Imagine that human history can be broken into three chapters. These chapters are distinguished by three different attitudes to authority, knowledge and progress. These attitudes, which we will call Pre-Modern, Modern and Post-Modern, are dominant in their respective eras but certainly not exclusive. There is a bit of the Premodern attitude in the Modern era and even a bit of the Modern attitude in the Pre-Modern era but between eras there is a shift in ascendancy. This makes it impossible to date these eras neatly. Even within people there is voices from all eras lingering. However someone like Moses or Mother Theresa is firmly Premodern, someone like Mary Wollstonecraft or Karl Marx is firmly Modern and someone like Derrida or Batman is Postmodern. That’s not a joke. Whereas Moses and Marx are proposing plans to fix their societies, Batman, from his position as a criminal, can only achieve partial remedies to Gotham. We will see that this is a hallmark of the Postmodern.
We can’t really say that either Pre-Modern, Modern or Post-Modern worldviews are entirely good or bad. Hitler is modern but so is Martin Luther King. You could say Pre-Modern, Modern and Post-Modern worldviews are suited to their times however they are so pervasive that it might be fairer to say the times become suited to their attitudes. They are broader than what we usually call “philosophies”. Instead they equip us philosophically. I want to get to the point where I can discuss a specifically Post-modern equipped response to some contemporary social problems. Before we can do that I need to try and broadly describe these three world-views.
In the Premodern world-view authority comes from above and beyond ourself. Humanity learns and knows through encountering revelation. Revelation is exactly what it sounds like, something or someone is revealing the truth to us, peeling back the curtain from ultimate reality. A key intellectual virtue of the Premodern era is patience. Faithfulness is also important as the payoff for any revelation is not always immediate. It might even be generations from the time of revelation to when it is proven true. In the Pre-Modern world view there is also no guarantee of positive progress. Sometimes there is even a view of the present as less than the past because we are now further from a moment of revelation or creation in which truth was truly known. More often time just isn’t evaluated as a simple straight line based on human social happiness; prophets arise in our darkest hours while prosperity brings its own corruption and all seasons have their purpose.
In the Modern world view authority is a term with a changed meaning. We are not waiting for a message from an author of the world. We are able to speak with authority ourselves. The basis of our authority is adherence to a process – rational thinking, logic, the scientific method, evidence based practice, reflective practice, client-focused systems, democratic processes and so on. All of these from pre-enlightenment concepts to contemporary buzzwords are processes which are seen as enabling humanity to be like Gods, to speak with authority. Within modernism there are arguments about which process are best and which are broken but there is a fundamental belief that a process is sufficient to guide progress in the right direction – not revelation from beyond. A key intellectual virtue of the Modern world view is therefore rigour – strict adherence to protocols and constraints. Other values which become important are precision and objectivity. There is an unshakable faith that some process will enable the future to be better than the past and the past is generally considered worse than today for not having access to the processes we have.
In the Postmodern world view there is a recognition that this way of breaking up history into three phases puts the postmodern in the literary place of the punchline at the end. Postmodern attitudes will therefore need to have all the answers, complete all endings and supercede both the modern and the pre-modern before it. Postmodernity tries to resist this fate for two reasons – one is that the postmodern world view doesn’t believe in itself in the way that the Pre-Modern and Post-Modern attitudes do. In the Modern world view the Premodern ideas are dismissed as myths and stories, unlike its own beliefs. The Post-modern world view doesn’t just consider that the Modern and the Pre-modern ideas both are myths and stories it accepts this as a fair characterization of itself. The whole shebang of the three world views is a myth! Postmodernism itself is an element in a story. You could consider this hyper-critical response to be a continuation of the Modern into the Post-Modern. On the other hand the way in which this criticism destroys the idea of progress – reflected in Postmodernisms refusal to take the throne as our stories ultimate winner – is an element we find in the Pre-Modern.
The other reason that Postmodernism tries to resist being the stories final answer is to be found in the way that postmodernists, premodernists and modernists are not fundamentally different. Most of them would rather have a full stomach than an empty one, would rather children laughed than cried and would rather not see the tiger go extinct. All of them want to be right and want to be right in order to see the world be better, pre-modernists through faithfulness and patience and modernists through rigour and objectivity. The problem for Postmodernists is their awareness that the desire to be right and pursue what is best for the world has historically been a justification for terrible cruelty. As modernists believe pre-modern conviction is delusional, and pre-modernists think modernist conviction is hubris, postmodernists agree with them both. Conviction is problematic in the postmodern, particularly conviction of a particular type referred to as belief in a metanarrative.
A Metanarrative is the idea that there is one large story for all. For Christians there are many different stories in their church on any given Sunday – Bob is there to thank God for forgiving his adultery, Sarah is there because she finds the company wholesome, Martha is there because she wants to connect with her families heritage, Nick is there to put on the armour of God in his crusade against whatever Nick is fired up about. Each of these stories however are subsumed under one large story of Gods engagement with their creation in which the differences between congregation members are irrelevant. There is not a million different reasons why God sent his son to earth in Christianity, for Bob’s forgiveness and Martha’s traditions and so on, but one reason that defines everyone’s relationship to the story. That’s a metanarrative.
The Christian Gospel is only one example of a metanarrative. The idea that being an atheist will improve people’s lives – not just Bob and Sarah’s lives but everybody’s lives and in some basically similar way – is a metanarrative too. Most if not all feminisms are metanarratives. Capitalism and communism both spew out metanarattives. We find less metanarratives in the premodern era – particularly when we see Gods localized to the degree that we have the God of the Israelites with a story only for them. Traditional African religions don’t operate by metanarratives either – each person has their own spiritual quest. The metanarratives zenith was Modernism, which makes sense given the modern valuing of consistency and theory, while Postmodernism tries to avoid metanarratives all together.
In this regard Postmodernism is always failing. We are stuck in our three world view story. The moment Postmodernism gains any kind of definition as a philosophy, including the definition that Postmodernists reject metanarratives, then we complete the three world view story and we have a metanarrative containing Postmodernism. All of history becomes expressed in a tale with an implied should to it – you too should avoid metanarratives. I think of this as the contamination of postmodernism by the Modern era. It seems impossible for Postmodernism to break free of Modernism’s production of metanarratives – it seems impossible to speak at all without speaking for everybody.
Modernists wants us to reject postmodernism for this failure and inevitable contradictions but why wouldn’t they? This would after all ensure the modern era continues unchallenged and unchallengeable. The Pre-Modern is a foe already on the ropes. Postmodernism has several strategies to resist completely failing (and completely succeeding which paradoxically is the same thing) in separating from Modernism and the chief of these is acceptance. Acceptance is a virtue in the postmodern akin to patience in the Premodern. Postmodernism accepts that it contains contradictions, it accepts that it has to rely on the pre-modern and the modern and can never fully replace them, it accepts that philosophical problems are not solvable. Authority for example is a huge point of conflict between world views. Pre-modernists poke fun at the self-referential nature of moral authority in modernism. Modernists argue that the transcendant in premodernism is simply a God of the gaps and also must be justified by circular logic. Postmodernists accept that living with authority and living without it are both ultimately untenable and therefore any answer to questions of authority has to be tentative and partial, temporary and moderated. The Batman needs Comissioner Gordon who needs the Batman, even though both contradict each other as vigilante and lawman.
“Hi, I’m a Postmodernist” is not a particularly great way to introduce oneself at parties. Partly its because postmodern texts can be chock full of made-up words and elusive content. Reading Post-Modern theory can lead us to feel a combination of stupid and angry that someone is trying to make us feel stupid. There are well publicised cases of people using postmodern language to publish gibberish that no-one dared criticize in case it actually meant something brilliant – a sort of intellectual Emperors new clothes. Once exposed these confidence scams drew ire down on the whole enterprise. In it’s wordy posturing postmodern theory can also seem to encourage a superficial involvement with reality; postmodern Nero doesn’t so much fiddle as he engages in “musical hair-splitting”, while Rome burns.
In it’s defence I don’t think philosophy has been able to talk directly about itself with much clarity for some time. The hyper critical nature of postmodern philosophy in which language and philosophy themselves are being interrogated makes describing this world view directly with language and philosophy terms a fools task. We are better off demonstrating postmodern philosophy in characters set in fiction. Star Trek Voyager is far more postmodern than previous Star Treks for example. The crews preparedness to break their own protocols in order to act responsibly is contradictory. What are they responsible to without those protocols? Elsewhere the Guardians of the Galaxy leave us with the question of whether they will do something bad, something good or a bit of both at the end of their film, never resolving the contradiction of goodies and baddies. Acceptance, partial solutions, imperfect answers are everywhere in our stories. They are not always demonstrated fatalistically and tragically in moral tales that reinforce a need for modernism or the pre-modern. Sometimes we cheer uncertainty and are happy our protagonists are left with the tension of continuing choice.
Postmodernism also gets into trouble because of mistaken identities. Sometimes people hear of French Postfeminism and confuse it with American post-feminism. French Postfeminism is a feminist attempt to construct the self post all the assumptions of gender. This is reasonably associated with post modernism in the field of ideas. American post-feminism by contrast is the claim that feminism’s work is done (by gaining women the vote for example) and we can let liberal capitalism progress now without further feminist critique. This is not post-modern but very modern instead. Likewise there seems to me to be nothing particularly postmodern about Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man with its view that the end of human political evolution has been reached by both liberal democracy and capitalism. American post-feminism and the End of History myth both get lumped under a post-modern banner which the left then forcibly reject. But what they are rejecting are clearly metanarratives that fit perfectly inside Modernism.
Another case of mistaken identity is when conservatives reject post-modernism because they see it as promoting moral relativism. In a way they are right but equally they are wrong. Postmodernism rejects one size fits all solutions and this includes moral relativism as an absolute truth in the way that a modernist might use it – to discount all moral speech as nonsense. The arguments that conservatives use to argue against moral relativism – that it will lead us to a position where no evil can be confronted at all – is met with postmodern acceptance. Postmodernists agree but hold this alongside the awareness that outrightly rejecting all moral relativism is just as problematic. Alternatives that postmodernists explore include local truth in which consensus around meaning might be developed differently in differently settings and the idea that language is tactical and collegial rather than strictly truth telling. This is not the same as saying that language is just individual expression. I hope I can explore these concepts further on this blog.
This is not an official guide to Postmodernism. I have never heard anyone else use the word acceptance as an intellectual virtue in any context let alone in a breakdown of these world views. You should consider that when writing an academic paper or answering a trivia question. No liability is recognised if you lose a million dollar prize or get a D from quoting me. It’s a profoundly relevant question to this topic to ask how you would establish the authority of this blog post. If your answer is a little bit of this method of verification and a little bit of that method, with a degree of uncertainty never fully dispelled you just might be postmodernist.
For a more mainstream discussion of this topic check out this lovely fellows lecture.