Friday, 3 July 2009

What postmodernism isn't, or wasn't: part one

Part one of an occasional series.

For several reasons my book doesn't spend much time defining what postmodernism is, or, increasingly, was. Plenty of existing books by writers like Hans Bertens, Steven Connor and Simon Malpas already do a perfectly good job of this. Consequently, Digimodernism pretty much assumes that we all know well enough what postmodernism means.

However, looking at recent uses of the term on the Internet makes this assumption rather awkward. There are an awful lot of misconceptions out there. This matters to a degree because an understanding of digimodernism and its status as a contemporary cultural dominant depends on a correct apprehension of the nature of what it succeeded. Roughly half of new references to postmodernism that I find on the Internet seem to be from Christians, especially American Christians. This confirms a pattern I found when, in 2008, I ran a search through books published in the last 6-7 years held in Oxford's university library (which receives by law a copy of every book published in the UK) for the word "postmodernism" or its cognates. About 80% of contemporary usages of the term, on the Internet and in the publishing world, came either from students of college modules or their professors (giving the term the same status as "Romanticism") or from Christians.

The danger with the term was always that it would become a kind of intellectual black hole, sucking into itself concepts and practices that had no need to be labelled or understood in that manner. "Postmodernism" must mean, to a strong extent, something periodized, a historical era, it must be temporal or it must mean nothing at all. Both the body of the word and its prefix emphasize a moment in time, with a beginning and, therefore, an end. This moment will certainly have its precursors, but "postmodernism" cannot be an eternally available option. It is not, as one contributor to an Internet forum opined, a "state of mind" with exemplars among the ancient Romans. States of mind have their own descriptors - see a dictionary for details. Writers who explicitly discuss postmodernism, such as Lyotard, Harvey and Jameson, agree that there was once a time when it simply did not exist. The confusion arises when postmodernism is taken to mean writers, notably Derrida and Foucault, who never treated the subject, though their work clearly bears some family resemblance to it. Derrida's work aims at eternal validity, as philosophy does; it is not, therefore, strictly postmodern.

Consequently, postmodernism is NOT, as so many online Christians seem to think, merely relativism or subjectivism regarding truth or ultra-scepticism regarding knowledge and objectivity or a belief in pluralism. These ideas are age-old, familiar to the ancient Greeks, and have floated around whenever people sat down to think seriously about thinking. Nor is postmodernism identical with some kind of questioning of the bases of knowledge - that's philosophy (duh).

The most common error made by Christians here is to construct postmodernism as the mirror image of themselves. Evangelicals, by their very nature, are keenly interested in the intellectual and philosophical and moral state of the world they are trying to evangelize, in the same way that footballers are very interested in the teams and players they come up against. The question they ask is, then, eternally this one: Why isn't the world Christian? What is it with the world, that makes it not believe? I was an evangelical Christian myself in the early 1980s (while Lyotard, Baudrillard and Jameson were defining postmodernism as the expression of our time), and I was informed by church leaders who had been at university in the late 1960s that the world was fundamentally... humanist. This prevailing humanism was said to lie at the root of abortion on demand, tolerance for homosexuality, amoral politicians, and all other social evils.
25 years later, evangelicals are asking the same question, and this time their leaders, who had been at university in the late 1980s and early 1990s, answer that the world is fundamentally... postmodernist. This prevailing postmodernism is said to lie at the root of abortion on demand, tolerance for homosexuality, amoral politicians, and all other social evils. Exactly like humanism. Never mind that postmodernism is anti- or post-humanist. And never mind that postmodernism in 2009 is as hip and now as humanism was in 1983-84.
I'm all for trying to understand the world we live in systematically and historically. It's just ignorance and arrogance to suppose that one is the sole and supreme source of what one does and thinks. But the Christian take on postmodernism is unreal. It imagines that "the postmodernists" are an organized body, a recognizable set of people with a raft of shared beliefs and ideas. It imagines that these people sit around sharing their common views on truth and reality and knowledge and belief - that they hold to an agreed value system about the meaning of the real and the true. But this is a description of evangelical Christians, not of postmodernists. All such references to "the postmodernists" are incapable for this reason of supplying names.
There are people these days who espouse an ultra-subjectivist or relativist view of truth ("you're right from your side/and I'm right from mine", in Dylan's words). But this is much less the effect of "postmodernism" than of consumerism, which sees all choices in the market place as equally valid. American Christians are obsessed with postmodernism because they are socially conditioned never to question the economic system they inhabit, and this is nothing new (I noticed it in about 1982, and it wasn't new then either). The US is dominated by a certain economic system and its driving ideology, and American Christianity is deeply infected, as all non-Christians know, by nationalism: in the early 1980s the US was said to be under attack from humanism and Marxism, and now it is said to be threatened by postmodernism, but in all cases and all times it is said to be menaced by something foreign and alien and coming from abroad. Its problems can never be home-grown.
So version one of what postmodernism isn't or wasn't: it's not an ultra-sceptical or relativist creed about reality and truth which threatens the free world. More on this later.

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