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Post-post-modernism

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The death of post-modernism has been announced by a number of cultural commentators. In 2006 Alan Kirby wrote an article in Philosophy Now called, ‘The death of postmodernism and beyond.’ Another British writer, Edward Docx, in a 2011 article for Prospect Magazine, ‘Postmodernism is dead,’ noticed that a London museum was putting on a ‘retrospective’ of post-modern art dated 1970-1990. In the same year (2011) the Italian artist Emiliano Ponzi produced the piece above, titled ‘The death of postmodernism: What’s next?’

The decline and fall of post-modernism

Edward Docx sees the death of post-modernism coming about in a couple of ways:

  1. The technique of deconstruction (truth claims are assertions of power that need to be exposed) and the accompanying posture of complete relativism (no such thing as objective truth) ran us into the wall of confusion and absurdity and undercut the ability of anyone to say anything at all, in the end robbing the oppressed of their ability to speak and so actually supporting the ruling classes (Terry Eagleton’s critique of post-modernism). There comes a point where people start to say, “Wait a minute, some things are true.” As the historian Deborah Lipstadt says in the film Denial (about the Irving v. Lipstadt libel trial in the year 2000), “Slavery happened. The Black Death happened. Elvis is not alive.” Pure post-modernism says that Holocaust denial is just another perspective, another truth. Post-post-modernism seeks a way out of that fog.
  2. In the field of art, with all traditional, classical, romantic and realist criteria of aesthetics gone, there was no way to judge the artistic merit of a piece other than popular acclaim/notoriety and the price that someone would pay for it. Docx sees this as leading to an extreme commodification of art, pure market capitalism. This hyper-capitalism and mass consumerism has brought about a reaction in terms of a desire for ‘authenticity’ – for local food, hand crafted products, real coffee, home-baked muffins, personal stories. Whereas in the 80s we grew up on hyper-processed ‘space food’, in the twenty first century I want my children to eat locally-sourced, organic, authentic ‘real food.’ In the 80s we read science fiction. Now we read misery memoirs. Docx calls it the ‘the Age of Authenticism.’

Now the extent to which we have really turned from confusion back to ‘Truth’ and the extent to which we are really turned from commodification back to ‘Authenticity’ are clearly very debatable (I recently saw a Indonesian-made T-shirt on sale in a UK shop emblazoned with ‘Authentic Brooklyn 1920’ and other such meaninglessness). But Docx has recognised an important shift that has happened since the turn of the century.

The termination of post-modernism

David Harvey, in The Condition of Postmodernity (1989) writes:

“Charles Jencks dates the symbolic end of modernism and the passage to the postmodern as 3.32 p.m. on 15 July 1972, when the Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St Louis (a prize-winning version of Le Corbusier’s ‘machine for modern living’) was dynamited…”

Could it be (as Alan Kirby suggested), that the burial of postmodernism can also be dated to the destruction of a building – this time 9.59am on 11 September 2001?  Whether or not the World Trade Centre was a postmodern building is not important (Harvey did see it as a postmodern hub).  The point is that from 9/11 onward it became impossible to assert (without qualification) that all discourses and cultures are equally valid and to be tolerated. Lipstadt’s 2000 trial was in many ways about the objective truth and objective evil of the Holocaust – and in fact a key argument against extreme relativism throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s was to invoke the case of Auschwitz – but from September 2001 onward there was a new, stunningly blatant, unarguable demonstration of objective evil.

At university in the late 90s I met professors and post-graduate students who were truly post-modern in the sense of genuinely holding to a pure relativism where absolutely everything is socially constructed and no narrative is any more authoritative than any other. I remember, in frustration, challenging one of our supervisors (a doctoral student) that surely if I threw myself out of the fourth floor window I would be subject to gravity and land on the concrete and objectively die. “Ah,” he said, “But it’s interesting that death is a very culturally constructed thing. There are the questions of whether death is a process or an event and whether it is something that happens to the body or the soul. All these things are highly socially constructed.” But now, after 9/11, with shocking images engraved on the minds of a whole generation, images of planes stuck in the side of buildings and people throwing themselves out of those buildings, the academic playfulness of postmodernism seems crass and out of place. As Docx says, “The postmodern solution will no longer do as a response to the world we now find ourselves in.”

What’s next?

So what comes after post-modernism? Let’s call it post-post-modernism for now (that’s what Wikipedia calls it anyway). The chart below is an attempt to show some of the differences between the pre-modern, the modern, the post-modern and the post-post-modern. It is roughly based on a chart by Stephen Hicks but I have adapted it, changed quite a few of the descriptors and extended it horizontally and vertically. A few disclaimers and caveats must be made at the beginning:

  1. Each of the different categories contains contradictory elements. Pre-modern, modern, post-modern and post-post-modern are all in some ways ‘chaotic concepts’ in that they are not unified objects of analysis. For example the pre-modern includes animism, polytheism and monotheism and pantheism; those concerned with shaman and spirits and those concerned with revealed (and often written) truth from a creator. What unites them is super-naturalism, a past focus and a non-human-centred view of the world. Modernism includes the opposites of empiricism and romanticism and the opposing forces of liberal capitalism and Marxist socialism. What unites them is a belief in humanism (man is the measure of all things) and belief in an overarching linear narrative. In the post-modern era, deconstructive literary theory is very different to the New Age movement – but they both share a turn away from modernist materialism. So the entries in each part of the chart below should be read as a list of observations and alternatives rather than an exhaustive coherent description.
  2. There is a lot of continuity. Charts such as the one below tend to emphasise discontinuity but in fact a lot stays the same and continues from one period to the next. The universities and legal systems than arose in Europe in the early modern period were key to the Enlightenment and then key to the post-modern period and continue to be engines of cultural change today. David Harvey argues that, in terms of economics, post-modern capitalism and globalisaton is really just ‘shifts in surface appearance’ with the basic structure of modern capital accumulation not substantially changed. Another example: one of the key features of the shift from pre-modern to modern was that Newness/Originality became a good thing (for a pre-modern ‘old is gold’). In that sense we are moderns today – all of us who instinctively think the new thing will be better than the old model. Similarly, Docx notes that today (in the post-post-modern era) “we are all, and will forever be, children of postmodernism.” Many aspects of post-modernity (e.g. relativism, pragmatism, eclecticism) were natural out-workings of modernism and they continue to be very important in colouring our thinking and experience today.
  3. There are not neat historical transitions between each phase. In fact I have tried to avoid using language of phase or period. Although you can roughly chart the time zones – e.g. Pre-modern up to the 17th century, Modern up to 1972, Post-modern up to 2001 – in fact that makes it a very European/Western classification and even when you look at Europe in more detail you find it doesn’t fit neatly. There were some institutions of modernism in Roman times (law and state) and certainly by the 1200s (universities). Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, with its authorial self-consciousness and ironic parody of Gothic romance is a thoroughly post-modern novel and yet it was published in 1817. At the same time, pockets of distinctly pre-modern culture, practice and architecture have continued in parts of Europe (especially southern and eastern Europe in Catholic and Orthodox cultures) all the way through to the present. In Nairobi in 2017 there are still plenty of post-modern buildings still going up and yet, under the shadow of one of them there is an Ethiopian Orthodox church which worships in traditions virtually unchanged for 1400 years. As cyberpunk writer William Gibson has said, “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

With those disclaimers, and with no claim to authority, originality or finality, here is the chart:

Pre-modern Modern Post-modern Post-post-modern
Metaphysics (what is the world?) Spiritual, magic, divine Physical, mechanical, naturalism, materialism, deism Social construct, text, anti-realist Physical, emotional, naturalism, materialism
Metanarrative (what is your story?) Mythic, circular, heroic, fatalist, fable Progress, humanism, liberalism, Marxism, evolution, romanticism Anti-meta narrative, small stories, non-linear, contradiction, chaos Progress, humanism, liberalism, evolution, war on terror and intolerance
Epistemology (how do you know?) Tradition, wisdom, mysticism, divine revelation Empiricism, anti-tradition, experience, reason, science Deconstruction, agnosticism, radical relativism, pluralism, power constructs truth, New Age mysticism Science, Google, facts, emotion
Human nature Hierarchy, fixed, body primary, character, action Egalitarian, tabula rasa, good, rational, autonomous, improvable, class conflict, mind primary Social construct, fluid, irrational, power conflict, humans not unique species Good, genetic, autonomous, mind and emotions primary, must be affirmed, entitled
Ethics (what is good?) Old, loyalty, conformity, honour, community-defined New, individualism, independence, universal human rights, law, utilitarianism Relativism, no objective good, contingency, permissive, power subversion New moralism, conformity, authenticity, values, tolerance, environmentalism
Aesthetics (how things look) Display of status, traditional, cluttered, mixed spaces Coherence, magnum opus, clean lines, minimalist, functional Incoherence, mixing, pastiche, juxtaposition, pop art, playfulness, irony, kitsch, self-conscious Functional, natural, comfortable, neo-modernist
Politics and economics Theocracy, tribalism, feudalism Secularism, capitalism, socialism, democracy, dictatorship, unions, empires Pragmatism, anarchy, activism, fragmentation, devolution, knowledge economy, multi-nationals, localism Populism, centralist, totalitarian, police state
Key institutions and innovations Kingship, council of elders, priesthood, clan, tribe, kinship Universities, parliament, courts, industrialisation, bureaucracy, nation state Academia, TV, internet, globalisation, community groups Social media, surveillance

So what is post-post-modernity?

There are three themes that I would like to draw out and unpack in subsequent blog posts:

  1. The new truth
  2. The new moralism
  3. The new state

As a preliminary and general thought, we might say that in relation to what went before:

  1. Post-post-modernity is a significant break from post-modernity.
  2. It seems to have quite a lot of similarity with modernity.
  3. But it is not exactly a return to modernity. Post-modernity changed the cultural and mental landscape irrevocably. So post-post-modernity is genuinely a ‘fourth thing.’

Why do we need to engage with these kind of issues?

Because, as D. A. Carson has argued, although gospel truth is trans-cultural, there is no trans-cultural way to communicate the gospel: it has to be spoken within cultures in language that is understood by people even if it is hated. Understanding the culture we are in should help us to, “Connect biblical truth to the hopes, narratives, fears and errors of people in that particular time and place” (Keller, Center Church).

For example, to use the Tim Keller prodigal son language, in the post-modern era perhaps there were more ‘younger brothers’ (amoral) and now there are more elder brothers (moralistic). In the post-modern era there was a lack of any consensus on the existence of universal human rights but perhaps now there is a renewed belief in the existence of trans-cultural values and rights – something to tap into and examine.

But ultimately let us put our confidence not in our reading of the culture but in Jesus Christ, the first and the last and the living one, who explodes every paradigm and who runs to embrace sinners from every culture and time and place.

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