It’s where we live nowadays, and we’re not going back. We got to examine it.
A working definition
To get a general idea of the contours of this massive intellectual movement or trend, a postmodern theorist provides a working definition. Stuart Sim in his Preface to the second edition of the Routledge Companion to Postmodernism (ed. Stuart Sim, 2005) defines it in these terms, as follows:
In a general sense, postmodernism is to be regarded as a rejection of many, if not most, of the cultural certainties on which life in the West has been structured over the past couple of centuries. It has called into question our commitment to cultural “progress” (that national economies must continue to grow, that the quality of life must keep improving indefinitely, etc.), as well as the political systems that have underpinned this belief. (p. vii)
Thus, postmodernism rejects cultural certainty and progress. Indirectly and in the big scheme of things, postmodernism relates to the Enlightenment (c. 1600-1800+) in an adverse way. Sim writes on the same page:
Postmodernists often refer to the “Enlightenment project,” meaning the liberal humanist ideology that has come to dominate Western culture since the eighteenth century [I would say from the seventeenth century; dates are not firm in major movements]: an ideology that has striven to bring about the emancipation of mankind from economic want and political oppression. In the view of postmodernists, this project, laudable though it may have been at one time, has in its turn come to oppress humankind, and to force it into certain set ways of thought and action not always in its best interests.
What is the response of postmodernism to this “oppression” that the Enlightenment produces—never mind that it has provided the seeds of great freedom and prosperity? Sim continues:
It is therefore to be resisted, and postmodernists are invariably critical of universalizing theories (“grand narratives” or “metanarratives” as they have been dubbed by the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard), as well as being anti-authoritarian in their outlook. To move from the modern to the postmodern is to embrace skepticism about what our culture stands for and strives for. (p. vii)
It is clear that postmodernists are not friends of Western political systems and economies—the very ones that provide them with enough prosperity and freedom and leisure time to criticize the systems. The irony is rich.
Do postmodernists know which systems should replace the current ones? Maybe far left systems, but I have not figured out whether they do, specifically.
Webster’s Dictionary says that the origin of the word is unknown (postmodernism plays with origins or nonorigins). It means a great change or alteration, “often with grotesque or humorous effect.”
In most cases I would take out the word “great” and put in “small” because postmodernism is heavily indebted to earlier trends. Being a borrower, postmodernism is not all that innovative. Anyone who has seen a modern and postmodern sculpture or painting or has read a modern and postmodern novel can grasp that postmodernism has been influenced by modernism and modernist trends (hence the prefix “post”).
But postmodernism is “grotesque” and “humorous” in many ways—its fine art and literature demonstrate this.
Who are the postmodernists?
Two postmodernists apply the hyper prefix in another context besides philosophy. In their Preface and Acknowledgments, Steven Best and Douglas Kellner promise their readers that they will sort out the mainstream theorists and practitioners of postmodernism, and they do a good job of it, too. But they accurately describe the postmodernists as “more radical than radical” (Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, Macmillan, 1991). They write:
In this book we shall sort out and appraise the contributions and limitations of these perspectives which present themselves as the newest avant-garde in theory and politics, more radical than radical, and newer than new: the hyperradical and the hypernew. (p. ix)
This is mostly an accurate description of mainstream postmodernists. They are indeed hyper-radical, but not so much hyper-new. Anyway, their assessment agrees with mine, namely, that postmodernists merely took over the hyper-skepticism begun in the Enlightenment.
Then Best and Kellner dedicate their book to the new generation of intellectuals and activists, calling them “radical”:
We would like to dedicate this book to the next generation of radical intellectuals and activists who we hope will use the insights of postmodern theory and other critical discourses to develop new theories and politics to meet the challenges of the current decade and next century. (pp. x-xi)
I appreciate Best’s and Kellner’s honesty, written in their own words. We have been fairly forewarned.
To latch on to the word “skepticism” in that last excerpt by Sim, postmodernism, in my opinion, is nothing more than a transmogrification of the hyper-skepticism begun in the Enlightenment and given a large push by post-Enlightenment thinkers like Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger and a long list of others. This hyper-skepticism and its transmogrification stretch from the late nineteenth into the twentieth centuries and gain momentum after WWII. Transmogrifying postmodernism comes into its own after WWII and in the 1960s, but firm dates are hard to pin down in huge trends and movements, and postmodernism overlaps with modernism.
In the article “Postmodernism and Philosophy” in the Routledge Companion, Sim agrees with my own assessment about the skeptical roots of postmodernism. He writes:
One of the best ways of describing postmodernism as a philosophical movement would be as a form of skepticism—skepticism about authority, received wisdom and political norms, etc.—and that puts it into a long-running tradition in Western thought that stretches back to classical Greek philosophy. Skepticism is an essentially negative form of philosophy, which sets out to undermine other philosophical theories claiming to be in possession of ultimate truth, or of criteria for determining what counts as ultimate truth. (p. 3)
I attach the prefix “hyper” to skepticism because most ordinary Westerners have even a little skepticism. But professional philosophers of a certain kind take things to excess, doubting even simple facts that we all take for granted in our daily lives, such as scientific truths or the world outside of us existing independently of our minds and in its own right. These kinds of thinkers do not doubt only “ultimate truth,” as Sim says. Any ordinary thinker does that. Rather, the professionals take things well beyond that—hence the prefix “hyper.”
The next four characteristics of postmodernism have been summarized best by Kevin Hart of Notre Dame University in his superb introduction, Postmodernism: a Beginner’s Guide (Oneworld, 2004). He has a chapter titled “The Loss of Origins.” That is a perfect result of postmodernism.
Hyper-skeptical of origins
Postmodernism says that language is always in play, and the origins and meaning of words may not be simplistically limited by their context. Words retain their “traces” or tracks (as in footprints), regardless of their placement in a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire book. This perpetual playing implies that we cannot nail meaning down.
The next three characteristics reveal the fallout of the loss of origins.
Hyper-skeptical of essences
As Freud says, humans do not have a soul, so they lack a permanent essence. Hart writes:
One of the most widespread forms [of anti-essentialism] amounts to the contention that there is no natural or universal essence to being human. (p. 26)
In the context of literary interpretation, anti-essentialism means the following, in contrast to how postmodernists interpret texts. Hart clarifies:
The [postmodern theorists] will also point out that essentialists or humanists usually attempt to unify the work by way of interpretation. (p. 27)
Thus, non-postmodern (to pile on the prefixes) interpretations are naïve, if they seek unity in interpretation. So how does an anti-essentialist postmodernist read a work of literature? Hart answers:
Read the same work through anti-essentialist lenses, [postmodernists] suggest, and you will not be hampered by focusing on truths that can be universalized or by trying to see the whole text in a single sustained vision. It is more likely that you will seek to put what you learn about characters and their situations to use in politics and ethics . . . As an anti-essentialist, you will not be tempted to bypass, overlook or reduce these episodes or descriptions that run counter to an overall interpretation. In fact, those things might suggest rival interpretations of the work that do not cohere and do not go away. (p. 27)
Hyper-skeptical of realism
One way to define realism in a postmodern context is to point out its opposite, anti-realism. Hart explains:
Many postmodernists hold forms of both metaphysical and truth anti-realism: there is no reality independent of the mind, and no truth that enjoys that status either. Usually, they will deny that there is a correspondence between language and reality. People who take this stand urge us to accept that language does not simply transmit information but partly constructs what it communicates. We cannot have objective knowledge of reality because we cannot step outside language. (p. 28)
Hyper-skeptical of foundations
Generally, hyper-skepticism about foundations is known as anti-foundationalism, which means that “our knowledge of the world rests on no secure ground” (Hart, p. 29). Hart goes right to Nietzsche in defining anti-foundationalism. Hart writes:
Nietzsche himself has responded differently to the nihilism that he had diagnosed. We have lost the ‘real world’ and the ‘apparent world,’ he thought, and it follows from this eerie situation that there are no facts, only interpretations. With that breathtaking claim we broach the doctrine that Nietzsche called ‘perspectivism.’ It is a shorthand for a group of different doctrines — that truth is perspectival, that logic is, that knowledge is, and so on . . . There is no absolute, Nietzsche declared: being is always becoming and ‘being human’ is fluid rather than fixed. (p. 35).
“Being human is fluid, rather than fixed.” If that doesn’t fit the day we’re living in, when genders differences collapse and anybody can self-identify however he or she wants, what does?
After describing Nietzsche shifting the definition of the “good,” Hart returns to the process of interpretation within anti-foundationalism. He says:
There is no unconditional ground for reality — no absolute perspective, no God’s eye view of the world — only a plurality of forces that form themselves into groups, break apart and reform in other combinations. Each constellation of forces interprets the others in a robust sense of ‘interpret,’ one that comes from a possible etymological source of the word—pretium or value. To interpret is to negotiate value (Hart, p. 35)
Hyper-skeptical of metanarratives
“Metanarrative” is a big word for “grand narrative.” Jean-François Lyotard, a prominent postmodern practitioner and theorist, says:
“Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodernism as incredulity toward metanarratives” (Postmodern Condition, p. xxiv, quoted in Adam, p. 16, emphasis original).
Adam gives examples:
Metanarratives (or “grand narratives”) are the stories we tell about the nature and destiny of humanity: Hegel viewed all history as the gradual self-revelation of Spirit (Geist) through time, while some people talk about the progressive recognition of innate human rights and of emancipatory evolution toward liberal democracy, while others talk about the inevitable rise and fall of capitalism. (p. 16)
Hyper-skeptical of totalities
The term “totality” means theories and storylines that complete any big jigsaw puzzle as if all the pieces can fit together. But we today have purchased a defective puzzle. It was never intended to be put together as a well-ordered whole. Adam writes:
[Postmodernism] is antitotalizing because postmodern discourse [communication in a variety of ways] suspects that any theory that claims to account for everything is suppressing counterexamples, or is applying warped criteria so that it can include recalcitrant cases. (p. 5)
Ihab Hassan is a major theorist on postmodernism. In his article “Pluralism in Postmodern Perspective,” in The Post-Modern Reader, he quotes Jean-François Lyotard, as follows:
Thus Jean-François Lyotard exhorts, “Let us wage war on totality; let us be witness to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the name of honor.” (p. 196)
Hyper-skeptical of canons
“Canon” originally meant a measuring stick or ruler, and it refers now to any body of writing that enjoys a privileged status, such as the Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, and so on. Hassan explains that canon should go well beyond a list of required books in a Western civilization course.
In the largest sense, this applies to all canons, all conventions of authority. We are witnessing, Lyotard argues again, a massive “delegitimation” of the mastercodes of society, a desuetude of the metanarratives . . . Thus, from the “death of god” to the “death of the author” and “death of the father,” from the derision of authority to revision of the curriculum, we decanonize culture, demystify knowledge, deconstruct the language of power . . . (p. 196).
What will postmodernism put in the place of all canons? New canons? Fair enough. But what then? I notice that postmodernism would like to revise curriculum. How? In which directions?
A Review and Comparison
Postmodernism and its subset deconstruction share these features:
- Hyper-skeptical of origins (if there are any origins, then how can we discover that, as if they can reveal anything important);
- Hyper-skeptical of essences (there is no firm definition of a thing or human);
- Hyper-skeptical about realism (no connection between language and reality);
- Hyper-skeptical of foundations (no truth, just interpretations);
- Hyper-skeptical of “meta-narratives” or the Big Picture Stories (no unifying theme of humankind that can be discerned);
- Hyper-skeptical of totalities (no grand unifying theory);
- Hyper-skeptical of canons (no authority or yardstick by which we establish norms).
Here are the features that deconstruction entertains:
- Struggle (always about the Struggle for the Left) between freeplay of meaning and traditional interpretations;
- Deconstruction affirms “freeplay and tries to pass beyond man and humanism, the name man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or onto-theology . . . has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and end of the game” (Derrida);
- Words, especially the big and abstract ones, have no fixed referent (outside reality, like a tree;
- Deconstruction capitalizes on ambiguity in language;
- It exploits the gaps and silences of a word or text;
- It’s a language game (“words, words, words!” says Hamlet to Polonius);
- Reality and the words that describe it don’t match;
- Finally, rippling outward to us, deconstruction destroys the metaphysical truths that the West depends on. And when you destroy them, you destroy stability for society.
So what does all of this mean?
This modernist poem by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is hauntingly beautiful and prophetic, even though I may not understand it entirely. It describes the shaking that modernist trends exert on the old ways. In The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (Rev. 2nd ed. Ed. Richard J. Finneran, Simon and Schuster, 1996, p. 187), Yeats writes:
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
In this poem, Yeats, who lived in the Age of Modernism, transmogrifies—changes and alters—the image of the Second Coming as understood by traditional, Bible-educated believers. (Perhaps this specific transmogrification can be called “great,” not “small.”) It is not Jesus Christ who is the subject of Yeats’ “Second Coming.” But something else “slouches towards Bethlehem.”
The movement of a gyre goes in a circle or a spiral. Yeats explains: “One gyre [comes] to its place of greatest expansion and . . . the other to that of its greatest contraction” (p. 493). He continues: “At the present moment the life gyre is sweeping outward . . . all our scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating, heterogeneous civilization belongs to the outward gyre” . . . . The Old Civilization is expanding outwardly, so “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
What is the Spiritus Mundi? Yeats defines it as “a general storehouse of images which have ceased to be the property of any personality or spirit” (p. 493). Thus, what kind of “rough beast . . . slouches towards Bethlehem”? To take a postmodern liberty with meaning that is always ambiguous even if circumscribed by its context, what kind of rough beast will postmodernism give birth to and place in “a rocking cradle”?
Postmodernism, emerging out of modernism, makes the Old Age fall apart.
What Is Postmodernism?