Post-Postmodernism

I happened upon an article that notes that the postmodern label is now 50-odd-years old, so what’s next? Just a short response, the label never made sense for several reasons.

First, the prefix post suggests a new era or paradigm. In and of itself, this is not a problem. The challenge is the root: modern.

Effectively, modern means now, the current era, in the same manner as today sits between yesterday and tomorrow. The problem is that we are employing the term postmodern as if it’s tomorrow but today. Of course, except in jest, tomorrow is never simultaneously today. The notion reminds me of the sentiment captured in the quip when asked ‘When will you do this task?’ ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’. When queried the next day, ‘Why have you not yet done this task?’ and the response is ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’, ad infinitum.

I’ll caption this tomorrow

Modern derives from the Latin meaning ‘just now‘. People have been labelling themselves as modern since at least 1585 when it meant ‘of or pertaining to present or recent times‘. As early as 1500, it meant ‘now existing‘, so more toward ‘extant‘.

My point is that one might be able to retroactively reference post-X in relationship to X, but to name something duratively as post-X simply makes no sense. Add to this the complication that Latour mentions that we’ve never been modern or the further connotation that privileges the term adopter over others. Namely, whilst the West are modern at time-zero, being the height of modernity, some other contemporaneous other does not qualify. The United States are modern—just not Appalacia and certainly not Bangladesh. In a temporal sense, premodern takes on a similar meaning, e.g. Aztec or Mayan civilisations.

Besides the unfortunate naming, ‘postmodern‘ attempts to envelop many thoughts. As I’ve mentioned before, it is most typically pejoratively.

Whist I attempt to align myself with certain so-called postmodern figures, and I use the term myself because it still has some referential value, I do so with reservations and the understanding that it’s a nonsensical notion from the start. Perhaps, I’ll suggest a new solution tomorrow.

Semiotics of Autumn

This season-appropriate meme crossed my path—or did I cross its? No matter. It’s a clever instantiation of Baudrillard’s simulacrum, and it really demonstrates the path to simulacrum in 4 stages. I don’t know who rendered this, but it arrived to me via Philosophy Matters. Although it’s self-explanatory, I’ll editorialise nonetheless.

At Stage Zero, the thing in and of itself exists—out there. This is the signified. It’s the thing represented by the symbol depicted in Stage One—a so-called pumpkin, la citrouille, la calabaza, der Kürbis, and so on—the signifier.

At Stage Two, the essence of the signified remains intact, but it’s lost its form. We can make a mental connexion between this and the signified, but we are a step further removed. In this case, the pie likely started as the signified but was transformed into a pie, a new signified and signifer.

At Stage Three, we may or may not have any remnants of the Stage Zero signified, but we still invoke the essence of the pumpkin. More probably, we invoke the essence of the pumpkin pie by way of the pumpkin spice.

By the time we arrive at Stage Four, we’re left with a claim of ‘pumpkin-ness’ and a visual cue to remind us of the path through pumpkin pie and the trace of spice, the marketing angling toward the pie over the fruit.

Keep in mind that the claim of natural flavours does not presume that pumpkin is one of those flavours.

Ingredients (Coffeemate Pumpkin Spice Creamer)
Water, Sugar, Coconut Oil, and Less Than 2% Of Sodium Caseinate (A Milk Derivative)**, Dipotassium Phosphate, Mono- And Diglycerides, Natural And Artificial Flavors, Sucralose (Non-Nutritive Sweetener).

I’m not entirely sure I agree with the distinction between Stage Three and Four in this meme, but it’s just a meme, so I’ll leave it here.

Telles seraient les phases successives de l’image :

– elle est le reflet d’une réalité profonde

– elle masque et dénature une réalité profonde

– elle masque l’absence de réalité profonde

– elle est sans rapport à quelque réalité que ce soit : elle est son propre simulacre pur.

—Jean Baudrillard, Simulacres et Simulation

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.

Metamodernism on the Ternary Plot

I don’t have a strong grasp of Metamodernism, but at first glance, it doesn’t seem to be a place I wish to reside, and I don’t have the motivation to look deeper. Instead, I’ll rely on proponants and advocates to fill that void. They are already ahead of me on that curve and far more qualified to lead that charge. Moreover, I believe there are at least two paths to follow.

Metamodernism attempts to synthesise Modernism and Postmodernism, but from my perspective, it’s a Modern belief that simply preferences Premodern mysticism over Postmodernism. From what I understand about Metamodernism, all of it’s dimensions can be measured on the planar ternary plot I am architecting. From what I read by Metamodernists is that it is either operates to sublate or is a paradigm shift that transcends these worldviews.

If my characterisation is correct, Metamodernism is captured by the model and simply shifts the dot to the left. If one of the other persectives is correct, it either changes the shape of the plane itself, alters the pathing of the movement of the dot, or creates a need for a Z-axis to capture this Z-dimentional movement. To assess this, I’ll need more information. For now, I will adopt my perspective and see where I end up.

Usign this ternary chart as a reference, if I am the solid red dot at time-1, and adopt some Metamodern world views, my place at time-2 moves in the direction of PreModern, which is to say down and to the left.

To be clear, the direction of this shift is not inevitable. It depends on the initial orientation and the dimension under consideration. If I were lower on the chart (more Modern than PostModern), then the movement would more likely be from right to left horizontally and not angular as depicted. Moreover, even from the starting position shown, the movement might simply go left. What it won’t do is go up or to the right, the area shaded in red on the chart below.

My next step is still to dimentionalise this. Altought I have some canditates already in mind, I suspect this will be an emergant process. Feel free to come along for the ride.

Ternary Chart

I am working toward fleshing out my Modernity Triangle. Since I want to illustrate placement graphically, I’ve settled on using a ternary plot—at least for now. I’ve borrowed an existing Excel template, which already contained the simple maths and charting. This is really just the tip of the iceberg as creating appropriate dimensions, measures, and weights is the heavy lifting.

I may work on the aesthetics, but this is the underlying framework. I’ve already commenced a scoping conversation in a previous post. In a nutshell, there are three primative movements—the spectra are Premodern to Modern, Modern to Postmodern, and Postmodern to Premodern.

This chart is meant to be discriptive. As the adage goes, there is no correct placement. If you identify as a Modern, you may wish the dots to bias in that direction, but the same is true if you occupy one of the other corners. For those who prefer moderation as a stance—the Middle Path—, you may be tempted to find comfort in a dot occupying the centre. That’s fine. I’m not judging your worldview.

Taking a moment to mention prescription, the best I can offer at this point is that if you feel you should or want to occupy a particular place. Feel free to create a vector from where you are to where you aspire to be. My only caveat at this point is that sometimes it is hard to reverse tack once the genie’s been let out of the bottle. An example might be agriculture. Humans progressed from Hunter-Gatherers to Aggrarians. Some have ‘progressed’ to Industrial and Postindustrial worldviews. However, not all humans have taken these paths. But due to encroachment of Premodern humans by Moderns, the habitat of Premoderns has made hunting and gethering an untenable lifestyle, so in the contemporary world, only Hunter-Horticulturalist remain.

In the accompanying ternary chart, I clumsily place myself where I self-identify, though I could be way off base. As a matter of example, this dot could represent a single dimension as well as some aggregation of dimensions. At the most abstract level, the view should interpret as a person espousing a tendency toward Postmodernism over Modernism fairly far removed from Premodernism. The lower leftmost dot on the Premodern corner could represent a typical pre-Enlightenment peasant as well as a member of some contemporary indigenous tribe such as the Sentinelese.

In the contemporary Western world, I’d imaging that they might be represented by the 2 dots on the second horizontal, fairly Modern, a smidgeon of PostModern, and more PreModern than they’d likely be comfortable to admit.

Political Compass

I was inspired by the Political Compass conceived by Libertarians attempting to differentiate themselves from a strict Left-Right political frame. My intent is to create something similar. I don’t feel that I have four points to work with, so I settled for three. I discuss how Metamodernism fits into this model elsewhere. Here is an how the Political Compass situated the UK parties in the 2019 general election.

Modernity Triangle

I’ve been thinking, but I haven’t had a lot of free time, so I may be fleshing this post out over time.

I participate in several online groups centred around Postmodernism. There are some fellow Postmoderns, and there are some Moderns, some who want to find out what all the hubbub is about, and some detractors. Invariably, the conversation turns to one of definition. This post will not attempt to answer that question. I’ve made that attempt elsewhere and elsewhen.

This post is meant to orient the relationship between premodern, modern, and postmodern. Image A depicts a strict linear chronology. I don’t suspect anyone views this progression where at some point Modern philosophy superseded Premodern and was itself superseded by Postmodern thought. In my own experience, this does not ring as valid, and it doesn’t feel like this will unfold in any future.

Image B is a more plausible chronology, though some might prefer a permutation where Premodern eventually fades away and where Modern fades away at another point. Again, experience doesn’t bear out this scenario.

In fact, this is how I came to conceptualise the relationship as a triangle—rather a radial chart limted to three points. This is represented by image C1, where there is a triangular relationship, with each of the schools of thought represented at the angles. The placement of the labels is arbitrary. That Postmodern is rendered at the top should not suggest that it is elevated or better than the others. Neither is Modern better because it resides on the right side. The triangle doesn’t indicate and time dimension.

Image C2 is merely a representation of C1 with a dot to indicate placement on the plane.

Ostensibly, each angle contains dimensions and measures. I haven’t sussed out fully what these dimensions might be, but a triangle might represent individuals or aggregations of individuals. An individual or a group might place differently at different times.

Regarding the triangular plane, the concept is that an entity may hold belief sets of any or all of these worldviews simultaneously. A bit of self-reflection might place be on the orange dot in C2, though the chart is arbitrary and not to scale. No animals were harmed, and so on.

Moreover, it’s important to distinguish between the system of belief and the pragmatic life of an entity. In my case, I feel that I am intellectually a Postmodern. I have an incredulity toward metanarratives, don’t believe in objective truths, and feel that every system requires context to evaluate. This said, I am quite strategic and analytical. Also, although I’ve been called many times a Stoic and Spock from Star Trek, my emotions and cognitive biases and sense perception deficits still allow me to favour the underdog as a Social Justice Warrior.

socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires

— No one in particular

It’s been pointed out that many Postmoderns are simultaneously Marxists or otherwise Leftists. Personally, I feel these are simple covariances, that a Conservative has to give more weight to history and teleological arguments, thereby qualifying as a Modern, whereas a Postmodern is more likely to dismiss these are metanarrative-laden. I consider myself a Leftist, but again, this is an emotional rather than intellectual decision. As a Postmodern, intellectually speaking, I believe there is no way to determine whether Anarchosyndicalism is better or worse than Republicanism or Oligarchy, but I know how I feel about these. And without going down some political rabbit hole, it’s plain to see that many people are predictably irrational and vote against their own interests time and again as they believe some narrative where they see themselves in another position where this self-deprecation will pay off in the end. This is embodied in the meme that “socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” This is usually misattributed to John Steinbeck, but the sentiment remains—don’t tax the rich—because I am just a stone-throw away from that—if only I paid less in taxes.

Finally, there are the Premoderns. These people are not only nostalgics, but they retain superstitious beliefs, favour natural remedies, and Ayurvedic treatments. They retain religious beliefs—some even preferring pre-Judeo-Christian paradigms. And yet they may also be scientists and otherwise structured thinkers. It’s harder for me to conjure scenarios where an entity might simultaneously hold Premodern and Postmodern beliefs. Off the cuff, it seems that one might believe in some sort of cultural relativity and at the same time believe in some shamanic healing or Ayahuasca retreat for cleansing or getting in touch with the universe. I wouldn’t presume it’s that unusual for people to hold antithetical and mutually exclusive beliefs. I am not superstitious, but I carry a lucky penny or some such.

My next step in this journey is to dimensionalise the model. I already have got some ideas, many of which have already been captured here, but my familiarity with Premoderns is limited and probably contains a lot of stereotypes and caricatures.

Please stand by.

Postmodern Labyrinth

I watched the video, What Makes us Postmodern, and its predecesor, What Makes Us Modern, and I immediately discounted any attempts to synthesise Modernism and Postmodernism in some Hegelian manner, Hegel’s approach being somewhat Modern at the start. One can pair the essential dimensions and perhaps arrive at some moderate position, but, firstly, this is a Modern perspective; secondly, Moderns are not likey to abandon their position.

There may be a resolution, but it seems that it will require a paradigm shift—a different perspective still.

Ancient Greek mythology gives us the story of the Labyrinth. As I am not interested in analysing this from a Jungian perspective, we can safely ignore the Minotaur. The story of the labryrinth is a story for Moderns. It’s a teleological story based on the metanarrative that suggests that one can find order in disorder, if only they have the key.

As the story goes, the labyrinth is an unsolvable puzzle. However, at least one person knows how to solve it, or at least knows how to beat the system. Depending on the source version, Ariadne either assisted Theseus with a thread or jewels.

In a tl;dr version of the story, Theseus is tasked with killing the Minotaur. I’ve recently discussed his ship. Exposition informs us that the Minotaur is mortal, thus killable, but there is no escaping the maze—for reasons. However, Daedalus, the architect of the labyrinth, told Ariadne that there was one way out. If someone were to record their ingress, with say, a thread or jewels, they could then follow these to egress. Definitely not a plot device. Hansel and Gretel took this to heart and marked their ingress with breadcrumbs—or stones, depending upon which version you’re reading.

What Makes this Modern

Though the story of the labyrinth and the Minotaur comes from a pre-modern era, it remains an apt metaphor for modernity.

There is a deliberate underlying structure. In fact, it has been architected by Daedalus. This mirrors the Intelligent Design narrative favoured by Christians.

There is a definitive solution to the puzzle. The story is teleological. If one follows the plan, stays on the path, they will prevail. Go off-script, and perish.

This is a story about structure, about order, about adopting and conforming to the rules. Even though it’s also about gaming the system with cheat codes in more modern parlance. Nowadays, I’d turn off clipping and collision detection, but Ariadne didn’t know these codes. I digress.

Postmodern Reaction

This is not a story for Postmoderns because it starts with a design. For moderns, there is a design. It’s either a vestigial god or science. The belief is that everything has structure. Even if that structure is yet unknown to us. If only we had enough time, we could suss it out. Perhaps it’s past time to re-task Shakespeare’s infinite monkeys.

Reconciliation of this teleological belief is intractable. Rather, it can likely only be solved with rhetoric. Moderns love rhetoric, which explains why they have so much faith in Aristotle and classical philosophers, who still provide a foundation to much philosophy of the Moderns. It’s intractable in the same way that converting someone with some religious conviction to no longer have that conviction.

Modernism is about faith. It may have shifted from faith in gods to faith in logic and reason, science and technology, or organisation and progress. Postmodernism points out that whilst these are possible solutions, they are not the only solutions. Moreover, these have unintended consequences and create collateral damage. They also rely on a privileged perspective. Perhaps I’ll create a segment to illustrate this point using the disruption of COVID-19 as a backdrop.

In the end, Modernism relies on teleologies. The end may not be known, but we can divine a vision and lead people in that direction anyway by employing rhetorical devices. Postmodernism knows that any such narrative is fiction. A postmodern may emotionally buy into the narrative, but they never forget that it’s still fiction.

Modernism relies on order and control to maintain that order. This doesn’t mean that all Moderns are top-down authoritarians. But it does mean that they need crowd control and compliance. The United States are probably mostly Moderns. They like to claim they are individualists, but they are more typically either keeping up with the Joneses or competing with them. Most individuality is trivial at best. “I’m an individual because my BMW is purple.” Quite. And Moderns don’t like much non-compliance. They may want change, but if someone expresses this need for change through civil disobedience, the Modern may viscerally agree, but they will also rationalise that the civil disobedients should have used the admittedly broken system. Moderns like what they call progress, but they can only accept change in small doses at a slow pace, so there’s a friction.

Finally, there’s power. I am not going to rehash Nietzsche or Foucault, but this is a schism. Moderns want order and control. Power structures assist this, but then they don’t like the current actors. If only there were better actors. Nietzsche noted that the masters and the herd had different interests and moralities. Moderns know this on one level but think they can remediate this dichotomy. Because of course, they think they can bring order to everything—Second Law of Thermodynamics notwithstanding.

In the end, these schools will likely attempt to coexist. As for me, I’m a nihilist and somewhat of an existentialist. Yet, I am also a pragmatist as I still have to operate within the world I’ve been thrown into, as noted by Heidegger.

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.

Disintegration Street

Riffing on my recent post, I wanted to provide a tab more perspective on my claim that postmodernism serves a purely disintegrative function. Anyone can disintegrate a narrative into constituent parts, but postmodernism provides no grounds for privileged reintegration, as this too can be disintegrated. So, whilst one is free to disintegrate and even to reassemble the parts, one is never in a position to claim that this is how it should be put together because this privileges the subject and another subject can always come along and privilege another perspective. Also, there is no PoMo toolkit available to reassemble the parts that I am aware of.

When I was a child, a neighbour owned and operating a demolition company. He disintegrated buildings. He kept some of the materials and sold some other for scrap. Whilst these materials could be repurposed and used in the construction of another building—or a picnic table—, this was not the function of the demolition company. It’s safe to say that no one was ringing him up under the premise that he had tools, so why won’t he build them a house. He knows houses, right?

This is the same problem we face when deconstructing a narrative with postmodern tools. If we want to construct something, we can, but we should expect that no matter what we do, the next wave can readily knock it down. And though we can rebuild more castles made of sand, they are all subject to the same forces.



* I admit that this title was lent from The Cure’s Fascination Street, which does happen to be on their album Disintegration.

The Cure – Fascination Street video

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.