Wednesday, June 01, 2011


The following post is an essay I wrote on Postmodernism in 2001

Singularly Askew: "It was an incomprehensible interlacing of bars and tubes, oddly awry, heeling over into the black shadows as if to elude our scrutiny" (From an early version of H. G. Wells' "The Time Machine")

The following contains some of my thoughts and reflections on the subject of postmodernism. The contents are not a summarised compilation of the enormous amount of data on this subject, but really represent some back of the envelope theorizing as I search for the kind of underlying, unifying, simplifying and universal principles that are anathema to extreme postmodernism itself. Theorising is a risky business, especially with something like postmodernism which, with its tolerance of contradiction, fragmentary discourses, irrationality, schizophrenic analyses, and extreme pragmatism, affects to defy all categories by its very definition. Postmodern philosophers dislike any attempt to categorise their philosophy and may be highly evasive about just what they believe, and, in fact, may prefer to be thought of as believing nothing at all.

The Rational Cosmos
                I am a great believer in the inherent grand rationality of our world, a rationality that makes that world comprehensible and controllable, thus providing the foundation for all forms of rational philosophy, mathematics, high science, and technology. It is with a certain amount of affection that I look back to the time when these things started to take a firm root in Western Civilisation. Although there are precursors, it is the period called the "enlightenment", (roughly the 18th Century) which is usually regarded as the time when Western Civilisation started to exploit the deeply rooted cosmic order for all it was worth, giving extra impetus to commercial and industrial growth. Since then mathematics, science, and technology have burgeoned to become the hallmarks of modernism and the fuel of industrialisation and there seems to have been no looking back. Or has there? Nerds and techno freaks might feel at home and in control with science and technology but not everyone does. For many, especially the postmodernists, the apparently grandiose and obliging truths of mathematics and rigorous science are intimidating and may even be regarded as an oppressive form of chauvinistic intellectual imperialism. As a professor of humanities has remarked: "Humbled by the mathematical language of science, I become speechless and relapse into my tribal dialect ...." (*1)

A Long history of disaffection
                It seems to be a historical fact that Western culture goes through periodic times of crisis in confidence, times when doubts about the trappings of modernism and where it is going start to advance like the glaciers of the ice ages. Although separated by relatively warmer "interglacials", periods of disenchantment, like the glaciers themselves, may never disappear completely. These fluctuations in our cultural weather system can be traced throughout modern times; in fact crises of confidence seem to surface even during the enlightenment itself. Moreover, since the 18th century one could draw attention to various historical waypoints in support of a theory of waxing and waning confidence. I won't describe them in any detail here but merely name them: Nietzsch's nihilism, the collapse in confidence at the end of the nineteenth century, the "Dada" art coming out of World War 1, the extreme anthropocentrism of existentialism, relativism, gnosticism, and so-called postmodernism. In many of these cases one can hear the same echoes: A self undermining scepticism, a disaffection with high rationality and the powers that be, a turning to mysticism, irrationalism, and anthropocentrism, an emphasis on the "inner voice", a glorification of juvenility and sometimes insanity. One could characterise these things as a complex cluster of symptoms caused by a kind of recurring social nervous break down of varying severity.

When did it start?
                In one sense it may true to say that "postmodernism" is better called "paramodernism" as it seems to be a manifestation of a concomitant of modernism; a disaffection with the latter that waxes and wanes and perhaps never disappears completely. Postmodernism may, in fact, really be an emerging into consciousness, (through popularisation and commodification) of things that have been there on and off for a long time; a new manifestation of an old problem. However, I suppose that postmodernism slowly emerged as a philosophy with a name and conscious identity from about the sixties and seventies onward as various academics and intellectual commentators, like Focault, Lyotard, Derrida, Buadrillard (these are the names that hit you first - definitely a French connection there) articulated and crystallised its key ideas. The central paradox presented by postmodern intellectuals is that they are theorists who have generated a grand and general theory asserting that one cannot annunciate grand and general theories!  In so doing they have done what they do best, namely, contradict themselves. But contradiction is precisely what extreme postmodernism affects to live with. One commentator remarks on two postmodern analysts (Deleuze and Guattari) for whom the schizophrenic in their "scheme of things becomes some kind of ideal model of human behaviour"(*2). Insanity is a recurring theme in extreme postmodernist expressions. I find it difficult to answer the question as to whether philosophical postmodernism grew out of more general “postmodern” social trends or whether it helped fuel those trends; most likely some sort of feedback relation couples them and the two probably go hand in hand.  One thing to note however; postmodernism is not pandemic; many people, especially those who have large stakes in the technocratic complex, are quite happy with the enlightenment paradigm, thank you very much.

What is Postmodernism?
                Academics may have given it name and an identity but it is impossible to catalogue all the cultural vernacular that goes under the heading of postmodernism in folk philosophy, much of which is a mere hint and flavour of the postmodern ethos, and often amount to benign stylistic renditions of a more extreme philosophy. The core ideas of philosophical postmodernism seem to revolve around the belief that one can no longer believe in all-embracing theoretical generalisations (or "grand narratives" as some postmodern intellectuals call it), so typical of modernism, whether it is in connection with morality, politics, theology, sociology or science etc.  For the postmodernist the cosmos is too complex, irrational and hostile a place to allow itself to be encapsulated into a few succinct universal principles amenable to human understanding. In contrast the postmodern concept of truth is thoroughly pragmatic and the breath taking theoretical vistas sought for by the "enlightenment project" are replaced with fragmentary disposable ideas that one can hold as long as they are useful or desirable. Thus, hard postmodernism is deeply suspicious of anything thing that has pretensions of being an over arching timeless truth and the universality of the majestic Christian message would certainly fall into this category. Side by side with the loss of belief in a deeply rational cosmos is the demise of any optimistic utopian vision or a belief in incremental historical progress - surely no surprise as both require control and control requires a benign and deeply rational world; the hard postmodernist believes in neither, and probably has a deep seated guilt complex about the whole notion of control; may be because in our world it is here that things have so often gone wrong; a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and the steward so easily becomes the control freak in search of hegemony. The postmodernist, therefore, has little faith in the authorities.
                How these core philosophical ideas of postmodernism relate to the wider social nexus is debatable and it is at this point one could spend years studying the subject. There is a postmodern take on everything, whether it is science, literature, theatre or art etc., and there is claim and counter claim as to what ranks as "postmodern". Tracing all the connections, associations and allusions requires an expert. Typical of the postmodern mindset is the attitude to "simulation". Postmodernism blurs the distinction between reality and the "simulations" of the media (e.g. films, stories, computer games etc.). In fact the postmodernist Buadrillard claimed that the Gulf war, (a war we saw through the lens of target cameras, thus making it resemble a computer game), was a simulation. This was really a provocative way of saying that the media is so pervasive and real that its products now constitute a reality in their own right. There is grain of truth here: We see so much of our world through the media that distinguishing between simulation and reality can be difficult. For example, some people claim the moon landings were simulations. The televised O. J. Simpson case became its media representation.  For many who saw the televised attack on the World Trade Centre the immediate impact was of something as unreal as a science fiction film. In postmodernism appearances count for a lot and any effort to get round the superficial interfaces of our world to a deeper, universal and obliging logic is not taken seriously. Appearances don't deceive the hard postmodernist because he believes there is no deeper meaning to be deceived about. For the postmodernist meaning is subjective and everyone lives in their own private world of meaning unable to fully communicate; least of all with language because its ambiguities allow each to interpret it differently. And the postmodernist is unlikely to have much regard for "high tech" theoretical tools like probability, randomness, information theory, association networks etc. which help address the paradoxes of communication and language.
                Postmodern cultural products tend to focus on the irrational, the chaotic, the inconsistent, the bizarre, the nihilistic, the retrograde, the bleak or the hostile. If you see buildings mixing and matching a variety of clashing architectural styles (sometimes called pastiches) then you are probably looking at a postmodern design. Media productions and writings that jumble styles, time and space, allow fact to intrude upon fiction and vice versa, are also postmodern as are productions where performance and reality are mixed (e.g. the Jerry Springer show). Films that otherwise accept the logical rationality of our world but which have a bleak moral and social outlook (e.g. Terminator, and Alien) are also postmodern; gone is the idea that evolution, social and biological, is a progressive process in favour of humanity. Postmodernism also has a fascination with "self referencing" scenarios; e.g. a person plays himself in media productions; to what extent does his "real" persona become the role he plays and should he feed that back into the role? i.e. should he play himself playing himself ? The postmodernist is fascinated with such logical conundrums because they seem (superficially) to transcend all logical analysis, reinforcing his faith in an unknowable confused world resistant to human understanding, a world of shear appearance where simulation and reality blend together into a depthless world that Baudrillard calls the "hyper reality".
                Like other philosophies the general ethos of postmodernism is imbibed and exhaled by the populace and makes itself felt in a drift toward a variety of preferences, attitudes and styles. In particular, postmodern minds are receptive to consumerism, mixing and matching, transience, hyper reality, and a disconnected hotchpotch of ideas and perceptions. But the hard postmodernism of the philosophers must be distinguished from "soft" postmodernism; the term "postmodern" has been mobilised as a kind of catch-all category describing the general trends of the social milieu including anything which seems to capture the mood of postmodernism. e.g. brainstorming, fuzzy logic, eclecticism, chaos theory, proliferation of choice, quantum mechanics, theories of historical retrogression etc, etc, all of which really amount to a sophistication of concept or method but which do not strictly fall outside the rational paradigm. The term is also used rather loosely to label any movement in society that expunges some of the crass optimism of modernism, and modernist assumptions of an incremental progressive historical drift. In fact, the prefix "post" is often used when the preliminary "hype" that may greet new and modern ideas gives way to sobriety and reality: For example, with the demise of the "dot coms" one might say that we are now in a "" period. In fact I have heard claims we are now passing into a "post-postmodern" period. That's no surprise to me; postmodernism has not only been "bandwagoned" and hyped, but it also suffers from the very ills it diagnoses and has logical limits on how far it can be developed.
                Whilst one must always be aware of the operation of social feedback loops much of the immediate responsibility for the philosophical state of our society is down to its intellectual leaders who through sins of omission fail to give a lead or through sins of commission lead in the wrong direction. Those who control the media are usually influenced by the philosophies of the day, and they in turn may be found supplying the fragments of postmodern texts and narratives by which the average person can dress and justify a life style of extreme pragmatism, individualism and a world of private meaning. But hard postmodernism has one last devastating message: With its thorough going scepticism of any deep rationality or benevolence in order to things, postmodernism leaves humanity wide open to the ultimate dissolution of the personality; for it must even question whether we are mistaken about the very concept of individuality and personal identity. Hard postmodern is so deeply logically flawed and cognitively unstable that its whole structure slips and slides toward a chaotic metamorphosis as it undermines even its own implication of individualism and the distinction between the sane and the insane is then ultimately lost.

The Causes
                On the causes of Western postmodernism the following are probably relevant:

1) Big anonymous machine like societies committed to investment and growth leading to communal fragmentation, and heartless change. Inequalities and exploitation. Many high and unfilled expectations. Demystification of authority.
2) The own goals of hi-tech society: Ecological stress. Control freak approach to the environment (probably a sign of insecurity). Warfare on an industrial scale. Nuclear energy gave us fear in the form of the bomb but never generated the promised "too cheap to meter" energy etc, etc.
3) A deep alienation from the highly analytical approach of science and technology. Science has revealed things difficult to make anthropic sense of: Cosmic history. The spectre of machine intelligence and alien life forms. Cosmic sizes. Atomism. A paradoxical blend of randomness and determinism. An exclusively "emergent paradigm" that disregards context, contingency and providence.
4) Physics, the science of fundamentals, is passing into a very abstruse and difficult stage, barely understood even by its intelligentsia, thus helping to consolidate the notion of an incomprehensible cosmos.
5) Science and technology has a relatively high proportion of nerds and techno freaks. That these social inadequates have one over on the rest of the population is often more than the socially competent can bear.
6) There are profound and unanswered questions over goals, purpose and meaning that the "emergent paradigm" of contemporary folk philosophy cannot address, and indeed may regard as meaningless.
7) Counter Reactions: A strong affirmation of the exclusively human: e.g. emotion, irrationality, sensuality. Affirmations of otherness: gnosticism, new age, “cargo” cults. Clutching at any hints of the supernatural. Alternative versions of history (e.g. Atlantis), medicine, and science.
8) Scepticism is a healthy enlightenment attitude in as far as it is an urge to test, demonstrate and prove, but if pressed too far it is like a digestive system that in its lust for food starts to digest itself.

                No doubt much could be made of these lines of inquiry and more. However, once alienation and disaffection sets in, for whatever reason, there seems to be no philosophical backstop to halt it. By way of illustration there is one theme above (8) that I would like to pick up briefly.

The 2001 Syndrome
                Ever since enlightenment times questions have been raised about how, without God, we have any right at all to expect a secure authoritative foundation to epistemology and ontology ( = know-how) whether it be in connection with science, social order or morality: Without God as underwriter, why should we be favoured with know-how beyond what is immediate, pragmatic and needed for short term survival? Attempts to place human know-how on a firm footing without the assumption of a Divine underwriter often resemble that famous self referencing problem we see when a dog chases its own tail. One might chase up the foundations of human know-how in order to secure its place in the museum of human achievement, but the cognitive and epistemic mechanisms doing the chasing are the very things being chased. If man seeks to secure a logically self-sufficient agnostic foundation to epistemology and ontology such a target may be unreachable because the very foundation sought for must be secured with that self same foundation. To the thoroughgoing scepticism of extreme postmodernism this is further evidence that there is no absolute foundation at all; a conclusion that is itself contradictory. The fact is that there will always be inherent instabilities and deep contradictions in human cognition whilst it affects to adopt a thoroughgoing scepticism either about its own make-up or of the world of which it is part. Those contradictions may remain hidden for a while but from time to time will resurface in recurring crises of confidence.
                To me, extreme postmodernism smacks of machines gone wrong; human machines stuck in a vicious self-referencing feedback loop: 2001 with its pathological HAL9000 has arrived. One might construe this as the just deserts for the abuse of providence by a self-congratulatory modernism that credits its socio-technological successes to anything but providence. As the proud "control freakery" of modernism seeks to put the foundations of human affairs on a Godless base it soon finds there is no such base and runs into self-referencing problems. Loss of faith in the deeply coherent structure of cosmic rationality may be a consequence. To the extreme postmodernist life is a simulation, an interface that can change as quickly and irrationally as the TV screen of the channel surfer. The perception is that the players and entities in this skin deep world have bit parts with no extensive background history or story that can be exhaustively tested and probed. But to me exactly the opposite is true; our world has the touch and feel of reality precisely because its coherent, consistent and replete rationality cannot be faulted by any test known to man. As such it can be likened to the kind of machine intelligence proposed by Alan Turing; that is, as a player that performs flawlessly and rationally under all conceivable probes, interrogations and tests (*3). Likewise, the players in our world whether they be sentient or material are not fakes, facades and bit parts; they do not have a mere "appearance of history" but have full blown life stories; they are not mere interfaces but have real mechanisms behind the facade.  Thus, in every sense they go beyond appearance. Any self-conscious being knows what I mean.
                If postmodernism serves any useful purpose at all it may do so as a vehicle for raising questions where there should be questions and sometimes one gets the feeling that the term “postmodernism” is used simply to refer to “modernism with humility”. But we must not forget that the kernel of philosophical postmodernism is its contradictory "antifoundational" philosophy and this antifoundationalism becomes apparent in the evasive shifting answers postmodernists give as to what they believe because to do so is to admit some kind of absolute foundation. Scepticism in measure is healthy; after all it was good old-fashioned enlightenment scepticism that brought me to faith. But the absolute scepticism of extreme postmodernism ultimately destroys itself in an unstable feedback loop.

It is fundamental to human nature to attempt to understand the world of which it is part. Even postmodernism comes to its own perverse, nihilistic and anarchistic conclusions. However, one cannot take for granted that the complexities of the Cosmos can be encapsulated in relatively few simple principles. Encapsulation of human know-how is a kind of data compression and this can happen only if, firstly, there is something about cosmic data allowing it to be so compressed, and, secondly, there are the cognitive resources available to compress it. But in a graceless world neither contingency need be granted. The giveness of these contingencies is dependent on the grace of providence and we can only exploit them if we are willing to accept that grace.

                                                                                                                                                                T.V. Reeves November 2001
*1 See reference 2, page xi
*2 See reference 1, page 7
*3 Alan Turing, Bletchley Park computer pioneer, suggested that the condition for true machine intelligence would be fulfilled if a machine can converse at an indistinguishably human level. Without commenting on the sufficiency on Turing`s condition, it serves as a useful illustration of what is meant by "in depth rationality"; that is, as something which can never be revealed as a facade by all the conceivable the tests and probes available to finite beings.
1. The Icon critical dictionary of Postmodern Thought: Editor Stuart Sim. Icon 1998
                A compilation of essays on the cultural effects of postmodernism. Includes a useful index of terms.
2. The Enlightenment. Norman Hampson: Penguin 1976
                Records and analyses some less well known aspects of the enlightenment.            
3. Introduction to H.G Wells' Time machine: Jonathan Benison, Cideb 1994.
                Benison cites the "irrationalism of  the Decadent era of the 1890s"
4. At the Edge of History/Passages about Earth: William Irwin Thompson. Lindisfarne press 1990
                An eloquent critical appraisal of technocratic society.
5. How to know you know you know it.  Knotes by T.V.Reeves 1993. Unpublished
                A short study on "self reference" in human knowledge.
(See here for the latter reference

1 comment:

Timothy V Reeves said...

Relevant links: