Postmodernism Is Its Discontents

Explaining postmodernism requires explaining its causes, and that is a task beyond the scope of one essay. Its central importance for me is its unique means of warranting claims to truth, goodness, and beauty and the effects its warrants and axioms have upon public and private commitments. That will be my focus here.

Postmodernism grew out of modernism, of course, and it wouldn’t have been either possible or necessary if modernism had done an adequate job of providing satisfactory modes of justifying truth and goodness claims. I will only list its failures here since they have been analyzed previously (see “Modernism and Its Discontents).

First, modernism could not be separated from the religious authority whose failure had necessitated it (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority“). The growing confidence of modernism’s improvised axioms of commitment — universal reason and private experience — could not be reconciled with institutional authority whose own axiom of trust required a rejection of one’s own power to decide (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge“). As thinkers struggled toward an elusive certainty in their truth and goodness claims, they revealed a second issue: the unreliability of private experience once examined by reason. This led inevitably to a third: the necessary uncertainty of all judgments based on modernist axioms. Modernism’s power lay in the universality of reason. Unlike authority, reason offers the means to challenge and improve disputed conclusions rather than merely confront and reject them as authority must do with the consequent loss of trust. But that very success, exemplified by the efforts of the early epistemologists of the seventeenth century, must always hold conclusions in doubt, and this was a disturbing contrast to the absolute claims of authority. These problems accrued to all of modernism’s conclusions, but they proved particularly challenging to those involving goodness, particularly those concerned with social utility and morality (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?”). Authority continued to attempt to appeal to just these needs, of course, but a competitor emerged in the eighteenth century to challenge institutional trust: human science. This effort proved one of the most profound errors of modernism, for it led to a fourth failure: the intrusion of moral beliefs into the human sciences from their very beginning (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”). Though initially a problem for all empiricist efforts, natural science was able to resolve it in a manner unavailable to the methodology of human sciences. True empirical sciences came to be defined by their refusal to take on goodness issues beyond immediate utility (see “The Limits of Empirical Science). But their retreat from moral and political considerations left open the potential for human science “experts” to develop grand schemes of social and individual perfection using the language and a simulacrum of the scientific method, directly challenging religious authority and perverting the popular conception of the nature of morality itself by framing it as discoverable by expertise or the scientific method. This was a fifth problem. The consequence of that error grew into modernism’s sixth problem: the gradual isolation of true empiricism from ordinary reasoning. The professionalization of science over the course of the nineteenth century revealed a reality that was contingently determined and astonishingly complex, all of which cast shade on what was thought to be common sense and which moved persons to the far more accessible grand theories of the human sciences or to a resurgent appeal to religious authority in the twentieth century (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”). And this deformation produced its own disturbing result: to be considered valid empirical sciences on a par with natural science, the human sciences had to mimic empiricism’s confidence in contingent determinism. It had to reduce human preferential freedom to scientific predictability, to make morality a product of some mix of heredity and environment (see “Our Freedom Fetish“). This seventh problem was particularly injurious to modernist axioms, for it explicitly denied the hard-won rational agency that modernist theories had made room for in favor of viewing human beings as the subjects of obscure deterministic forces, thus contradicting common understanding and human inclinations (see “A Preface to the Determinism Problem“). Such a gross violation of felt freedom would likely not have been possible if empiricism had not already stimulated doubts about the efficacy of common sense. The grand psychological theories of Freud and other inventors of the unconscious seemed to confirm the reality of the perceptual wall, the barrier to universal reasoning that had plagued modernism from its first stirrings. Psychological determinism argued for an intensely private experience that must shape consciousness itself, including the reasoning that modernists had thought to be persons’ only access to objective reality and to some common means of understanding and communicating it. These human science arguments articulated at the beginning of the twentieth century led most directly to the postmodern response. It may be seen as a variety of attempts to bridge the gap between the knowledge of truth that science makes possible, though only in very limited kinds of human pursuits, and the broader range of truths necessary to pursue moral goods both public and private. The implicit moralism of human sciences had always made that step seem possible, but by the twentieth century the need for a morality founded upon contingent determinism complicated that quest. Human science’s requirement of deterministic factors operating inside the black box of human will produced a blizzard of responses, some protesting, others confirming, but none of them could be confirmed or refuted by true science. It proved competent to discover truths about reality, provided its methodology could be applied to context, but only at the expense of an act of severance that cuts off considerations of utility, quality, and morality until after truth had been determined by empirical methodology. This worked splendidly to find a very limited range of real truths but did not work at all to direct them to either public or private goods beyond immediate utility. The attempt to bridge the act of severance, to find a reliable means to private and public goods, has to this point failed, and this ninth failure of modernist axioms has captured and contained all the rest. Postmodernism as a complex of theories can be seen as an attempt to resolve this signal failure of the modernist axioms of universal reason and individual experience. Postmodernists have made only one change to modernist axioms to create their own: to deny universal and fixed human reason in favor of reason formed through experience. That single change must necessarily imprison persons within the perceptual wall and deny them common means to preference, which might allow a private morality but must question a public one. I wish to explore the consequences of that change in this essay. Depending on whether they embrace or reject the consequences of the denial of universal reason, postmodernist solutions either demand a forfeiture of private preferential freedom or of public moral consensus.

If postmodernism’s genesis lay in discontent with modernism, its genius lay in the entirely new way it assembled solutions to modernism’s dilemmas as they were confronted over the course of the twentieth century. These failures were made manifest by the slaughters of World War I. Theorists resolved to build new structures from the ruins of the old while rejecting its hypocrisies (see “The Victorian Rift“). This was tricky because the greatest product of modernism is science and nobody gets to reject science, at least not its products. So postmodernism struggled to lend theoretical cohesion to its epistemological structures for the first half of the century, beginning with the frantic search for novelty in the early 1900’s and culminating in the enunciation of postmodernism, mainly by a cadre of mutually contentious French theorists, in the last third of that dark century. Even as we endure the effects of that search, we can assert that the quest for a postmodern epistemology has failed. It is odd that the underpinnings of the movement are beset by contradictions, yet its conclusions continue to spread out into Western cultures, Thanks to the emulsifying effects of confusing belief with knowledge,the fundamental falseness of postmodernists’ claims have been masked by a simultaneous moral pursuit that privatizes knowledge by opening it to desire (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”). So incoherent has contemporary moral life become that postmodernism’s moral solutions are still considered plausible despite the utter collapse of the truth claims that permit them. Its success can be traced to its most ubiquitous product: the coherence virtual circle (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?“). The power of this construct lies both in its isolation from external verification, which isolates it from authority and expertise, and its immediate utility, which makes it eminently suited to a materialist culture of preference (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”).

Emulsifying truth with desire began with the Romantic efforts to salvage truth in singular experience, a task undertaken in rebellion against the standardization of experience necessary to the scientific method. To combat the doubt that results from even the most controlled and regulated single experience, Romanticism had to find a means to verify its educative lessons, so it began with an emphasis on emotion, imagination, insight, and the exotic using the warrant of a God-in-nature to provide certainty. But that proved problematic. The magic wand at first was intuition. Kant had used the term to describe the constructed image of reality that the mind preconsciously composes of sense data impressions, implying that what we naively call reality is in truth a rational model fully infused with meaning conducive to later preference. Romantics liked to think this meaning was instilled by a pantheist divinity that simultaneously injected inerrant moral truths, but empiricism’s grinding insistence on contingent determinism gradually wore away that warm and fuzzy conviction in favor of an impossibly complex interaction of impersonal forces on both nature and the mind that experiences it. Nature, of course, was opening itself to science’s methodology, but consciousness remained, and remains, a cipher. While this might confirm Romantic love of mystery, it confronted any sense of instilled purpose, infusing efforts to know and value the world with doubt. Eliminating the divine from intuition might rob it of moral certainty, but it might still allow private truths to float into consciousness from some hidden spring of the unconscious. One might think the loss of a moral compass would handicap Romantic certainty, but what true science made obscure, early positivist human science made bracingly clear and grand. Hegel, Spengler, Comte, Weber, and Nietzsche laid the groundwork for this turn to moral theorizing before World War I. Marx was its exemplar.

The expansive positivism of these early pseudo-sciences was at first confronted by religious authority, but the clear-cutting march of technological progress over the course of the nineteenth century shredded traditions and their respect for institutions. The striking success of universal reason in science, capitalism, and government required an acceptance of individual rational agency that religious authority implicitly denied, and efforts to retain authority’s grip in moral pursuits while allowing it to slip away in the rest of human affairs resulted in a kind of bipolar value set impossible to maintain. Well before the lunacy of World War I revealed the moral bankruptcy of authority for good and all, religion began a retreat from authoritative arbiter to speculative psychological science, as the work of Kierkegaard, Newman, and Chesterton revealed and twentieth century apologetics confirms. But religion’s bind was the same in 1900 as it had been in 1500: it could not establish an authoritative orthodoxy through the trust of congregants who were granted free moral agency in other aspects of preference. Worse, in the twentieth century it could not resist the gradual encroachments of the “expert” human scientists whose scientism sought to supplant it or pervert it.

With that kind of a foundation, it was only natural that persons after the turn of the twentieth century embraced a suspicion of all claims to common sense appraisals of truth or goodness based on acceptance of human science paradigms of unconscious motivations formed by race, class, gender, nationality, etc. This is a deeply rooted and powerful objection tracing to Locke’s theory of tabula rasa; Kant’s theories of intuition as beneath conscious awareness; and imperialist and nationalist ethnology, anthropology, and sociology combined with Freudian paradigms of unconscious motivations. Paradoxically, this suspicion was enunciated in academia through an intensely rationalist analysis molded by the arcane terminology of the human sciences.

Postmodern thinking, like the Romantic ideals and human sciences that so shaped it, cannot be captured as a single knowledge, moral, or legal theory. For all its internal controversies and opposition to established order to make sense, one must begin with its guiding axiom: reasoning is formed by experience. The immediate consequence of this assumption must be the relativism or subjectivism of truth claims. Perspective is all. Modernism had erected the perceptual wall, and postmodernists took its existence as their starting place. It was thought to be entirely impermeable by postmodern theorists for whom intuitions were entirely self-generated. Modernists had shown experience to be fundamentally private, its analysis always constructed inside the perceptual wall and painfully difficult to verify outside of it.  But they had thought proper exercise of reason could pierce that wall, could be universal and objective. After Kant, they granted it might be only intersubjective, perhaps less than objectively true but surely common to all thinkers. They had taken that common faculty to be sufficient to found common consent for science, mathematics, and expertise. Postmodernists objected. If experience forms reason rather than being directed by it, the options that natural freedom presents to consciousness must also be distorted, perhaps by class or race or gender or religion or locale. In the earliest articulations by Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre, persons might free themselves from the cultural templates that sought to form them through radical acts of existential rebellion. This first phase of postmodern morality followed hard on the heels of the shocks of World War I with its consequent horrors of communism, the growing fascist threat, and worldwide depression. Postmodernists saw these events as confirmations of modernism’s sins, each implicitly seeking to impose authoritarian cultural pressures on persons in denial of their own agency. We ought to note that they either denied that modernism had attempted to throw off the yoke of authority, in which case it was hypocritical, or it had failed in the attempt and so was incompetent. They viewed events between the wars as confirmation of the implicitly violent aspect of modern societies in pursuit of the coercive and ultimately absurd effort to force trust.

This period of existential and even nihilistic rejection of the conformist pressures of culture marked the immature phase of postmodernism as theorists of the first half of the twentieth century attempted to shape a coherent postmodern theory of truth and goodness as something beyond simple refusal. From its beginnings in Romantic media, these ideas were presented as aesthetic statements of radical individualism as in Expressionist art or as psychological catharses of alienation as in narrative fiction (see “Three Portraits” and “Tall Tales“). Simultaneously, popular culture was permeated by new technologies that elevated the narrative as an alternative to discursive language focused either on sappy Romanticism or the new archetype of the antihero (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist”). In this postmodernism followed the well-worn Romantic route to popular acceptance. But the same aesthetic of radical rebellion from tradition marked nearly all cultural pursuits of the early twentieth century. Music, architecture, plastic arts, dance, and interior design followed in the alienist revolution of the first two decades of the twentieth century.

The assault on the universalism of human reason in all arenas of social life was led by a cadre of ethnologists, cultural anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and educators as post-secondary education produced a multiplicity of human science disciplines, each with its array of contentious paradigms.  A consequent distrust of language as a transparent mode of communicating thought followed their emphasis on the primacy of the unconscious and the formative power of culture; this distrust was motivated by phenomenology’s emphasis on bias in reasoning and language with the consequent growth of semiotics. Ironically, postmodernism’s suspicion of the transparency of language only magnified its faith in the metaphorical power of narrative, visual, and musical arts to transmit vital truths, this reliance on aesthetics corresponding with the beginnings of mass entertainment culture of movies and television. But as art criticism had long demonstrated, simple and discursive truths could never be clearly communicated because of the phenomenological foundations of the theory. This attempt to universalize the subjective formed a perpetual tension in postmodern thinking that its theorists could never resolve, though the disputatious nature of academic humanities certainly gave them endless opportunities to contend with each other while satirizing the clueless philistines of bourgeois culture (see “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements”).

Their efforts were not entirely built on rejection though. They also embraced a deep appreciation for the organic social nodes disdained by modernism, particularly by its self-interested rationalizing of imperialism, racism, sexism, and capitalism as producers of “order” as a cover for exploitation and oppression. This valuation produced a profound suspicion of the uses of power, particularly institutionalized power, in favor of creativity, radical individualism or group identity, and spontaneity (see “Correlation, Causation, Motivation). The political face of this argument required a radical equality of degree under the assumption that no perspective ought to be privileged. Theoretically, this position is crippled by two contradictions: the first is the impossibility of either achieving or maintaining a complete equality of degree, though that has not prevented twentieth century revolutionaries from demanding it or attempting it. From the first days of the USSR to the Great Cultural Revolution to today’s egalitarians, the quest for equality has been doomed by its own presumptions no less than by the active resistance of political libertarians (see “The Riddle of Equality“). Unfortunately, the phenomenalist presumptions of postmodernism allow for no way to justly distribute power beyond an absolute equality. The second issue is more theoretical: in arguing against a universalist reason, postmodernists are making an ontological argument entirely refuted by their own premises. If no theoretical position ought to be privileged, why privilege theirs? They cannot argue for the opacity of language without using the language whose opacity they disparage. Postmodernists have flattened forests to make paper on which to argue against the possibility of discursive argument. Their attempts to deconstruct literature cannot help to privilege a cynical reading over a surface one, cannot succeed in the task of infinitely deferring whatever meaning they choose to value in defiance of their own theory of value. In arguing against cultural hegemony, they are every bit as authoritarian as the institutional authorities they condemn, as the intolerance on today’s college campuses attest. There is a more pragmatic way to view this development, though. Their obsession with power and its uses was necessitated by the failure of postmodernists to advance a moral theory that could prescribe any other means of resolving disagreements among the private convictions their warrant must necessarily produce (see “Belief in the Public Square). Perhaps their most egregious error is to demand a justice whose very existence their theory of the machinations of power must deny and to condemn the powerful for the simple possession of the only means they recognize to effect the moral change they cannot warrant.

The mature phase of postmodernism only came into focus in the last third of the twentieth century as the movement became dominated by French theorists in the wake of decolonization and the civil unrest of the 1960’s. Its evolution was anything but linear as thinkers built upon and then got entangled in others’ theories. A coherent evolution of the movement in the last third of the century is impossible, but a review of a few of its foremost polemicists will give you some sense of its directions and dissensions. Roland Barthes began his career as an existentialist but after World War II, he led the charge to infuse the usual warnings about the dangers of mass culture and grand narratives with an ironic detachment that soon marked serious fiction in general. Irony is, after all, condemnation without construction. Observing Stalinism, he eventually rejected his earlier Marxist literary analysis in favor of a radical freedom of interpretation that refused to privilege any one reading of “text,” postmodernism’s code word for all communication.  He was moved to this discursive egalitarianism by Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionist theories which by the 1970’s had saturated Western cultures with an ironic deferral or even denial of fixed meaning in language. Derrida’s most influential contemporary was Michel Foucault, who took Derrida’s suspicion of imposed meaning into the overtly political realm. It was Foucault who sought to resist the passive power of culture and particularly of modernist institutional structures with their valuation of knowledge and expertise. Foucault saw all institutions as implements of entrenchment, guarantors of exploitation. He is most responsible for the performative rejection of institutional power that so characterizes contemporary life. This degree of alienation was too much for some theorists. Jurgen Habermas rejected a knee-jerk alienism in favor of civil and democratic give-and-take among interest groups. To his credit, he saw the dangers of both majoritarian democracies and totalitarian mass movements, though he failed to suggest any egalitarian solutions beyond small-scale communitarian governments. In this utopianism, he was joined by Jean Baudrillard, who proved prescient in warning against information societies whose interrelated complexity and mutual dependence might be endangered by an endless pursuit of “created needs” or by further knowledge abstractions tending toward ever higher specialization and expertise recalling earlier condemnations of common sense reason. The obsessions with power dynamics that Foucault highlighted and which proved postmodernism’s only means of resolving private or public conflict gradually politicized all human interactions as cultures began to take any use of power as exploitative.

As postmodernism spread from abstruse theory to popular culture, which means from graduate students to undergraduates to movie audiences and novel readers, this politicization and suspicion of power permeated social thought, and like the antihero model that made use of it, gradually became a dominant moral model, thoroughly saturating Western cultures by the 1980’s. But this proved a problem, for the model required a rejection of the culture that had by now adopted its premises. Though this proved yet another anomaly for postmodern thinkers, it did not escape their notice. The theorist who most consciously grappled with it was Jean-Francois Lyotard. It was Lyotard who made “grand narratives” the coded curse of postmodern victimhood. What he was condemning were the discursive theories of the modernism that requires individuals to actively sanction rather than passively trust institutional authorities and their underpinnings: denominational religion, the contractarian basis for government and the “deep state” that complex systems require, corporate capitalism and the cultural imperialism it requires, and all the other formalized nodes of power in advanced societies. Lyotard saw in these institutions the stamp of oppression. Their possession of power marks them as defenders of the status quo and opponents of equality. Lyotard elevated the mini-cultures of exploited classes and peoples, of marginalized social groups, and overlooked subcultures. This was a real effort at egalitarian values in service to phenomenological morality, to be sure, and it was a reentry of postmodernism into a political arena its earlier existential rebellion had rejected. That politicization was only possible once theorists retracted their condemnation of mass culture, refining it to the institutional authorities that still functioned in it. Where immature postmodern thought had established the battle lines of antiheroic individual facing off against mass conformism, it had always condemned the hypocrisy and immorality of the authority that moved persons to bad faith. But the mature phase of the movement changed that view in two ways: by narrowing its critique to political suppressions of group equality in denial of “social justice” and by “pushing the narrative” that mass culture was merely the composite of various interest groups bound by some identity that determined their values in opposition to others grasping for their piece of the power pie.   Postmodern historicism had claimed no perspective on the past ought to be privileged: that every point of view ought to be equally honored. Lyotard applied this thought to the present, and while this radical democratization deserves respect for valuing individual agency, its debt to Foucault also reminds us that it provides no means other than power for all the manifold cultures in society to reconcile either their public or their private interests other than by a recourse to the power plays he had earlier condemned as the machinations of the powerful. The power pie proved too small for all the hands reaching in to grab their piece, and the postmodern ethic provided no means to order the waiting line other than degree of victimhood. But, of course, determining that degree must be an entirely subjectivist or culturally relativist effort marked by perspectivist appeals to “fairness,”  so it should surprise no one that everyone has plenty of reason to complain that life is unfair. And by the arbitrary standards of fairness, it is. Now that all of society has been read into postmodern theory, the competition among interest groups has degenerated into grubby scramblings among cultures for greater power, leading to even further politicization and a deeper conviction of victimhood in the name of a justice the axioms of postmodernism must deny (see “Cultural Consensus”).

These influences may be somewhat obscured by the continued existence of the two older axioms of commitment still percolating through the zeitgeist (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). Postmodernism has not been as successful as earlier efforts to provide cultural consensus for three reasons. First, it inherently atomizes values by individual or by culture and its views of power pit these against each other. Second, its internal contradictions pop up into the culture in unpredictable but necessarily destructive ways (see “One Postmodern Sentence“). Finally, each new set of axioms of commitment only partially replaces its predecessor, leaving remnant threads for dissatisfied persons to knit together according to the crisis of the moment. Modernism had to accommodate a continuing strain of premodern authoritarianism, and postmodernism must continue to grapple with both a nostalgia for authority and the attractions of modernist rationality best represented by the scientific enterprise.

It is my deepest conviction that much of the disagreement and frustration that characterizes our culture derives from the continued existence of these three separate axioms of commitment that are still prevalent. Disputants tack effortlessly, perhaps unconsciously, among these modes, ignoring the lack of consensus that made their existence possible and so perpetuating it (see “Tangled Terms” ). Authority, the ancient source of pre-Reformation consensus, is held in utter contempt by postmodernists who rarely miss a performative demonstrate their suspicion of its power and a distrust of its intentions. Ironically, this outlook is most powerfully demonstrated by those heading the institutions their antiheroics seek to vilify. So we see corporate titans, heads of government, and even religious leaders admiringly called rock stars as they seek to demonstrate their independence of the institutions they lead.  A nearly complete loss of confidence in institutional authority has robbed complex societies of the only engine that can make their matrix of power relationships work properly. Universal reason and closely examined experience, modernism’s contenders, have been battered by objections and limitations, particularly in regard to goodness claims. It has never confronted or improved upon its model for legal and governmental sanction, the social contract, despite the manifold difficulties that deeply flawed theory of government power, a true grand narrative, has produced (see “Why Invent a Social Contract?”). Modernism had learned to form informative relationships with institutions based upon an individual grant of rational sanction whose intent was mutual benefit, but this relationship is incompatible with contractarian majoritarianism, and it also been corroded by postmodern cynicism at the very moment it has been most politicized by postmodernism’s view of power. It is worth noting that much of the substance of the attack on authority originated in the critical efforts of modernists that were later appropriated by the more radical critique embodied in postmodernism. It is little wonder that irony is the dominant tone of postmodern culture. But discontents have their limits as the current disarray in public morality has shown. Meanwhile, premodernists continue their centuries-long battle to return authority to its formative role in civil society, seeking to somehow revive or even force a trust that has long evaporated and a surrender of private autonomy that, at least in the West, even the most ardent religionists are loath to accept (see “Which Clash of Civilizations?”).

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