Postmodern philosophy saved my faith. Of that there is no doubt, and I’ve not been shy about asserting that fact. Surely I was immersed in postmodernism in college — one of my vividest memories is a classics professor mockingly reading a course description for comparative literature as our class laughed uproariously. But it wasn’t until I arrived at Fuller Theological Seminary in the fall of 1990 and fell under the sway of Nancey Murphy and Jim McClendon that I put words to it. The slipperiness of meaning, the impossibility of objectivity, the incommensurability of truth claims — these themes of postmodernism appealed to me and gave my faith room to grow.
Many times in the years since, I’ve been told that postmodernism is dead. Most recently, Alan Kirby has said it, this time in Philosophy Now. Postmodernism is alive and well in university course catalogs, he concedes, but if you look beyond the walls of the academy, it’s already dead. But don’t dance on its grave just yet, he warns, because the heir apparent, critical realism, is in no better shape.
As evidence, Kirby points to the cultural artifacts that are currently being produced — in film, fiction, and visual art, postmodernism is non-existent:
The people who produce the cultural material which academics and non-academics read, watch and listen to, have simply given up on postmodernism… The only place where the postmodern is extant is in children’s cartoons like Shrek and The Incredibles, as a sop to parents obliged to sit through them with their toddlers. This is the level to which postmodernism has sunk; a source of marginal gags in pop culture aimed at the under-eights.
The reason for this is generational discontinuity. But it’s not like the shift from modernism to postmodernism. That shift was predicated on cultural changes resulting from World War II, but it still privileged the author. This time it’s different: “somewhere in the late 1990s or early 2000s, the emergence of new technologies re-structured, violently and forever, the nature of the author, the reader and the text, and the relationships between them.”
For example, Kirby says, Big Brother only exists on television in any sense because viewers phone in and vote for or against participants. The viewers’ participation in the cultural production is an inextricable part of the material textuality of the show. The same goes when my local public radio morning show reads comments on the air that are being posted on the show’s Facebook page (a trait that I hate). Or, an example that’s even closer to home, the content of this blog post is predicated as much on you comments, Facebook replies, and tweets as on my original posting.
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).
There’s no cartographer behind Google Maps. There’s just you and me and millions of others charting our own path using data. I am the author of my own map.
These characteristics, developed mainly on the internet, are now seeping into other areas of cultural production. Films revel in CGI scenes that are pure spectacle — think of the difference between a Cecil B. DeMille epic, in which the cast of thousands was meant to recreate an historic event, and the Lord of the Rings, in which a scene with millions of orcs mainly makes us marvel at what computers can do. And “reality” TV, most of which burns fast and hot and then disappears. (Have you ever watched a rerun of The Real World? I didn’t think so.)
Triteness and shallowness marks all pseudo-modern art, television, and film, Kirby argues.
The break, he says, is those born before and after 1980. Those born after will see what’s produced by us GenXers as elitist and unapproachable, while we see theirs as vapid, meaningless, and brainless.
Whereas postmodernism favoured the ironic, the knowing and the playful, with their allusions to knowledge, history and ambivalence, pseudo-modernism’s typical intellectual states are ignorance, fanaticism and anxiety: Bush, Blair, Bin Laden, Le Pen.
The present situation is this: we communicate constantly, about nothing.
In place of the neurosis of modernism and the narcissism of postmodernism, pseudo-modernism takes the world away, by creating a new weightless nowhere of silent autism. You click, you punch the keys, you are ‘involved’, engulfed, deciding. You are the text, there is no-one else, no ‘author’; there is nowhere else, no other time or place. You are free: you are the text: the text is superseded.
Which leaves me wondering if some of those conservatives who used to debate me at conferences about the dangers of postmodernism might now long for those good old days when we actually talked about meaning.