In my ongoing effort to try to figure out why half the world has lost its collective mind, I read Postmodernism 101 by Heath White, and offer here a few thoughts about it.
Very readable, first of all, which is not so for many tomes purportedly about postmodernism. I attribute the usual lack of clarity to the subject matter, not the authors trying to make sense of it. White does well explaining the inexplicable; making logical what is illogical; bringing comprehension to the incomprehensible. He doesn’t start with individual philosophers like Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault, as many authors on this subject do. Instead, he distills basic ideas of postmodernism in general. It’s excellent as an introductory book. After this, reading specific postmodern philosophers will make much more sense.
You should also understand that he’s targeting a Christian audience, hence his subtitle A First Course for the Curious Christian. I recommend the book more broadly, however. In fact I would say it’s not so much directed to committed Christians, as to a culture with strong Christian antecedents. So in that sense, it’s a perfectly good introduction for atheists, too. In my view many atheists are atheists because they’re first postmoderns, but that doesn’t mean they have a grasp of the basic principles they take for true without realizing it.
White starts out with an idea about the place of postmodernism in the history of ideas, but I have to say he doesn’t stick with it. What I mean is that he starts out dividing history into pre-modern, modern, and postmodern, and does a convincing job of explaining why these fairly label major epochs in changing worldview. But then after the full introductory explanation of postmodernism as a worldview, he seems to hedge. “[P]ostmodernism itself may mutate. . . . [W]hat now look like minor traits of postmodernism may come to be major elements of it, and what now look like structural timbers of the postmodern worldview may evolve into optional accessories.” Still, White would continue to assert that postmodernism irrevocably changes the way people think of the world. “It is not likely to be a flash in the pan, since it has emerged in response to the shortcomings of modernism.”
I’ll describe here some useful points to associate with the different worldviews, but I have to note that the making of these points comes about as a result of what White would call a modernist worldview. That is to say, a postmodernist would hesitate to try to make these kinds of sweeping generalizations; his very worldview would prevent it. So in a sense, this is a modernist translation of a postmodernist point of view, and I would say the same about White’s book.
White associates the pre-modern worldview with the central idea of authority. The idea was that people looked to authoritative sources to form their beliefs on pretty much everything. It’s not that people looked to authority to help them decide what to think. Instead they wished to conform their thinking to authority. That’s the hold that authority had on their outlook on reality.
In the modern age, by contrast, reason was king. The modern age according to White would be from about 1600 forward, although any use of dates would be only very roughly suggestive, as White would acknowledge. He points to thinking shifts in the Renaissance and Enlightenment that are probably already familiar to you. He’s not necessarily talking about the radical “Age of Reason” outlook of the French Revolution, but rather the broader shift over time from authority to man’s own reason as the means of finding truth. White holds that this modern era continued until basically the turn of this (the 21st) century.
The postmodern age defaults not to authority nor reason, but to nothing. There is literally no thing which is the source of confidence and hope, for the postmodern. Authority has failed. Reason has failed. Neither can predict progress nor form a moral framework for culture. The overriding element of postmodernism, therefore, is skepticism. Postmodernists hold that power is the only real overriding element of culture. This would seem to point merely to rejection of any kind of touchstone like authority or reason, but in actuality (my view) it means the postmodernist implicitly invokes the power paradigm for himself, rather than external truth to which we are to navigate, as with the guides of authority and of reason.
This outlook is troubling for reasons postmodernists evidently don’t yet see. I now speak for myself, not White. White’s “optimistic” postmodern is a scary thing indeed. “A typical optimistic postmodern hopes to create enough universal agreement for people to get along through teaching people to care about one another.” (White’s emphasis). These postmodernists subscribe to constructivism, which says that basic questions cannot be resolved because truth is made, or “constructed,” rather than discovered. This seems an accurate characterization of postmodernism, to me, and it scares me to death. The goal is set before us (caring about one another) and truth-seeking through authority or reason is rejected as the means to get there. What’s left is the one thing postmoderns recognize as the arbiter of human relations: power. So postmoderns disregard truth in service to acquisition of power by constructing, rather than discovering, truth. This in service to their pre-conceived idea of what caring about one another ought to look like. This is self-evidently a roadmap to one and only one destination: totalitarian soul-erasing tyranny.
On the other hand, White describes the “pessimistic” postmodern viewpoint less ominously. Pessimistic postmoderns also reject authority and reason, but, thank God, reject also the optimistic postmodern “constructivist” project. The pessimistic version of postmodernism holds that the great questions of human life cannot be resolved at all. For them this may be merely resignation borne of lack of belief in anything. For the rest of us, however, it means hope that they won’t end up tearing down everything worthwhile about human life. Pessimistic postmoderns, according to White, may even consider the unresolvability of the question how to live to guarantee freedom. Unresolved differences may “ensure that we will never have anything masquerading as the One True Culture. There will always be unsuppressed differences among people.”
Let us pray that postmodernism tends more to the relatively benign pessimistic form. The “optimistic” and “progressive” form of postmodernism will make slaves of us all in the same way Marxism tries to do, but through a naked grab for power, without even Marxism’s pretense of truthiness.
“Truth is power,” say the postmoderns. Be wary.