Postmodernism is an umbrella term to describe a number of different orientations, sub-movements and ways of thinking characterized by a self-conscious reaction to Modernism. It is the ripening of trends set in motion by the romantics and existentialists, particularly as regards the rejection of objective truth.
Postmodernism normally includes the following key elements:
- an appreciation of the plasticity and constant change of reality and knowledge
- a stress on the priority of concrete experience over fixed abstract principles
- a recognition that reality is fluid and unfolding rather than solid
- a belief that all knowledge is subjectively determined
- an emphasis that all human understanding is interpretation, and no interpretation is final
- the stressing that if objective truth were possible (which it is not) it would be undesirable, since objective structures are used as a power tool to stifle suppress other people
- the assertion that our language does not signify or point towards external truth, because truth does not exist
- the idea that all readings of texts are misreading because there is no external ‘correct’ way to interpret a text or an artwork. As Derrida says “there is nothing outside the text.”
- the rejection of all organizing principles, metanarratives, worldviews, totalizing discourses or anything else which gives continuity to the manifold particulars of human experience.
The last point in the above summary is probably the most important for understanding the challenge that Postmodernism presents today, as well as the differences between Postmodernism and earlier reactions to Modernism (i.e. Romanticism and Existentialism)
Both Romanticism and Existentialism gave frameworks for conceptually organizing reality. For the romantic, reality was organized around the self and one’s emotions. For the existentialist, reality was organized around existence and the meaning each of us creates for ourselves by authentic action. For Postmodernism, however, there is no organizing principle at all. There is nothing that gives meaning to reality.
Postmodernism sees experience as fundamentally random, disorganized and ambiguous, while strongly resisting all influences that might threaten to bring order, continuity and explanation to bear on the particulars of our world.
This was brought out when C. Gregg Singer attended a meeting of prominent historians at the annual convention of the American Historical Association. All the scholars were agreed that history is devoid of meaning and purpose. When Singer asked why, there was no reply.
The Rejection of Metanarratives
In 1984, Jean-François Lyotard said "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodernism as incredulity towards metanarratives…" A metanarrative is an over-arching story or thought structure which lends meaning and context to the particulars of experience, normally group experience.
According to the postmodernist, metanarratives are bad because they are thought controlling. Postmodernists argue that metanarratives force human existence into a mould which stifles freedom. Furthermore, metanarratives, like totalising philosophical and political systems, allegedly deny the naturally existing ambiguity, disorder and opaqueness of human experience.
In many nations now, we are seeing these principles reflected in a deliberate attempt to discourage any sense of national identity and culture – to suppress anything which gives continuity to the culture as a whole.
.Of course, this is paradoxical when we consider just how controlling and totalising postmodernism is becoming. Indeed, postmodernism is beginning to look suspiciously like the new metanarrative in which relativism is absolute.
My Story and Your Story
The Enlightenment placed the individual at the center of reality but failed to realize the full implications of this egocentrical orientation. However Postmodernism has carried the Enlightenment’s man-centred orientation to its fullest implications. For all practical purposes, the individual plays the part of God. This being the case, the only story that is worth any of us telling is my own story. Each of us must tell our own stories, not by showing how we fit into any larger scheme, but just to tell our story and leave it at that. Universal metanarratives are thus replaced with small local or individual narratives which emphasize the multiplicity of valid theoretical standpoints. All the big stories are broken up into billions of little stories with no relation to each other. Jean-Francois Lyotard, put this well when he wrote that we have moved “from the muffled majesty of grand narratives to the splintering autonomy of micronarratives.” (The Postmodern Condition)
In past ages people tended to see their own stories in reference to the larger stories, especially whatever story their worldview told about the earth. Postmodernism orients us to only see ourselves in reference to ourselves. Whenever you try to construct a larger story you are impinging on someone else’s reality.
Our own individual stories do not even require consistency of organization. As David Wells puts it:
“It means that people have nowhere to stand cognitively in the world, no way to get their bearings, that life’s experiences fall like pieces of confetti with no relationship to each other. Life is made up of a multitude of separate experiences that are without interconnections or meaning.” (Losing Our Virtue, p. 123)
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