It’s not a sexy title, but these aren’t pretty times.
For the past four or five decades, we’ve thought of ourselves as living in “postmodern times,” or as under the influences of “postmodernity” or “postmodernism.”
The postmodern being, of course, either a reaction to modernism or an extension or intensification of it.
Modernism, the previous age, involved the quest for universals, for trans-cultural knowledge, for “absolute truth.” Often utopian in orientation, it was also often elitist and racist in its visions of what utopia looks like. Modernists were optimistic about conquering the world and its problems and believed they were (however slowly but surely) progressing toward the climax of history.
Enter WWI and WWI and the beginning of the postmodern, when all this utopianism came to a screeching halt, and the positive and naive assumptions about human nature collided into horrific glimpses of our awfulness. Bombs and concentration camps revealed something: things weren’t getting better, but–at least in many ways–much worse.
Modernity boasted, among many other things: An optimism for humanity’s direction and goal; Absolute Truth over localized, standpoints on truth; the pragmatics and supposed neutrality of technology over suspicion about its uses; individual rationality over (“heteronomous”) authority (like that of religion and metaphysics), and the elimination of mysticism in favor of science and reason.
These modernistic assumptions all came to a halt as the cheerless postmodern mood swept over us like a grey rain cloud, or better: a tornado on the horizon.
Postmodernism was the age of skepticism, of deconstruction, of epistemic humility (how can we know anything, really?), of the resurgence of tradition (if we can’t transcend our standpoints, perhaps we should better embrace our traditioned forms of knowledge?), and of the heightening of awareness of those society has left on the margins. Technology was no longer seen as neutral and its use in the service of global capitalism was deeply noticed.
Postmodernism, as Jean-Francois Lyotard would put it in his groundbreaking The Postmodern Condition (1979) was the end of a unifying, underlying “grand-story,” or narrative that would justify knowledge, behavior, and action. Postmodernity was “incredulity toward the meta-narrative,” and this incredulity, or radical skepticism, would effect the emergence of discrete, distinct communities each with a shared “language game,” a way of seeing the world which only that community could access. Globalism still deeply affected all these communities, but postmodernity marked the end of its positive features.
But, theoretically at least, this kind of postmodernity (or postmodernism) was largely benign. Why? Because these communities, these groups organized around shared language games, were still largely governed by a sense of humility. They had their truth, their morality, their values, their nation, their politics, their god. But who was to say that theirs was better than yours? Or that yours was better than theirs? Let us live our lives, believe and practice our religion, and have our morality: you can have yours. Let’s agree to disagree.
Those days are over.
What we’re witnessing in these fragile, violent days just might be the end of this largely benign postmodernism and the emergence of a malignant post-postmodernism.
The term “post-postmodernism” has been around for over a decade, but I suspect historians might just locate its beginnings at around 2016 CE.
The lid of gentility has come off, “Politically Correct” is going out of style in many quarters (with a childish, racist, vengeance, in some cases), and the universality of globalism is, while not being replaced (capitalism will never allow a wholesale displacement of globalism) is being challenged by an intensified nationalism, an angry tribalism/localism, and an open disregard for the well-being of anyone outside “my” group, or my language-game.
I’ve long thought of postmodernism as, at its core, a deep toleration for difference and otherness. That’s a simplistic reduction, of course, but this toleration of otherness is turning into an intensified, angry rejection of difference and otherness and the attempt to overcome the problem of difference, not by rational argument or toleration, but by the sheer exertion of power, by the politics of fear, and by a polemics steeped in rhetoric but devoid of substance.
Post-postmodernism is tribalism to the extreme and with gloves off. It might just be the ultimate extension or intensification of post-modernism. It’s postmodern to the extent that it accepts the reality of difference and the reality of tribalism, “language-games,” and unique standpoints (unlike modernism, it doesn’t seek to transcend those boundaries). But it is post-postmodern in it is not chastened by epistemic humility, but hardened by certainty. In the post-postmodern mood, there may be a recognition that we don’t have the Absolute Truth, but that doesn’t make any difference, because we don’t care. It doesn’t change the way we relate to others; it doesn’t change the way we understand our place in the world. It isn’t chastened by difference and otherness, but angered by it. It isn’t motivated by peace, but by war.
This is a bleak picture, and it’s not the whole picture. If this analysis is in any way accurate, it doesn’t make me feel better about the immediate and distant future. But we need to have some kind of understanding of the forces at work if we’re going to have any hope of constructively dealing with them.