The Poverty of Postmodernism
You may not realise it, but you’ve probably been poisoned by postmodernism. No-one who lived through the 1970s would have escaped untainted. And just about anyone who underwent schooling or a university education in the 1980s or 1990s received a crippling dose. I was entirely oblivious to my own indoctrination during my undergraduate in the early ‘90s until only a few years ago.
You can blame postmodernism for the banalities of political correctness.
You can blame it for making contemporary art ugly and incomprehensible.
You can blame it for moral relativism, and the inability to criticise individuals from other cultures when they do plainly heinous things.
You can blame it for rampant individualism and greed.
You can also blame it for words like ‘deconstruction,’ ‘hermeneutics,’ and my favourite, ‘subversion.’ You can even blame it for the identity crisis afflicting the political Left.
The good news is that postmodernism is philosophically defunct. Deep exhale. We can all let it go now. Let it sink to the bottom of the Swamp of Bankrupt Ideas. And we can move on to firmer conceptual territory, in doing so discovering the world is, in fact, more (and less) explicable than we probably think, and intractable problems – like multiculturalism, for one – are more solvable than we realise.
First: what is postmodernism?
There are more reams of garbled text on the subject than I would inflict on my worst enemy, and these reams would have you think that postmodernism is a lofty, profound, bamboozling concept which, like quantum mechanics or the intricacies of hedge funds, are beyond the ken of common folk. But that’s all a part of the postmodern spell. In fact, postmodernism is a surprisingly simple thesis, bordering on trivial even.
Postmodernism is effectively a form of scepticism. It starts with the notion that what we see around us, despite its apparent veracity, is actually flavoured by our own subjective attitudes. Reality is elusive, if it exists at all. And objectivity is a myth.
So far, so good. People often see the same thing in different ways, depending on their upbringing or experience. Your attitudes towards Tibetans – even the way you perceive Tibetans – would be very different if you were raised in Tibet. Even more so if you were raised in China.
But postmodernism says something more than that we can’t see what’s beyond the veil of subjectivity. Postmodernism says there is nothing beyond the veil of subjectivity.
This is because, according to a popular strain of postmodernism, we construct reality from our very subjectivity. We project meaning on to the world and then assume it’s the objective truth.
But here’s the signature pomo rub. The meaning we project into the world doesn’t come just from us, it is shaped by the environment around us. And what, or who, shapes the environment around us? Those in power: politicians; the media; men, corporations; cultural elites; colonial powers etc.
And all these powerful institutions have their own vested interests. They have a way they’d like us to see the world because seeing it in that way helps entrench their power.
Hence, deconstruction: the attempt to pull apart (or ‘unpack’) the layered meanings, values and ways of perceiving that are bound up in some idea or concept, and attempt to surgically remove those that are inauthentic or corrupted by those in power.
And really, that’s all there is to it. Once you understand this characteristic postmodern turn, you start to see through all the fluff about ‘discourse,’ ‘text,’ and ‘hermeneutics.’ They’re all attempts to come to grips with the way things are expressed, as if that was all there is to the matter, and there’s no reality – no ‘fact of the matter’ – lying underneath. That there’s “nothing outside the text”, to quote the T-Rex above.
From this, we can also understand why postmodernism is relativist: our values and moral outlook are shaped by our environment and culture, but there’s no final arbitrator of right and wrong, so we should tolerate all. Even the nasty stuff.
Or political correctness: we construct the world with our language, so if we use more positive terms then that, in turn, makes that thing more positive. Hence ‘disabled’ becomes ‘mobility challenged.’ Doesn’t matter than someone who is ‘mobility challenged’ is still, in some real sense, disabled.
Or the black armband view of history: the old colonial powers reinforced a myth of their own moral and cultural superiority, and in doing so subjugated other cultures by diminishing their values, thus oppressing them. That’s bad, and pride in our past is endorsement of colonial oppression. Doesn’t matter that British and Australian culture are also valued by many, and have also done many great things along with the heinous. It doesn’t matter that the liberal pluralist tradition – or the very intellectual tradition that led to postmodern enlightenment – also stemmed from the same source.
Or why art is ugly: ideas of beauty were imposed by old cultural elites. Producing beautiful art is simply kowtowing to the entrenched impressions of beauty impressed upon us by tradition as imposed by the elites. As such, artists should attempt to ‘subvert’ our preconceived notions of beauty by confronting us and forcing us to question our own outlook on what we think beauty really is. Beauty is selling out. Ugly is illumainting.
Or why the Left has trouble dealing with things like the oppression of women in other cultures: on the one hand, feminism is all about tearing down the old misogynist cultural elitist idea that men were superior, but it runs up against the cultural relativism that warns against telling other cultures what’s right and wrong and becoming the very cultural elitist you abhor. So, ironically, many feminists remain strangely quiet on things like female circumcision or the affect the burqa has on attitudes towards women.
You can even start to see why society has turned towards individualism and greed: if it’s up to me to determine my own values, and there’s no overarching moral or community standard, then why not retreat to my core world of close friends and family? After all, of determining all of my own moral values for myself is an awfully heavy burden to bear. Far easier to retreat into egoism or hedonism.
We can also see how even science has become a target for postmodernism: science is ‘just another’ way of describing the world, no better or worse than any other. Except those silly naive scientists have fallen into that dangerous trap of thinking they’re describing the real world, when they, too, are the pawns of their own power structures and vested interests. Just ignore the fact that science has unparalleled predictive power and has done more to reveal how the world works than any other approach to knowledge. Science is its own nobly deluded domain, no better or worse than any other.
When you really understand the triviality and poverty of postmodernism, all these things suddenly become clear. We can now appreciate how the postmodern turn transformed all forms of enquiry into literary theory.
Postmodernism is as sadly ubiquitous as it is ludicrous. It’s no surprise that we’ve seen a backlash against it from many sides. The church, as well as many politicians on the Right, have rebelled against the moral relativism and tolerate-anything attitude of postmodernism. John Howard was particularly active in attempting to wind back some of the advances of postmodernism in academia and our schools.
Yet we even saw creationists turn postmodernism against the Left in the evolution versus intelligent design debate, declaring “teach the debate, and let the students decide for themselves.” That kind of thing works with issues of value, but it was ludicrous to apply it to a matter of scientific fact – like teaching the debate between the Ptolemaic system and the Copernican system and letting people decide for themselves. Yet the creationists almost got away with it.
The good news is there is an escape from postmodernism. We can happily acknowledge that we do, indeed, project meaning and value onto the world. But we should also acknowledge that there’s something about the way we are, and something about the way the world is, that is independent of our subjective values. And it’s this that determines how we project value on to the world.
It’s awareness of this very fact that makes science so successful. The scientific method acknowledges that subjectivity has a way of seeping in to our ideas, so it has built-in checks and balances, like always appealing to evidence, and blind peer-review, to mitigate against these forces. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best system bar none that we have to revealing the facts about how the world really is.
We can even acknowledge that the way we use language is important – just notice the cheeky way ‘tax cuts’ became ‘tax relief’ – but language isn’t the ultimate arbiter of reality. We should be wary of those in power attempting to manipulate language to trick us into accepting their worldview. But we should not assume there’s no fact of the matter to prove them wrong.
And art can be beautiful once again. In many circles, it already is. But the theme of ‘subversion’ has run its course, it’s done as much good as it ever will, and it’s time to let the notion go, and let people create what they want, without having to challenge us, or authority, or the cultural elite at every turn.
Ultimately, postmodernism was a 20th century phenomenon. It’s time we look at it for what it is: a fairly simplistic philosophical and political view obfuscated by unnecessarily convoluted language. It’s time we left it behind and moved on to more rational, more scientific, more factual pastures. That doesn’t mean hopping on the back of science to answer all questions. But it does mean getting off the back of literary and critical theory to understand every aspect of the world.
The Right has already distanced itself from postmodernism. It’s now time for the Left to acknowledge its poverty and divorce itself from relativism, political correctness, vagueness, ambivalence towards science etc. It’s time to let postmodernism go.