So just what the hell is post-modernism?

Background: Last week somebody posts a famous quip from Oscar Wilde at a popular message board: “In the old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.” This leads to a conversation about what the quote means and whether it still applies today. The question of just what is meant by “men of letters” becomes a live issue, and somebody says, “For my tastes, post-modernism (or is it post-post modernism now) really made a lot of the fiction from these types pretty unreadable.”

This of course opens the floodgate for a conversation about the definition and meaning of post-modernism. I myself reply to the above-quoted assertion by saying, “But that indicates a problem with post-modernism, not with the pre-post-modern (um) writers or their work. I personally have profited enormously from my study and absorption of the post-modern outlook and worldview, but I also harbor a healthy measure of loathing for it because of the very effect you’ve described: that it has served to kick off a kind of semi-dark age by rendering the artistic works of a former age inaccessible for a great many people who were raised and weaned under its philosophical influence.”

Several other people offer their own thoughts about and definitions of post-modernism. Then somebody says she’s still confused and not sure what to make of it all.

Naturally, I’m unable to keep my mouth shut. My extended reply, in which I try to chase down the general meaning of post-modernism, is as follows.

Oh, but before I launch into it: Here’s wishing a very happy Monday to you all. I’m located in southwest Missouri, where we were pretty much pulverized by the massive ice storm that swept through the United States’ midsection over the weekend. Amazing to say, my family and I have not yet lost electricity at our house. But Missouri has been designated a disaster area, a state of emergency has been declared, the National Guard has been called in to help with the cleanup, and as I type these words more than 300,000 people in the state are without electricity and are likely to remain so for three or four more days. And here I sit, still managing to find time to update my blog late on a lazy afternoon (lazy because school was cancelled today and has already been cancelled for tomorrow) in the comfort of my cozy, warm house. Yeesh.

But anyway, somebody in that online conversation last week expressed continuing confusion about the meaning of the term “post-modern,” and so I reached for my keyboard and began to type. . .

* * * * *

The question “What is post-modernism?” has been the subject of entire book-length explorations, so don’t feel bad about your confusion. Nobody’s really sure how to define the whole phenomenon/movement/worldview.

That said, the answer given by the French philosopher and literary theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard in his 1979 study The Postmodern Condition has long seemed the most useful and helpful one to me. And not only to me, but to a great many other people as well. If there’s a standard answer to the question at issue here — and there isn’t — then Lyotard’s is it, by wide popular recognition.

Lyotard was commissioned to write The Postmodern Condition by the Conseil des Universités of the Quebec government at a time when they were considering incorporating computers into university-level education. “Post-modernism” was a buzzword at the time and they wanted Lyotard’s investigation of it to frame their discussions of the computer issue. In the end his book achieved a far wider scope, as indicated by the subtitle he gave it: “A Report on Knowledge.”

His argument is intricate and fascinating but his definition of post-modernism is a one-liner that’s arguably become the catch-all definition. He said post-modernism is, or is characterized by, “incredulity toward meta-narratives.”

That phrase simply refers to the collapse of meta-narratives — that is, totalizing storylines that cultures tell themselves to make sense of their experiences — as believable things. Lyotard also called meta-narratives “grand narratives,” which term may give a better sense of what he was getting at. He looked, for example, at the grand storyline of the 18th century Enlightenment, which told England, Europe, and America that science was the answer to everything, and that it was leading societies into a golden era of reason, peace, and justice. This kind of meta-narrative legitimates or justifies, and therefore elevates, certain types of knowledge, and also certain moral and social attitudes, social practices, political systems, educational practices, and so on. It organizes a society or civilization around a set of guiding principles that determine what does and does not count as “knowledge,” and therefore it creates the foundational assumptions that the society comes to consider as metaphysical givens, as “self-evident.”

Lyotard claimed this type of thing doesn’t hold up any more in the post-modern age when we’ve become all-too-aware of that very process of legitimation, and when computers are redefining the meaning of “knowledge.” We recognize that foundational societal assumptions aren’t objective facts but are instead manufactured agreements. Thus, we come to disbelieve in meta-narratives on principle.

The thing is, this incredulity blankets everything and has an especial relation to the arts, which are so very central in forming and playing upon generalized cultural assumptions. And that’s where the literary connection comes in. In the literary world, the idea of the death of grand narratives can be seen in the deconstruction movement, which holds that authorial intent means nothing, that any text can mean anything, and that the locus of meaning is not in the text but in the person, or rather in the interaction between them. (This way of putting it is a crude simplification, but it does get the idea across.) And so this naturally does away with assumptions from former eras about the distinction between high art and low art. Suddenly, everything’s up for grabs, and the aesthetic literary principles that former eras took for granted are regarded as mere ideologies, mere legitimations of certain types of writing.

In fact, the very idea that entire peoples shared the same set of aesthetic assumptions is attacked by post-modernism, one of whose most significant effects has been the “recovery” of “marginalized voices,” such as those of women and — in Western Anglo culture — non-whites. The idea is that throughout history those fictional meta-narratives were not only providing a coherent shared worldview but were also excluding and obscuring other viewpoints and types of knowledge that were just as real and legitimate. Hence the rise of multiculturalism, feminism, and other such movements.

There’s a lot more to say, but maybe I’ve said enough to get the idea across. Andy Warhol’s soup-can art is post-modern because it deliberately sidesteps or negates the traditional artistic goal of expressing a specific meaning, and therefore a mini-meta-narrative, by organizing certain elements into a coherent whole. Warhol took material from everyday life and put it in what seemed like an artistic context, and left it up to the viewer to make sense of it. This is entirely post-modern. In literature, metafictions like John Barthes’ “Lost in the Funhouse,” which frequently interrupts the fictional narrative with ruminations upon the writing of fiction itself, qualify as post-modern because they keep on reminding the reader of the fact that he or she is reading a story.

To sum up, consider these definitions of post-modernism that I snagged from the web, which amplify what I’ve been saying here:

“Contrasted with Modernism, whose authors attempted to come to new terms with old ideas in attempt to find the ‘deep structure’ of the human experience, Post-Modernism is identifiable by authors who were highly skeptical of any ‘deep structure,’ regarding all structures as subjective and ideologically tainted.”

“Catch-phrase or jargon term used extensively in film and literary studies to identify certain trends in contemporary media and fiction. Post-modernist works tend to be highly self-referential and are typically saturated with irony and allusion. Such works also tend to subvert traditional models of unity and coherence and instead try to capture the sense of discontinuity and apparent chaos characteristic of the electronic age.”

Obviously, one can see the presence of Lyotard’s influence here. His identification of the central premise of post-modernism has proved most helpful to me personally in my considerations of both artistic matters and other matters, since it provides a satisfying explanation or interpretation of the various fragmenting tendencies of modern Western life. Multiculturalism can be viewed as a post-modern phenomenon since it’s predicated on the idea of multiple legitimate cultural viewpoints — i.e., “knowledge” — that should not be flattened by a single totalizing ideology. The 20th century’s collapse of high culture into low culture and vice versa, not just in the arts but in terms of fundamental American social mores and attitudes, can be viewed the same way. The rise (and possibly, depending on your present viewpoint, fall) of MTV is a product of the post-modern thrust. America’s present “culture war,” including, especially, some of its most prominent manifestations such as the ongoing raging controversy over curriculum issues in public schools, hails from the same philosophical country, since the absence of an agreed-upon grand narrative naturally leaves a vacuum when it comes to the question of what government-sponsored schools should be teaching the nation’s youth to know and do.

The mention of the school issue brings me back to what I said in a previous post about the measure of loathing I feel for post-modernism. While I have profited hugely from studying the movement and looking at the world through its eyes, I have also shared the views of many of its critics who point to the cultural nihilism that’s inherent in the whole thing. If all shared knowledge is merely legitimation, then where the hell does that leave us? In the artistic realm, it leaves us in a place where the shared meanings of former eras become inaccessible to entire generations of people, since these people themselves have little or no idea of what a shared meaning even is. Allan Bloom expressed the idea I’m getting at when he wrote in The Closing of the American Mind about the pitiable state of a hypothetical modern American young person who is ignorant of the “grand tradition” of Western cultural achievement and finds himself or herself wandering through the Louvre or the Uffizi. Bloom says the meanings of the great works of art housed in those places is utterly inaccessible to such a person, who is able to see them only as abstract, as mere form devoid of significance. I personally think the collapse of the high/low culture distinction, as well as the cultural gridlock over school curriculum issues, as well as the general cultural disagreement over what’s worth knowing, has produced and is continuing to produce exactly this type of person. I’m talking about the type of people that Ray Bradbury posited in Fahrenheit 451, those robotic denizens of a dystopia who told themselves that they were so very enlightened and happy, but whose thoughts and attitudes were so stunted and infantilized by immersion in trivia and lack of exposure to matters of real depth that they were really just walking corpses. Not to wax too dramatic, but I spend a lot of time around high school kids, and I’m telling you from personal experience that the cultural confusion in this era of the post-modern influence has led to a situation where successive generations of teens are being raised in an intellectual and moral vacuum, and are thus coming perilously close to F451 territory.

Then again, the truth of an idea shouldn’t be judged by its practical utility or effects. As Nietzsche observed in Beyond Good and Evil, in one of my favorite philosophical passages of all time (as evidenced by the fact that I quoted it in my short story “Teeth” in the Children of Cthulhu anthology), “Nobody is very likely to consider a doctrine true merely because it makes people happy or virtuous. . . . Happiness and virtue are no arguments. But people like to forget — even sober spirits — that making unhappy and evil are no counterarguments. Something might be true while being harmful and dangerous in the highest degree.”

And so I’m conflicted over the fact that the post-modern epiphany does seem true, and even inescapable, when I really consider it, and that its influence appears to be largely negative. Does the culture-wide collapse of meta-narratives necessarily result in a state of permanent cultural confusion and a de facto descent into an F451-like dystopia? Was Plato right when he wrote in The Republic that a “noble lie” is necessary to serve as the foundation for the best society? If so, is it desirable — or even possible — for us to pursue such a self-delusion? Or is there a way to avoid an awful cultural fate while still staring unblinking into the void of indeterminacy? I just don’t know.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on January 15, 2007, in Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Is this comments page public? I am perplexed.
    Anyhoo. That Oscar Wilde point is very poignant, I think.
    I’ll make this brief, in lue of the score I’ve yet to understand.
    In the first half of the 20th century, writers were heros to a generation; Hemingway, Fitzgerald. There was also a collective premium on intelligence, and the finer aspects of human expression…honor, dicipline, talent.
    Now we have (?)
    And how did we reach this impasse?
    One could fold the following 10,000 word diatribe into one. Noise.

  2. Sorry, I’m a little late to the party. I’m no expert on postmodernism or the culture of spectacle, but it seems to me that you’re conflating the two to a certain extent. I don’t doubt that the loss of metanarratives may contribute to the spread of cultural ignorance. I think instead of a causal relationship, both are to a large extent consequences of the technological innovations of the present day. Certainly, it is possible to have postmodernism (even irony) without giving up culture, as reflected in authors such as Borges and Umberto Eco.
    P.S: Somehow your choice strikes me as somewhat Lovecraftian: madness of indeterminacy or the new Dark Age of the noble lie… 🙂

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