Postmodernism is under attack. Whether on the “intellectual dark web,” the media establishment, or various online forums. At one level, we should be thankful that, at least, a serious intellectual current has become the focus of so much attention. Yet we should also be distressed by the caricatures of postmodernism by its critics and the narrow approach of critics.
I am not a postmodernist. I have strong disagreements with aspects of postmodernism. But I also find other strands of postmodernism fruitful.
Postmodernism is more than mere deconstructionist theory. It is more than literary and rhetorical hocus pocus. It is more than a mere denial of scientific biology and facts.
At its heart, postmodernism is a tradition of skepticism toward the master narrative of modernity born of the Whig ideology of history. That is, postmodernism critiques the claim that history is, or has been, a progressivist march of liberty away from darkness and superstition. Postmodernism, in its purest and most universal form, is a skeptical approach to Whig propaganda that asserts the crude narrative that for thousands, if not millions, of years humans have wallowed in darkness and, until the advent of the so-called “Enlightenment,” been slaves of ignorance and superstition. Postmodernism calls into question this presumption and, drawing on a rich tradition of cultural criticism going all the way back to St. Augustine (whom may of the postmodernists admit as an influence on them—especially in this area of cultural criticism), argues that terms like “reason,” “liberty,” and “progress” have been thrust onto us to veil the realities of continued exploitation, oppression, and tyranny. Calling exploitation, oppression, and tyranny reason, liberty, and progress doesn’t make it so. It merely masks a more immediate reality which subsequently blinds us when we drink the ideology of Whiggery.
It is true that postmodernism is more than just a critique of the master narrative of Whiggism. Postmodernism is itself skeptical of any and all master narratives, be they religious, political, cultural, scientific – you name it.
In its most extreme form postmodernism exhausts itself in either an extreme relativism or nihilism. To be clear, this, too, ought to be opposed for many reasons. Fredrich Nietzsche, himself an ironic influence over the postmodernists like St. Augustine, saw the problems of Whiggery as leading to a relativist and nihilist outlook on life: The Last Man who simply lives life to be comfortable; takes no risks; avoids pain, exhilaration, and the thymos of life. So while extreme postmodernism may very well result in the same end point of extreme atomistic liberalism, Nietzsche is instructive in how to confront the abyss of meaninglessness and aimlessness.
Humans are meaning-making creatures. This does not, as a good postmodernist may claim, mean that there is meaning in the cosmos – pardon the pun. This reality, however, maintains that humans make meaning to cope with living in the world. Protagoras, in this regard, is right: Man is the measure of all things. We might update the phrase to be: Man is the Maker of All Things. Ironically, postmodernism agrees with this sentiment that man makes meaning for himself in a meaningless world.
Postmodernism is useful to us because it reminds us to be skeptical of what we hear, what we are told, and what the media—especially—tries to thrust over the whole of society and the broader Western World. Postmodernism allows us to come to grips with the problems of modernity. For all the wealth and supposed progress and liberty we now possess, there is excessive alienation; feelings of meaninglessness, aimlessness, and emptiness in life; and regular conflict between the usual suspects that doesn’t seem much changed from millennia ago.
It goes without saying that modernity has also unleashed a deep anxiety and angst across the globe. Postmodernism reminds us that this anxiety and angst may be the result of the false narrative that modernity proclaims: We are freer, happier, and more prosperous than ever before! If so, why are we so unhappy, so alienated, so impoverished (in the traditional sense: an ontological and metaphysical poverty of the “soul”)?
It should also be noted that postmodernism is not the sole possession of the “Far Left” or the “Cultural Marxists.” Noted traditionalists and conservatives and other “Right Wing” figures have been associated with postmodernism or influential on postmodern theory: Joseph De Maistre, Carl Schmitt, and Martin Heidegger. Before his death, noted Catholic and conservative philosopher Peter Augustine Lawler wrote that postmodernism has an innate conservative bent to it and that aspects of postmodernism pointed us toward a “return to realism.” Postmodernism, according to Lawler, exposed the excessiveness of modern liberalism in domestic but especially foreign policy ideals. After all, only the most asinine Whig—like Bret Stephens—can truly believe that “democracy” and “human rights” should be spread across the globe with the force of American tax dollars and cruise missiles. Americans, still suffering from the excesses of the War on Terror, but especially the Iraq War, wonder when enough is enough.
Postmodernism, irrespective of its faults, remains indispensable in the critique of modernity. All who feel alienated from modernity and skeptical of the claims of modernity—Left, Right, or Center; religious or irreligious—ought to give pause and consideration to the broadest claim made in postmodern theory: Modernity isn’t all that it claims to be.