Postmodernism and Deconstructionism

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‘Postmodernism’ is a reaction against Modernism, brought about by disenchantment with classical science and rationalism, and the kind of civilization that these things have wrought. Postmodernism accepts without question that our perceptions are all we can know of reality. This means that only subjectivity has any actual significance for us, since everything, from matters of taste to religious belief to scientific truth, can be nothing more than personal opinion. This being so, every opinion must be accorded equal respect, since each opinion is just as subjectively true as any other.

Thus, postmodernists have to maintain a strangely paradoxical absolute faith that nothing is absolute, and they have to be tolerant of anything and everything. Knowledge is demeaned, morality is belittled, and every notion, whether thoughtful or insane, is given equal credence. Relativism becomes postmodernism’s moral imperative, and this means that postmodernism, like relativism, is morally bankrupt and incoherent. The new twist, however, is that moral bankruptcy and incoherency are not problems anymore! They are just as good as anything else, and we might as well enjoy ourselves and revel in the absurdity.

Meanwhile, anyone who disagrees with this analysis, and continues to insist on the possibility that some things might be objectively true, is merely revealing their deep-seated sexist, aristocratic and racist motives. Everything thus becomes political for postmodernists, who are suspicious of anyone claiming to know anything, and intolerant (paradoxically enough) of anything claimed to be true for anyone other than the speaker, and possibly a very small, specific, local environment of listeners.

All civilizations, we are told, have been wrongly based on what postmodernists call ‘grand narratives’ – comprehensive theories and stories about reality that claim to be necessarily true, and that form the foundation of a society’s general beliefs and practices. Greek mythology, religion, modern science, stories about America’s Founding Fathers, are all examples of grand narratives. Postmodernism is a critique of grand narratives, attacking them as being essentially nothing more than festering sexism, racism, and exploitation, full of contradictions, inconsistencies, and lies.

One interesting consequence has been the rise of fundamentalism as a kind of resistance to the questioning of the grand narratives of religion, and the rise of conservatism as a resistance to the questioning of the grand narratives of politics – hence the two movements become bedfellows in their common distaste for postmodernism. On the other hand, the postmodernist willingness to accept anyone’s opinion attracts many radicals and liberals. Thus, the arguments get more heated and more vicious, and the rifts just widen even more.

Closely related to and intertwined with postmodernism is the cultural critique called ‘deconstructionism’. Originally a method of literary criticism, deconstructionism has been expanded into a strategy for analyzing and interpreting science, philosophy, religion, history, politics, art, and ultimately all aspects of contemporary cultural life. Resembling the reductive method of science, it consists of breaking things down into fundamental elements that are considered more ‘real’ than the whole – in this case, the fundamental elements turn out to be psychological motives. By analyzing language, deconstructionists strive to uncover and expose the hidden ideological biases that reveal what the author’s words ‘really’ mean. Any claim that a work of art expresses something noble, true or meaningful, is easily discredited by the analysis of sexist, racist, ethnic, and other base motivations that are unearthed by applying the method. Only small specific details can be accepted as valid, since there are always deceptive political, cultural, or economic assumptions lurking behind any suggestion of a big general truth. Details which the author does not include are particularly subject to suspicion: any use of such words as “all men believe”, for instance, does not include “all men and women believe”, and since this clearly indicates sexist inclinations any possible value in the words that follow must automatically be precluded.

Thus the spirit of truth and reason is denied, and our horizons get narrower and narrower. Everything once considered beautiful, meaningful and sublime, whether in art, philosophy or politics, is now subject to being deconstructed and debunked, scientifically reduced into scattered fragments of negative personality traits, deception and bad faith, merely a handful of ugly, dangerous and politically incorrect motives. And like scientific reductionism, once something has been deconstructed it most probably cannot be put back together again.

The lazy wish to remain ignorant and apathetic is given the stamp of approval by this phenomenon, since what poets and thinkers actually say or intend is of no importance. If Shakespeare had had the benefits of modern therapy and postmodern philosophy, he would never have had to write Macbeth, so why bother reading it?
In the end, very little is left:

* The only things that are real are subjectivity and personal opinion;

* The only things that are important are functionality and personal comfort;

* The only things that are honest and genuine are our base motivations.

There is no recourse, so we might as well enjoy the absurdity. At least modernism held out the hope that science would create a better world. Postmodernists view that as hopelessly naïve nonsense.

The great irony is that all this postmodern analysis and psychological cynicism is just an elaborate and pretentious recurrence of ancient Greek sophistry. The Sophists were philosophic teachers who taught that there is no such thing as absolute truth, but only subjective truths that hold for a given person at a given time. Like Socrates, they sought to liberate young minds from uncritical assumptions (they did this by using rhetorical skills to demonstrate that for any rational argument there is always an equally skillful rational counter-argument.) But unlike Socrates, they stopped here, concluded that ‘truth’ must be relative and subjective, and having wiped out everything that had guided their students’ lives, simply left them empty.

Socrates, on the other hand, showed his young followers that by dropping their unfounded assumptions about what is true, they arrived at the beginning of their quest for knowledge. Postmodernists, like the sophists, are already finished. Spiritual emptiness and intellectual collapse are the end of the road. Just add a little modern self-centeredness and a hefty dose of political correctness, and ancient Greek sophistry becomes postmodernism.