Postmodernism

by R. Wesley Hurd


At the end of this century the big questions about reality and being human rise with unexpected power. We ask ever more agonizingly: What does it mean to be human? How do human beings fit into this vast cosmos? Where to from here? We live in a time of great uncertainty–caught in the transition from a bold and passionate optimism about the future to a deep skepticism and spirit of nihilism about finding any universal ways for mankind. We live in a postmodern time.

The term “postmodernism” pops up in newspapers, magazines, and other media. What does it mean? And what does it mean for a Christian? My goal in this essay is to describe some primary features underlying postmodernism and to give examples of postmodernism’s effects. In the first section, I will focus on postmodernism’s philosophical underpinnings. In the second, I will present some examples of how postmodernism manifests itself today.

The Underpinnings

To characterize postmodernism, we must look briefly at what came before: modernism. “Modern” was once used liberally as an adjective to describe many things–from the latest kitchen gadget to a style of art. But “modern” also refers to a specific period of time (roughly 1870 through the mid-1960s) and to the range of cultural ideas, beliefs, and artifacts that people generated during that period.

Modernism was grounded in the beliefs of the Enlightenment–a time in western civilization (roughly 1730-1800) in which the “great minds” of the West began to disbelieve in the authority of the Judeo-Christian God as the basis for the truth and the law that undergird society and culture. Replacing traditional beliefs in God, church, and king, they established a new authority centered in man and his rational abilities to create a new, “liberated” social and intellectual framework for human endeavor.

The modernist believed that science had shaken the foundations of traditional authorities and truths. (Consider, for example, how three developments–the steam engine, the harnessing of electricity, and Darwin’s evolutionary theory–had radically altered the social consciousness of western man.) Modern man could find a new, rational foundation for universal truth; science, particularly, would reveal new truth, which, when applied to modern society and institutions, would literally remake the world. Modernism “… held the extravagant expectation that the arts and sciences would further not only the control of the forces of nature but also the understanding of self and world, moral progress, justice in social institutions, and even human happiness.” (Jurgen Habermas, Modernity: An Unfinished Project, pp 162-63.)

Modernism presupposed an understanding of human identity and self that was unified, coherent, and autonomous: man was a thinking being capable of rationally perceiving, knowing, and conquering the world–and he would. To be “modern,” then, was to embrace the power of scientific rationality, the spirit of progress, a vision of unlimited potential for human society, and an optimism for the future in which man could obtain his two greatest needs: meaning and material security.

Looking to man and not God, the optimism of modernism has proven itself ill-founded. The response has been postmodernism. The best Christian book on postmodernism that I have found is A Primer on Postmodernism by Stanley J. Grenz. In this article, however, I will have to describe postmodernism more briefly, which I will do by looking at five presuppositions inherent in the postmodern worldview:

(1) The quest for truth is a lost cause. It is a search for a “holy grail” that doesn’t exist and never did. Postmodernists argue that objective, universal, knowable truth is mythical; all we have ever found in our agonized search for Truth are “truths” that were compelling only in their own time and culture, but true Truth has never been ours. Furthermore, if we make the mistake of claiming to know the Truth, we are deluded at best and dangerous at worst.

(2) A person’s sense of identity is a composite constructed by the forces of the surrounding culture. Individual consciousness–a vague, “decentered” collection of unconscious and conscious beliefs, knowledge, and intuitions about oneself and the world–is malleable and arrived at through interaction with the surrounding culture. Postmodernism then, in stark contrast to modernism, is about the dissolving of the self. From the postmodernist perspective, we should not think of ourselves as unique, unified, self-conscious, autonomous persons.

(3) The languages of our culture (the verbal and visual signs we use to represent the world to ourselves) literally “construct” what we think of as “real” in our everyday existence. In this sense, reality is a “text” or “composite” of texts, and these texts (rather than the God-created reality) are the only reality we can know. Our sense of self–who we are, how we think of ourselves, as well as how we see and interpret the world and give ourselves meaning in it–is subjectively constructed through language.

(4) “Reality” is created by those who have power. One of postmodernism’s preeminent theorists, Michel Foucault, combines the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas about how those in power shape the world with a theory of how language is the primary tool for making culture. Foucault argues that whoever dominates or controls the “official” use of language in a society holds the key to social and political power. (Think, for example, of how official political “spin” control of specific words and phrases can alter the public perception of political decisions, policies, and events.) Put simply, Nietzsche said all reality is someone’s willful, powerful construction; Foucault says language is the primary tool in that construction.

(5) We should neutralize the political power inherent in language by “deconstructing” it. Another leading postmodernist, Jacques Derrida, theorizes that the language we use when we make statements always creates a set of opposite beliefs, a “binary,” one of which is “privileged” and the other of which is “marginalized,” and the privileged belief is always favored. For example, if one says “Honey is better for you than white sugar,” this statement of opinion has “privileged” honey over white sugar. In the arena of morals one might say “Sex should only happen in marriage,” in which case the experience of sex in marriage is “privileged” and sex out of wedlock is “marginalized.” Derrida argues that all language is made up of these binaries, and they are always socially and politically loaded. “Deconstruction” is the practice of identifying these power-loaded binaries and restructuring them so that the marginalized or “unprivileged” end of the binary can be consciously focused upon and favored.

Some Examples

The central characteristics of postmodernism present us with a radically different way of looking at life. At this point, however, we need to remember the proverb that says “If you want to know about water, don’t ask a fish!” The postmodernist elements of our culture are to us like water to the fish: we live and breathe in them everyday, but we take them so much for granted that it is very difficult for us to see them.

Perhaps the most general characteristics of postmodernism are fragmentation and pluralism. Our culture is rapidly reaching the point where we no longer think of ourselves in a universe but rather a multi-verse. In the postmodern worldview, transience, flux, and fragmentation describe our growing sense of how things really are. Where do we see this played out around us?

Personal identity. At the level of the individual, there abides a sense of uncertainty about how to understand oneself; most people consciously search for a sense of identity–for who and what they are and for what significance and worth they have. Our media-generated, consumer culture daily offers us a thousand choices for who we should be like, what we should value, and how we can attain worth and significance. And we take these images for what is real. So, for example, tennis pro Andre Agassi can say “Image is everything!” in an advertisement, and we believe him.

The recent, wildly successful sitcom “Seinfeld” vaunts itself as a “show about nothing.” Isolated, narcissistic, urban, “thirty-something singles” float through their existences trying to make sense out of what they ultimately perceive to be a meaningless, patchwork world. We laugh as we watch these actors portray individuals with no roots, vague identities, and conscious indifference to morals outside their self-determined ones. George riotously works out his “pathetic” life “going with” whatever works for him at the moment in jobs, scams, or relationships. The commercial and critical success of this show is attributable not only to the genius of its script, character development, and acting, but also to the way the audience identifies with the fragmented, ludicrous, pastiche of “moments” which make up the characters’ lives. Seinfeld is uniquely postmodern in its presentation of groundless, malleable character identities. It is also postmodern–as are most TV sitcoms today–in its radical, up-front play with “moralities” altered at the characters’ whim; there is no one morality.

Education and academics. From the modernist perspective, truth was largely relative, but the possibility of universals in knowledge remained conceivable. In the postmodern model, we don’t really “know” anything; rather, we “interpret.” Postmodernist education says “Pick a worldview,” as if only a choice of clothing style were at issue, “and create your interpretations accordingly,” since truths are only language constructions put in place by those who have influence and power. The emphasis on multi-cultural education is grounded philosophically in this perspective. After all, says the postmodernist educator, the emphasis in Western education on rationality and the quest for what is ultimately true is only another manifestation of Western “cultural imperialism” motivated by consumer capitalist power.

Popular media. Nowhere are the effects of postmodernism more glaring than in pop culture and its media. Image and fiction are promoted as reality in contemporary music, television, and print media by producers who understand the power of visual image to present a fictional reality that we will accept as reality itself. Dissolving the distinction between fiction and truth is justified by the postmodernist, because truth itself is a fiction; all we ever get are the fictions of our language games.

The quintessential example of postmodern media production is MTV. From its fast, fragmented production editing to its underlying visions (sexual moral relativism, for example), MTV represents the “cutting edge” of postmodernism applied to consumer media. MTV’s editors “collage” the shows together into a jumpy, stream-of-consciousness presentation that leaves older viewers baffled by its pace and apparent incoherence. But to the postmodern “generation-X” crowd who make a steady diet of it, MTV’s randomness is normal. MTV’s twenty-four-hour parade of images, pseudo-documentaries, hedonistic dating-scenario game shows, music videos, and cutting-edge advertisements relentlessly assault one’s visual and auditory senses, leaving viewers feeling fragmented and transient within a decentered plural-reality: the postmodern world.

In Conclusion

I have tried to characterize the postmodern outlook that increasingly influences our lives at both the individual and social levels. I have focused on the negative aspects of the postmodern theory as it dismantles or “deconstructs” the traditional and modernist paradigms that have preceded. Christians who realize the negative effects of postmodernism should also be aware, however, that postmodernism’s attack on the Enlightenment-modernist worldview may have some positive effects as well. Postmodernism may present opportunities for biblical Christians to dialogue more openly with people whose “certainty” about reality has been dismantled. For if the postmodernist is truly “plural” in outlook, there should necessarily be an openness to all “interpretations” of the human situation and condition–including the biblical one. And the biblical interpretation, it turns out, does meet real human needs, because it presents the Reality we all long for.

Copyright June 1998 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

R. Wesley Hurd