The Modern Age is considered to have begun with the Enlightenment, when medieval religion’s oppressive grip on the human mind was relinquished, and reason was set free. The real crux of modernism is the belief that we can know and understand the universe by applying objective reason to the material world. The knowledge we obtain by this method, called ‘science’, is Truth. Reason is assumed to be the highest form of mental functioning and is therefore the proper judge of what is True, and consequently it is also the proper judge of what is Good (ethics) and what is Beautiful (aesthetics).
This point of view persists today as the prevalent way of thinking. On the positive side, it has led to magnificent achievements in medicine, technology, industry, agriculture, aeronautics, and communications, to name but a few. On the negative side, it has led to pollution of the environment, weaponry that threatens total annihilation, mindless consumerism, and an empty sense that life on earth is nothing but an insignificant fluke.
Although much of the scientific worldview of modernism has been abandoned by recent relativistic and quantum science, it remains deeply ingrained in our psyches and continues to affect all aspects of our daily lives. For instance, our fascination with taking things apart, examining and classifying the pieces, and not carefully considering how to put them back together, applies to our relationships with family and community just as much as to the objects of laboratory study. This way of thinking leads to the fragmentation of our social lives, especially today when technological advancements enable us to leave our homes and roots at a moment’s notice and resettle in distant parts of the planet by the end of the day, maintaining superficial relationships through phone lines and computers. Thus the coherence of community decays.
Not that freeing oneself from the confines of a stifling environment is a bad thing, or that the pursuit of individual freedom and personal growth is a bad thing. But there is a vital distinction that is often missed between genuine positive freedom and the unsalvageable destruction of meaningful human connections. An inner spiritual state of detachment enables conscious love, but a self-absorbed emotional detachment from other human beings merely causes alienation, not freedom, and is just a sign of the inability to sustain love, commitment, or responsibility. The flowing-process image that describes material objects in a laboratory applies equally well to people in a society: we are connected to each other in a web of mutuality in space and time, and cannot separate from each other any more than a bit of matter can separate from time, space, or its environment. When community no longer nourishes, and it becomes necessary to break communal links, new human relations must be established. Personal freedom grows when the individual is nourished, sustained, and supported by love, when idiosyncrasies are cherished, and communication is warm and plentiful. But freedom corrodes and perishes in the anonymity of standardized mechanical mass culture, where conformity masquerades as equality, and we are free to make whatever life choices we wish to make but have no healthy criteria for making them.
The movement called ‘Postmodernism’ began as a reaction against Modernism, brought about by disenchantment with classical science and rationalism, and the kind of civilization that these things have wrought. Postmodernism took its cue from the scientific dilemma regarding subjectivity and objectivity: the classical assumption that it is possible to conduct a purely objective examination of matter, had been shown to be untenable. This raised the question of whether external reality even exists, or whether it is only an image constructed by a subjective mind. The postmodern answer is that it really does not matter, since it accepts without question that our perceptions are all we can know of reality anyway. This interpretation means in turn 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. (Since science can no longer be explained as a search for truth about reality – there being no such thing- but is only a matter of personal opinion, the only kind of knowledge that can possibly be of any genuine use is simple, functional ‘data’. Here is the perfect philosophy for the computer age: if it isn’t data that can be put into a computer, it isn’t ‘real’ knowledge. The opposite of knowledge is no longer ignorance; the opposite of knowledge is “noise” – something that is unrecognizable by the machines.)
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. Modernist artists often recognized the tragic emptiness that the worldview of positivistic science had spawned, and sought in their art to provide some sense of meaning and comfort. Postmodern artists see exactly the same emptiness, but they do not call it tragic. They are satisfied with the meaninglessness and eager to make the best of it.
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 dualisms return with a vengeance, 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 – but in this case, instead of atomic particles, 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, exposed as nothing more substantial than a handful of ugly, dangerous and politically incorrect motives. And like scientific reductionism, once something has been deconstructed it most probably can not 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, merely concluding that ‘truth’ must be relative and subjective – and having wiped out everything that had guided their students’ lives and given them meaning, they 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.
As always, our human possibilities seem severely limited because there is no appreciation of levels. In modernism’s objective material world, only one level of existence was recognized. In postmodernism’s subjective flowing-process world, everything yet again remains on that same solitary level. Postmodern philosophers took up the challenge when contemporary science began questioning our fundamental assumptions about objectivity, perception, and reason. But rather than acknowledging the shortcomings of reason and then searching for something higher, they merely maintained that nothing is higher, that there is nothing worth longing for. They shrank before the threshold.
Plato knew that Eros could lead us through this threshold and beyond the limitations of our utilitarian reason. But Eros has fled, just as the ancient story of ‘Eros and Psyche’ has told us.