When I was a student in the 1970s and 1980s, postmodernity and Critical Theory were still cool. Soon, however, they became conventional—at least in the academy. But now? Now they’re significant to everybody, because they’re everywhere.
A column this short cannot possibly do academic justice to such interesting and paradoxical phenomena. But since pundits from Jordan Peterson to Tim Keller are offering their takes on these complex matters, readers of this column might yet profit from a short glossary of terms. Over the next three weeks I’ll define postmodernity, critical theory and cultural Marxism, and critical race theory. And in the fourth week of this little series, I’ll offer a few reflections on what these cultural currents mean for the typical reader.
The “post-“ in “postmodernity” means simply “what comes after the modern.” What comes after the modern, it turns out, is both much more of the same (hence the term hypermodernity) and something completely different (hence the term postmodernity).
So what is the “modern” after which comes postmodernity?
The postmodern experience differs from the modern experience—the culture experienced by the West since the seventeenth century or so and now by much of the rest of the world—in two main respects: fragmentation and doubt. Let’s compare those two qualities with modern differentiation and confidence.
Sociologists give us the term differentiation, the process by which various social sectors and roles become progressively distinct and separate from each other in modernity. Family life, education, health care, politics, recreation, religion—all become separate spheres with their own values, their own objectives, and usually even their own buildings, uniforms, and jargons.
A modern person gets out of bed in his pyjamas on a Monday morning and quickly changes into different clothes to exercise at the nearby gym. After a workout, breakfast, and a shower, he changes his appearance again and goes to a different place to work. After work, he likely changes his look once more to go out with friends for drinks and dinner. And then he changes clothes again to participate in a Bible study, or attend a support group, or assist a local charity. Once home, he changes once more (notice the way we easily use the word “changes”) to be with his domestic partner(s).
Modern people feel the strain of playing all these different roles in all these different places according to all these different values. The concern of the gym for physical fitness is absurd in the workplace, where what matters is financial productivity. Out for the evening, though, prioritizing bodily conditioning or fiscal advantage will quickly lose him friends and disrupt whatever leisure-time activity he is undertaking. And at home, he had better prioritize loving relationship.
Modern people, as I say, feel the strain of feeling pulled apart into these socially differentiated sectors. Postmodern people are, in this sense, hypermodern people: they experience all this social diversity, but they don’t feel the strain. They just are different people in different situations, flickering from one fragment of personality to another as the day goes on and their contexts and communities change, with no core identity and value-system other than maximizing what one has decided on one’s own is The Good Life.
The second key quality of the postmodern experience is doubt. Modern people enjoyed the confidence of steadily improving knowledge. We didn’t have all the answers yet, but our Big Explanations—of science, of history, of religion, of politics—were giving us a better and better handle on the world, a handle our technologies then used to make the world do what we wanted.
This confidence postmoderns have lost.
After a century of Big Stories told to justify this or that regime—whether the British Empire, or the Bolshevik Revolution, or Nazi nationalism, or American hegemony, or socialist utopia, or globalized capitalism—and after a century of propaganda and advertisement, scandal and disgrace, conspiracies and cartels, meltdowns and explosions, and a stream of broken promises, we’ve all had enough.
No longer do we trust anyone—anyone—who represents power to have our best interests at heart. We don’t trust politicians. We don’t trust CEOs. We don’t trust journalists, or clergy, or military leaders, or police officers. We don’t even trust physicians and scientists. Anyone might be bought. And systems serve themselves, not those they use and abuse.
Furthermore, let’s face it, we each see things from our own particular point of view. There is no neutral knowledge. We perceive the world according to what we understand to be our own interests and in accord with the outlook of our peer group of the moment (whether we’re at home, or at work, or at the club, or at church). That’s just life. Who can possibly know anything important for certain?
Postmoderns aren’t cynics or paranoiacs. They don’t believe that every single person is up to something nefarious. They don’t believe—as lots of Christian critics in particular say they believe—that there is no truth at all. What postmoderns have lost is the confidence that we can know that we know the truth. Instead, we have our suspicions that anyone who claims to know The Answer is about to rope us into a self-serving scheme.
So when a stranger comes calling and says, “Hi, there! I’ve got the Grand Account that will solve all problems!” the postmodern reflex is incredulity toward metanarratives (Lyotard)—which is to say, “You’ve got it all figured out and you want me to believe it? I doubt it.”
We are all postmoderns now. We all jump with suspicion when the doorbell rings or an unfamiliar name shows up on our cell phone display. We snort when a nicely dressed, smooth-talking character in a movie says, “I’m here to help you,” since we’re pretty sure he is the serial killer.
This fundamental fragmentation and doubt is the fog in which we now live our lives. And the postmodern architecture of our cities nicely articulates both these themes in jumbles of disparate styles arranged according to no overarching, universal aesthetic.
Next week, we’ll see how some smart Europeans almost a century ago took this doubt seriously in order to undermine the pretensions of the powerful and expose the real workings of power by which the privileged oppress the rest of us. Next week, that is, we’ll take a quick look at Critical Theory—and so-called Cultural Marxism.