Postmodernism Is Dead (Again), and Its Successor Is Worse

Postmodernism Is Dead (Again), and Its Successor Is Worse October 15, 2014

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.” 

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).

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.

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.

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  • Your most interesting post yet Tony! Looking forward to reading more on the same topic. Peace and Grace

  • Jesse

    But, on the bright side, metaphysics is back 🙂 See: http://turri.me/?p=1332

    • Shouldn’t it be, “metaphysics are back”? 😉

  • I don’t think the options for us are modernist traditionalism or postmodernist progressivism. Both are time dependent expressions of the world as it existed when these ideas were in their ascendency. I’ve spent much of the past three years reading French postmodernists, especially Jean Baudrilliard. I find his critique of the postmodern thought post-1968 Paris riots making sense. Though I would not go as far as his nihilism. He, like Guy DeBord, speak to the artificial nature of the modern / postmodern world. They use the terms Simulation, Simulacra and Spectacle to describe the artificial reality in which we live. DeBord in his book, The Society of the Spectacle, which was written post Paris riots, says, “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. … The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images. …” This representation is not reality, but a way of describing it. I take it to mean that what we have created in the modern/postmodern world is a set of filters that screen us (pun intended) from the reality that still is present, but is now mediated through images and technology. We have to break through those filters in order to see what is evident in front of faces. To see both beauty and devastation, to see the inherent dignity of people, not as political abstractions, but as people created in their creator’s image.

    I see the postmodern perspective as a form of modernist mental, emotional and spiritual exhaustion, not as a way out or forward. It explains why, for example, there are no true Conservatives any longer (there is nothing to conserve), and why all Marxists are now Capitalists. The question is what follows.

    You may be right that what follows will not be pretty. In fact, I believe we are on the cusp of social change unprecedented since the fall of the Roman Empire. What emerges from this dramatic shift are some aspects of the pre-modern world that are in the language of Nassim Taleb, antifragile, able to withstand enormous social and economic upheaval. I believe that one of those pre-modern artifacts is the church. Not the modern, nor, postmodern institution, but the community of faith that was the core of local communities for the first 1500 years of the church’s history. In its most simplest expression, our relationship with one another is what will matter as all the artifice of the past 300 years goes away.

    I’m in the beginnings stages on a book that I’ve tentatively titled The Spectacle of the Real, after a blog post (http://edbrenegar.typepad.com/leading_questions/2013/05/the-spectacle-of-the-real.html) that I wrote a year and a half ago. It is part of a set of series called Reclaiming the Real (http://edbrenegar.typepad.com/leading_questions/2013/10/reclaiming-the-real-a-leading-questions-series.html). What I am writing is not primarily for the church, but for everyone who is concerned about the course our world is headed. I hope it brings some encouragement to you. I welcome your thoughts. Thank you.

    • Guest

      The above “text” makes Tony’s point.

  • Sarah Raymond Cunningham

    Personally, I think it’s good you’re going to have to be the guy defending “the old way” for a change. 😉

  • Lori

    Thanks for this helpful post, Tony. Like you, I’ve been grateful for the profound promise I’ve discovered in postmodernism. I had no idea, however, that the huge steps I took away from my own very modern childhood milieu have not taken me nearly far enough to constructively relate with my own young adult children and their peers. As you write, “Those born after will see what’s produced by us GenXers as elitist and unapproachable, while we see theirs as vapid, meaningless, and brainless.” This describes a pretty massive cultural divide to communicate across – especially when it looks so bleak on the other side!

  • Daniel Mann

    Tony Jones, You wrote:

    “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.”

    I wonder how Jones regards his own writings in light of his
    assertion of “the impossibility of objectivity.” I guess he has to admit that
    his own declarations are all merely subjective, and therefore pertain only to
    himself – his feelings and thoughts. However, I never see him appending his
    writings with the appropriate disclaimer:

    “Everything you are now reading is totally subjective, since objectivity is impossible. Even though it might seem that I am trying to communicate something real to you, I should remind you that I am merely ranting.”

    How did this philosophy save his faith, giving it “room to
    grow?” Well, he doesn’t actually explain, leaving us to guess. So allow me to
    guess. Postmodernism offers “freedom.” Judging from the “born-again” testimonies of atheists and freewill-deniers, they too have achieved a degree of “freedom.”

    How? They are now free from God – His moral requirements and
    judgments! The atheist merely banishes Him from their existence. The freewill-denier blots out any ability to respond freely to His requirements. Meanwhile, the
    postmodern denies that they can know if He exists, let alone His moral standards.

    Each has thereby established himself as the master of his
    own life. No one can bring any charges against him. He can face his moral
    failings and either say, “You are irrelevant to me. Go away and afflict someone
    else.” Some folks have even honest enough to admit this to me.

    I am going to ask Jones about his own “liberation” and how
    his postmodern thinking brought it about. However, I suspect that it is like
    the freedom of the goldfish who jumped out of his bowl wanting the freedom he
    perceived through his bowl.

    • silicon28

      God is a “he?” How about owning your own subjective ranting before you begin talking about other “fish” who have jumped out of (or into a culturally defined) “fishbowl?”

      • Daniel Mann

        I do not admit that my “ranting” is subjective. However, Jones’ postmodernism does admit such. Nevertheless, while maintaining this postmodern position, Jones writes as if his judgments carry objective relevance beyond himself. This is inconsistent.

  • Daniel Mann

    Tony, I would like to know how postmodernism saved your faith.

    http://mannsword.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-freedom-of-postmodernism.html

  • pscottcummins

    “(t)he content of this blog post is predicated as much on you comments…”
    And here I thought my job was to proofread your copy (found one).

  • Rick Presley

    In the late 90’s when a blogger tried to convince me that postmodernism was the next big thing in Christianity, I scoffed and told him it was dead, as anyone on a college campus could tell him. He gave me a bunch of authors to read who later went on to form the Emerging and Emergent conversations.
    Nice to see the newest big thing in Christianity is critical realism. It shows the cycle time from ideation to adoption by Christians is shrinking. At least in that respect we’re making progress.

  • chad

    And if you were born in 1980, you’re just screwed!

  • jonniez

    And then there are those, of course, born in the ’90s who find their own generation’s production vapid, boring and meaningless.

  • Johnny Number 5

    “Most recently, Alan Kirby has said it,”
    Recently? That article may be a recent reprint, but it was written in 2006, which is why the references seem so dated (Shrek, The Incredibles, CGI from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Bush and Blair as the political touchstones, emphasis on the newness of blogging and commenting but with no mention of smart phones or the surveillance state). I wonder what bugaboos Kirby would choose to criticize in a culture that has actually moved past the one he describes here. This sounds more like a “Get off my lawn” rant dressed up in philosopher’s language than a useful, cultural analysis.

  • Babak Golshahi

    Rubbish. You don’t understand post-modernism at all — this has got to be one of the worst posts defending religious faith I have ever read.

    It’s not complicated Rob — either the truth claims of your holy book match up to reality or they do not.. there is absolutely ZERO need to bring postmodern philosophy into the discussion. I could point out probably 1000 reasons why your faith in a (christian? I assume.. why not Islam? They claim the same faith in their book as you do in yours) faith has been utterly and systematically mastered. How anyone can religious belief to this remarkable degree without seeing how an actual belief in it makes no logical sense is beyond me. I mean no insult to you as a person.. but I find this kind of defense in very poor taste.

    Take some actual arguments against your position at their merit and face them head on.

    Was there an adam and eve? If not literally, where in the bible does it say it’s not a literal reading? If it is not metaphorical, then where in the need for original sin if there is no fall. If there is no fall, there is no need for jesus to return.. if there is no need for jesus to return the entire religion falls apart.

    I could present about 100 criticisms of your faith just like that. I can appreciate that you are trying to delve into Philosophy, but Philosophy begins where religion ends.

    This is just a lot of mental masturbation — it’s sad that you have the nerve to (badly) criticize post modern philosophy when it is obvious that you don’t understand it at all. You also obviously don’t understand how philosophy even works — unlike religious faith, it’s not about a dogma, Tony. Post-post modernism follows.. and then more philosophy. Unlike religion, which is an infinitely expanding tautology, in which the religious take their faith and readings of their own holy texts a la carte and salad bar style, picking and choosing which verses to obey literally and which to simply toss out or write off as “owing to the time” or metaphorical, secular people actually have consistency in their belief systems. We understand that not everything is known, and perhaps there are a lot of things that are unknowable.

    It’s telling to me that you need to be told that post-modernism is dead. You can’t decide this for yourself? You can barf on a page with some meandering nonsense about post modernism but somehow you can’t see through your own superstition? Post modernism isn’t good or bad tony it just IS — it’s an understanding of reality from a philosophical perspective — to make a value judgement on a school of thought is ridiculous! It’s like saying impressionism is stupid or bad. It JUST IS, TONY.

  • I know it’s probably bad for ones academic credibility, but I would say that it might be interesting to someone who is interested in (post)postmodernist religion to take note of certain streams contemporary occultism, like chaos magic(k).
    Chaos magic for example outpostmodernises postmodernism in that it involves (among other things that are beyond weird) pragmatic paradigm-switching at will, which is combined with a strong use of ‘belief as a tool’ in any paradigm. So the chaote can move from satanism one day to Christianity the next day, or even use paradigms from fiction (Chtulhu is popular for some reason) and climb inside of it, using the powers that are believed in inside that one paradigm when needed, while shedding them and using other powers from the next paradigm when something else is needed.
    The idea of pragmatic paradigm shifting at all with no ground at all (‘nothing is real, everything is permitted’) might be the strongest form of postmodern ‘spirituality’ possible…

  • Guest

    what kirby is describing as pseudo-modernism in his article sounds like postmodernism’s rival brother late modernism (also known as hypermodernism). see architectural critic charles jencks’ tractlike book ‘what is postmodernism?’ for a great explanation of the two competing philosophies of postmodernism & hypermodernism.

    when i did a search contrasting postmodernism & critical realism i saw that you blogged on this very article in 2012. oh the irony. 😉

  • Daniel Mann
  • Chad Andrew Herring

    An interesting post. Thanks, Tony.

    My question: Is the claim that this vapid nihilism is critical realism? Because I think Critical Realism is something quite different.

  • Jonathan Bernier

    I’m not at all clear what you mean by the statements 1) that the successor to postmodernism is critical realism, and 2) that critical realism is in worse shape. First, “critical realism” is a slippery term. Do you mean that of Roy Bhaskar? Or that of Bernard Lonergan (although in fact Lonergan did not use the term as much as those working with Lonergan’s thought, notably in theology and biblical studies his student Ben F. Meyer)? I’m not at all sure. I will say that I work on the Lonergan and Meyer and I see nothing in your subsequent description of our current state of affairs that sounds remotely Lonerganian.