, to question, Have We Ever Been Modern? It is somewhat interesting how—at least anecdotally—how many people do not find it inconsistent to have faith in humanity to solve the ills of the world through technology whilst simultaneously believing in gods, angels, tarot, and homoeopathic and other anachronistic healing modalities.

Chronologically, Rick demarcates Modern and PostModern with the ecological crises of the 1970s, which turned the focus from Man to the Earth. Seeds of postmodernism were sewn post-WWII and even post-WWI with the devastation and realisation of the limits of human capacity.

For the purpose of the ternary plot, it seems easy enough to assess where a person might feel relative to gods versus humans. And whilst I could argue that the belief in gods and the supernatural is a discrete binary state rather than on a continuous scale, I could argue as well that someone could feel that their gods are in control but they retain some degree of what’s known as free will. As a matter of degree, one could be a Deist—believing in some Prime Mover—but feel that now humans are on their own. God is like a crocodile slithering into the darkness having enabled the next generations. On a 1 to 10 spectrum, they might get 90% Modern and 10% PreModern. A believer in astrology, tarot, and the like, might also have faith in Man, yet they may reside more on the 60%-40% in favour of Modernity—or vice versa.

The question is how to get past Man to Earth. I am not sure how to frame this. Perhaps this wasn’t the right avenue to pursue.


  1. For the record, I chose to render the terms PreModern and PostModern in camel case for no particular reason, save to think that it seems to make the prefix more readily distinguishable.

Metanarrative Problem

Postmodernism was summarised by Lyotard as having an incredulity toward metanarratives.

What does this mean? What are metanarratives, and why harbour incredulity toward them?

Metanarratives are narratives. Stories presented through a lens with a certain perspective. These stories provide a historical account of how a culture arrived to where it has. They can be viewed as origin stories. Metanarratives are also teleological, as they provide the foundation to progress, to advance the culture to a better future. Embedded in these metanarratives are the rules and conditions necessary to navigate, both from the past and into the future.

We’ve got stories. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian, Yuval Noah Harari tells us how important stories are for having made human progress. Hooray for us!

This sounds good so far. Right? We’ve got Caesar, Cornwall, and Kahn. We’ve got triumph of us over others. Good prevailing over evil. Right over wrong. So why the incredulity?

Let’s keep in mind that Lyotard is suggesting incredulity and not rejection. The narrative could be fine and accurate enough. One might argue that the benefit of the narrative for the purpose of cohesion outweighs the detriments posed.

There are several notable problems with metanarratives.

Firstly, the past suffers from a cherry-picked survivorship bias. The story threads that don’t support the narrative are abandoned, and some threads are marginalised. So, there’s a dimensional problem. As with any historical account, one needs to adopt a perspective and create a story. Let’s not forget that the word history comes from the word story. In fact, French only has one term: l’histoire. History is story.

Secondly—and this is somewhat related to the survivorship bias problem—, is that we privilege the perspective we take to view this history. In his book, We Have Never Been Modern, Latour uses this line of argumentation to arrive at the conclusion that we have never been modern. It is only because we are here now and surveying history through a rearview mirror that we can even look into the past. And we feel that we have somehow overcome this past. The past was primitive, but we are modern. Some time in the future we’ll deservedly be viewed in the same light because that’s how progress works. But there is no reason to accept this privileged assignment. It’s a function of ego—and to be even more direct: hubris.

Lastly, there’s the issue of teleology. Through this privileged vantage, we orient toward some alleged destination. Like fate, it’s just there for the taking. The only barriers are time, not keeping your eyes on the prize, and not following the rules to get there. There’s an embedded deontology. Those other societies don’t understand what it takes. You need to follow this path, this religion, this sports team. Because this is the best there is.

But there are no crystal balls. We cannot divinate the future. There is no particular reason to believe that our imagined path is the best path. If you don’t believe this, just ask the culture next door.

I’d like to think that somehow Progressives would be more aware of this tendency—and perhaps in some sense they are, but it’s not very apparent pragmatically. I don’t want to get distracted by the notion of institutionalism, but that is evidence of taking a privileged position regarding the status quo—even if your vision of the future would take a different path than your more conservative brethren and sistren.

In closing, this has been a summary of the problem postmoderns have with metanarratives. It could be that the metanarrative you believe to be valid is valid. It could be that your religion is the true religion. It could be that your sports team is the best sports team. That your system of government is the best of all other alternatives. It’s more likely that you’ve convinced yourself that these things are true than them being true.

We can either adopt the perspective of Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss and consider our world to be the best of all possible worlds, or we can step back and consider that we haven’t exhausted all of the possibilities.

Descriptive Postmodernism

I can’t count the number of times I’ve defended Postmodernism (PoMo) from attack, so I am publishing this, so I can link to it. Perhaps I am not defending PoMo, but my flavour of it, but I’ve read a lot of work published by the usual suspects—some who eschew being lumped into a poorly defined category—or at least a nebulous category.

Before I get too far, I also want to remind the reader to take care to separate the philosophy from the person. One popular attack is the conflating of identity politics and social justice advocacy as PoMo phenomena. In fact, I consider myself to be PoMO—to be defined here in a moment—and a social justice warrior (SJW), this despite contesting the very notion of identity to begin with.

By definition, a summary is a reduction of some thing, but one needs to be careful not not arrive at reductio ad absurdum. Where appropriate, one may also wish to differentiate postmodernism with postructuralism. So as not to create a definition partir de rien, I’ll reference other accessible versions. A critic may disagree with these definitions, but they will serve as the foundation of my position and vantage.

Wikipedia gives us this definition (their reference links retained):

Postmodernism is generally defined by an attitude of scepticismirony, or rejection toward what it describes as the grand narratives and ideologies associated with modernism, often criticizing Enlightenment rationality and focusing on the role of ideology in maintaining political or economic power. 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives us this

That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/

Notice the commonalities. PoMo is a descriptive, critical activity. It’s descriptive. As language and grammar can be approached descriptively of prescriptively, so can philosophy. Some ‘schools’ do both. PoMo is exclusively descriptive. PoMo was born as a reaction to Modernism, especially the unstated foundations labelled by Lyotard as metanarratives—the grand narratives and underlying ideologies of prevailing beliefs that were uncritically taken for granted, many of which that were formed or catalysed in the Age of Enlightenment.

Jean-François Lyotard defined philosophical postmodernism in The Postmodern Condition, writing “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta narratives….”[4] where what he means by metanarrative is something like a unified, complete, universal, and epistemically certain story about everything that is. Postmodernists reject metanarratives because they reject the concept of truth that metanarratives presuppose. Postmodernist philosophers in general argue that truth is always contingent on historical and social context rather than being absolute and universal and that truth is always partial and “at issue” rather than being complete and certain.[3]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodern_philosophy

My defence is that PoMo cannot be for social justice or engage in identity, as it has no positive position on these. It functions to critically deconstruct. People unfamiliar with PoMo concepts often misunderstand this notion of deconstruction. All to often, I see people criticise Derrida for his brand of Deconstruction, but that only illustrates the fact that they never read or simply misunderstand what Derrida means by Deconstruction. Perhaps, I’ll elaborate on that in future.

My point is that PoMo is corrosive—like lye. It eats away at ideologies, dissolves them. It is not meant to construct anything. So where does this constructive expectation come from? It derives primarily from two places.

Modernism

Most people casting dispersion are modernists. They need to construct things. To be fair, this perspective has been an evolutionary advantage, but some people can’t allow a bunch of Lego pieces to remain unconstructed. This is fine, but you need another tool to perform this task. It’s not PoMo.

Ad Hominem

The other challenge is the inability to distinguish between the person and the idea. Michel Foucault was very vocal in the political realm and actively promoted Marxism, but, firstly, Foucault was not a self-professed PoMo—and for several reasons, one could come to accord with his assessment; secondly, in his deconstruction of history, he discovered a foundational component—this activity being squarely PoMo—, but he reconstructed historical narratives employing the lens of power. This rebuilding is not PoMo activity.

Parting Shot

Besides—or in addition to—ignorance, some people have an agenda, and they play ad hominem games, so if they can vilify a person and associate that person to an ideology, it can have the tendency of poisoning the well. Uncritical people won’t even notice the sleight of hand and redirect.

never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance*

Hanlon’s Razor

A textbook example is Stephen Hick’s attempt in Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault to conflate feminism (a positive mechanism) with postmodernism (to reiterate, a negative mechanism). In it he claims that feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catherine Mckinnon are proponents of PoMo thought, but he is apparently unaware that McKinnon has explicitly attacked PoMo as destructive to feminism. A fuller critique of Hicks‘ work can be heard on YouTube. I recommend it highly if you have the better part of an hour to spare. Jordan B Peterson is a celebrity personality whose primary exposure to PoMo is Hicks, so when you understand how off-base Hicks is, you’ll realise why Peterson is so off-base, too.


* Hanlon’s razor is originally cast as “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity“, but I prefer the term ignorance, as it it less value-laden and more broadly applicable. Besides, to be ignorant does not mean to be stupid. Many ignorant people are not stupid. I am ignorant of the Russian language, but I am not stupid.

Death of the Metanarrative

Until I recently read Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge I never quite understood why Moderns accused Post-moderns of being anti-science. I’d heard Jordan Peterson complaining, and I’d read forum and blog posts with the same attacks.

As it happens, postmodernism eschews the meta-narrative or is leery of it. This includes the meta-narratives underlying science and the Enlightenment more generally. If you’ve read my posts over the years, you’ll see that this is a common complaint of mine, that everything is a human construct. Although Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition, I only read it this week.

To be fair, I sought it out. I have been attempting to find some other philosophers who have asserted that Truth (and other notions like Justice and Progress) are nothing more than the result of a rhetorical victory. And although Lyotard does not come out and say this (at least not in this book), I feel that he would not disagree with the notion. I may have to read some more of his work.

The least one can do is find the underlying narrative. Feel free to operate day to day as per usual, but be aware. The inscription at Delphi was not exactly right. There is no self to know, and narratives change, but to ‘know’ the prevailing narrative of the day seems it might at least allow one to better assess what’s happening above ground. The Matrix trope may be overplayed, but it’s a fitting metaphor for seeing what underlies. There is no Truth, but for what it’s worth, there’s another data point.

We live on the map, but the terrain is inaccessible. The postmodern doesn’t hate science or progress. We merely question the veracity. One cannot assess progress without a vector, without velocity and direction, so we contrive stories to serve as a foundation.

The founding of these stories don’t need to be sinister or nefarious. They can grow organically. But the ones who understand the rules, Wittgenstein’s language game, can wrest power, and s/he who can bend the rules through convincing rhetoric, perhaps as Locke and Rousseau, can change to course of history. But this course can be changed again. When Marx tried to change the narrative, it threatened the status quo, so they try to delegitimatise it at every turn—primarily through the dissemination of disinformation in a sort of corrupt meme machine. Marx tried to embrace and then co-opt Capitalism, but the Capitalists were not ready to cede power. One hundred and fifty-odd years later, they still aren’t. And it might be that a different narrative is adopted before Marx’s vision is even able to take root.

I was a bit confused by Lyotard’s quip about utility being the arbiter under modern Capitalism in lieu of Truth, as I am not sure how many postmodernists embrace the notion of some objective Truth. To be clear, I don’t.

Lego Blocks

In the end, I feel it is better to deconstruct the concept of a knowable reality. The trick is not to try to reconstruct something from the pieces. It’s like deconstructing a Lego model and rebuilding a different model from the pieces whilst making the claim that this reconstitution is the true manifestation when in fact any construct is as ‘good’ as the next, but good cannot be determined until you’ve defined a context. Such is the role of the metanarrative. Once you define an end, you can then evaluate utility in light of it, but there is nothing to assess the choice of one end versus some other ends save by preference. And of course preference can be manipulated by rhetoric.