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Postmodernism and its effects on art, culture and just about everything else. (How Universal Truth really exists)

This word Postmodernism has had a great many definitions attached to it, from the ideas of architecture, literature, music, art and philosophical thought. Many have taken the term to attempt to describe themselves in a pious and intellectual “I’m smarter than you, so deal with it” mentality.  C. Boundas defines Postmodernism as “a particular set of philosophical, intellectual or epistemological allegiances, positions and strategies, or, most generally of all, as a periodising concept akin to ‘postmodernity’.” [1] This still really doesn’t tell us what it means. Breaking it down we see two basic words, “Post” and “Modernism”. To truly understand what a Postmodernistic perspective on the 20th century looks like we really need to have a grasp on what Modernism itself is, then we can move to the “Post” portion of the era.
 Going back prior to the Postmodernism movement we see Modernism which is a name given to the movement that dominated the arts and culture of the first half of the twentieth century. This was found in response to the Enlightenment that caused a great scientific revolution during the 16th and 17th centuries. Great thinkers of that time like Kepler, Newton, and Galileo just to name a few began to study the natural world and in its studies found various scientific truths like the Law of Gravity, the rotation of the earth in relation to the sun.

Nietzsche, for better or for worse, is one of the most influential philosophers of the last 100 years.  He railed both against the traditional morality of religion especially that of Judaism and Christianity and against the morality based upon a purely rational foundation, especially the morality of Immanuel Kant.  Kant believed that both sets of morality limited the individual.  He believed in pure freedom, the freedom to express one’s self no matter what the cost is to others.   In later Meditations Descartes attempted to rationally deduce [sic] the existence of God from his own existence as a thinking thing and to show that God is perfectly good and hence no deceiver.  ‘So what?” you say.  Well, if we can be certain that we exist and if we can be certain that God exists and if we can be certain that God is no deceiver, we can also be certain that our sensations must truly represent an external reality.  If they did not, we would live in constant error and ignorance, like Plato’s prisoners in the cave, and this, surely, a good and gracious God would not allow.

The open-minded 18th-century thinkers believed that virtually everything could be submitted to reason: tradition, customs, morals, even art. But, more than this, it was felt that the ‘truth’ revealed thereby could be applied in the political and social spheres to ‘correct’ problems and ‘improve’ the political and social condition of humankind. This kind of thinking quickly gave rise to the exciting possibility of creating a new and better society. [2]

Jumping ahead to the 20th century finds the period of high modernism stretching from 1910-1930, we see great literary giants like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and Franz Kafka. Amidst this era of literature a new mindset was being explored by many of these writers. Including a movement away from apparent objectivity, a blurring of specific literary genes, becoming more poetic, and prose-like, a great example being Edger Allen Poe, there was a moving away of clear-cut moral positions. This type of literary mindset however fell out of favor until the 1960’s due to the tensions generated during the decade of the 1930’s with the political and economic crisis therein. 
The distinction between Modernism and Postmodernism is summarized in this way; Modernism gives great prominence to fragmentation as a feature of twentieth- century art and culture, by a deep nostalgia for an earlier age when faith was full and authority intact. Postmodernism by contrast found the fragmentation an exhilarating, and liberating phenomenon, sympathetic of our escape from the claustrophobic embrace of fixed systems of belief. In a word, modernists lament fragmentations while post modernists celebrate it. [3]

This postmodernist celebration of fragmentation also came with a rejection of ‘high’ and ‘popular’ art that was praised in the modernist view, in favor of more excessive and gaudy art like that of Andy Warhol, or M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali. This view was put in vogue when Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition: A report on Knowledge (Manchester University Press, 1979) Lyotard’s view was that “metanarratives” like Christianity, or Universal narratives such as “truth”, “knowledge”, “right” or “wrong” have no basis, and that the best we can hope for is “mininarratives” which are provisional, contingent, temporary, and relative, and which provide a basis for the actions of specific groups in particular local circumstances.[4] In this type of thinking we are opening ourselves to the idea that there is no solid universal truth, and that truly the idea of truth itself is fluid, Lyotard’s attitude focuses on the banality as he sees it of “the dialects of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject or the creation of wealth”. He goes on to make statements in the same piece of writing delegitimizing notions of Enlightenment rationality, universal progress, objectivity of science, and political and intellectual programs such as those of Marxism and psychoanalysis. These stories are often described as ‘totalizing’ – in the final line of his book Lyotard declares ‘let us wage war on totality’[5] Fredric Jameson argues that the beginning of the early 1970’s witnessed another reemergence of postmodernism in literary and cultural production, as well as in philosophy and in everyday life. Its affect has weakened our sense of historicity, as well as the rise in small group politics and a new centrality of the image and information technologies. He also notes that within postmodernism the modern ‘self-autonomy’ of the aesthetic, something that was spoken of greatly in the work of Immanuel Kant, as well as the modernist dichotomy of high and mass culture, have come to an end.[6] While many may disagree with his perspective it has become one of much debate in philosophical circles.

The perspective of a neutrality or apathy in universal truth is self evident in the perspectives of recent news stories about legal issues like same-sex marriage[7], and abortion funding from the federal government.[8] Weather the news stories are true or not is not of importance, since as we have established within postmodernism the truth is a relative thing to begin with. But the fact that these are even thought of as potentially ok is a statement as to where we as a country sit in the eyes of divine truth.

When we lose the idea that there is an ultimate reality we then must be forced to wander about in a center-less universe guided by moral relativism. The real question here is does moral relativism really exist, or are their truly absolutes, example is it always wrong to lie? Well some may say yes lying is always wrong, but what if you are lying to a robber when he asks if you have a gun in the house and where is it. But to have a moral law there must be a moral Lawgiver that is an ultimate authority that has the power to decide or direct that which is right all the time and that which is wrong all the time. In terms of ultimate right or wrong I have to say there are many times where there is a gray area, this is not to say that all things are relative but there are many situations where we must chose what is the “right way “in that situation, it is not wrong to lie to the robber to protect your family but it is wrong to lie to a teacher to protect your grade.

I think that we must be open minded to certain amount situational relativism, and realize that sometimes we focus too much on the action that we lose the context of the matter. However I believe there is a moral yard stick that some people measure in feet and some people measure in centimeters, meaning that the greater good must be measured and that sometimes there are situations along the way that take place that may not be “right” but they get us to the greater good at the end of the stick. Murder is wrong, if we murder one man we are called a murder but if we murder a group who happens to wear a different uniform we are called a war hero.  It’s the greater good that must be measured, now the ends do not always justify the means as Machiavelli thought, but we do need to see that even in scripture God called for the murder of troops or even one man to fulfill His call on this earth (the greater good). Ethics in definition is the study of the “Higher Good”; the biggest problem with Ethics is that we are trying to place a Higher Good on a world that has fallen and lives in a state of “lower or lesser evil is the best route.” This leaves us with the need to differentiate between what could be good or not, good however is a varying term that can’t be quantified. It may feel good to take a drug that alters your mind like Huxley did in “doors of perception” but we also know that he didn’t view God as the ultimate good. He viewed Humanistic good or pleasure as the judge. In this same light we see that rape may cause pleasure for one but not for the other in that we view it as wrong or bad. So again it comes down to the “greater good” and our reasonably to that situation.
While this method of thinking has some of its roots in Postmodernism there has to be a greater good or ultimate law giver to be able to see the need for laws to begin with. Or for reality to have real meaning, but Lyotard’s perspective is that language is a self-contained system and that the ‘disappearance of real’ nullifies this and when we claim that something is true we are not measuring it against some external absolute standard, but by internal rules and criteria which operate only within that designated sphere and have no ‘transcendent’ status beyond that. He goes on to explain that they have restricted applicability, just like the rules which govern moves in a game. Thus, “Knight to King’s Rook Four” might be a winning move in a chess game, but would carry no weight at all in a football game.[9] Since as Postmodernist agree we all live in a ‘language game’ there are no transcendent realities but rather self-validating social identities that we seek or live in.

This moved its way into the educational system through the theories of the “open classroom” with the inclusion of different voices and perspectives in understanding as a moral and politically correct goal. Clayton Dumont Jr. of San Francisco State University put it, holding to an “unquestioned correctness” of epistemological desire, one acts as impediments to viable multiculturalism.[10] However the real question then must be brought to the table and that is to what reality or lack of reality if you will are we to all look to in order to find this “politically correct goal”? Therein lays the big question that swirls in the minds of philosophers every day. To whom do we base or reality? The humanistic Atheist says that we base our reality on ourselves and what we think is right, as is stated in the Humanist Manifesto II: “We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stems from human need and interest. To deny this distorts the whole basis of life. Human life has meaning because we create and develop our futures. Happiness and the creative realization of human needs and desires, individually and in shared enjoyment, are continuous themes of humanism. We strive for the good life, here and now. The goal is to pursue life's enrichment despite debasing forces of vulgarization, commercialization, and dehumanization.” [11]

In actuality what we see is the core of a belief that attempts to put man as the center or in the place of God, by attempting to take out the core idea of a supreme or master designer of not just our universe but also our lives. Postmodernism is a never ending sidestep of responsibility, the view that morality may be true for you but not for me, and always based on perspective makes for a judge free society. But also makes for an anarchist worldview.

Fortunately there seems to be a bit of a light at the end of this tunnel, in that we have had some thinkers that have come along and with the writing on the wall have seen what moral relativism leads to as well as a need for more globalization, we seem to be coming to an age marked as “post-postmodernism” thinkers like Alain Badiou, Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri. While they are attentive to the central lessons of postmodernist thought, their work is distinctive in that it marks a return to many of the categories stigmatized by postmodernism, including totality, universalism and truth.[12] This move while not a complete reversal of the ideas of postmodernism nor an attempt to revert to prior ideas of Modernism is a step in the right direction, at least in the minds of many in the current field of Continental Philosophy.

The moral side of life has always had a problem with this type of apathy, in that we can’t have our cake and eat it too, while still yet denying that the cake belongs to us, or that it is in fact a cake at all. This is the postmodernist view, but to those who can clearly see, smell and taste cake it is most certainly cake, regardless of the language used or even the type of frosting. In the real world of life, there are situations that just seem to defy the need for relativistic thought patterns, and these types of logical thoughts are what seem to be making a comeback.
So as with many ideas that flourish for a time and then seem to be let go, Postmodernism is as it started, a mindset that was desiring to break itself from the mold of its predecessor and attempt to spread its wings and fly, much like one sees a child move into adolescence and attempt to pull away from the ideas of Mom and Dad, trying to say “I know more than you, and I can do this on my own.”  From that point they look at good as though it is bad or stifling, they look at right as though it is only “right for right now” and they look at truth as “someone else’s” truth. Only to later in life return to the ways they were taught before, understanding that in the end there really is a “reason” for the order of life, and there is a plan if we just open our minds to the idea that God really has a plan for us, and walk in it.
Postmodernism is that angst filled teen, but praise God he is on his way into young adulthood and again returning to his senses.

[1] Protevi, John. A Dictionary of Continental Philosophy. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Pg. 458-459 Print

[2] "Modernism." Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe. Web. 17 Mar. 2011. .

[3] Hawthorn, Jeremy. A Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory. London: Arnold, 1992. Print

[4] Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: an Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester : Manchester UP, 1995. 86-87. Print.

[5] Protevi, John. A Dictionary of Continental Philosophy. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Pg. 459-460 Print

[6] Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. Print.

[7] "Poll Majority Favors Gay Marriage." Politico. 18 Mar. 2011. Web. 18 Mar. 2011. .

[8] "Taxpayer-funded Abortions in the Federal Health Care Bill?" PolitiFact. 17 Mar. 2011. Web. 18 Mar. 2011. .

[9]Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: an Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1995. Pg. 92. Print.

[10] Clayton W. Dumont Jr. Toward a Multicultural Sociology: Bringing Postmodernism into the Classroom.
Teaching Sociology: Vol. 23, No. 4 (Oct., 1995), pp. 307-320

[11] Humanist Manifesto II. [S.l.]: British Humanist Association [19--. Print.

[12] Protevi, John. A Dictionary of Continental Philosophy. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Pg. 461 Print

Bibliography page:

  • Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: an Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester : Manchester UP, 1995. 86-87. Print.
  • Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston [Mass.: Mariner, 2008. Print
  • Dumont Jr., Clayton W. Toward a Multicultural Sociology: Bringing Postmodernism into the Classroom. Teaching Sociology: Vol. 23, No. 4 (Oct., 1995), pp. 307-320
  • Geisler, Norman L. Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989. Print.
  • Hawthorn, Jeremy. A Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory. London: Arnold, 1992. Print
  • Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2007. Print.
  • Hitchens, Christopher. The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. London: Da Capo, 2007. Print.
  • Humanist Manifesto II. [S.l.]: British Humanist Association [19--. Print.
  • Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. Print.
  • McGrath, Alister E., and Joanna Collicutt. McGrath. The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007. Print.
  • Politico. "Poll Majority Favors Gay Marriage."  18 Mar. 2011. Web. 18 Mar. 2011. .
    • PolitiFact. "Taxpayer-funded Abortions in the Federal Health Care Bill?"  17 Mar. 2011. Web. 18 Mar. 2011. .
    • Protevi, John. A Dictionary of Continental Philosophy. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Pg. 458-459 Print
    • Witcombe, Christopher L. C. E.. "Modernism."  Web. 17 Mar. 2011.


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