What is Postmodernism?

copyright 2003, by Larry J Solomon

The nature and description of postmodernism (pomo) has changed over past decades as the movement has developed. Scholars dedicated to the subject generally do not agree on much except the politicalization of all aspects of human thought, science, and art, and a unrelenting attack on modernism. Differing concepts have been proposed in deconstructionist theory (Derrida, Lacan), politics (Foucault), social theory (Baudrillard), architecture (Jencks), literature (Barthes), philosophy (Rorty), etc. Many of these theories are European in origin but reflect on what is basically an American phenomenon. The result has been a mishmash of deconstructionist verbiage that is barely comprehensible, even to those who are considered be postmodern practitioners. Here I intend only to outline contrasts between modernism and pomo.

Pomos claim a paradigm shift seeded by two potent factors: 1. a disenchantment with the Enlightenment and the "hegemony" of rationalism, and 2. an emerging global culture. Pomo science is socially constructed, subjective rather than objective. Logic and rational thought are attacked by pomos, who believe in incoherence and indeterminacy. Logic is replaced with political, quasi-religious rhetoric, e.g., in the New Age movement, a revival of interest in astrology, ESP, etc. Pomos believe that progress is an illusion, i.e., that there is no such thing as progress -- therefore it is nonprogressive. There is no ideal utopian society, which is also a modern illusion.

Although multiculturalism helped to spawn pomo, the former resists homogenization and tries to preserve the integrity of indigenous cultures, while the latter views homogenization and eclecticism as natural and desirable. There are also inconsistencies of the actual practice of pomo with its own theories, e.g., pomo architecture compared with the ideas of Lacan or Barthes.

Pomo arose from a misinterpretation of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the American leftist social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and upon a politico-philosophical tract espoused in a book by Thomas Kuhn, entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: 1970. Pomo embraces the eclectic, and carries the banner of "multiculturalism", "feminism", "deconstructionism", and a host of other "isms". Pomos espouse populism, but write political tracts that few can understand (incoherence and convoluted jargon are pomo virtues). Even when they claim to understand, the same writing doesn't mean the same thing to different pomos, but this is regarded as a virtue.

To pomo nothing is any better than anything else. Thus, the ideal pomo is suspicious or even intolerant of truths and values unless they are considered local, relative social constructions (unique to the tribe that invents rather than discovers them), and believes that values about art are purely subjective and individualized -- there are no such things as masterpieces. Pomos like to attack modernists for their belief in objective truth and value. Pop culture and commercialism is elevated to the same level as high art by pomos. Bevis and Butthead is just as good as Shakespeare. Rap music is as good as Bach. Pomo is anti-formal and denies any autonomy to music and art. Everything is political to pomos.

Although pomos have successfully entrenched themselves in the humanities and social sciences in presitigious academic institutions as "tenured radicals," they have only recently tried to impose their political ideology upon hard-core sciences. One result has been an amusing scandal in which a New York University physicist, Alan Sokal, submitted a paper titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", for publication in the reknowned pomo journal, Social Text. The paper was a deliberate hoax, a joke constructed with pomo jargon, but filled with pretentious nonsense on a theory that gravity doesn't exist, or rather exists only in the minds of those who believe it's there. Nevertheless, it was accepted as a serious contribution by the editors and published in the journal in June 1996. Even more astonishing were the subsequent reactions and justifications raised by prominent pomos. A history of this scandal, including the original essay by Sokal, is available in the book The Sokal Hoax, the Sham that Shook the Academy edited by Lingua Franca (University of Nebraska Press, 2000).

The following chart contrasts modernist philosophy with pomo, but any such chart is bound to be an oversimplified generalization. Nevertheless, generalizations and distinctions are necessary and useful.

    Modern

    Postmodern

    rational

    irrational

    scientific

    anti-scientific or unscientific

    utopian, elitist, belief in universal values

    populist claim, local values only

    democratic

    feminist and minority hegemony

    hierarchical

    anarchical

    organized

    non-totalized, chaotic, fragmented

    centered

    dispersed

    European, Western

    "multicultural"

    generalizing

    non-generalizing

    determinate

    indeterminate

    objective

    subjective

    objectivist values, masterpieces

    values determined socially and individually

    formal disciplines

    informal, undisciplined

    purposeful, meaningful

    meaningless or purely subjective meaning

    construction

    destruction (pomos prefer the euphemism "deconstruction")

    belief in progress

    no progress possible

    theoretical

    concrete, non-theorizing

    analytical & synthetic

    non-analytical, rhetorical, based on belief

    simplicity, elegance, spartan, streamlined

    decoration, elaboration, convoluted, evasive

    logical, scientific

    illogical, superstitious, opinion based

    cause-effect

    chance

    linear

    haphazard, "nonlinear"

    harmonious, integrated

    non-integrated

    permanence

    transience

    abstract

    concrete

    communicative, prefer to be understood

    prefer to be arcane

    unified, coherent

    eclectic, incoherent

    objective truth

    truth is socially constructed

    apolitical to occasionally political

    politicizes everything

disciplines primarily indifferent to power struggles

political power is of primary concern

    reality is not anthropocentric

    reality is socially constructed and anthropocentric


Footnote: Postmodernism is the subject of much controversy. Essays by deconstructionists are notorious for their incomprehensibility and jargon. For a parody-satire of these writings see the computer generated Postmodern essays by Andrew Bulhak.


References

1. Anderson, W.T. The Truth About the Truth, Putnam: 1995

2. Gross.Paul R. and Norman Levitt. Higher Superstition, The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, John Hopkins University Press, 1994, 1998

3. Sokal, Alan and Jean Bricmont. Fashionable Nonsense, Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science. NY: 1998

4. Lingua Franca, editors. The Sokal Hoax, The Sham that Shook the Academy. University of Nebraska Press, 2000


2003 GUEST