234. What is postmodernism?
What ‘postmodernism’ means is contested. ‘Postmodernity’ is our present society. In one sense, postmodernism is a cultural response to that. In art and architecture it means a mixing of styles. It can also mean a focus on appearance rather than fact, the superficial rather than what may lie behind it, opinion rather than argument. Most widely, it entails a loss of old certainties, and of social, spiritual and intellectual order. According to Lyotard, the horrors of totalitarianism in the 20th century have created suspicion of ‘grand narratives’. Postmodernism recoils from absolutes and universals into relativism and particulars.
Here I look at philosophical notions of the subject, identity, rationality, knowledge, truth and meaning.
Postmodernism criticizes, and to some extent reverses modernism. Modernism is born from the thought of Descartes and the Enlightenment. Its core, I propose, is threefold. First, the idea of a Cartesian subject or self, as a spectator viewing the world, the object, from outside, separated from it. Second, the idea that the self is rational and autonomous. Third, that rationality, in knowledge and moral judgement, has a foundation in indubitable, universal and fixed methods and ideas.
Analytical philosophy adds the notion, in its theory of language, of meaning as reference: words refer to things present in reality, and correct reference is the criterion of truth.
Postmodernism, then, is characterized by opposition to these points. There are four main themes. First, the subject, the self, cannot be separated from the object, is part of the world (‘thrown into it’, Heidegger says), constituted by being in that world, and this constitution forms its view of it. The self is socially and culturally constituted, not autonomous. Identity, individual and cultural, is opaque, plural and subject to change. Second, universality, in ethics and knowledge, is rejected in favour of the diverse, singular, individual. Meaning is context-dependent, pluralistic. Third, rationality is discounted, sometimes dwindling to nothing, and free will is limited or absent. Fourth, all metaphysics of substance, objects in reality, fixed truths and identities, is rejected in favour of open-endedness, in ongoing flux.
More or less postmodern philosophers are Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze, Rorty, and Toulmin. However, they did not all share all the above characteristics, nor did they accept the term ‘postmodernism’ for their thought.
Some postmodernists are more radical than others. For Derrida there is no knowledge, just texts. For him the ‘presence’ of objects in reference is an illusion. The idea that one can start thought and judgement with a clean slate, without prejudice, bias or interest, is an illusion. Knowledge is not objective. Ideas and expressions hide underlying, unspoken interests and positions or aspirations of power (Nietzsche, Foucault). There is no truth or it is contingent, multiple, and open-ended.
Open-endedness of ideas and truth was a feature already of Montaigne’s philosophy, and it connects postmodernism with pragmatism. Words as tools rather than bearers of truth connect with pragmatism and with Wittgenstein.
Attempts are made to unravel unspoken pre-conceptions, to delve underlying logics, forces, motives, powers or conditions of discourse. With Nietzsche this is called ‘genealogy’, with Foucault ‘archaeology’, and with Derrida ‘deconstruction’.
Words entail conceptualization, interpretation. They are seldom literal descriptions. Language is predominantly metaphorical. According to Nietzsche language consists of mobile metaphors. There is not one single true interpretation, of nature or books, no single truth underlying texts. The meaning of a word depends on that of other words (Saussure), in some context of action, constituting a ‘language game’ (Wittgenstein). Outside the game meanings are lost or changed. The example is chess. Away from the board a piece of chess loses its meaning.
Postmodernism is justified in its criticism of the Enlightenment, but it goes overboard. It has been accused (e.g. by Zizek) of abolishing the subject, which yields loss of agency.[i] In the surrender of illusions of certainty and loss of truth, arguments are surrendered to opinion, and responsibility evaporates in irony. Society turns into a shouting match in an arena of exhibition.
[i] I doubt the validity of this accusation. The agent is indeed in danger of disappearing, in the view that it is constituted culturally, by which individuality might disappear, but on the other hand Postmodernism also emphasizes differentiation, and hence individuality.