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What is Post-Modernism? (Part Two)

The world is not becoming meaningless; it is becoming so saturated with symbolism that meaning itself no longer means anything.

In my last article for Merion West I discussed what I called post-modernism as a philosophical position. This referred to the loosely affiliated theoretical positions of a variety of seminal intellectual figures. In particular, I discussed the philosophical work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who are often labeled the poster children of the vague “post-modern neo-Marxist” movement by critics who are above reading their opponents in a serious way. In my essay, I argued that post-modernism as a philosophical position is defined by skepticism towards claims that we can arrive at absolute certainty in our scientific, philosophical, and moral reasoning. This is largely because the language we reason with is not simply a neutral tool for gaining uninhibited access to the external world. Often times, the language we use is vague and open to indefinite interpretations. Post-modern philosophers attracted to these skeptical positions also wanted to account for why certain interpretations come to be socially-favored over others. This privileging often resulted in considerable social and personal costs, which had only recently been acknowledged.  For instance, Foucault draws our attention to the way pseudo-science has been used to justify slavery and economic exploitation of the “less” evolved. Derrida observed that our understanding of life is implicitly dependent on recognizing the inevitability of death, thereby blurring the line between the two. And so on.

Why the Shift to the Post-Modern Epoch?

“In contemporary society and culture – post-industrial society, postmodern culture – the question of the legitimation of knowledge is formulated in different terms.  The grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation.”

Jean Francois Lyotard, The Post-Modern Condition

In this article, I am going to conclude my introduction to post-modernism by summarizing the other major way to understand it. This is as an epoch in the history of developed societies: one characterized by specific material, socio-cultural, and communicative practices. Those who argued that post-modernism is an epoch in the history of developed societies often approach the subject in a very different way than its philosophical proponents. While they would often agree that ours is a more skeptical time, these thinkers were keen to analyze and then criticize the immense transformations that underpinned this shift. Perhaps inevitably, these thinkers who regard post-modernism as an epoch vary widely in their theoretical and political diagnoses.

Marxist critics like Frederic Jameson, David Harvey, and Mark Fisher lay the blame for the emergence of post-modern culture at the feet of “late capitalism” or “neoliberalism,” arguing that the penetration of capitalist market forces into our communal and personal lives has revolutionized the way we think and communicate with one another. For Frederic Jameson, post-modernism is a stage in late capitalism where we increasingly stop creating new artistic and cultural forms. Instead, we transform our own past and history into a pastiche of entertaining but often spectral commodities.  Take Indiana Jones. Ancient biblical tropes would be combined with imagery from the 1930’s filtered through the format of a 1950’s serial. Or consider the Avengers. Ancient Norse Gods would fight alongside Cold War era spies and super soldiers from the Second World War.

For David Harvey, neoliberal capitalism is always physically destroying the society around it to erect a new one in its place. Local businesses are torn down for strip malls, strip malls give way to shopping centers, and shopping centers give way to Amazon warehouses. This continuous transformation of the environment we live within is immensely destabilizing and is associated with consequent transformations in how we move about, communicate, and labor. Lastly, Mark Fisher argues that the end of history increasingly generated the sense that there was no real alternative to capitalist social systems. This, in turn, resulted in a growing cultural stagnation. Individuals increasingly realize there are no more great political, ideological, and spiritual battles to be fought. So we now endlessly recycled the past, creating pastiches out of the religious, literary, and political ideologies of York to provide some distraction from our frozen existence.

Conservative critics like Allan Bloom and Patrick Deneen have a different, more classical approach to understanding what I call post-modern culture. For Bloom, post-modern culture emerged as a consequence of social decadence. Universities increasingly turned from their mission to inculcate youth into the traditions of old. Instead, they now promote a vulgar identity politics in the humanities, which themselves are now continuously squeezed to send more students into the various STEM fields which uncritically propagated the cultural status quo while driving forward technological and economic innovations. This is coupled with a vulgar and banal entertainment industry, which produces unchallenging and easily digestible entertainment as a substitute for developing genuinely edifying art. This results in a declining sense of virtue and intellectual energy amongst the young.

Patrick Deneen’s account of post-modern culture is even more radical. He argues that the emergence of post-modern culture can be traced back to liberalism itself. Liberalism unleased an individualistic and self-interested culture where people focused so much on the pursuit of their individual needs and related private truths that they abandoned the connections to one another necessary to preserve a commitment to communal truths. Deneen’s argument is fascinating, and those interested in learning more are welcome to look at my overview of his seminal new book Why Liberalism Failed.

Another group of figures who discussed the advent of post-modern culture were media and communication theorists like Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard, and Neil Postman.  They followed the ever-prophetic Marshall McLuhan, who argued that we had long misunderstood technologies and media as little more than the tools we used in the pursuit of given ends. This was simply wrong-headed, as McLuhan understood that the tools we use eventually start using and shaping us.  

This interest in technology and new mediums was picked up by many media and communication theorists concerned with the emergence of post-modern culture.  For Guy Debord, “all that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” As modern technologies develop, we increasingly do not interact with one another on a one-on-one basis. Instead, we understand our communal lives in terms of symbols and imagery: news feeds which appear on television, Facebook memes fomenting political partisanship, Twitter rants by the President and so on. The result is an increasing inability to interact with other people, and with our community, in an authentic way. We also lose our ability to distinguish between symbols and reality.  Neil Postman made many of the same points. For Postman, our formerly literary culture was being replaced with one where most of the information we imbibed was received through mediums like television, radio, and of course, computers. This increased the volume of information we were capable of perceiving at any given moment, while often gutting it of substance. In our new post-modern culture, most citizens were exposed to so many sources of information, they were forced to compete with one another for attention and controversy. This had the result of eroding traditional mediums for transmitting information, like books and newspapers, which analyzed given topics at length and in depth. Instead, we were exposed to five-minute soundbites with the pretension of summarizing complex political positions, YouTube lectures summarizing “post-modern neo-Marxism” in the time it takes to get a coffee, and so on.

And finally, there is Jean Baudrillard, a writer of genius.  Baudrillard argued that our “hyper-real” era was increasingly defined by the rule of symbols. As we increasingly plugged into an ever greater number of new mediums, the division between the real and the unreal, the simulacra and the simulacrum, dissolved.  For people in many developed countries even war, the most paradigmatically “real” phenomena, increasingly became understood and interpreted through hyper-real simulated mediums. Consider the recent strike with the “the mother of all bombs”; annihilation presented as WWE style entertainment presided over by the Donald: the post-modern conservative President who made his name in reality television and whose image always threatens to overwhelm his abyssal reality. 

For Baudrillard, the result of these technological changes was our increasing transformation into well-connected automatons; informed on everything but interested in nothing, flat and “one-dimensional” beings concerned with ownage and spectacle over dialogue and reflection. The world is not becoming meaningless; it is becoming so saturated with symbolism that meaning itself no longer means anything. Substance had now finally given way to triumphant form. As Baudrillard put it:

Everywhere one seeks to produce meaning, to make the world signify, to render it visible. We are not, however, in danger of lacking meaning; quite the contrary, we are gorged with meaning and it is killing us.” 

The Shift from the Modern to the Post-Modern Epoch

Related Article:  A Brief Critique of Originalist Constitutional Histories

“What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo-scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me – into us – clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.”

Philip K Dick, A Scanner Darkly

Each of the thinkers discussed above had a different interpretation of why the post-modern epoch emerged. For the Marxists, it is primarily the dynamics of neoliberal capitalist society which are to blame. For many conservative critics, it is growing cultural decadence and the transformation of social institutions who traditionally inculcated virtue, such as universities and the artistic industries, into cheapened versions of themselves hawking paltry wares. And for many of the critics in media and communication studies, post-modern culture emerged as the result of profound technological transformations which have fundamentally changed the way we communicate and interact, often for the worse.  

I believe that we have much more to learn from those who regard post-modernism as an epoch than from those who offer post-modern philosophies. This is in part because post-modern culture is increasingly becoming an explicit topic of concern in the public sphere, and rightly so. With the emergence of post-modern conservatism as a major and vulgar political force, it becomes more necessary than ever to probe into the roots of our culture and how to abet its most dangerous tendencies. I will not conclude here by suggesting which of the approaches discussed above is most useful for these purposes. That would require a more elaborate argument that cannot be sustained in the confines of a relatively short essay. Instead, I will end this piece on a somewhat more aesthetic note than usual by trying to indicate when post-modernism first emerged within the public consciousness. This may give us a better sense of the true dimensions of the epoch.

It is difficult to pinpoint when the shift from modernism to post-modernism occurred. As I have already observed in the last article, the culture and politics of the late 19th and early 20th century were already marked by growing distrust of authority and increasing skepticism that human reason could lead us to anything like certainty.  The Great Depression and the Second World War were cataclysmic events that rights shook the faith of many developed societies, particularly the overweening hubris that they were destined to always enjoy not just a technological but a moral superiority over other cultures.  The paranoia of the Cold War and the prospect of nuclear annihilation, coupled with growing cynicism and disdain towards corrupt political figures like Joseph McCarthy, Charles De Gaulle, and Richard Nixon also played their role in fostering distrust and a sense of unreality.

But I speculate that the real moment post-modern culture became explicitly understood was with the publication of Phillip K. Dick’s 1959 novel Time Out of Joint. Dick’s protagonist Ragle Gumm believes he is living in an idyllic, if boring, American suburb in 1959. He later learns that the town is a simulated reality designed to prevent him from realizing the dark political truth that Ragle was living in the 1990s and that the earth was at war with colonists it had mistreated.  This seemingly pulpish science fiction story was amongst the first works to truly exhibit the features that would come to be associated with post-modern culture. Ragle seemingly living in a 1950s United States that was at the height of its affluence, stability, and traditionalism. But this world was a lie concealing the truth, and moreover a dark truth about the past that could only be denied by pretending it was not already the future.  And this is what characterizes the post-modern epoch: growing skepticism about everything around us masked by an unwillingness to realize that the seemingly stable world we think we live has already been dated and disposed of through immense processes of social, economic, and technological transformation.

Matt McManus recently completed his PhD in socio-legal studies at York University. He is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. Matt can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca.