What is postmodernism? Does it matter?

When I worked for a Christian youth organisation, we talked about postmodernism all the time. It was the thing which defined ‘new’ society, making it different from what had gone before. When I subsequently worked in the arts everyone stubbornly refused to talk about it, and blanked out whenever I raised the subject. I once asked someone what he thought of postmodernism, and his reply was “Wasn’t than a movement in architecture in the 1970s?”

From this I concluded that it was impossible to believe in the existence of postmodernism and be postmodernist at the same time.

It was a flippant conclusion at the time, but, on reflection, I think it’s pretty much right.

So what is it?

Get a book out of the library — if you can still find one — about postmodernism and you will probably start to read about structuralism, deconstruction, Derrida, Foucault and Baudrillard, (all of whom are conveniently now deceased so that they cannot be asked for further explanation). You might also read about political correctness, and you may find that some prefer the term post-modernity over postmodernism.

The most important starting point for understanding postmodernism is that the ‘post’ part is a bluff. In just the same way that — to modern eyes — there was nothing more medieval than the Renaissance, even though the renaissance defined itself against the period that preceded it, there is nothing more modernist than postmodernism —  though postmodernism is modernism with a twist, which I shall come to in a moment.

No, really, what is it?

I spent much of the 1980s and 1990s thinking about modernism. TS Eliot, Picasso, the early Epstein, the cultural impact of Einstein, and, indeed, Gert Stein, the post-impressionists, Dada, Ingmar Bergman, William Golding, and, in some strange ways, Rudyard Kipling, were all contributors to modernism. Birmingham, where I used to live, and Warwick, where I now work, were victims of modernism: the brutalist structure which was the old Birmingham Bull Ring (now thankfully demolished) and the Warwick library which is so completely out of keeping with the town are examples of what modernism did to architecture, or the ‘built environment’ as planners prefer to call it.

The best definition of modernism I ever heard, though I can no longer remember from whom I heard it, is that modernism is the fear of memory. Marxism, Fascism and Market Capitalism, Cubism, Tone Rows, and the use of plexiglass and concrete as opposed to brick and stone are all examples of the way modernists attempted to do things, say things and think things which had never been thought, said or done before. But this was not merely progress, or even progress for its own sake. There was a conscious rejection (sometimes a very well-informed rejection, as in the early poems of TS Eliot which are replete with references to earlier works) of anything which had gone before.

The very best example of this though process — though by no means a good example of the art it produced — was a WH Auden poem “A handsome profile”, which repeatedly returns to its theme phrase of “you are living in a world which has had its day”. The poem is not particularly good largely because Auden fairly evidently doesn’t really subscribe to the fear-of-memory views that he is presenting: ‘shamming’ beliefs was a problem which beset Auden for much of his life. But Auden accurately picked up the underlying belief.

Modernism was an existentially courageous 1 response to 19th century humanism. Unlike Renaissance humanism, which was about rediscovering the classical world, and 21st century humanism, which is a code word, alongside secularism, for militant atheism, 19th century humanism was a part secular, part religious philosophy that said that mankind was getting better and better, and this would continue until there were no more wars, and everyone lived at peace with everyone else. It was a powerful and potent philosophy. In science, the new theory of evolution demonstrated that the natural tendency of life was towards advancement. In industry, the enormous prosperity of the industrial revolution had trickled down to much of society in many parts of the developed world. In politics, the defeat of Napoleon and the establishment of principles such as national self-determination, alongside the growing world peace sponsored by Britain’s hegemony over the oceans (and penchant for gunboat diplomacy 2, led to the belief that world peace really was imminent, with just, constitution-driven nation states living in harmony within it. In religion, the rise of post-millenialism, a theory derived from the book of Revelation that God’s kingdom would be built on earth, and was indeed, at that moment, being built, supported the confidence that mankind was advancing to a state of perfection.

The First World War shattered the 19th century ambitions of humanism, though many preferred to call it ‘the war to end all wars’ in the vain hope that it had now taught mankind never to fight again. Much of the 20th century was spent dealing with its aftermath3, not only politically, but also artistically. The people of the 20th century believed in progress as passionately as those of the 19th century, but the easy confidence of their forebears was replaced with an uneasy desire to escape the past.

No, seriously, what is postmodernism then?

If modernism is the fear of memory, then postmodernism is the fear of explanation. Or, in its own lingo, the fear of ‘meta-narrative’, being any story which explains other stories. In politics, postmodernists look back at the great ideologies of the 20th century, Marxism and Fascism, and see in them both an attempt to explain everything through one theory. In art, they look back to the often austere and exclusivist artistic and literary theories which ran like wild-fire through the century, eliminating or castigating those who wished to continue with earlier forms. In religion, postmodernists pointed to the dogmas of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism which they regarded as destroying the freedoms of mankind 4. In science, postmodernists were quick to give credence to the various conspiracy theories about what ‘science’ was doing, especially that which was perceived as predatory science ransacking the world for the raw materials to continue its own programme.

Postmodernism is a kind of modernism where you can have anything you want, as long as you don’t have too much of it, and have it too consistently, or allow one part of it to organise the other parts. By far the best illustration — to me — of the postmodernist worldview was the series The X-Files, which explored a wide range of conspiracy theories, detective, horror, occult and spiritual themes over the course of its nine series mainly during the 1990s. What was remarkable about the X-Files was that the underlying worldview shifted radically from week to week. Sometimes it was aliens, sometimes it was ghosts, sometimes it was humans pretending to be ghosts (as in the episode ‘Ghosts’), sometimes it was genetic throwbacks, sometimes man-made conspiracies and hoaxes, sometimes it was God, and sometimes it was the Devil. Fairly often it was the unexplained properties of physical phenomena, such as dark matter or lightning, but at other times it was astrology and fortune telling.

Not only was there no consistency (except for Agent Mulder’s perpetually open mind, and Scully’s dogged scepticism, even after hundreds of examples of the supernatural), but there was a sharp compartmentalisation of worlds. In fighting the prospective alien invasion, Mulder’s best bet would have been to round up all the diabolical, spiritual, supernatural and quasi-physical allies he possibly could (even the Devil sends Mulder a friendly note at the end of one episode) and get them all fighting against the aliens. But, of course, Mulder never does this. To do this would be to create a new meta-narrative, rather like some of the more off-beat war-films which collect a team of superheroes to fight against the Germans or the Japanese.

As well as denying the validity of meta-narrative (or, more usually, getting very uncomfortable, changing the subject, and eventually remembering a pressing appointment elsewhere), postmodernists are very keen on controlling language as a way of controlling how we think. This is largely about overcoming the implicit discrimination of ‘privileged’ terms, such as good vs bad, truth vs lies, black vs white, male vs female, right vs left. Deconstructionists (for such they were) would construct elaborate tables showing how our use of hierarchical terms was fundamentally discriminatory, for example making out white people to be better than black people, right handed people better than left handed people, men better than women, and so on.

For what it’s worth, this was all very effectively debunked by Terry Eagleton, who pointed out that in rejecting hierarchies, we were simply creating new hierarchies — non-hierarchical versus hierarchical, inclusive versus exclusive, non-discriminatory versus discriminatory, and all we had succeeded in doing was creating a new vocabulary of good and bad, which was nowhere near as elegant or understandable as the old vocabulary.

So, postmodernism, any good?

Clearly, since you are reading this article and now know what postmodernism is, it follows that you are no longer a postmodernist, even if you ever were one, based on my earlier premise that you cannot possibly at one and the same time be a postmodernist and acknowledge (let alone understand) its existence.

The reality is that postmodernism is by no means as useful a tool for describing art and the world as modernism was, and even modernism itself was largely confined to a fairly small circle of wealthy artists and would-be wealthy artists. The world of postmodernism was a transitional world which suddenly seemed very permanent after the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and before the destruction of the Twin Towers (2001). This was a period where there was no overriding political narrative, no all compelling fear, no worldwide prejudice against a particular people or philosophy, and no startling new advances in science to rearrange our thinking. From 2000, everything changed again. The ‘new millennium’ set us thinking apocalyptically again, initially in fear that all the world’s computers would simultaneously collapse on 1 January 2000. From 2001, the overriding political narrative was the fight against Al Qaeda, and support for or opposition against the wars that this engendered. The reach of the internet, digital terrestrial and satellite TV and mobile phones into almost every life in the developed world caught the ordinary human up once more in a massive technological rush.

Like it or not, we are back to meta-narratives explaining the world to us. Richard Dawkins and his acolytes offer us a fully atheistic explanation, radical Islam offers us an ethno-religio-political explanation, economics offers us the explanations of why the crash was inevitable, and the rise of consciousness about global warming puts the entire world in a single climatic context.

So we can just forget about it, then?

Of course not. In the same way that post-modernism owed most of its nature to modernism, the world we are now in clearly flows from the world we have just exited. In some parts of life, the pendulum has swung back. Political Correctness is now ridiculed in the UK, and a new government is setting out to overturn the PC sensibilities of the Blair years. In other ways we are still locked in the world of inconsequentialism, where we see no particular need to make one part of our life or beliefs consistent with another one.

In art, postmodernism has largely had a freeing effect. Both CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were derided for their fantasy output. Lewis was criticised for the way he mixed Greek and Germanic mythical and folk-figures, bringing centaurs and dwarves under the same roof. Tolkien was criticised for entirely abandoning naturalism. JK Rowling, on the other hand, in her exuberant combination of everything from everywhere, utter contempt for naturalism, and merry borrowing from earlier fantasy writers, benefited hugely from the fact that there were no longer thought police hanging around in libraries and universities to denounce Harry Potter as unworthy reading.

The big question of everyone’s lips is, of course, after postmodernism, what is coming next?

Show 4 footnotes

  1. ie, blind courage, making a leap in order to justify existence, rather than out of any confidence that the leap is meaningful
  2. Something that Britain found rather distasteful when it was tried by other powers: the arrival of the German gunboat Panther during the Agadir crisis stirred up significant criticism in London
  3. Though, really, we should consider the 20th century history cycle to begin with the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, which established the political terms which would dominate the century as well as being the long-term cause of the First World War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 which brought the Cold War to an end, being the enduring consequence of the Second World War, itself a direct consequence of the First World War
  4. Though, in reality, it is quite hard to sustain this position, especially when compared to the claims of atheism as represented by Marxism, and also hard to draw many significant parallels between Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, which represent not three different aspects of religion, but three entirely exclusive world-views in which the term ‘faith’ or ‘religion’ has a very different meaning

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