Postmodernism is Dead

British writer Edward Docx, writing for the UK-based Prospect Magazine, has announced to the world, “Postmodernism is dead.” How does he know? He points to some time ago, when the Victoria and Albert Museum in London opened up its new exhibit: “Postmodernism—Style and Subversion 1970-1990.” Clearly if we have beginning and ending dates to a period it must be over. Right?

The main problem of course is that postmodernism itself is so stinking tricky to define. Docx does a great job weaving through the various artists, pop stars, philosophers and even architectural feats that define postmodernism.  In the end the essence of postmodernism is the confluence of all narratives. He says:

…[T]he notion of a single, overarching view of the world—a dominant narrative (or to use the jargon, meta-narrative)—vanishes. There is no single narrative, no privileged standpoint, no system or theory that overlays all others. Hence, Lyotard argued, all narratives exist together, side by side, with none dominating.

With the equalizing of all narratives, no narrative can outpace other narratives. This has been a blessing and a curse. It has allowed greater discourse from minority voices, empowering them to speak up and come to the civic table with their views. At the same time, it means there is no longer a standard and criteria of excellence. Who gets to say something is good or true or beautiful? With the equalizing of all narratives, we also get the inability to speak up against terrorism, injustice, and other ills of the world.

Making things more difficult is that with no meta-narratives, humans have to now construct their identities with not much more than basics of class, gender, religion, sexuality, and maybe some other bare situational criteria. Humans are not mysterious and special, but socio-constructed and therefore determined. Clearly this is not a good place to mediate in for long.

Ironically, the unintended consequence of postmodernism is that nothing else matters except the marketplace–money rules. The only way people judge meaning today is through the market. Artists used to ask, “What are you trying to say?” Now it is, “How many have you sold?” By removing all criteria of excellence, we are left with nothing but the market to rule us. The tyranny of the majority through the marketplace is the opposite of the liberating equality of all narratives. This is not what postmodernism intended, if anything.

So what is happening now? The internet may be a clue. Perhaps the most postmodern tool out there is cyberspace. Here is a place where every view is heard, every blog has an opinion, and every Facebook page speaks a story.  The internet completely relativizes all narratives. It would be a great place for social activism or even social revolution, but that isn’t what we find there. Instead, it is social media, Facebook, Twitter, Email, LinkedIn. The search for meaning, and relationship is everywhere on the internet. The world of postmodernism has birthed a new yearning for authenticity. Docx says,

We desire to be redeemed from the grossness of our consumption, the sham of attitudinizing, the teeming insecurities on which social networking sites were founded and now feed…If the problem for the postmodernist was that the modernist had been telling them what to do, then the problem for the present generation is the opposite: nobody has been telling us what to do.

It is no wonder that we yearn for authenticity. Working with college students in New York, the highest ideal I find is—Are you real? Do you tell it how it is? Perhaps this is the same reason why so many brands are now going green and sustainable. Seeing that consumers want authenticity, they will market ethics and good will.

Indeed we are past the age when relativizing all narratives seems to bring about the greatest good. Now we are asking, what narrative out there brings values and authenticity that will lead to human flourishing? When comparing the possible choices out there, the Christian narrative has more than a fighting chance.

Michael Keller

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2 responses to “Postmodernism is Dead

  1. Quite insightful, Michael! It is funny how the liberating ideal of postmodernism in the end contributes to the rule of the market as the rule of meaning, significance, and worth. Thank you for this analysis!

  2. We can be thankful the planets are so arranged in their courses to keep us alive that such absolute measurements and performances exist. The first postmodernists were Adam and Eve when they doubted the absolute command of God who gave them the freedom of the garden except for eating of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. They got their eyes opened – too late. If the creator allowed the creation to descend into chaos – it would soon be our extinction.

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