Letter to My Son: What is Postmodernism?

My Son,

I’m not using your name because the Web is public and I want to minimize the chance that your privacy will be invaded. But this letter is written mainly for you. Other people may benefit from it, but that’s just a fortunate byproduct.

As a young man, your most important task is to come to understand the world.  A man cannot live well if he does not know what’s happening.

The contemporary world has been disrupted. But the disruptors (the liberals) are a wicked bunch, and their disruption, which is really destruction, threatens you and everything you love (or should love.) You are just one person and you cannot stop the destruction by yourself. But as a first step you can understand the disruption by understanding how the world really works, and how humans should behave.

That’s what I want most to get across: What reality really is, and how humans should behave. There’s a lot to say, but I can only write one letter at a time. This letter concerns postmodernism.

*

Postmodernism is one of the defining features of the modern world, so we must understand it. We don’t need to understand everything about it; we’ll leave that to the scholars. But we have to understand its essence, the thing that makes it what it is.

Most things have a simple essence, if you can get to the heart of the matter. If you can know the essence of a thing, you can understand its details. If you don’t know the essence, the details just confuse you.

*

Examples of postmodernism? Well, there’s postmodern literature, and postmodern art, and postmodern architecture for starters. What do these have in common?

Ugliness, that’s what. And that’s not because the artists and the writers and the architects are trying to create beauty but failing because they don’t have the skill. Postmodern works are deliberately ugly.

[Sometimes they’re not ugly. But that’s just an accident, or, more accurately, it’s mankind’s natural-born, instinctive desire for beauty showing itself in spite of the surrounding postmodern gloom.]

So is “postmodern” just a fancy word for “ugly?”  That’s not bad for a first try, but we must go deeper. Why does the postmodern artist aim for ugliness?

Here’s the basic answer, explained more fully below. Postmodernism is a widespread and vaguely-defined movement which claims that the human race cannot actually know anything. People who think they know anything with certainty are mistaken, according to postmodernism.  And they’re not just wrong, but dangerous, says the postmodern, because the delusion of certainty leads you to be judgmental and oppressive. And if mankind cannot actually know anything, all sorts of strange and dangerous consequences, which we see all around us, follow from this basic belief.

And why does this lead to the celebration of ugliness? Because people who believe that certainty is impossible are fundamentally unhappy. Man needs certainty about the things that are most important because man needs answers to the biggest questions: What is reality really like? What kind of a being am I? How is a being like me supposed to think and to act?  And so on.  Postmodernism denies that mankind can know the answers to all these important questions and the inevitable result is that the postmodernist has a fundamental, incurable unhappiness.

If the postmodernist is an artist, his unhappiness makes him create works that display his unhappiness. And unhappiness made into concrete and tangible works of art looks like ugliness. Unhappiness that you can detect with your senses is ugliness.

*

Another strange consequence of postmodernism is this: A postmodernist, a person who believes in postmodernism, is not certain of postmodernism. And so if you tell him what postmodernism is, he’ll say you’re wrong.

But being a postmodernist, he won’t literally say “You are wrong.”  That would display too much certainty. He’ll say you’re being judgmental. Or that you have a faulty paradigm.  Or that you’re a victim of discredited modernism ideology. Or some such stuff.

Psychologists call this behavior “passive-aggressive.” The passive-aggressor wants to attack, but he won’t come right out and do it. So he disguises his aggression.

*

Postmodernism begins as a set of beliefs, but it does not affect the world through people learning and then believing these beliefs. It’s not like Christianity, which begins for you when you know about Jesus and trust him to forgive your sins.  Postmodernism mainly affects the world through the attitudes that people pick up from the everyday consequences of postmodernism.

Postmodernist architecture, for example, usually produces ugly buildings. And spending time around ugly buildings causes us to feel off balance and anxious in a way that we usually cannot understand.  And the same goes for ugly art, ugly literature, and ugly entertainment. If nobody points out that it’s ugly, we’re not able say what the problem is. We can’t identify the problem, which would be the first step in protecting ourselves.

Although postmodernism is defined by the beliefs that it teaches, these beliefs are usually not stated clearly. We usually experience, not the teachings that define postmodernism, but the objects and the actions that result from postmodernism, such as ugly architecture or ugly art. Postmodernism usually wears a disguise. It’s only taught openly in advanced university courses and esoteric books written by obscure thinkers.

*

So what is postmodernism? Let’s begin by examining the word. “Postmodernism” literally means “the body of teaching believed by the people who come after the moderns.”

Therefore to understand postmodernism you must understand its predecessor, modernism.

Although its roots extend back to ancient times, modernism was pioneered by European philosophers starting with the so-called Enlightenment beginning in the late 17th Century. The modernists, who were the ancestors of today’s liberals, tried to create a new way of thinking that emphasized man instead of God. They taught that man can discover all truths for himself, without having to rely on revelation from God. [That’s a half-truth: Man can discover some truths on his own. But not the most important truths. And the kind of world where man can discover truth is only possible if the God of the Bible exists.]  They also taught that God does not have authority over man, but rather that man is a free being having the right to define the rules of life as he sees fit.

In pre-modern times the human race had many different systems of society, religion, morality, science, and so on. But these systems shared the belief that mankind was not the supreme authority. There was a God or gods, and the gods defined the true nature of reality. And this included moral reality and intellectual reality: the gods, not man, defined truth, beauty, and morality.

[Christianity and its predecessor, Judaism, understood the true nature of the one true and living God, but the other premodern systems at least had the right basic understanding of divinity: that it exists, and that it has authority over man.]

This all changed with modernism. Ironically, the best short summary of modernism was written more than two thousand years ago, during premodern times, by the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras of Abdera: “Man is the measure of all things.” Under modernism man, not God, is in charge.

But modernism has a fatal flaw. Mankind makes a poor Supreme Being. Human beings are often mistaken and they constantly disagree with one another. And if there is no God to create order in the world then any truth discovered by mankind is only as good as the latest data. Future data may overturn current beliefs, as we see happening especially in science.

Modernism undermines itself. If mankind alone determines truth, then there is no truth. At least not the kind of truth that is most important, the truth that is the same for everyone and that does not change over time. If “truth” means not just something that we can sense or guess, but something we can know with certainty through evidence and the application of logically valid thinking, then the modernist cannot believe that truth exists. Therefore not even modernism can be true.

Modernism is unstable. It cannot continue indefinitely. Sooner or later, it was inevitable that modernism would be found to be invalid. Because modernism must eventually be rejected, it must eventually lead either to a reaffirmation of pre-modern belief in God, or to postmodernism. Postmodernism is the modernist rejection of God coupled with the integrity to acknowledge that without God, truth is dead.

*

Postmodernists—people who consciously agree with postmodern teachings—have enough integrity to acknowledge that without God, we cannot be certain of anything. But instead of returning to belief in God, they reject Him, and try to make uncertainty into a virtue. Postmodernism is just the latest and most fashionable way of rejecting God .

The type of truth that is true for all people (and all times) is called objective. Postmodernists do not believe objective truth exists. They believe in subjective truth, truth that varies from person to person, from community to community, from age to age. So postmodernists make a big deal about “community” and “dialog.”  Through community and dialog, people and groups form their own truths, or maybe just “beliefs,” so that they can get on with the business of living. Man, not being an animal, has to be guided by what he believes to be true, not by instincts. But since objective truths do not exist for the postmodernist, mankind must create their own truths through a social process.  And don’t you dare try to impose your truths on others!

*

We are Christians. So we must ask, Can a person be a Christian postmodernist? Is postmodernism compatible with Christianity?

No, and no. There are people who call themselves postmodern Christians, but they’re fooling themselves. And that’s because a Christian has to be a person who knows the truth about Christ, believes it, and trusts Christ to take away his sins. Without this knowledge, which is the basis of faith in Christ, you cannot be saved. And postmodernism makes it impossible to know Christ.

Postmodernism was designed to attack Christianity, and the rest of what made our Western Civilization what it was. I use the past tense because the liberal revolution—the liberal jihad—has mostly succeeded. Most of the official rules of America and the rest of the West are now derived from liberalism. The pioneers of postmodernism refused to believe in truth because they hate that truth: Christianity, morality, sex roles, the authority that some people have over others, and all the rest of what made our society what it was.

Modernism was (and is) also hostile to the traditional ways of Western Civilization, but postmodernists took the failure of modernism as an opportunity to take the modernist rebellion to an even more fundamental level. By denying truth itself, the postmodernists hoped to make themselves even more free from God than they had been under modernism. Modernists believed in truth, but they denied that it came from God. Postmodernists, by denying truth itself, hoped to be even freer. They wanted not only to be free from God’s authority, they wanted to be free even from reality itself. Think, for example, of the recent postmodern insanity of people claiming to “self-identify” as something they are obviously not. And at a more esoteric level, we have postmodernists claiming that “science is sexist” (or racist, or homophobic), because contemporary science was pioneered by (mostly male) Europeans.

*

Modernism is dying. Many modernists don’t know it, or don’t allow themselves to acknowledge it, but its time is up. It lingers in the attitudes of many scientists and apologists for atheism, but modernism has lost its grip on most of that portion of mankind that once embraced it. The future will be either postmodern or, ironically, “premodern.” And since postmodernism does not satisfy, it too will eventually go into the trash can of history.

Update:  Over at Social Matter, This Week in Reaction points out that this essay didn’t mention the postmodernist’s favorite method: deconstruction. Upon reflection, I realize that it’s easy to fill the gap:

Deconstruction is evading and denying the obvious meaning of a text.  That “text” could be written, spoken, or visual. If verbal, it could be a sentence, a paragraph, an essay, or a book. Whatever the text, postmodern deconstruction is to hijack a text. The deconstructor claims that the text has a new meaning not seen by previous readers, or even the author.

Every great lie contains an element of truth, and deconstruction starts with the truth that most texts contain some ambiguities. But deconstruction, claiming that no text has any fixed and authoritative meaning, often goes completely off the rails.

For example:  The Supreme Court rules that the Constitution now means that women can abort their babies. Radical historians claim that the Christian West is responsible for triggering Moslem violence. Religious liberals claim that the Bible accepts homosexuality. A radical feminist claims that Isaac Newton’s groundbreaking physics text Principia Mathematica is a “rape manual.” I kid you not.

Just as a commandeered warship now fights for its captors and not its former owners, a deconstructed text is now claimed to mean whatever the deconstructor says it means. The text has changed its allegiance. It now fights for liberalism, feminism, multiculturalism, and so on.  Deconstruction is postmodern piracy.

12 thoughts on “Letter to My Son: What is Postmodernism?

  1. Pingback: Letter to My Son: What is Postmodernism? | @the_arv

    • You sound like a postmodernist. The answer to the question “What do you mean by truth?” is that truth is a fundamental concept, the nature of which all men grasp by intuition. The answer to the question “How do you go about finding it in any particular case?” is that there is no specific procedure to determine truth. It depends on the situation. As for your third question, I do not have to supply an answer in order for my post to be valid.

      • With due credit to our colleague Richard Cocks, we should note that postmodernism, i.e., epistemological and moral relativism coupled with narcissistic egotism, is a performative contradiction, just as the assertion, “there is no such thing as truth,” is a performative contradiction. The last fifty years of our polity have been an accumulating performative contradiction, which, like furuncle, must eventually burst. (But not necessarily before it has poisoned the whole body.)

        P.S. Ontologicalrealist’s pestering questions are a perfect example of the passive-aggressive mode.

      • Yep.

        That’s why many people say postmodernism is nothing but a racket. It’s a racket but, like the wider category of liberalism, it’s a racket with a vast scope, a pedigree and a lot of sincere fans

  2. Pingback: Letter to My Son: What is Postmodernism? | Reaction Times

  3. Alan – “Postmodernism was designed to attack Christianity, and the rest of what made our Western Civilization what it was.”

    Yes. Post-modernism can only be explained as oppositional – and specifically to Christianity; because it does not follow-through its critique – All postmodernists are extreme, usually fanatical, Leftists; supplying detailed, mandatory prescriptions and policies for the behaviour of everybody – and in practice supportive of totalitarianism (usually in the form of vast, coercive micro-monitoring and controlling bureaucracies tasked to enforce Leftism/ destroy Christianity/ marriage, families etc).

    The key fact of postmodernism is its dishonesty – it is this which enables it strategically and systematically to pursue destruction of The Good while denying that it has any agenda whatsoever (and to say otherwise makes you a foolish or psychotic conspiracy theorist).

    In a religious society (any religious society – not necessarily Christian; i.e. any society before the modern era), such an obviously evil absurdity as postmodernism would have zero traction – but in the atheist/ nihilistic modern West it has been thriving (under various names) for two generations – until now we have mandatory, universal relativism (wrt to anything Good) combined with mandatory universal evil (for anything destructive of Good).

    Ultimately, I regard postmodernism as a consequence of the metaphysical blindness of modernity (including science) – the idea that metaphysical assumptions are something we have progressed-beyond shields the metaphysical incoherence of our mainstream ideology. ie. Because modern people claim not to make any metaphysical assumptions (but to be guided by ‘evidence’), their actual assumptions are immune to analysis and critique.

  4. AR: We received the following hostile response to the Letter on Postmodernism. To save time, I include my responses within Chris G’s text:]

    How come none of you guys ever cite any of the texts that actually address postmodernism?

    Like:

    “So what is postmodernism? Let’s begin by examining the word. “Postmodernism” literally means “the body of teaching believed by the people who come after the moderns.””

    No, it doesn’t. I mean, where in postmodernism, etymologically, do you see anything about a ‘body of teachings’? But the more important thing is that you seem to be quoting something there, but who? Which author defined postmodernism as “the body of teaching believed by the people who come after the moderns?” Where did they write this?

    [AR: I don’t need to quote an authority. I just need to know what words mean. That’s the literal meaning of “Post-modernism.”]

    Or this:

    “Postmodernism was designed to attack Christianity, and the rest of what made our Western Civilization what it was.”

    What? Who said this? Where? In what context?

    [AR: Of course they won’t say “I design it to attack Christianity.” That’s too obvious. And they might not even be consciously aware of it. But postmodernism is as postmodernism does. It fundamentally attacks Christianity.]

    There’s more to say about the substance of your post, but it seems pointless if you’re going to do shoddy, lazy, and pseudo-academic work where you just recycle cliches about what you think postmodernism means, but don’t do any of the work to actually understand the concept. It makes no sense for anyone to take any of this seriously if this is the level of work you want to put forward.

    Until you guys are willing to take the time to actually read the texts that define these ideas, until you’re willing to understand the debates that shaped these theories, until you trace out the authors and discourses that made these ideas circulate, there’s just nothing of substance here and you’ll just keep talking to yourselves.

    AR: It does not take academic research to recognize an enemy. We are Western Christians, and postmodernism is our enemy. That is, postmodernism as it is actually practiced. Since postmodernism attacks us, the burden of proof is on you to prove that it is not an enemy.]

    And the rest of us are laughing at you.

    AR: The people who agree with you are laughing. But they are our enemies. If they were not enemies, they might try to teach us. But they’re just laughing. So let them laugh.

    So here, start with this: https://thecharnelhouse.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Fredric-Jameson-Postmodernism-Or-the-Cultural-Logic-of-Late-Capitalism.pdf

    It’s not an easy read, but if you took the time to read just the first chapter and to actually work with the ideas, you’ll finally maybe understand what postmodernism. Because here’s the thing, it actually has a very specific meaning for those of us who understand it – its architecture has defining traits, its movies have specific qualities, its philosophies come from a historic lineage – and just because you don’t know it, doesn’t mean it’s not real.

    AR: It sounds like you’re redefining postmodernism. You’re trying to exclude the items you don’t like so that postmodernism ends up looking better. A somewhat noble goal, I suppose. But you still sound like an enemy.
    And the “postmodernism” that matters is not the esoteric academic discourse. It’s the postmodernism of the man in the street that matters. And that postmodernism is toxic stuff.

    It’s not that postmodernism and postmodernists have nothing valid or valuable to say. Their recognition of the emptiness and ugliness of modernism, for example. It’s that the overall product, despite the presence of some wholesome elements, is toxic.

    • Hey,

      I appreciate the response to this and apologize for any perceived hostility. This seems like a smart enough piece, but I don’t understand why it only does half the work necessary to be fully formed. And because of this lack of work, the writing often come off as insincere in its criticisms. In this case, your reader is left with the only conclusion possible: that you just want to use ‘postmodernism’ as a placeholder for ‘things I don’t like’.

      Which is fine, but it means you should write a different article. And that you make basic mistakes in your response.

      Let’s take an example. When I ask you who you’re quoting, you responded with:

      [AR: I don’t need to quote an authority. I just need to know what words mean. That’s the literal meaning of “Post-modernism.”]

      and:

      [AR: Of course they won’t say “I design it to attack Christianity.” That’s too obvious. And they might not even be consciously aware of it. But postmodernism is as postmodernism does. It fundamentally attacks Christianity.]

      My first thought is stylistic, why’d you use quotation marks then? Italics would work to represent what you’re actually doing: engaging in a dialogue with an imagined interlocutor. Quotation marks have an ascribed meaning and usage in essay writing: they represent the direct words of another speaker. This practice is grounded in centuries of English traditions, it’s paramount to the exchange of ideas and to the discovery of meaning.

      Is this too on the nose yet?

      Maybe not. Here it is even blunter: My second thought is that you’ve managed to, twice, rely on classic postmodernists sentiments – ones that you even argue against in your article – to make your point.

      First, the distrust of authority and grand explanations (or, as Lyotard famously called it, “an incredulity towards metanarratives”) is foundational to postmodern thought. It’s one the central tenets that postmodernist theoriest talk about, not as a tactic, but as a condition of the changing world.

      Second, the ‘Postmodernism is as postmodernism does’ is a sentiment, again, grounded in the politics, language and sentiments of postmodernism. Here, you rely on the fundamentality of experience and action as the basis for knowledge. You ascribe truth to action, rather than to a broader empirical (or spiritual) reality, and you argue that one’s personal experience is proof in and of itself. Again, these are central tenements of postmodern thought (and identity politics). That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but it does mean that you should know when you’re using them to make your argument.

      And I guess that’s my last point, you further say that, as an enemy, the burden of proof is on me to defend postmodernism. But postmodernism doesn’t require a defense because it isn’t a practice, it’s a condition (Again, there are practices of postmodern art, writing and architecture that have specific characteristics, but you seem not interested in those beyond calling the buildings ugly, so I’m speaking only to the cultural and social phenomenon of postmodernism – the “postmodernism of the man in the street,” as you put it). That you rely on postmodern forms of knowledge to reply to my post should give you pause here to reflect on the meaning of postmodernism. Is it a tactic wielded by my enemies? Or is it a broader condition of contemporary life, one in which I participate? Is this something deployed against Christendom? Or is this the variations of Christian thought and other Western experiences being lived in a present moment defined by a plurality of religious/secular/technological/mediated experiences?

      If Western tradition and Christianity are to remain intact and part of these conversations, it seems to me their defenders should start to see the water they’re swimming through. It seems to me that they should start to think of themselves as postmodern too.

      And thanks for the interesting dialogue, I appreciate the piece and the time to respond.

      • My essay is aimed at young people, and it identifies the essence of postmodernism. Postmodernism is not just a movement within architecture. It’s a fundamental part of the contemporary atmosphere everyone breathes.

        Therefore a scholarly article about postmodernism within Field X misses the point. Postmodernism has an essence which is far more important than its expression in Field X. It’s the general postmodernism we all experience as opposed to the special postmodernisms of the specific fields.

        General postmodernism has caught on because it expresses something that ordinary people often find attractive. One way to express this “something” is to observe that according to (general) postmodernism you cannot be wrong, because there is no universal, objective truth. Your group may disavow you, but you’re not wrong in an absolute sense. Many people feel a sense of relief at the thought that they can’t be wrong.

        Since it’s so widespread, people don’t need to read esoteric textbooks to understand the essence of general postmodernism. All they need do is notice what’s happening around them. And then they need to listen when somebody expresses the essence of postmodernism. That’s what the present essay does. If I express the truth, some people will be able to recognize it and benefit from it. There is no need here for a nuanced scholarly presentation. The key point is simple, once you see it.

        The essence of postmodernism really is the rejection of the entire category of “truth” as it has traditionally been defined. This is what unifies the disparate expressions of postmodernism. And this is the inevitable result of accepting modernism, because of the weakness of modernism’s god, which is mankind.

        There is a place for the scholarly study of postmodernism. But John Q. Public is being assaulted by a thousand bad ideas and movements. He doesn’t have time for a thousand scholarly studies. He needs a simple way to grasp the essence of the phenomenon so that he can quickly distinguish between friend and foe in the world of ideas. The subtlety can come later.

        I don’t say everything labeled “postmodernist” is entirely bad. For example, the present essay acknowledges that postmodernism has the integrity to recognize that modernism is an error, and that it is dying. But the essence of postmodernism is bad news.

Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s