In my rants here I’ve been throwing around the words “modern” and “postmodern”, and I’d like to set forth what I mean by that highly general, and thus potentially quite useful distinction.
In my view, the essential difference between the modern and the postmodern is that modernity is the purported cultural progress in architecture, painting, music, mass media, and philosophy, resulting from the Scientific Revolution, while postmodernity is the cultural disarray resulting from the depletion of the fuel needed for that progress. The fuel in question is faith in what postmodernists call the modern “master metanarrative” or myth, which I call Scientism. This myth presumes that society in general can progress just as well as can institutional science, that just as scientists discover how nature operates according to laws, we can discover the rules of how we ought to behave and we’re able to follow those rules and so progress towards a perfect union. In either case, the abilities needed for that progress are, first of all, Reason as opposed to tradition, authority, intuition, faith, or revelation, but also the scientistic virtues (or vices, depending on your viewpoint) that motivate the modern experiment. These virtues include intellectual curiosity; optimism about our cognitive potential, including our abilities to discover, comprehend, and digest the natural truths; and pride in the autonomy and dignity of hyper-rational scientists and their analogues in the other social spheres. In short, modernism, the set of ideas implicit in the cultural phenomenon of modernity, is equivalent to secular humanism, to the ideology that reason, freewill, and sentience render us godlike, equipping us with the potential not just for omniscience through scientific methods, but for happiness and prosperity.
The so-called New World of North America, colonized by Europeans, became the testing ground for the modern hypothesis that social progress is possible by liberally employing reason in all walks of life, without hindrance from tradition or special interests. In particular, the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence enshrined the values of secular humanism. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the stated or implicit rights of people in a capitalistic, democratic society. Those three values are maintained, first, by using relatively unrestricted science to produce lesser goods as demanded by an equally unrestricted marketplace, that is, by a population that’s allowed to develop its own desires instead of having them controlled by a powerful institution like the Church; and second, by relying on the wisdom of rational, free citizens to hold the reigns of political power through elections of political representatives.
Theoretically, then, the Western success in using technoscience to raise the standard of living with machines (robots or armies of human labourers) that mass produce goods to satisfy basic needs and whims alike, should be cause for celebrating the modern metanarrative. What’s become apparent, instead, is that modern history is greater cause for mourning. Scientism, in the sense of faith in social progress through hyper-rationality (the application of reason throughout society at the expense of nonrational sources of beliefs), is widely regarded as bankrupt. This is because the promised progress has either not materialized or been revealed as a charade. Far from dignifying people in a modern society, capitalism and democracy degrade the majority, both at home and abroad. Democracy and capitalism are vulnerable to hijacking from “special interests” that replace the Catholic Church’s feudal autocrats. These modern oligarchs are the wealthiest managers and bankers who use technoscience to consolidate their power, including public relations to demagogue the masses, supercomputers to manipulate the stock market, and scientifically-managed political campaigns to ensure that only Serious, centrist politicians, friendly to the permanent oligarchy, are nominated or elected.
In the British industrial revolution, material goods were produced by virtual slaves under horrendous conditions, reestablishing a class of miserable labourers to service the elites’ decadence. (Something similar is presently happening in capitalist China.) After the New Deal and WWII, the American middle class was created, raising the standard of living for most Americans. But the free market required the exporting of American manufacturing jobs to third world peoples who live in relative squalor, so that once again “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” depended on a gross power inequality between consumers and producers. The cheaper the goods produced, the more profit for owners of the means of production and the cheaper the price for consumers; but the wealthier the consumers, the greater their pride and thus the less content they are actually to get their hands dirty and work hard to produce their luxuries.
Of course, the Great Depression, the World Wars, and the many genocides of the last century helped to disabuse modern folks of the scientistic myth of progress. One of the natural truths discovered by scientists and engineers is the means to create the nuclear bomb. This weapon of mass destruction ended WWII but also threatens us with Armageddon, with the final war. Whether we can accommodate that particular piece of scientific knowledge depends on whether we’re smart and noble enough to manage nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, as cognitive scientists have investigated human nature itself, we’ve learned that we’re not nearly as rational, free, or as conscious as modernists boast in their humanistic myths. For the most part, we’re deluded, easily manipulated animals whose capacities for reason, freedom, and consciousness are islands floating on seas of biases and fallacies, of biochemical and physical processes that determine our behaviour, and of unconscious, modular neural programs.
And so we arrive at the postmodern malaise, at the disenchantment, cynicism, apathy, and nihilism that follow from the collapse of the justifications for the modern project. To be sure, modern infrastructures, including the institutions of science, democracy, and capitalism remain intact. What’s collapsed is people’s confidence in the utopian benefits of those institutions. Modernists are hyper-rational whereas postmodernists are hyper-skeptical, meaning that modernism presupposes the excellence of reason and of the secular humanistic character, whereas the postmodernist doesn’t take those valuations for granted, but systematically “deconstructs” all metanarratives so that, through her, Reason destroys itself and the Promethean hero. For example, the philosopher David Hume pointed out that no one perceives a unified self through ordinary introspection; instead, we perceive a not-so-godlike bundle of associated thoughts and feelings. And Nietzsche called attention to the will to power that lies behind pretenses to pure rationality. More recently, academic postmodernists reject all manner of authority by cynically reducing the epistemic value of any statement to an expression of some personal quality of the speaker. For example, the pragmatist Richard Rorty maintained that instead of pretending to be objective seekers of absolute truth, we should admit that ideological differences are based on nothing more than feelings of social solidarity.
One of the defining characteristics of postmodernism, then, is endless self-consciousness: a postmodernist has no religious faith, takes nothing for granted, and so is preoccupied with “unmasking” other people’s delusions and underhanded stratagems for acquiring power, and with proving that she herself is innocent of such sins. Always on guard against hoodwinking with a myth that merely masks the speaker’s crude personal agenda, the academic postmodernist speaks in concentric circles of qualifications and apologies, taking back with one hand what’s offered with the other so that nothing is left but noise and the stench of condescension. And thus, more broadly, postmodern culture is filled with self-referential phenomena like The Simpsons and the Scream movies; what Jay Rosen calls savvy journalism that pretends to be neutral and objective; the postmodern novel that eschews character and plot as modern devices for reinforcing faith in absolute knowledge of a pre-established order; the postmodern painting or sculpture which is celebrated not for its beauty but for its demonstration of the artist’s impudence; and disposable postmodern pop music which consumers prefer to steal on the internet, because of its worthlessness.
Ironically, then, postmodernism brings to fruition the modern exploration of the self. When the Church lost its control over European thought, as medieval merchants acquired economic power and Renaissance ideals took hold, making way for the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, the Europeans’ cognitive capacities were further unleashed in the Enlightenment. Modernism is largely the celebration of that growing freedom of thought. Modern painters, for example, created abstract works to experiment with the artistic media, traversing the range of our possible modes of expression. The more closely we look at ourselves, though, without the blinders of religious dogmas, the more unsettled we are by the disparity between what we wish we were, according to premodern or modern myths, and what we actually are. In the postmodern period, we look at ourselves and see not dignified, rational, godlike beings, but enslaved, selfish, largely irrational dupes or alienated cynics.
As to what I personally take from postmodernism, I agree that modern metanarratives have run their course. However, I reject postmodern nihilism and fatalism, and the contention that no conceivable myth is suitable or necessary to live an elevated life. (See Nietzsche.) In fact, true nihilism is probably impossible for any human being, since we’re hardwired to resolve our disparate experiences with a coherent worldview, which requires the engagement with philosophy; to express our emotions in a normative distinction between what we regard as sacred or profane; and to justify that distinction even in the inevitable absence of sufficient reason, taking a leap of faith. The most general stories we tell to rationalize those human practices are myths. As Nietzsche and Joseph Campbell said, the difficulty is creating, in effect, a suitable postmodern myth, a myth that enchants even after science disenchanted the world.
Granted, as I say in my rant on scientism, following Erik Davis’ thesis in Techgnosis, David Noble’s The Religion of Technology, and other works, we should expect that the scientific disenchantment of nature is only superficial. So-called postmodern secular culture has its religious aspects, but the myth that best captures the postmodern zeitgeist is as yet unclear to me. What I mean is that identifying just what we authentically believe, deep down, in our postmodern culture, about ourselves and our place in the universe, is exceedingly difficult. There are still plenty of vestigial modern or premodern myths (philosophies of life) which must be discarded as irrelevant. Moreover, many unknowing postmodernists and victims of efficient public relations campaigns are beholden to mere memes, delusions, or propaganda, which don’t rise to the level of myths. Certainly, there’s no shortage of postmodern philosophy, but much of this philosophy is pretentious posturing and gamesmanship, gibberish, or dreadful prose poetry that doesn’t come to grips with the modern inheritance that surely mustn’t be abandoned, which is modern science’s accumulation of empirical knowledge.