Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Postmodernism, a primer

There has been a lot of talk about postmodernism lately, and the only thing larger than the distaste for it is the confusion about what it actually is. While it might be tempting to label this as a postmodern state of things, it's not. It's just confused, and confusion is not postmodernism. The latter might lead to the former, but that is the extent of the connection between the two.

If you've ever read a textbook that in some way deals with postmodernism, then you've probably encountered the introductory statement that the word consists of two parts - post and modernism. Post- as a prefix means that whatever it is fixed to happened in the past. When it is fixed to modernism, we get a word that means "the stuff that happened after modernism". Modernism came first, then postmodernism - in that order.

There are two main reasons for including introductory remarks of this kind. The first is that it has become tradition and convention at this point, and it's easier to latch on to what has already been established than to be creative. The second is that you cannot treat postmodernism as an entity unto itself - it has to be understood in relation to what came before. If you do not understand modernity, you will not understand postmodernity. The one came from the other, and it could not have happened in any other way.

It is vitally important to underscore this intimate relationship. It is a historical progression which is not merely chronological - the tendencies and practices set in motion in the modern time period kept going in the postmodern time period. They are linked, similar and connected.

The modern project was (and is) one of enlightened critical thinking. Traditional institutions, mainly those of monarchies and churches, were no longer to be seen as the absolute authorities when it came to the truth. Instead of relying on ancient authorities (or very present authorities, as it were), the moderns wanted to rely on science and reason.

An example of this shift from ancient authority to a more modern way of thinking is Galileo and the notion that the Earth goes around the sun. Using the tools at hand, Galileo figured out that Earth is not the center of the solar system. The traditional authorities, who held that the Earth was in fact the center, did not agree, and much ado was made about it. In the end, you know how it all turned out.

This ambition to test things by means of science and reason wasn't limited to one person and one particular way of looking at things. Over time, it became the default mode for everything - everything could be questioned, measured, re-examined and put to the test. Those things that were found to not hold up to the standards of scientific testing were thrown out, and those things that did hold up were expanded upon.

The scientific implications of this are fairly obvious: you can get a whole lot more done if you are allowed to freely use the scientific method, without having to make sure everything you find corresponds to what the authorities want you to say. Science builds on science alone, and its findings are all the more robust for it.

The social implications, however, are less straightforward. If long-held beliefs about the cosmos as a whole could be questioned and challenged, then so could long-held beliefs about things of a smaller and more private nature. If the church was wrong about the Earth being at the center of the solar system, then it might also be wrong about marriage, sexuality, and other social institutions. Everything is up for questioning. Everything.

This process of questioning everything kept going, and over time more and more things that were once taken for granted were put to the task of defending themselves. Everything that was once solid melted away, and what came instead was something completely different. Where once kings and bishops ruled, there are now scientists and bureaucrats. And marketers.

Mind you, this is all part of modernity. This is the part that came before postmodernism became a thing. Postmodernism is what happened after this process had been around for a while and become the status quo.

The thing about questioning everything is that you can't really keep doing it forever. At some point, you arrive at the conclusion that some questions have been answered once and for all, and thus that there is no need to go back to them. You begin to take things for granted, and enshrine them as the way things are supposed to be. There are other, more important things to do than reinventing the wheel. There is an order to things and a tradition to consider, both of which are as they should be. The product of modernity is a new range of authorities which dictate what is to be taken for granted and what is to be questioned.

Postmodernism is a return to the very modern urge to question everything and make present institutions answer for themselves. It is, in essence, a return to the modern impulse to trust reason and science rather than tradition or authority - even if these very same traditions and authorities have used reason and science in the process of becoming what they are. But instead of asking whether the Earth revolves around the sun or not, it asks: why do we do the things we do the way we do them, and might there not be a better way to go about it?

Postmodernism happened after the modern project. Post-modernism. But it is still very modern. It is modernity turned upon itself.

If you, after having read this, are slightly more confused about postmodernism, then that is good. It will have primed you for this next statement:

Academics stopped talking about postmodernism some decades ago, and are baffled at its return to fame in news and popular culture.

As final words, I say only this: its resurgence is not postmodern. It is merely confusing. -

No comments:

Post a Comment