Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Defining Postmodernism

How do you name the fog?
These two pages give it a try.

1) "Defining Postmodernism," by James Morley

What is postmodernism?
Firstly, postmodernism was a movement in architecture that rejected the modernist, avant garde, passion for the new. Modernism is here understood in art and architecture as the project of rejecting tradition in favour of going "where no man has gone before" or better: to create forms for no other purpose than novelty. Modernism was an exploration of possibilities and a perpetual search for uniqueness and its cognate--individuality. Modernism's valorization of the new was rejected by architectural postmodernism in the 50's and 60's for conservative reasons. They wanted to maintain elements of modern utility while returning to the reassuring classical forms of the past. The result of this was an ironic brick-a-brack or collage approach to construction that combines several traditional styles into one structure. As collage, meaning is found in combinations of already created patterns.

Following this, the modern romantic image of the lone creative artist was abandoned for the playful technician (perhaps computer hacker) who could retrieve and recombine creations from the past--data alone becomes necessary. This synthetic approach has been taken up, in a politically radical way, by the visual, musical,and literary arts where collage is used to startle viewers into reflection upon the meaning of reproduction. Here, pop-art reflects culture (American). Let me give you the example of Californian culture where the person--though ethnically European, African, Asian, or Hispanic--searches for authentic or "rooted" religious experience by dabbling in a variety of religious traditions. The foundation of authenticity has been overturned as the relativism of collage has set in. We see a pattern in the arts and everyday spiritual life away from universal standards into an atmosphere of multidimentionality and complexity, and most importantly--the dissolving of distinctions. In sum, we could simplistically outline this movement in historical terms:

1. premodernism: Original meaning is possessed by authority (for example, the Catholic Church). The individual is dominated by tradition.

2. modernism: The enlightenment-humanist rejection of tradition and authority in favour of reason and natural science. This is founded upon the assumption of the autonomous individual as the sole source of meaning and truth--the Cartesian cogito. Progress and novelty are valorized within a linear conception of history--a history of a "real" world that becomes increasingly real or objectified. One could view this as a Protestant mode of consciousness.

3. postmodernism: A rejection of the sovereign autonomous individual with an emphasis upon anarchic collective, anonymous experience. Collage, diversity, the mystically unrepresentable, Dionysian passion are the foci of attention. Most importantly we see the dissolution of distinctions, the merging of subject and object, self and other. This is a sarcastic playful parody of western modernity and the "John Wayne" individual and a radical, anarchist rejection of all attempts to define, reify or re-present the human subject.

2) R.R. Wesley Hurd; "Postmodernism: A New Model of Reality"

Looking to man and not God, the optimism of modernism has proven itself ill-founded. The response has been postmodernism. The best Christian book on postmodernism that I have found is A Primer on Postmodernism by Stanley J. Grenz. In this article, however, I will have to describe postmodernism more briefly, which I will do by looking at five presuppositions inherent in the postmodern worldview:

(1) The quest for truth is a lost cause. It is a search for a "holy grail" that doesn't exist and never did. Postmodernists argue that objective, universal, knowable truth is mythical; all we have ever found in our agonized search for Truth are "truths" that were compelling only in their own time and culture, but true Truth has never been ours. Furthermore, if we make the mistake of claiming to know the Truth, we are deluded at best and dangerous at worst.

(2) A person's sense of identity is a composite constructed by the forces of the surrounding culture. Individual consciousness--a vague, "decentered" collection of unconscious and conscious beliefs, knowledge, and intuitions about oneself and the world--is malleable and arrived at through interaction with the surrounding culture. Postmodernism then, in stark contrast to modernism, is about the dissolving of the self. From the postmodernist perspective, we should not think of ourselves as unique, unified, self-conscious, autonomous persons.

(3) The languages of our culture (the verbal and visual signs we use to represent the world to ourselves) literally "construct" what we think of as "real" in our everyday existence. In this sense, reality is a "text" or "composite" of texts, and these texts (rather than the God-created reality) are the only reality we can know. Our sense of self--who we are, how we think of ourselves, as well as how we see and interpret the world and give ourselves meaning in it--is subjectively constructed through language.

(4) "Reality" is created by those who have power. One of postmodernism's preeminent theorists, Michel Foucault, combines the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas about how those in power shape the world with a theory of how language is the primary tool for making culture. Foucault argues that whoever dominates or controls the "official" use of language in a society holds the key to social and political power. (Think, for example, of how official political "spin" control of specific words and phrases can alter the public perception of political decisions, policies, and events.) Put simply, Nietzsche said all reality is someone's willful, powerful construction; Foucault says language is the primary tool in that construction.

(5) We should neutralize the political power inherent in language by "deconstructing" it. Another leading postmodernist, Jacques Derrida, theorizes that the language we use when we make statements always creates a set of opposite beliefs, a "binary," one of which is "privileged" and the other of which is "marginalized," and the privileged belief is always favored. For example, if one says "Honey is better for you than white sugar," this statement of opinion has "privileged" honey over white sugar. In the arena of morals one might say "Sex should only happen in marriage," in which case the experience of sex in marriage is "privileged" and sex out of wedlock is "marginalized." Derrida argues that all language is made up of these binaries, and they are always socially and politically loaded. "Deconstruction" is the practice of identifying these power-loaded binaries and restructuring them so that the marginalized or "unprivileged" end of the binary can be consciously focused upon and favored.

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