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What is Postmodernity?

January 11th, 2014 | Posted by Lana Hope in Culture | History

In this post I will continue our discussion on modernity and postmodernity. The two are often conflated; therefore, before I continue on with Kevin Swanson’s analysis of Descartes in Apostate, I need to first discuss postmodernity.

There a three misconceptions about postmodernity that I often see. 1) Postmodernity teaches relativism, 2) Postmodernity is anti-Christian. 3) Postmodernity is secular.

All three are false.

Relativism, although it has always existed, was really refired and rebirthed during modernity. This is because modernity emphasized self as the maker of the universe. If man can create laws, man can change laws. If man can create truth, man can recreate truth. Nietzsche is a great example of this.

Of course, some postmoderns hold that truth is relative. A lot, however, critique relativism, such as Bhabha and Chakrabarty (Chakrabarty comes right out and says he is not a relativist) in the postcolonial tradition. Postmodernism itself is not about relativism, though.

Postmodernity is also not anti-Christian. Postmodernity is a critique of modernity.  Therefore, if there are things about modernity that bother a Christian, he or she may very well find a home in postmodernity.

Thirdly, postmodernity is definitely not equivalent to secularism (in terms of human rights) or to an absence of belief in gods or the supernatural. In fact, some of the heaviest critiques of modernity are aimed at secularism.

Side note:

People can be a modern Christian, or a modern atheist. People can be a postmodern Christian, or a postmodern atheist.

From my observation, albeit very limited, I think the young generations have one foot in modernity and one foot in postmodernity. If anything, I would say many of those who go as far as claiming the label “secular,” are farther from postmodernity than those who consider themselves humanists without the secular label. But that does not inherently need to be so.

So what is postmodernity?

Postmodernity is a critique of modernity. I think we could boil it down to two serious critiques.

1) Was modernity worth the sacrifice? 2) Is modernity an artificial construction despite its claim to reason? <–aka, the philosophical critique

The first question is why I am a postmodernist. The most effective and serious critiques of modernity, beyond the intellectualism of the poststructuralists, really coincide with the history we have lived.  I mentioned in my post on modernity that modernity was fueled by an unbridled optimistic spirit. Modernity promised so much. Our ability to create peace. Human rights  Better mental health. Government education, or at least some form of schools worldwide. Technology. Transportations. I am blogging thanks to a product of a modern mindset.

But then, the world wars came. Then the American/Vietnam came. Canadian historian George Grant wrote in the 20th century that we were just willing our destiny for the sake of it. C.S. Lewis wrote that we were fixing one problem, and recreating another. (Beyond the wars, we see this in our health system. We have better health care than ever before, but now our chemical food makes us sick. So we have to go back and create new technology to cure our illnesses. Progress, when recognized as just a cycle, Nietzsche says, can make us depressed.)

In this way, we could think of postmodernity as just poking holes in modernity.

Postmodernists don’t necessarily say modernity does not work, or it is not true. But there is a serious sacrifice that comes along with modernity.

This sacrifice is rooted in our notion of progress. In order for progress to work, then there is a universal standard that society must be working towards. This by definition will sweep over the broken pieces, but also brings everyone into conformity.  For example, if we knew that the Christian God could make everyone happy, then the solution would be to evangelize the entire world. If we knew that technology could cure all the world’s diseases, then we need to spread technology over the whole world. If we knew that science could free people, then we would need to send science over the world to cure superstition. If we knew that government programs would cure the world’s hunger and corruption, then we would need to spread socialism or democracy around the world. If we knew mass education could free everyone of ignorance, then we need a global mass education system.

One of the kickers of modernity is it does not work just to socially construct our own land by modern progress.  In order to have global peace and progress, other nations must conform. The smaller our world becomes thanks to technology, the more this is a demand.

This is why some of the late postcolonial theorists, who critiqued the European colonization of the world (such as Chakrabarty), wrote that our modern wars weren’t actually religious wars. They were battles over history. This was Nietzsche’s superman. The battle for the modern man is to create new horizons. The strongest win, and are justified in doing in order to create that kind of future. When two supermen bump up together, then violence is created.

There is no doubt that modernity works in a way. But the question Bhabha or Chakrabarty or Foucault or maybe even Barthes would ask is is it worth it?

A few days ago on twitter, several people argued with a tweet of mine that stated that modernity is justified by the need to rid people of ignorance. The thought is that education “frees” people. Obviously there is a lot of truth to that notion. I’m not really disagreeing so much as I’m asking if it is worth sacrificing other cultures and imposing on lands that are not our own?

The people arguing with me were modernists. Obviously context matters. Technology could not be created on superstition. In Europe or America teaching superstition might be a huge set back to our job market (ironically, our modern one). But is this universally true(aka, true for all tribes and nations), and if we could make it universally true, would it be worth it?

A modernist says yes. A postmodernist will likely say no. This is because of the third world. Chakrabarty, an Indian born intellect, offers the best critique of this. He talks about some of the tribes in India, and he says the spirits do have agency for those people whether or not the spirits exist.  If our technology and science is not going to make them happier, or strengthen their communities or farm work, then we should not enforce it upon them, or make modernism as the ideal.

So in summary, progress always demands conformity, even within our own communities. If you want a good grasp of modernity in your own community, hang out with the generations born before world war II. Most of these individuals can quickly describe gender roles, social cues, authority figures, and institutions. While certainly many of the older generations are no longer modern (after all, the original poststructuralists are dead or in their 80s+), those who still believe in the modern notion of progress in the purest sense will even justify the violence it does to the emotions of the individuals, and then tell you that you should never dress a certain way, and never say pee or suck or what not. In my last post I  described this as the “of course” way of life. “Of course” every family should contribute to society in a certain standard and every young lady should dress a certain way. This is how good countries and strong families are built. “Of course.”

Similarly, this is why conservative Christians are against gay rights (or one of the reasons). They believe God will judge the west if we have gay rights. They believe gays will destroy America. So they are against it.

Modernity is why when Europe colonized North America we were able to take the land and turn around educate the people. As long as we deem the natives prehistoric, then we were doing them some great favor.

Or not.

This is why we have too many authority figures. Nothing can progress without reinforcing a standard.

Incidently, this is why I have said that many young people have one foot in modernism and one foot in postmodernism. Many young people have recognized the problem of conformity and the European colonization. But they still hold onto the notion that perhaps we could create an ideal form of human rights.

For what it’s worth, there is no pure form of human rights. It’s interesting how America has separation of church and state, and yet religion plays a huge factor into who gets elected. Canada does not have separation in the American sense, but one’s personal religion plays no par in getting elected. This does not mean that human rights don’t exist, but there is no universal form of those rights. For this reason, when human rights is used as a tool to bring progress, it can force everyone into conformity. Nothing demonstrates this better than the European colonization.

One of my favorite stories from Chakrabarty is when he talks about how the peasants in India revolted when they were given state citizenship. Here they had finally been given the secular ideal of human rights, and the people did not even want it. Chakrabarty describes how this shook the notion of citizenship for the British.

This is why postmodernism unsettles both secularists and Christians while never rejecting either one. Chakrabarty very beautifully states that Europe (he groups the countries together with a disclaimer; North America is also included in his definition of “Europe”) should go on in their secular, modern ways. But this must be understood with the notion that there is no pure secular form, and that we should not want to secularize the world.

In short, postmodernity places people above progress. C.S. Lewis, who still held onto reason and progress, wrote that society would never survive if we were more concerned with survival than concerned with a love for God and a love for people. He wrote this in is essay “On Living in an Atomic age.”

This is one of the many reasons postmodernity can be compatible with Christianity (or any other belief or lack therein).  When Jesus told us to pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” he was asking us to release the world into his hands. The kingdom in the Bible exists in the here and now. The kingdom is not about beating the clock, our fate, or Nietzsche’s superman. The kingdom is about loving people in the moment. We made the kingdom about the modern project, but the kingdom can be more correctly stated as love your neighbor as yourself.

Some of you may be correctly thinking that postmoderns don’t claim to believe in one thing, and therefore, a postmodern could still believe in progress. There is some truth to this, but I think the point is that postmoderns are disillusioned by progress and reason. It’s not important. It’s not the end all.

There’s more to be said.

Now that I’ve briefly demonstrated some of the critiques of modernity; in my next post I will turn to the intellectual critique that shook the academy.

See Provincializing Europe by Dispesh Chakrabarty.

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