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What Is Postmodernism?

[Illustration by Carl Olson]

How do you have a constructive conversation with a PoMo? Is it possible to argue with someone who doubts there is any objective truth? Or who thinks that language lacks meaning? Or who sees philosophy as a kind of game? Or who doesn’t believe in individual identity? These are the kinds of beliefs that we associate with postmodernism, which makes any attempt at evangelization seem daunting. But an examination of the origins of postmodernism and some of its major thinkers will lead to some concrete suggestions for how to engage their ideas.

When looking at the postmodern philosophers, it is important to understand that they are usually not putting forward systematic philosophies. What they do is make observations that are true—and even profound—in a particular context. But these same observations can be dangerous and false if they are universalized. The difficulty is that no matter how forcefully a particular philosopher makes this point, the human tendency to derive universals is fairly invincible. For example:

  • Michel Foucault’s idea of social construction becomes social constructivism—the former is an observation about the way in which certain kinds of ideas come to be accepted as true, the latter is a philosophy which claims that all truth is a product of culture.
  • Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction, a tool for examining texts and discourses, becomes deconstructivism, the endless unraveling of cultural artifacts until they are entirely emptied of meaning.

Each of these philosophies is founded on important observations about the nature of knowledge, culture, and human life in the present age. But an important observation becomes severely problematic if it is turned into an overarching explanation of everything. The ideas themselves, therefore, must be examined and evaluated in context. In this way, Catholic apologists can understand their appeal and effectively dialogue with those who have incorporated postmodern ideas into their worldviews.

It’s Not a Movement

The most common mistake made by those who wish to understand postmodernism is the assumption that it is a philosophical movement, something like English empiricism or French existentialism. Such movements tend to have a unifying set of doctrines, presumptions, axioms, or methodologies that distinguish them, and it’s possible to argue with them. Postmodernism is not like that. It is more like a philosophical period—like the Renaissance or classical Greece—in that it includes a number of different thinkers with divergent, often contradictory, viewpoints.

Postmodernism should be distinguished from postmodernity, which is the condition of people and societies living in the world since the end of World War II. Postmodernity may include almost anything that is typical of this culture and not of earlier Western culture: the reign of the television almighty, the influence of narcotics on the arts, the dehumanizing mechanisms of late capitalism, the psycho-pharmaceutical management of human emotion, the rejection of the traditional family, an increased toleration and respect for marginalized peoples, a widening of commercial forms of global oppression, etc.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, refers to a trend either in philosophy or in the arts. Strictly speaking, the only thing that postmodernists necessarily have in common is the belief that the modern  period is at an end, exhausted, decadent, dead, or dying. This is somewhat confused by the fact that modernism itself has several different meanings. When it is used by the art world, it means the  period after the Impressionists and before Andy Warhol. In Church documents, modernism is a series of heresies, mostly concerned with the “scientific” exegesis of Scripture. In philosophical circles, it usually means the period following the Enlightenment; postmodernists, however, use it to refer to “the Enlightenment project,” a philosophical and cultural undertaking that began sometime in the late 17th or early 18th century.

Modernism thus understood begins roughly with Rene Descartes and his Cartesian method of doubt. It is an attempt to build up a new kind of knowledge and a new society based on that knowledge. Revelation and authority fell into disrepute as sources of real knowledge, and were replaced by reason and scientific observation. A progressive, democratic, and egalitarian society was proposed, and the faith of mankind slowly shifted away from God and towards scientific technologies and the accomplishments of the human intellect. 

Postmodernism is a critique of modernism. What unifies postmodern thinkers is a belief that the modern project has, in some sense, failed. Some believe that modernism is fundamentally untenable;  others would argue that it is deeply flawed but that some good can be salvaged from the wreckage; and others see it as a basically noble ideal that has run its course and is now increasingly irrelevant.  Most postmodern philosophy is concerned with dissecting modernism in order to understand what it was, why it failed, and what is going to happen in its aftermath.

Masters of Suspicion

Pope John Paul II, in his Theology of the Body, refers to three “masters of suspicion” who might be taken as the paradigmatic model for the problems with modernist thought: Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich  Nietzsche. Each of these thinkers produced what postmodernist Jean-Francois Lyotard dubbed a metanarrative: a totalizing story that seeks to explain all human history and behavior, and which claims to be supported by objective data. John Paul identifies each of these narratives of suspicion with a different aspect of “the threefold concupiscence” outlined in the first letter of John:

  • Freud explained human life according to the concupiscence of the flesh: Everything comes down to lust and the fear of death.
  • Marx reduced human activity to economics, the “lust of the eyes.”
  • Nietzsche sought to replace morality with the “will to power,” what John would call the “pride of life.”

All three reduced humanity to a single dimension and then tried to use that dimension to account for the whole. This was not only done by those who thought humanity was fundamentally lustful, greedy, or power-hungry. Other Enlightenment thinkers used the higher faculties of humanity as their jumping-off point. Immanuel Kant, for example, thought that human beings were essentially “rational agents,” so he tried to come up with moral, religious, and philosophical systems based on “pure reason.” This rationalist anthropology became the cornerstone of much scientistic thought, inscribing on the heart of the Enlightenment man the dream of a future in which all human activity would be governed by rational, scientific principles.

The greatest of the Enlightenment metanarratives, however, was the narrative of Enlightenment itself, the narrative that everyone encounters in highschool science classes: Humanity moves from a state of ignorant superstition to one of scientific progress and general development. Hegel’s idea of inevitable historical progress, Bacon’s dreams of the New Atlantis, and the optimistic attitude of the  revolutionaries as they set out to found new states based on the Enlightenment ideals of “liberty, fraternity, and equality” or “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” are all prime examples of the metanarrative of Enlightenment.

Exploding the Enlightenment

The end of World War I brought about, in many ways, a renewed faith in the modern project. “The war to end war” was seen as the end of the monarchical regime. Science, progress, new forms of economics, and popular rule were finally going to reign over human affairs. Whether in the Marxist ideals of the October Revolution, the collapse of the colonial powers, or the rise of America as a major world power, there was a feeling that a brave new world was rising from the ashes of the Great War.

World War II exploded this hope. Popular sovereignty did not guarantee the peaceful exercise of rational self-interest, and scientific development was not commensurate with moral advancement. Author Kurt Vonnegut summed up the postmodern attitude towards the promise of scientific utopia in his 1970 address to Bennington College:
I thought scientists were going to find out exactly how everything worked, and then make it work better. I fully expected that by the time I was 21, some scientist, maybe my brother, would have taken a color photograph of God Almighty—and sold it to Popular Mechanics magazine. Scientific truth was going to make us so happy and comfortable. What actually happened when I was 21 was that we dropped scientific truth on Hiroshima.

Postmodernism is the philosophy that sprang up in the shadow of this war, out of the disillusionment and disappointment of modernism. It is also the philosophy of the first generations to grow up seeing the world on television. Postmodernism is defined, to a large degree, by the realization that humanity is capable of destroying itself and by the bewildering overload of the information age.

Now, let’s look at a few of the major postmodern thinkers.

Michel Foucault

Foucault’s philosophy was born out of his experience with the mental hospitals and prisons of the early-to-mid-20th century. What he saw was the well-meant scientific management of the human person
at its worst: a situation he fought to change. He is clear in insisting that he is not a philosopher and should be more accurately described as a cultural theorist. His ideas are primarily concerned with the ways in which power, surveillance, cultural ideals, and institutions play on the human person—not only on behavior, but also on the interior life. He points out that when science attempts to categorize and observe the individual, it creates institutions that deeply alter human behavior: The prisoner described by a criminologist does not behave in prison the way that he would behave in ordinary life; the child that is observed during an examination is a kind of child produced by the school.

Foucault points out that societies create ideas about what is normal and that individuals internalize these ideas. People will try to conform to cultural standards, and will negatively judge those who do not or cannot. Those who legitimately fall outside of the boundaries of the normal become demonized, pathologized, or criminalized. This includes people in poverty, people of other cultural traditions, people
with conditions like autism or Down syndrome, and so on. Foucault offers a detailed anatomy of this problem, showing the minute ways in which those who enjoy power and privilege seek to manage those who do not.

Jacques Derrida

Deconstruction is less a philosophy than a methodology. It is a means of taking philosophical ideas apart to discover their hidden assumptions, profound contradictions, and problematic relations with each other. It draws attention to the context in which ideas arise, and the role that language plays in shaping them. Derrida does not actually reject the meaningfulness of language or the value of truth, but he sees them as unattainable ideals. He is deeply conscious of the divide between the words as they exist on a page and the intended meaning of their author. Deconstruction, used properly, is a tool for trying to get behind the words, to tease out the meanings that are encoded in, and often obscured by, language and context. It is also a tool for taking apart broken philosophies to find out why they broke, and how. In so far as deconstructionists are involved  in building up new philosophy, it is usually by taking sound pieces out of failed ideas and trying to build with them—rather like building a car out of parts salvaged from wrecks.

Deconstruction is particularly useful, and perhaps even necessary, in a world where discourse is increasingly fractured along cultural and sub-cultural lines. The ability to compare ideas when they are
expressed in very different idioms, and to build up working philosophies using parts from many sources, would seem to make sense in the age of global information.

Jean Baudrillard

One of the most conspicuous traits of postmodern culture is the concern with the superficial. Andy Warhol’s famous paintings, which are almost entirely concerned with the meaning(lessness?) of surface meanings, are iconic for a good reason. Baudrillard is deeply concerned with this problem, and with the ways in which our culture creates and interacts with simulacra and simulations. He defines a simulacrum as “a copy without an original.” Simulation goes through four phases: First there is a real thing; second, there is a copy, or simulation of the thing that somehow bolsters its reality and
makes it more real; third, there is a simulation that calls the original into question. Finally, there is the simulacrum, which has nothing to do with the real thing but somehow replaces it. For example:

1. God: he who is, as he is in himself.
2. The Byzantine icon, which points towards the reality of God and makes him seem more real to the worshiper.
3. The Sunday-school God, a caricature which causes people to doubt whether God really exists.
4. A fuzzy feeling in the heart that has nothing really to do with God, but which is identified as God, and worshiped as God, even by people who don’t believe in a real God at all.

Baudrillard points out that our culture is increasingly made up of simulacra, that through television and other forms of media, we are drawn into a sort of epistemological free-fall in which what is real is
totally eroded by a simulation: a situation in which people see their “virtual” lives and the things that they see on TV as more real than reality.

Jean-Francois Lyotard

Lyotard is primarily known for his idea of the metanarrative. He points out that in the information age, people are exposed to an ever-widening diversity of stories or narratives, and that the growth of computer technologies, communications media, and so forth leads necessarily to a fracturing of over-arching cultural narratives (such as Christianity) and ideologies (such as communism). He uses Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea of “language games” to explain how particular rules and conventions govern the way knowledge and truth are understood in different contexts. He is
particularly concerned that dominant groups tend to force the conventions of their language game on those with less cultural power. To fight that, he calls for a focus on petit histoires, small or local narratives, particularly the narratives of those who have traditionally been marginalized or ignored.

Lyotard observes how knowledge and information become a means of exercising power—particularly in a computerized society where knowledge is, more often than not, being marketed as a product and disseminated globally. Scientific “truth,” in this context, is turned into a market commodity: Studies may “prove,” for example, that Crest really whitens your teeth better than the other leading brand, or that Nestle baby formula is safer than breast milk. In the case of large claims, like the population-explosion narrative, “truth” is manufactured in a way that not only serves the interests of the powerful,
but justifies the dehumanization and destruction of the poor.

Common Concerns

Although self-professed postmodernists are few, postmodern ideas have gained traction because they attempt to address the very conditions that most concern thoughtful people today. Indeed, much of the work of evangelization is in pointing out the challenges and injustices of contemporary society that the postmodern philosophers address. The difference, of course, is that the Church has divine answers. 

But those answers won’t be heard if they are not presented in the right language, and with respect for the concerns of the postmoderns. As we know, most people today are suspicious of absolute truth
claims—not because they are stupid, but because they hear the most absurd absolute statements blurted at them all the time from television and billboards. (“Wherever there is fun, there’s always  Coca-Cola,” e.g.) It is difficult to underestimate the sort of defensive irony that this cultural climate engenders.

People are also skittish about anything that looks like intellectual force or fanaticism. The postmodern person is familiar with the terrible violence that has been inflicted in the name of ideology, and fears that any strong belief may lead to mass graves and gulags.

In evangelism, there are therefore a couple of principles to keep in mind:

  • Explore, explain, discuss, and share rather than argue. The dialectic method is suspect, and people often become hostile and dismissive if they perceive you as “forcing” your beliefs on them. Present the faith in such a way that it becomes an intriguing and appealing possibility.
  • Offer alternate perspectives. If someone has a problem with an element of the Catholic faith, find a fresh way to present the teaching so that it makes sense to them. Instead of telling them that they’re wrong, give them a glimpse of the way that you understand and live that teaching as a meaningful and coherent ideal.
  • Take offense—obliquely. The Catholic faith is often subject to suspicion, dismissiveness, and even contempt that would be intolerable if applied to any other group. Correct this gently. Say, “I know a lot of people think (x) about Catholics, but I find that’s a stereotypical view that marginalizes the Catholic experience and infantalizes Catholic belief.” Remember that most people absorb insulting ideas about the Church unintentionally and that they don’t mean to offend.
  • Learn to speak postmodern. In a culture that is increasingly fractured into subcultures, language is an important method of branding oneself and placing others. For example, if someone says that “We need to value the contributions of the economically disadvantaged, persons of alternate ability, those who are marginalized, and persons of non-dominant ethnicities, in order to celebrate their voices,” this will alienate an audience of conservative Christians. But if instead we say that we need to preserve the dignity of the poor, the lame, the downtrodden, and the foreigner, we would agree wholeheartedly. The same is true in reverse: If you use distinctly Catholic language you will alienate a postmodern audience.“Become all things to all men”; don’t insist on using the language that feels good to you; be aware that when you are speaking, it is for the sake of the other.
  • Lead gently. Don’t try to press the “hard sayings” on someone who is not yet invested in the faith. Christ himself did not make the big claims to his casual listeners, but to those who already  considered themselves disciples.


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