Often described as difficult to define, the best summary description might simply be something like - that which comes after modernism. Postmodernism has been variously referred to as a cultural theory, a way of life, an expression of disenchantment with modernism, a loosely bound collection of anti-modern ideas and as a social deconstruction - just to name a few designations. Early postmodernists include Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. Jean Francis Lyotard, Gillies Deleuze, Jacques Derrida and Michael Foucault are contemporary postmodern thinkers. Convinced postmodernists (we will do them the courtesy of not calling them theorists) often assert that post modernism is not any of the aforementioned – not an explanatory system, or text of knowledge, at all. This variety of overlapping and conflicting definitions highlights one of the main paradoxes of postmodern thought – that it rejects the label of an explanatory system - but is unavoidably subject to various systematizations and schemas of interpretation and description, many of which are common and cohesive for both postmodernists and skeptics of postmodernism alike. The reasons for this conundrum are rooted in what postmodernism does actually say, regardless of its description.
Postmodernism involves a rejection of numerous rationalist and modernist ideas, especially those of immutable knowledge and truth, essentialism, and discernable reality. For the postmodernist, reality is a social construct, contextual to cultural conditions and characteristics, and defined by communities or societies based on their language – their common narrative (Moreland 146). As such, it overtly rejects all metanarratives, or grand explanatory theories of history and knowledge (Moreland 149).
Because absolute truth and reality are unattainable, no theory or text that seeks to establish them in an over-arching or explanatorily all-encompassing manner can be trusted - whether it incorporates philosophy, histories, religion, cultural theories, or political theories. Postmodernism therefore rejects Marxism, socialism, humanism, existentialism, scientism, Darwinism, evolutionary theory, intelligent design theory, Christian history or doctrines, and all other secular, religious or spiritual texts, as being authoritative or possessive of absolute truth, or able to access reality (Moreland 149). A consequential irony of this is that postmodernism becomes more definite, more asserted, based on that which it rejects – that which its enthusiasts claim it is not - making it converge more and more on an explanatory system or text.
Scholars have even identified a number of cultural, philosophical and literary characteristics of postmodernism. Some larger themes include pluralism and relativism. Bennett and Royle list a number of other key tenets (for want of a better word): the urge to de-center logocentric cultural meaning, pastiche (the ironic parodying of existing discourses), little narratives as opposed to grand narratives (Lyotard), absence of depth or any meaning underlying surface expressions, dissemination (a fragmentation of modern ideas of identity and originality) (Bennett 249.) Moreland and Craig also identify nominalism and anti-essentialism (Moreland 147). These ideas all originate with different people in different disciplines and fields, and as a result, thought of as only loosely coupled. However, they are recognized as critically defining themes in postmodernism, which paradoxically strains against another important theme of postmodernism – that of anti-representation, or of rejection of its own representation (Bennett 255). This epistemological stress may be exemplified by the claims of some postmodernist scholars. For example, Derrida has referred to postmodernism as ‘a new enlightenment’(Bennett 250).
Poststructuralism could be called the linguistic arm of postmodernism. Central to postmodernism is the adoption of a linguistically centered reality and perception (Moreland 147). Jacques Derrida, whose influences include Neitzsche and Heidegger, is recognized as a leading poststructuralist and deconstructionist (Hicks 489). Derrida sees reality as defined subjectively by language, and language as unable to access reality, being simply a collection of signs based on signifiers that refer to chains of other signifiers, which together formulate an incomplete, contextual and subjective reality. He is the originator of the principle of deconstruction, a process which involves detailed inspection of a text to determine its weaknesses and flaws – especially in terms of self contradiction, blind assumptions, blind spots, elements of aporia and other fallacies, to bring the intended meaning of the text undone – to deconstruct it (Hicks 489). Derrida, and other postmodern literary critics like Michael Foucault, and feminist critics Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray, seek to deconstruct modern linguistic truth as binary or dichotomous (Moreland 146), in that it relies on setting up logical oppositions between pairs of terms, wherein one term enforces its meaning by subordinating the other term. Examples include man/woman, true/false, reasonable/unreasonable and rational/irrational. For postmodernists, no term or word is transcendent in its meaning, which reinforces the idea of relative and subjective meaning. Again, however, a paradox exists with deconstruction. Derrida diligently maintains that deconstruction is not a method or a technique (Hicks 489). Deconstruction rejects modern reason on the basis that it relies on binary oppositions, and therefore logic, which for postmodernists are illusory and based not on truth but on modern, patriarchal, and rationalist social constructions of relative narratives. However, deconstruction is, largely, a systematic, analytical process, based on modernistic rational analytical logic, and it is difficult to see how it would work otherwise.
Ultimately, both enthusiasts and skeptics of postmodernism generally agree that it is a real phenomenon evidenced in various contemporary cultural habits and trends, like mass consumerism and nihilistic purposelessness, and reflects or describes some of these trends accurately. Debate is usually centered on what postmodernism is, and whether it warrants and owns, or defies a description or representation.
References and Bibliography
Moreland, J.P. Taken from Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig. © 2003 by J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com
Hicks, P. The Story So Far - Philosophy Through the Ages, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2003. (By Permission)
Bennett, A & Nicholas Royle Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Third Edition, Edinburgh Gate, United Kingdom: Pearson Longman, 2004. (By Permission)
Web Resources On Postmodernism
Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by J. P. Moreland and William Lane
The Journey So Far
Book Resources On Postmodernism
Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory by Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle
Editor(s): Long, B.