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.
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:
What is the core definition of postmodernism?
Why hate postmoderns?
Why can’t postmodernism be constructive?
Why do postmoderns deny Truth?
When did postmodernism, a critical, dis-integrative concept become identified as being integrative?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
 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.
 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.
Although I have changed my opinion and perspective over the years, I feel that most people settle into their ways, fixing their positions with an unhealthy dose of confirmation bias. I’d like to think that I could change my position materially from where I am now given the introduction of new evidence, but I don’t think it’s likely. First off: because I am coming from a vantage where I feel I am ‘right’.
Don’t believe everything you think.
Of course, there is no absolute right, but from the perspective of the times and place and some triangulation, I’ll say ‘relatively right’.
When I left high school in 1979, I considered myself to be generally Conservative — at least as I understood the word to mean and without dimension or nuance. I’m not sure I had a great grasp of the definition.
Upon graduation, I entered the military. I remember in conversation with a mate that I was a Conservative. He laughed, and said I was the least Conservative person he’d ever come across. I was perplexed, but I had to reorient my self-perspective.
I decided that I was a Conservative — a Fiscal Conservative —, but I was a Social Liberal. I’d pretty much been a Social Justice Warrior (SJW), concerned with the underdogs, but it wouldn’t be on my dime — or the prospect I had for future nickels and dimes.
I held this position for years — until I realised that the two positions were untenable. You can’t simultaneously offer full social equality for free, and these were rights we were discussing. Fundamental rights. If money was the friction between a right and its realisation, then it needed to be spent. Fiscal Conservatism be damned!
Somewhere in the fray, I had dabbled with Libertarianism. Again, I dismissed this as an untenable fantasy. There had never been even close to an instance of this working, and it goes against the grain of all social concepts. It’s built on a dream — somehow anarchy without the anarchy, so anarchy + magic.
At some point, I didn’t like the PR of the Liberal tag, so I opted for Progressive. In the real world, I tend to side pragmatically with Progressives — the Bernie Sanders crowd in the US — , though I understand the illusion of progress and of politics in general.
Searching further to find a political identity, I settle on anarcho-syndicalism, the system I most identify with today, though there are only slightly more examples of this as there are Libertarian instances, a problem being that when some people see a leaderless group, they see it as a vacuum, and history repeats itself, so I’m not sure how sustainable this system could be.
This is now…
I am under no delusion that there is a right way for society to exist. I do believe there are plenty of wrong ways, but there are too many dimensions and complexities to have a single way. After all, how are you optimising the system? Trade-offs exist, and making a choice to maximise X might (and does) mean that Y is no longer maximised. Do you make X = 10 and Y = 8, or do you settle for X = 9 and Y = 9? And there are decidedly more than just X and Y.
There is no real reason to believe that society or even humans should exists, but given consciousness and self-preservation urges, I’ll take that as a given. That’s an inviolable metanarrative element.
To some extent or another, humans appear to need order—some more than others. Societies are a manifestation of order, and we’ve got subcultures for those who don’t fit in with the mainstream. Humans are also a story-telling lot, which helps to provide a sense of order. Metanarratives are a sort of origin story with a scintilla of aspiration toward some imagined semblance of progress.
Some people appear to be more predisposed to need to ride this metanarrative as a lifeboat. These people are typically Conservative, authority-bound traditionalists, but even the so-called Progressives need this thread of identity. The problem seems to come down to a sort of tolerance versus intolerance split, a split along the same divide as created by monotheism in the presence of polytheism.
In a polytheistic world, when two cultures collided, their religious pantheons were simply merged. In a blink, a society might go from 70 gods to 130. On this basis, there was a certain tolerance. Monotheism, on the other hand, is intolerant—a winner takes all death match. The tolerant polytheists might say, sure, you’ve got a god? Great. He can sit over there by the elephant dude. Being intolerant like a petulant schoolboy, the monotheists would throw a tantrum at the thought that there might be other gods on the block. Monotheists won’t even allow demigods, though there is the odd saint or two.
This is a battle between absolutism and relativism. The relativist is always in a weaker arguing position because intolerant absolutists are convinced that their way is the only way, yet the tolerant relativists are always at risk of being marginalised. This is what Karl Popper was addressing with the Paradox of Tolerance.
In a functioning society, a majority of the metanarratives are adopted by the majority of its constituent. On balance, these metanarratives are somewhat inviolable and more so by the inclined authoritarians.
A problem is created when a person or group disagrees with the held views. The ones espousing these views—especially the Traditionals—become indignant. What do you mean there are more than two genders? You are either male or female. Can’t you tell by the penis?
I happened to read a tweet by the GOP declaring their stupidity:
The Vice President, a living anachronism and proxy for the American Midwest Rust Belt superimposed on the Bible Belt, he tells his sheep that “The moment America becomes a socialist country is the moment that America ceases to be America…” Americans as a whole are pretty dim, and it seems to get dimmer the higher one ascends their government. Pence seems very firm in affirming a notion of American identity, but not accepting that identities change. He may become upset if he finds out that George Washington is dead—in fact, there are very few remnants of the original United States aside from some dirt, trees, and a few edifices—and the country is still the county. Some people have a difficult time grasping identity. It makes me wonder if he fails to recognise himself in the mirror after he gets his hair cut.
Interesting to me is how people complain about this and that politically. Most of this is somewhat reflexive and as phatic as a ‘how are you?’, but some is more intentional and actioned. Occasionally, the energy is kinetic instead of potential, but the result is always the same: One power structure is replaced by another.
As Lacan noted, as people, we believe ourselves to be democratic, but most of us appear to be finding and then worshipping some authority figures who will promise us what we desire. We desire to have someone else in charge, who can make everything OK, someone who is in a sense an ideal parent. I don’t believe this to be categorical, but I do believe that there is a large contingent of people who require this.
As an aside, I’ve spent a lot of time (let’s call it a social experiment) in the company of social reprobates. What never ceases to amaze me is how these social outcasts seem to have a strong sense of right and wrong and how things should be. Conveniently, they exempt themselves from this scope, so if they steel to buy drugs, it’s OK, but if someone else gets caught, they should get what’s coming to them.
About a year ago I was chatting with a mate, and I shared an observation that the biggest substance abusers in high school—”the Man’s not going hold me down” cohort—are the biggest conservatives. A girl a few houses down from me became a stripper, but her political views are very Conservative, an avid Trump supporter.
One woman I know is a herion-addicted prostitute. In her eyes, she’s fine (sort of—without getting into psychoanalytics); other women are junkie whores. A heavy dose of assuaged cognitive dissonance is the prescription for this, but it confounds me.
Getting back to the original topic, people who need this order are resistant to deconstruction and other hallmark notions of poststructuralism. They need closure. This translates into a need for metanarratives. When confronted with the prospect of no Truth, they immediately need to find a substitute—speculatively, anyway, as denial and escalating commitment will kick into overdrive.
The same problem mentioned above comes into play here. A few years ago, there was an Occupy Wall Street group, and like atheists, there are myriad reasons why people participated. One of the commonest complaints by the power structure and the public at large is if you don’t like the status quo, what status should replace it. None of the above was never an acceptable response.
It doesn’t matter that in this universe we occupy there is more disorder than order, and entropy rules, pareidolia is the palliative. And religion remains an opiate of the masses.