Postmodernism Is Dead, and Critical Realism Isn’t Its Successor

For years, people have been telling me that postmodernism is dead. The most recent is an article in Philosophy Now (sent to me by Russell Rathbun).

It’s an interesting piece by Alan Kirby, who has a full book on the subject: Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure Our Culture. First among Kirby’s hypotheses is that, if postmodernism is dead, don’t look to “critical realism” for a successor:

Postmodern philosophy emphasises the elusiveness of meaning and knowledge. This is often expressed in postmodern art as a concern with representation and an ironic self-awareness. And the argument that postmodernism is over has already been made philosophically. There are people who have essentially asserted that for a while we believed in postmodern ideas, but not any more, and from now on we’re going to believe in critical realism. The weakness in this analysis is that it centres on the academy, on the practices and suppositions of philosophers who may or may not be shifting ground or about to shift – and many academics will simply decide that, finally, they prefer to stay with Foucault [arch postmodernist] than go over to anything else. However, a far more compelling case can be made that postmodernism is dead by looking outside the academy at current cultural production.

This will come as a shock to all those erstwhile fans of Dallas Willard who approach me at conferences and tell me that they’re critical realists. Usually, it seems to me that they’ve embraced that philosophical position because it allows them to sound smart and critical, while still hanging on to their fideist assumptions about the Bible, truth, and theology.

Kirby contends that what’s after postmodernism isn’t something tamer, like critical realism, but something even more radical than postmodernism itself:

Postmodernism, like modernism and romanticism before it, fetishised [ie placed supreme importance on] the author, even when the author chose to indict or pretended to abolish him or herself. But the culture we have now fetishises the recipient of the text to the degree that they become a partial or whole author of it. Optimists may see this as the democratisation of culture; pessimists will point to the excruciating banality and vacuity of the cultural products thereby generated (at least so far).

Let me explain. Postmodernism conceived of contemporary culture as a spectacle before which the individual sat powerless, and within which questions of the real were problematised. It therefore emphasised the television or the cinema screen. Its successor, which I will call pseudo-modernism, makes the individual’s action the necessary condition of the cultural product. Pseudo-modernism includes all television or radio programmes or parts of programmes, all ‘texts’, whose content and dynamics are invented or directed by the participating viewer or listener.

This is a brilliant analysis, and largely correct. An aspect of this shift was predicted by Jean Baudrillard in his concept of hyperreality, but he did not foresee the shift in power between the producer of content and the recipient of content.

This blog, and all content that resides on the Internet, is Exhibit A in Kirby’s analysis:

The pseudo-modern cultural phenomenon par excellence is the internet. Its central act is that of the individual clicking on his/her mouse to move through pages in a way which cannot be duplicated, inventing a pathway through cultural products which has never existed before and never will again.

The entire essay is well worth reading, and I commend it to you.

But overall it serves to bolster my claim that churches that are not fully participatory in all aspects of leadership and liturgy are already two cultural epochs behind our current situation.

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  • Tracy

    This is a practical question, not a philosophical one.

    How do those”fully participatory” churches work for people who work 60 hours/week, (add 10 hours for commuting) and in their spare time try to do one other thing– coach a team, participate in a reading group, tutor, something — and would maybe squeek out a little time for their church — but not very much. Weekly church service + dinner + liturgy planning = “Sorry, can’t (or won’t) spend that kinda time. My friendships and my commitments are scattered all over the place, not merely at my church. ”

    The churches that sound really exciting sound full of people who seem to give themselves — nearly exclusively, –to their religious communities. Or maybe I’m reading in too much.

    • That’s a very important question Tracy. I ran into that dilemma too when I was planting a church. Our commitment to church as an interactive, participatory community often conflicted with the realities of people’s busy and overly-scheduled lives. Not sure we ever really found a a good answer to that dilemma – though I think online social networking tools do offer new possibilities for interactive community that could provide at least a partial solution.

      • Maybe you’re expecting too much of church, not of people. Maybe church participation is about the same commitment as being a Little League coach, and it is similarly seasonal…

    • Bill

      One of our approaches to this is to keep church ‘unchurchy’ and to meet in the larger community rather than separate from it. All our discussions are social events that happen surrounded by our larger community – at the pub, coffee house, public park, etc. Everything become the ‘church’. Everything is participatory. People from all walks of life plug into our lives rather than into the theology of the institution of church. We are ‘theology’ in that Christ cares for all others through us. So, rather than ‘adding’ another activity, we seek to reframe the activities we already enjoy – the old ‘kill two birds with one stone’….

  • I read Kirby’s article too, and I agree that he’s basically right about the cultural trends. I’m just not sure about his labels. What he describes as psuedo-modernism, I had always associated with postmodernism to begin with. But you’re much more widely read on this subject than I. Was I defining it too broadly?

    • Yeah, Mike, it’s probably better called “hyperpostmodernism.”

  • Steven

    Don’t Reader Response Criticism and a host of social-specific criticisms (Post-Colonial, Feminist, Womanist, African-American, etc.) fit within postmodernism? I thought that the reader had already given the reader/recipient authority and agency within postmodernism literary criticism, while recognizing the authority of the author’s voice only from a specific social location. Am I wrong in thinking that postmodernism already fetishized the reader more any epoch before it?

  • Except that not all people today, let alone all young persons under 40, use computers, mouses, smart phones, or otherwise. Seems just as elitist as his allegations about post-modernism being too academic. Pseudo is a good word for what he’s describing.

    • Where are these under-40s who don’t use computers? Even among lower-income families I’ve yet to meet any that are completely unplugged. Shoot, even my Haitian friend who lives in a hut in a tiny rural Haitian village with no running water or electricity gets on Facebook from time to time!

      • Mike, well, I was just in Haiti and only small % of the people I met there are on FB or have money to waste at internet cafes. But closer to home, there a lot of people at the inner-city school where my friend teaches in Denver who don’t spend much time on computers aside from the classroom setting. Granted, many of those students have phones, but few of them have the $ to pay for the additional data plans required by smartphones. Heck, I don’t either.

    • Curtis

      Some people don’t use pencils, books, or telephones too. But it would be a stretch to call someone elitist for using modern, affordable, widely-available information appliances. Rather, it is those who choose not to communicate with others, or to let other people communicate for them, who are being exclusive.

  • Mister Tee

    Postmodernism is dead. Long live postmodernism. Postmodernism is alive.

  • Brilliant stuff, Tony. Thanks for passing this along.

  • Martin Abend

    Unless ‘Postmodernism’ means something different in the US than in Europe (I’m from Germany), Kirby mixes up the definitions. It doesn’t get more postmodern than claiming the death of the author as Roland Barthes did in his essay from 1967(!). What Kirby claims as ‘Pseudo- Modernism’ has been, in fact, postmodern praxis for the last 30 years.

    • pea soup

      Agreed to some degree. Martin, interesting point. But “claiming the death of the author” and [re-centering the whole enterprise upon the reader/viewer/receiver] seem different. Authors aren’t dead, just diminished and beholden. And, yes, literacy is a privileged activity, to be sure.


      Tony, “hyperpostmodernism” would be interesting set against evangelical Crouch’s “hypermodernity” responses of the early EC days. That would be a fun panel discussion.

      What interests me most is the leveling that occurs when recipient becomes author whose recipients in turn become authors in near-real-time, blurring the lines between “published works” and “notes” and “comments” — marginalia becomes text; text becomes caption; caption becomes comment becomes gloss becomes tagcloud folksonomy becomes footnote.

  • tom c.

    Interesting article, but I remain very skeptical of attempts to encompass the present or the future (or the past for that matter) under a single concept. Does the notion of a “cultural epoch” even make sense anymore?

  • Kathleen Palmer

    Before you dismiss critical realism you might want to read “What is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up” by eminent sociologist, Christian Smith. Smith states “Critical realism offers the best alternative to the problems and limits of positivist empiricism, on the one hand, and postmodern linguistic constructionism and even hermeneutical interpretivism, on the other”. Smith’s book is ambitious in scope yet accessible to the lay reader.

    • I’ve read it, Kathleen. Unconvincing.

  • Bill – Yes! “church” as a group of people intentionally following Christ IN the world not outside it. This is brilliant. I think about this stuff all the time and never quite managed to frame my thoughts the way you did here. Thank you!

    Personally, I find the labels wearying. It seems that any time you apply a label like these to something it instantly becomes academic. I suppose we need Labels as a shortcut to ai discussion of the social and cultural ideas we’re observing, but these labels are meaningless in real life right? As soon as we pick an actual person and label them as a “post-modern” thinker we end up selling the depth and complexity of the individual short. I do suppose though that in having names for these ideas it is helpful to give normal people words to express their thoughts and heart and in that there is value in aiding communication.

  • Nathan

    Great resource I’ve been studying for awhile.

  • I suppose I have only a layman’s misunderstanding of these things, but doesn’t, or didn’t, Postmodernism have to do with the notion that all meanings, aka “truths”, are expressed relative to some set of cultural norms and are driven by the pragmatic concerns within that culture; and so the readings of creators and consumers of “texts” might be disjoint to any degree but can be driven close by acts of creative listening. If so, then it seems to me that Dr Kirby’s phrase “given up on” applies; “recoiled in horror” might also apply, since listening is never popular. Then the present situation would be more or less the opposite of “post-postmodernism”… “pseudo-modernism”, with all sides insisting on the right to their own facts, seems apt. Yes? No?

    Doesn’t Dr Kirby show that pseudo-modernism is a dead end whose ephemerality stands in contradiction to a notion of God moving throughout History. So “fully participatory” worship leads in the direction of nicey-nice spirtuality, all candles and flowers and liberal goodthink. Whereas what is needed is reinvigorating creative listening … to God, to History, to each other. 1 Corinthians 14.

    It seems to me rather that the current notion of “narrative” (NT Wright et all) takes popular culture two epochs backwards and half an epoch forwards … a good thing.

    • ME

      Marshall, I have similar concerns about focusing on participatory-ness at the expense of of letting God come to us. It is God who comes to us, we don’t participate ourselves up to him.

  • Scott Gay

    Post-modern isn’t dead because it is closely related to Heraclitus’ view that in life one can’t be in the same river twice. This revelation has so many ramifications that it’s hard to know where to start. Not being, but becoming has implications from quantum physics to theology. Most significantly it eclipses the Parmenidesian ideas about stability, and has contributed to the lack thereof.
    Participatoriness in church is undergoing deconstruction. Multi-voiced worship isn’t that difficult a vision to grasp, is definitely the scriptural( and may I say democratic) view, but its practice has been limited.

  • Diane

    For how many years, nay decades, must we keep reading a tired retread of “postmodernism is dead?” (Note to writers: We’ve heard this before.) Postmodernism is dead in people’s dreams, perhaps. In reality, it’s alive and well and seeping into the popular culture, though the very people who think in a way they wouldn’t have 25 years ago have no idea what the influence is and often reject postmodernism as “goobledygook.” Has the fall of a viable socialism had a sharp impact on postmodernism? Absolutely. Why else (well, aging too) would people like Derrida have turned towards religion, as Terry Eagleton is still doing? What Kirby’s article described was not anything new but a description of fascism as experience today–anxiety, pseudo-participation, manipulation, pseudo-choice, totalitarianism–gussied up with a few new gadgets. Thomas Wolfe had much the same things to say about Nazi Germany circa 1936–read You Can’t Go Home Again.

  • Diane

    Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition is all about the internet, though, of course, he didn’t call it that and didn’t anticipate the home computer–he visualized people going to libraries to connect with a nodule that would get them into a centralized computer bank. But details. What I really want to mention, just to pre-empt yet the next article on this topic, is that ” the Emerging Church is dead!” Yes, indeed! That’s another topic that is constantly retread– the emerging church was probably dead on arrival as a corporate-produced artifact, but it is, in some grassroots form, alive and well. Just saying. Oh and Nietzsche is dead! (We used to say that in college).

  • bls

    What I got from the article – and thought it really very important! – was the discussion of the real needs of real people. I think it’s true that people are feeling anxious about the world, and are feeling separated (as well as connected) by technology. I also agree that people are not basing their choice of vegetables – and many other things – on homespun received wisdom any longer. And – perhaps most importantly – I agree that the market has taken over almost every facet of our psychic lives; I don’t see this changing on its own, either.

    But this is just where Christianity – and other faiths, for all I know about them (which isn’t much, I need to point out) – step in. They are systematic ways of looking at the human condition itself, after all. They are, in fact, just what we need at this point; they don’t fall for the Propaganda of the Market, but are interested instead in How To Live Life. They’ve been around for a long, long time, and when we don’t know anything about ourselves anymore, they can remind us of who we actually are.

    Religions themselves can change and adapt, as well, as they have over time in many ways – but pushback in that arena is important, too. That’s exactly why religion changes slowly, in fact, as against the lightening pace of change in other spheres. It’s why religion holds on to its original documents, and its original revelation, only adapting the interpretation of these things over time. Even A.A.’s 12 Steps – another exploration of the human psyche and human behavior, and to me a very important one – haven’t changed, and probably won’t, even when people learn to apply them in new ways to new situations.

    Spiritual principles, IOW, have been found workable over time – and that’s what’s important. I’m not actually sure what “fully participatory in all aspects of leadership and liturgy ” means, but I perhaps I took away from the article something different: that people are anxious about the world at present, and are feeling disconnected from reality. I took away, IOW, the idea of “‘trance’-as-coping-mechanism.” That seems to be a problem to me, and I think it’s one that religious principles can help address…..

  • Adam L

    From reading many of your comments, I think that we can learn something from the Inukshuk (which means travelling community) who would build these statues out of stones and rocks and which indicate to other travellers whether the area is safe, a good place to hunt etc.. the church of the not so distant future is one of dispersal it seems and not so much of getting together it seems.

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