Wednesday, 21 April 2010

A Post on Postmodernism

Part I

I will here, as promised after finishing Walter Truett Anderson's The Truth About the Truth, outline postmodernism in a similar manner as I did existentialism before. At this moment it is not my intention to critique po-mo, but I will warn you that I am writing from a critical stand-point; that is, I do not hold that the full tenants of postmodernism are true. So I may be biased.

I think one of the first things you'll notice about postmodernism is that you will already believe a number of postmodernist ideas and you don't even know it. I know that a lot of the academic work I've produced has been to some extent or another postmodern, and I hadn't known it until now. Postmodernism has both openly and covertly made inroads into our culture, and we can no longer easily identify which of our own personal beliefs has its origins in this new-ish philosophy. Further, something we must keep in mind about postmodernism is that it is less a coherent philosophical movement as a number of related sub-movements, trends, subcultures, and individuals who all have certain things in common. This statement is true of most philosophical schools, but it seems truer of postmodernism than of anything before it.

So, that out of the way, we can ask, What is postmodernism?

Most essentially put, postmodernism is a trend of philosophical belief that challenges not only what we know but how we claim to know it. Modernism before it held that there is an objective world in which we live; moreover, objective knowledge was attainable and that it was worthy of being attained. Perhaps it was the only kind of knowledge worth attaining. Some postmodernists challenge both of these ideas, though all postmodernists challenge the idea that objective knowledge is ever attainable. This is perhaps the crux of all postmodernism but, as with all philosophical movements, the different strains have other things in common, or at least in broad strokes. I will outline these.

I suspect that you will notice immediately how the relativisms (moral, cultural, epistemic, aesthetic) are postmodern ideas. Moral relativism says that everyone generates his or her own equally valid set of moral values; cultural relativism says that each cultures values, beliefs, and customs are equally legitimate or right; epistemic relativism says that everyone's beliefs about what is true are equally correct; aesthetic relativism says that everyone's judgements of art or beauty are equally accurate. These are the extreme forms of each relativism, and I must emphasize that most people hold more qualified and nuanced views than these. A common qualification is this: while there may be a best culture or truest set of moral standards, we cannot step outside our own culture or morals to determine which of two competing standards/cultures is best, and so any decision we make between the two is arbitrary. We simply cannot know. Therefore they may not be equally true, but they are equally justified.

Each postmodernist thinker chooses among these relativisms, of course, and adds his or her own qualifications. Even people who are predominately not postmodernist often choose some relativism or another. Many rational materialists, who are by definition not postmodernist, espouse aesthetic relativism, and some espouse cultural relativism. Similarly, some religious fundamentalists, who again are by definition not postmodernist, nonetheless believe that certain elements of culture are relative.

A key word in postmodernism is "constructed." According to postmodernism, our categories, ideas, and logical laws are culturally constructed. This is where deconstructionism comes in, breaking down and challenging our preconceptions. Gender roles are a common target. The sort of feminism which suggests that our ideas of "man" and "woman" are just made up by patriarchal society is a subset of postmodernism, or at least borrows this idea from it. Thus any transvestite is postmodernist in action if not in explicit philosophy. Biological sex is also sometimes a target, and those postmodernists who challenge this cite the number of people who do not phenotypically match one biological sex, or whose phenotypical (ie. anatomical) gender is distinct from their genetic gender (ie. their XX or XY chromosomes). Ideas of beauty, truth, ability, ethnicity and race, and identity are also subject to attempted deconstruction.

The idea of cultural construction does not mean that we are free to make anything up. It means that the discourses (another popular word) in our culture are responsible for creating the worldview (or world, as it's often called) in which we live. Throughout most of history, most people were not aware that they had a worldview. They were like fish in water, not noticing that there was water. When modernism came along, people noticed that there were such things as cultures, but Western people thought you could analyze these cultures objectively, as though you were outside of it. It would be as though a fish crawled out of the water to determine what salinity of water was best. Postmodernism insists that there is no "outside of the water" to swim to in order to make such a judgement... or, if there is, you actually cannot make a judgement from that perspective. Or, in the same way that Mephistopholes takes Hell with him wherever he goes, even if he leaves Hell, we take culture with us wherever we go, even if we leave human society entirely. We cannot escape it.

What postmodernism does, though, is make us aware of our own water by introducing us to other waters (to extend the fish metaphor). In becoming aware of our own culture, and how arbitrary it is, we can all contribute to the project of changing that culture to something we like better. As I said before, not all postmodernists are relativist through and through, but rather are only relativist about some things. Thus feminists believe that it is absolutely true (in the sense of moral absolutism, the belief that a one set of morals is better than all others) that women should be treated equally to men, and thus try to break down the restricting gender roles on both men and women. Either a small number of us try to recreate culture to our own standards, creating a subculture (such as nihilist-punk), or we try to engage all of society in this change (as feminism or anti-racism has).

I hope that you'll notice multiculturalism's importance in postmodernism; indeed, the blending of cultures is a key component in some postmodern lifestyles (which is a thing, as Tycho would say), and culture clashes and/or interactions created modernism, according to some of the authors in The Truth About the Truth, and postmodernism following it. It's only through having to seriously reckon with other cultures that we gained the perspective necessary to see "through" our own, as it were. Therefore the idea of culture being a construct, and taking part in its own construction, is a descendant of recognizing the multiplicity of cultures. By the same token, the conscious trading of traditions, ideas, rituals, and narratives between cultures is a result of postmodern though. (I must emphasize the importance of conscious in the previous sentence.) An equally important element is the supposed conflict between the powerful domains of knowledge in modern academia, especially the growing rift between science, religion, and certain modernist philosophies, like existentialism. Recognizing that there was no possible way to get 'out' of any mode of thought to make a decision regarding which of these approaches are most valid may have been another key component in the development of postmodernism. (Such a decision is called a metadecision, while the language it would be expressed in is called a metalanguage. Postmodernism of course denies the existence/validity of either.)

That all being said, the multicultural element is perhaps better attributed to postmodernity, which refers less to a philosophy and more to the culture which takes postmodern tenants to be true, or at least culturally viable. That is to say, whether or not we are individually postmodern, we are all living in postmodernity. Make sense? This is important to note because it has become popular to attribute postmodernism, or the label 'postmodern', to many historical speakers, so much so that Eco jokes that soon enough Homer will be postmodern. People are now retroactively attributing postmodernism to any artist who held some ideas that are now labeled postmodern. Buddha would be a great example. Scholars, both postmodern and not postmodern, are arguing over this approach's validity.

And I'll write the rest in a second post. See you then!

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