Shrinkwrapped has an excellent article on postmodernism, a movement which, I’ve found, is priased by those who think it’s nothing more than fallibilism (the idea that absolute certainty is impossible), is imbibed and imitated with little understanding by many a gullible student, and which exerts a pernicious influence on our culture at large (including, sadly, our political culture) yet sounds preposterous when stated clearly. I’ve sometimes explained it to my students as the opposition to four theses of the enlightenment:
- Truth: There are truths that are absolute, independently of any individual mind, and thus universal.
- Knowledge: It is possible to have objective knowledge of some of them.
- Reason: Reason is the best way to achieve and justify such knowledge.
- Progress: Acting rationally in response to objective knowledge improves our chances of achieving our aims.
Postmodernism replaces these with:
- Relativism: No truths are absolute; “truths” are social constructions depending especially on race, class, gender, and generally power-status.
- Skepticism: Objective knowledge is impossible. (Postmodernism is “The theory of rejecting theories.”—Tony Cliff.)
- Logocentrism: Reason is a tool by means of which certain empowered groups retain their hegemony, oppressing other groups; the emotions and experiences of such groups are to be valued over rational argument. (“Postmodernism is incredulity towards metanarratives.”—Jean-Francois Lyotard)
- Liberation: We must fight oppression by exposing the categories and meta-narratives by which the empowered retain hegemony, valuing instead authenticity. (Postmodernism is “The sense that the past is restricting, smothering, blackmailing us.”—Umberto Eco)
In my experience, even students sympathetic with relativism and skepticism balk at logocentrism, and for good reason: the rejection of truth, knowledge, and rationality divorces discourse from reality altogether.
That brings us to Barack Obama, our first postmodern President, who persistently says one thing and does another– calling our level of debt unsustainable while quadrupling the deficit and denouncing Bush administration terror policies as criminal while continuing them, for example– while frequently spouting utter nonsense with utmost seriousness. (“Medicare is going bankrupt within 7 years… but converting the entire health care system to something like Medicare will put us on a firm financial footing!”) I’ve had trouble knowing what to say in response to these kinds of statements. They’re obviously absurd. Does it even matter? Or has postmodernism swept through our culture to such an extent that a majority of the American people don’t notice or don’t care?
UPDATE: Here’s Part II.