Kyle Roberts (at Patheos) worries that we are entering a worrisome cultural phase: the end of postmodernism and the beginning of an angry post-postmodernism that’s spoiling for a fight.
Roberts provides a concise summary of how we got to this point, starting with the Enlightenment and its hopes:
Modernism…involved the quest for universals, for trans-cultural knowledge, for “absolute truth.” Often utopian in orientation, it was also often elitist and racist in its visions of what utopia looks like. Modernists were optimistic about conquering the world and its problems and believed they were (however slowly but surely) progressing toward the climax of history… Modernity boasted, among many other things: An optimism for humanity’s direction and goal; Absolute Truth over localized, standpoints on truth; the pragmatics and supposed neutrality of technology over suspicion about its uses; individual rationality over (“heteronomous”) authority (like that of religion and metaphysics), and the elimination of mysticism in favor of science and reason.
The Modernist project, for good or for ill, rolled on for about two centuries only to be decisively derailed in the 20th century by World War I and World War II. In the aftermath, skepticism reigned:
Postmodernism was the age of skepticism, of deconstruction, of epistemic humility (how can we know anything, really?), of the resurgence of tradition (if we can’t transcend our standpoints, perhaps we should better embrace our traditioned forms of knowledge?), and of the heightening of awareness of those society has left on the margins. Technology was no longer seen as neutral and its use in the service of global capitalism was deeply noticed.
Postmodernism undermined grand narratives and utopian schemes, subverted canonical authorities, and promoted a kind of epistemological laissez faire in which “Truth” was reduced to communally shared “language games”:
Postmodernity was “incredulity toward the meta-narrative,” and this incredulity, or radical skepticism, would effect the emergence of discrete, distinct communities each with a shared “language game,” a way of seeing the world which only that community could access. Globalism still deeply affected all these communities, but postmodernity marked the end of its positive features.
It’s easy to mock the postmodern turn and to ignore its fundamental intent: not so much to undermine “Truth” but to promote a tolerance and openness towards diverse “truths” and to carve out a space for difference. As Roberts explains:
But, theoretically at least, this kind of postmodernity (or postmodernism) was largely benign. Why? Because these communities, these groups organized around shared language games, were still largely governed by a sense of humility. They had their truth, their morality, their values, their nation, their politics, their god. But who was to say that theirs was better than yours? Or that yours was better than theirs? Let us live our lives, believe and practice our religion, and have our morality: you can have yours. Let’s agree to disagree.
In case you hadn’t noticed, the tone of American public discourse these days is not exactly “let’s agree to disagree”. “Those days are over,” Roberts says; “The lid of gentility has come off, 'Politically Correct' is going out of style in many quarters (with a childish, racist, vengeance, in some cases), and the universality of globalism…is being challenged by an intensified nationalism, an angry tribalism/localism, and an open disregard for the well-being of anyone outside 'my' group, or my language-game.”
At its best, postmodernism was about “a deep toleration for difference and otherness.” What seems to be replacing it in our politics is "an intensified, angry rejection of difference and otherness and the attempt to overcome the problem of difference, not by rational argument or toleration, but by the sheer exertion of power, by the politics of fear, and by a polemics steeped in rhetoric but devoid of substance."
Postmodernism rejected globalism in favor of particular communities, but that has given way to sheer xenophobia. According to Roberts:
Post-postmodernism is tribalism to the extreme and with gloves off. It might just be the ultimate extension or intensification of post-modernism. It’s postmodern to the extent that it accepts the reality of difference and the reality of tribalism, “language-games,” and unique standpoints (unlike modernism, it doesn’t seek to transcend those boundaries). But it is post-postmodern in it is not chastened by epistemic humility, but hardened by certainty. In the post-postmodern mood, there may be a recognition that we don’t have the Absolute Truth, but that doesn’t make any difference, because we don’t care. It doesn’t change the way we relate to others; it doesn’t change the way we understand our place in the world. It isn’t chastened by difference and otherness, but angered by it. It isn’t motivated by peace, but by war.
No longer “chastened by difference and otherness” (much less inspired by it) “but angered by it”: do you think Kyle Roberts has his finger on the pulse of one of our political parties?