In a word, postmodernism is rebellion.
As I said in an earlier post, I’ve recognized some postmodern leanings in my own views, and that’s not a bad thing. So when you’re investigating something anew, it’s a good idea to start with the basics. Heath White, Ph.D. (Georgetown University) wrote a great primer on postmodernism in Postmodernism 101, which I’m currently working through. Virtually my whole life I’ve been taught that postmodernism is wrong in every way. For a while, I’ve had some existentialist views of my own Christian faith, but only recently have I come to understand that I was more postmodern than I thought I was. Reading even a basic book like this one provided several important “Ah ha!” moments for me. White isn’t selling postmodernism, but gives a nice overview of its propositions and history. These are some gleanings of White’s book with several of my own observations.
Postmodernism is more of a mindset than a philosophy. That helped me quite a bit, drawing a distinction between my own existentialist ideas and postmodernism itself. Existentialism played a part in postmodernism’s arrival, but they appear to be exclusive categories.
The pre-modern leaders of the world were born into positions of royalty or into wealthy families. Commoners were uneducated and illiterate, and understood that God had ordained the powers that be–kings, lords, etc–to be the rightful leaders. This system of power held by kings and lords–the feudal system–was the way of things. On some level, opposing this system was speaking against the will of God. You could find this kind of lineage endowed authority in the Church, too. If you were blessed with a good king or lord, in a way you would be set free from a life of hardship. If you had a good religious leader, you would be set free from the fear of death and damnation. So this system wasn’t inherently bad as many folks might believe. A person’s freedom or bondage really had to do with the leaders that God (or fate) determined that you should have. A good example of this is the legend of King Arthur. In Arthur’s heyday, virtually everyone in the land was happy and prosperous; but when he made poor decisions and when his closest friends betrayed him, he became a shell of a man…and the land suffered. Everyone became poor and destitute. If you’ve ever seen the movie Excalibur, Percival makes a statement that sums this up nicely. He sees a vision of King Arthur and says: “You (Arthur) and the land are one!” So the people are only as blessed as the rulers they have.
The Enlightenment Era (also called the “Age of Reason”) was the transitional period between the pre-modern and modern era. Information was easily disseminated through the printing press and so many more people were learning to read and think critically. The Bible was even translated into their language. This new era gave people the ability to scrutinize politics and religion a lot more. A new mentality and confidence with education and logic led to a rebellion against the premodern authorities. The commoners were set free, and you see the appeal to reason in some of their statements.
Martin Luther appealed to scripture and reason to make his defence against the pope’s council at Worms:
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason–I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other–my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”
A few centuries later, Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence proposed that certain truths were “self-evident, that all Men are created equal…” Also, that when people in power become tyrants, it just makes sense that common people have the right and responsiblity to stand against such oppression. To Jefferson and the other founders, this was a reasonable move. Reason and logic justified the American stance against tyranny. Reason led to rebellion against the supposed God ordained kings and rulers. Reason set people free.
As modernism developed, there was more talk of one right way to do everything–the logical way. There was even great hope that all cultures would soon fade away as everyone learned how to come to reasonable conclusions. A plurality of cultures would inevitably give way to the rise of One Culture. We see that in the treatment of the Native Americans, who were considered a primitive people who needed to be modernized. Christian Missionaries didn’t just convert them, they made them into modern Europeans–a reasonable society. (A postmodernist sees that the issue really wasn’t which society was right, it was about which one was in power).The modernist era was in its prime during the early 1900s, and the promise of the most reasonable people around was that Utopia was right around the corner. They certainly accomplished quite a bit in this timeframe. Medical science advanced a great deal as did technology. However, the twentieth century proved to be the most violent era in human history. World War I was terrible, and World War II was horrific. Battle tactics and weapons advanced, killing people much more efficiently. Trench warfare was bad enough, and then the atomic bomb arrived. The Nazi regime actively pursued the elimination of all other cultures to realize the dream of the One Culture (are you disturbed yet?). And this wasn’t just a Nazi idea, eugenics was popular in the early twentieth century. Some of these guys were the best educated–the most reasonable and logical members of society. The new atomic age led to efficient nuclear power stations…and to the Chernobyl disaster. It also led to the Cold War between the US and USSR. During that time, the Cuban Missile Crisis led to teachers in high school telling their students what to do in case of a nuclear warhead attack: get under your desks and cover your heads…to which the students gazed incredulously at the wooden desks and joked “…and kiss our butts goodbye!”
So modernism came from the new use of reason by the common man for the purpose of liberating us all from the oppression of kings and lords. Our reason set us free from ignorance and feudal oppression. But later, the masters of reason and logic [like philosophical Pharisees], warred with each other and oppressed the rest of us. Our accomplishments blessed us greatly on the one hand, and cursed us on the other with even more difficult challenges. Eventually, people became cynical and depressed. After the bloodbath of the 1900s, Utopia is still nowhere to be seen.
As modernism rebelled against the pre-modern holders of power; postmodernism rebelled against logic itself. That’s because logic can show us measures of truth and reality…and it can also be used to manipulate and enslave. They hear the modernist say the following: “If you want to do the right thing, be like us and do what we do. Dress like us. Watch what we watch and read what we read. We can never do you wrong, because we’re committed to logic. Our ways make sense.” The postmodernist rebels against all such ideas, not necessarily because he doubts all forms of truth, but because he’s seen what the most logical of the human race is capable of. He’s seen what the truth experts have done throughout history and it scares him to death. This is why the postmodernist can be cynical to authority figures and…well, everything. Some of them are enveloped in their own negativity and don’t think that anyone will ever be able to arrive at an ultimate truth. These folks are like the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. He took a nihilist position (invented it?)–we come from nothing and go to nothing. Life is meaningless. It only has the meaning that we make it have. Therefore, life is what we make it. We create our own truth and meaning.But there are others who have more hope, wielding the more positive side of postmodern thinking. Though they are extremely skeptical about anyone who asserts absolute ideas about right and wrong, they still believe that one can arrive at some form of truth even though consensus is lacking.
But all postmodernists have rebelled against traditional views of logic and reason simply because they have proven to be tools to oppress folks. And here’s the slippery thing about it all, postmodernists will use reason and logic to create their own thinking systems–systems that reject traditional ideas of reason and logic.
What’s behind postmodernism is the same thing that was behind modernism–personal liberty. The modernist used logic to gain liberty, the postmodernist will use his own version of logic to find his own way. The modernist says: “I’ll use logic to find the one right way,” the postmodernist says: “I’ll find my own way, one way or another.”
This is a very lean description, and there’s an ocean of material that one can read on postmodernism. I suggest you check White’s book out, and stay tuned to some of my later postings.
- Analysis of History: The Story of Premodernism, Modernism & Postmodernism (andykalan.wordpress.com)