Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements


  • The foundations of postmodernism were laid upon the sustained failures of institutional authority in the nineteenth century, the hypocrisies of modernism in the twentieth, and the domination of popular culture throughout.
  • Postmodernism’s nemeses are religious authority and objectivity as a privileged stance of modernist axioms of commitment.
  • Postmodernism has displayed a bipolar admiration for the methodology and work of the human sciences coupled with a rejection of the principles of scientific inquiry that the human sciences have emulated.
  • Postmodernism has championed an alienist aesthetic as a moral desideratum, despite rejecting any universal moral claims.
  • Postmodernism between the wars championed existential opposition to popular culture, but by the 1980’s, postmodernism had saturated popular culture sufficiently to produce a shift of emphasis to cultural determinism.
  • Postmodernism has idealized equality as synonymous with justice despite its denial that either offers objective value.

Perhaps the most prescient book of the last century was Nietzsche’s The Will to Power, published posthumously by his sister in 1901. In earlier works, he had expanded on Darwin’s theories of “survival of the fittest” and Schopenhauer’s “will to live” to posit a kind of social Darwinism. This was pretty standard pseudo-scientific sludge as the nineteenth century wound down, but no one could stuff more epigrammatic wit and moral outrage into a sentence than Nietzsche even if this last work was a mash-up of unfinished thought. In the wake of the unspeakable horrors of World War I, the boiling class warfare of the communist revolutions, the simmering threat of Depression, anti-colonial struggles, and the rise of fascism, the arguments of the book seemed a jeremiad and their author the greatest prophet of a bloody century. Nietzsche is the single philosopher most studied in university courses today. But the real arguments did not come from the book. They postdated it.

In the face of the cultural unraveling that followed World War I, a kind of ad hoc scramble began, using whatever intellectual materials that happened to be handy in a mad search for existential meaning. Nietzsche was handy, and the loose structure of his arguments in The Will to Power seemed amenable to adaptation. Its strongest attraction, though, was a sense of monumental outrage that seemed perfectly suited to a lost generation disillusioned by the modernist solutions to the old knowledge problems. Closely reasoned experience—indeed reason itself— seemed as splintered as the Argonne forest, as lost as the fin-de-siècle world of absinthe and crumpets in the face of the sledgehammer blows of the early twentieth century (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents).

The crucial construction of replacement warrants for truth, goodness, and beauty claims that the postmodernists constructed for most of the twentieth century was the coherentist virtual circle (see “What is the Virtual Circle?“). But its essential axiom—that experience is private and determinative of both reasoning and the truths it produces—led to inevitable paradoxes. As its sole test of truth is that claim’s agreement with previously accepted claims, the truths so determined must produce intensely personal and private schema. The inevitable result was a multiplication of claims to truth, goodness, and beauty coupled with a subtraction of universal warrants. Only empirical science remained unbroken, its power made manifest by an imposing edifice of interconnected disciplines producing miracles of technology. But science’s power was diluted by the every-increasing remoteness and abstraction of its frontiers, not to mention the questionable value of its products to some social critics. Most hobbling was its inability to confront issues of quality and moral goodness. It is all very well to say that medical science extends human life, but it is another thing entirely to claim that human life should be extended. The stentorian voice of science grows mute whenever that kind of issue is raised.

Enter the virtual circle, each thinking person’s construction of a framework of truth, goodness, and beauty claims made possible by the collapse of the kinds of warrant that modernism had long struggled to perfect: reason and closely examined experience. Granted that authority as a justification had been fatally wounded by the wars of the Reformation that gave birth to the modern experiment, yet its siren call of certainty still lured a desperate world stumbling into the first decades of the twentieth century. It echoes today. But the postmodernists would have none of it, building their own virtual circles of personal or cultural “facts” true only for those willing to speak them. From within their own perceptual walls, they fired round after round of outrage at the old modernists warrants. Hadn’t Enlightenment reason produced the horrors of imperialism, capitalism, sexism, materialism, and racism that now ravaged the globe? And didn’t these exploitations rely on the technologies of the weaponry, mass communications, and ruthless extraction of natural resources that science made possible? Postmodernism found it relatively easy to condemn the evils of modernism despite its pronouncement that morality was culturally constructed, indicting their own critique and any claim to objectivity it might appeal to. But even within its own frame of reference, the postmodern solution left one question hanging: it simply could not resolve disagreement. When two personalized constructs of reality clashed, whether that involved individuals, genders, races, classes, or national cultures, how are disputes to be settled in the absence of consensual warrants for truth, goodness, and beauty? Wasn’t the clash itself evidence of the absence of such warrants?

That question cannot be answered in a moral vacuum in which no one choice can be called morally preferable to another, so postmodernists fell back on simple observation and imaginative creation so loved by the human sciences they so admired. How are disputes resolved? Nietzsche had provided the answer. Power resolves disputes among virtual circles. An entire literature emerged from this claim, and it is fascinating to examine and ubiquitous in the postmodern zeitgeist. You will undoubtedly recognize its outlines.

The oldest and most stable warrant had until the sixteenth century been authority (see “Premodern Authority“). Postmodernists saw it as a deceptive and insincere attempt to put the iron fist of the powerful into the velvet glove of co-option. Since the entire root of authority is the willing assent of the beneficiary, if such a word can be applied in the postmodern view, the aim of postmodernists was to remove the clenched fist from its pretty glove, revealing the exploitative thrust. One doesn’t need to be vicious, they claimed, if one can make the victim view exploitation as a kind of gift.

In goodness issues, postmodernists scoffed at the moral universalism that posited a common reasoning faculty that made  objectivity or at least intersubjectivity possible (see “Three Moral Systems). They favored cultural influences as formative of our primary identity, though they disagreed on whether the dominant cultural identity was based on class, race, gender, nation, or some other commonality. Clashes among cultural groupings were more or less the same as clashes among individuals: the powerful for their own gain exploiting the weak. Some interesting tensions emerge from that position. First, it is difficult to attribute identity to culture when we participate in so many, and as cultural influence is viewed as determinant, it becomes difficult to explain how we are the passive vessels into which culture pours its influence when we must arbitrate a constant train of conflicts among the many subcultures to which we all belong (see “Cultural Consensus”). Secondly, the perpetual inconsistency of postmodernists rejecting moral universals seems to trip up cultural relativists when they pit indigenous practices against human rights. Does one defend honor killings or female equality in Egypt, traditional family structures or opposition to child labor in China, folkways or gay rights in Russia? This conflict, which began shortly after World War II with the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights has yet to be resolved or even confronted (see “Where Do Rights Originate?).

The postmodern position on questions of quality and beauty has pretty much dominated the culture. Correspondentists, who claim that judgments of quality and of beauty are somehow rooted in some objective standard regardless of one’s response to it have a hard case to make thanks to the problem of specification. You might be able to make truth claims about some external reality, particularly one you can weigh and measure, but try that approach on what determines a good book, a beautiful sculpture, or a handsome man, and see where it gets you. Beauty and quality reside firmly in the virtual circle of the appraiser, or so the postmodernists say. An argument can be made in opposition, but it faces stiff headwinds in the current climate (see “Three Portraits). The great strength of the virtual circle is that I get to value the “facts” of my own preferences and taste as the equal of anyone else’s. I may not know art, but I know what I like. And I like to call that art. And that may not be true for you, but it is true for me. My perception is my reality. This is my value system. I get to decide what’s appropriate. And so on.

Postmodern aesthetic theory reveals a hidden element that deserves a bit of excavation. The artistic theory popular since World War I is alienism. Think DaDa, Fauve, abstract expressionism, Futurism, Surrealism, and so on. By its lights, art is justified according to the degree to which it forces the appraiser to see her environment in a new light, to be removed as it were from the comfortable network in which she feels at home and forced to reexamine her relationship to the world. In other words, to adjust her virtual circle in search of catharsis. If you find twentieth century art to be unsettling, even ugly, it is because you are using the wrong standard of quality for “good art.” But, you might ask, what is the point? We know what the artist or movement is attempting to move us away from, but what is she trying to move us toward? If you ask that kind of question, you aren’t paying attention. You have to reform your own virtual circle. All the artist can do is jolt you into disruption. She can no more logically entail a new and harmonious composition of truths and values than I can. That must be up to you. But, you might ask, if no assemblage of sense data is superior to any other, why should I change? That actually is quite a good question, and it reveals two final issues about postmodernism I think worth presenting.

First is its obsession with hidden motivations. Blame that on Marx and the bourgeois mind that molds the values of the middle class. Or on Darwin and the hidden mechanisms of natural selection. Or on Freud and the ornate machinery of repression, sublimation, and the unconscious. Or pin it on poor Immanuel Kant with his preconscious categories of rationally compositing sense data. I like to blame the Romantics’ notion of intuition with their infatuation with the mysterious and the exotic, which morphed into the existentialists’ disgust with the “bad faith” that prompts the unconscious conformism of popular culture (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist“). The sources are legion, but the effect not only on postmodernist aesthetics but on their general critique of culture itself is to seek out what I see as a kind of gnosticism: some hidden knowledge that the mass of humanity is unaware of, possession of which reveals profound truths about what has gone wrong with the world. Alienist artists seek to jangle our complacency in the hope that we might grasp that hidden straw. The entire postmodern project might be seen in the same light.

But this impulse violates the central tenet of postmodernism, doesn’t it? For the notion that something is wrong implies a moral standard and a knowable external reality to apply it to, both axioms of commitment that postmodernism implicitly rejects (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). I called this a paradox at the beginning of this entry. Should I have called it a contradiction?

This brings me to the second point that an analysis of alienist aesthetics leads us to. If all constructions of the virtual circle are equal, why change anything?  Allow me to slightly amend that: all constructions are not equal; only non-contradictory constructions of the virtual circle are coherent. It is true that this is a very loose standard, since the logical process that allows us to examine for contradictions is itself a product of personalized logic or culture, but even with this sloppy fit, postmodernists do insist that the virtual circle be non-contradictory to whatever standard the individual or culture finds adequate. And they say with some justification that the kinds of hidden mechanisms alienist art seeks to reveal are themselves evidence of contradiction. So the capitalist who considers himself a good Christian because he gives to his Church while exploiting his employees can only be censured for incoherence. Giving up his religion or his job would be equally satisfying in eliminating the anomaly, postmodernists say. For the great evil, indeed the only evil in a system that relies on non-contradiction, is inconsistency. This explains why the consensus hatred of our age is for hypocrisy, for here we have a clear case of logical contradiction that the speaker must be aware of. Sincerity, by contrast, is the only criterion prompting our admiration. It hardly matters that Stalin killed sixteen million Russians in the name of some mad social experiment. He was doing what he thought was right. Shouldn’t we admire his passion and commitment?

One more thought on the issue of contradiction. One might avoid this grievous error in two ways. One is to pursue knowledge passionately so as to provide multiple checks on the consistency of one’s personal truths. The other is to know as little as possible so as to avoid inconsistencies. Both approaches might produce a coherent virtual circle. But think of the trouble one could avoid by knowing less rather than more! Abetted by an admiration for sincerity, postmodernism encourages passionate beliefs untethered to knowledge and so freed from the bothersome necessity of warrant (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”).

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