What I Think of Postmodernism

What I Think of Postmodernism December 29, 2005

As if anyone cares, here are some unfinished and amateurish comments on “what I think of postmodernism.”

1) First, it is helpful to distinguish, as many writers do, between postmodernism and postmodernity. The latter is a cultural/political mood or condition, referring to movements in architecture, film, and other arts that have moved away from the priorities and agendas of modernism; a dissolvingly ironic stance toward life; high-tech combined with bohemian aspirations – the bobo phenomenon. Postmodernism is a complex and multifarious philosophical/intellectual mood or set of movements manifest in forms of poststructuralism like deconstruction, the genealogical impulse inspired by Nietzsche and Foucault, the pragmatism of a Rorty, the tribal literary theories of Stanley Fish, cultural materialism, the “traditioned reason” of a MacIntyre, and other movements. Perhaps some of these movements and thinkers would disown the “postmodern” label, but to the extent that they are deeply suspicious of modern thought and life they can be classified as such.

2) Postmodernism as an intellectual movement is not a cutting-edge phenomenon. Derrida died within the last year, and he had been writing for nearly 40 years. James KA Smith says in his recent book on Derrida that the academy, like the Areopagites, has moved on from deconstruction to fresher thinkers.

3) It is also important to distinguish between pop-postmodernism and sophisticated thinkers like Derrida and Foucault. A particularly striking example came home to me recently during a faculty discussion: While pop-postmodernism tends to privilege the “visual” over the verbal, much of French philosophical postmodernism was deeply suspicious of the modern priority placed on visual sense. One should not assume that people who throw around terms like “deconstruction” or “metanarrative” are using the words in the same sense as Derrida or Lyotard. Derrida could have (and maybe did) predict this: For he was well aware of the fact that texts are prodigal sons who stray from their fathers.

Some points against postmodernism.

1) I am persuaded by Milbank and David Hart and others that much postmodern thought assumes an ontology of violence, in which all differences are violent differences. At this level, postmodernism (in many of its manifestations) is fundamentally opposed to a Trinitarian vision of harmonious difference.

2) Postmodernity and postmodernism are in many ways continuations of the circumstances and agendas of modernity. Globalization, to take but one example, has been a movement of at least two centuries; Zygmunt Bauman, one of the early theorists of postmodernity, has been talking about “liquid modernity” rather than “postmodernity” in recent years; and in some forms at least postmodernism persists in the problematics of post-Kantian or even Cartesian thought.

3) Postmodernism is often thoroughly atheistic. This is both a continuity and discontinuity with modernism: A continuity in the sense that modernism was (in some thinkers) an effort to shore up knowledge and values in a world bereft of God, but a discontinuity in that postmodernism is much more consistent in following through the implications of its unbelief. In other writing, I have suggested two sorts of continuity between modernism and postmodernism: First, that both are fundamentally tragic; second, that both (in many manifestations) arise from a founding act of ingratitude.

Yet, I also want to say that I am for Postmodernism, albeit in circumscribed and particular ways. In general, I am more at home with postmodernism than modernism for two reasons: First, because I am simply more familiar with pomo thinkers than with modernists, having spent more time with Derrida than with Descartes, for instance; second, because I find the categories and questions of postmodern thought more supple and useful than those of modern thought (insofar as I understand the latter). I should say that I don’t think that atheistic postmodernism can sustain any of its insights; Derrida’s “supplement at the origin” is, as James Smith says, haunted by the very Platonism it denies, and is really sustainable only in a Trinitarian framework. Yet, I don’t know that any Christian thinker has discerned this “vestigia Trinitatis” as clearly as Derrida did (though he of course did not think of it as a trace of God).

Here, very briefly, are some ways that I find postmodernism useful or agreeable:

1) It provides some helpful weapons in the assault on Cartesianism and Platonism and other isms that need to be toppled.

2) The pomo emphasis on language, it seems to me, moves closer to a Hebraic/biblical perspective than a modern emphasis on disembodied ideas. Further, postmodernism recognizes the power of language, that words are, in the words of Rusty Reno and John O’Keefe, “nodes of force.” That this linguistic emphasis is not anti-theological is evident (among many other things) from Hamann’s linguistic metakritik of Kant.

3) One of the key themes of postmodernism is its emphasis on the rhetoricity or metaphoricity of all language. That, I think, is simply true, and this is a threat to truth only if we have pre-defined “truth” in what I will call “Hellenistic” terms.

4) Postmodernism opens up room for theology. This is not intentional, but the pomo assault on disciplinary boundaries (among other things) leaves room for theology to intrude in all kinds of areas. This is not a hypothetical possibility, as the work of Marion and other French phenomenologists demonstrates.

5) Postmodernism disputes the boundary between philosophy and literature, which is a good thing (and hardly new – Plato, after all, wrote dialogues, snippets of drama).

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