Problems with postmodernism

I recently criticized the so-called “emerging church” for its emphasis on postmodernism as one of its ecclesial starting-points. A few days later, James K. A. Smith—well-known for his work on postmodernism, philosophy, and theology—began a series on how “pentecostal spirituality is a uniquely postmodern expression of Christian faith.” The first post begins with the following words:
Beyond the epistemological emphasis which recognizes the fundamental role that faith and "control beliefs" play in knowing, postmodernism also has a more holistic understanding of the human person. Rather than reducing the human person to a disembodied thinking mind, postmodernism revalues embodiment, and in so doing it offers an account of knowing that revalues what, in the philosophical tradition, has often been referred to as the "heart." In other words, the "seat" or core of the human person is not identified with cognition or the mind, but rather with the affections and the heart. What most defines the human person is not what she thinks, but what she desires, what she loves. Thus it is no coincidence that one of the most formative influences on Martin Heidegger—who came to be one of the most dominant influences for what would come to be "postmodernism"—was the work of Blaise Pascal, who was himself retrieving a vision of knowing first articulated by Saint Augustine. As Pascal famously put it, "the heart has reasons of which Reason knows nothing."
This paragraph is indicative of why I find talk about postmodernism so exasperating: it quickly proves to be a vacuous term which reifies a conglomerate of ideas that has nothing to do with any particular period of time. Critics of postmodernism have noted in the past how postmodern enthusiasts are quite willing to define “postmodernism” in a non-historical way. As a result, that which goes by the name “postmodern” is no longer something which temporally follows “modernity.” Instead, “postmodern” becomes a label for ideas or notions which counter what we have defined as “modernity,” which is another way of saying that “postmodern” describes whatever we like over against that which we don’t like.

The problem I have just identified is readily apparent in Smith’s opening paragraph. “Postmodern” is here identified with whatever challenges the Aristotelian anthropology of mind/reason over body/desire. Already, in this first post by Smith, we have Augustine of Hippo, Blaise Pascal, Martin Heidegger, and pentecostalism all located within the ever-widening reach of “postmodernism.” But this only serves to undermine the utility of a term like “postmodernism.” If the word can describe anything which exhibits traces of ideas that we happen to like today—ideas like “embodiment,” “affections,” “perspectivalism”—then “postmodernism” simply becomes a cipher representing a conglomerate of things which we approve of, but which have no necessary placement in this present period of time. So Pascal or Charles Finney become representatives of the “postmodern,” even though they precede figures like Charles Hodge, one of the archetypal figures of modern Enlightenment Christianity.

This ahistorical “cherry-picking” eventually leads “postmodernists” to identify whatever they like about the Bible with postmodernity. For example, the “Song of Songs” becomes a favorite text of postmodern theorists, because of its emphasis on embodiment and sexuality. Pre-modern church fathers and mothers who challenge the philosophical tradition are treated like postmodernists, hence the almost entirely uncritical love of the medieval mystics. And since “Song of Songs” and the mystics are often on the margins of scholarship, we see postmodern theorists maundering at length about how the traditional canon of texts is representative of an oppresive, sexist, Enlightenment regime of orthodoxy that needs to be overthrown so that we can achieve true Christian liberty (toss in a verse or two from Paul to validate the point being made).

Of course, I am being hyperbolic and cynical, but there is a serious point I am trying to make: viz., that those who speak so fawningly of postmodernism undermine their own project by locating “the postmodern” in any time and place where they find something that appeals to them. People like Brian McClaren and others in the “emerging church” like to identify the start of “postmodernity” with the 21st millennium (McClaren even has a chart which identifies the year 2000 with the start of the “postmodern world”). But the same people will then appropriate a person like Augustine or Pascal as a postmodern. Are there ways of making sense of this? Sort of. One can say that there were hints of postmodernity throughout history, but that only now has this perspective become dominant. The problem is that the evidence for the growing dominance of modernism is just as available (see below). And if the term “postmodern” has no grounding in history, then it simply becomes an arbitrary description of whatever we dislike about what we call “modernity.” Even our understanding of “modernity” is manufactured, just as the postmodern understanding of pre-modernity is manufactured.

My point is that postmodernism is really just a symptom of modern Western ahistoricism. It has nothing to do with any actual break with modernism. On the contrary, it arises from our forgetfulness and/or fearfulness of the past: we are fearful of things we think we understand but often don’t, and we are forgetful of the things about the past which we might like or dislike that would disrupt our oversimplified characterization of history. There is certainly much more to be said about the phenomenon of postmodernity, but these are just some brief reflections on the quote from Smith.

I said above that I would discuss ways in which modernity is clearly still with us. What follows is a selection from an email that I wrote on this issue, following the rule: when in doubt, always quote yourself!
The issue of postmodernity is complex. Several years ago I was infatuated with it. My thoughts changed dramatically when almost every aspect of what I thought characterized the “postmodern condition” was either greatly lessened in its significance or wiped away altogether. What does it really mean to be “post” or “after” modernity? The classic definition of postmodernism as a rejection of metanarratives (i.e., the universal, transcendental norms of Enlightenment rationality) sounds intelligent, but it’s an illusion. We are seeing the rise of new metanarratives all the time in place of the old. The clearest examples are globalization and late capitalism, which Hardt and Negri identify as the new form of empire in the world today. Empire is often viewed as a mark of modernity, but it’s still with us today.

There are other metanarratives as well. The “new atheists” (Dawkins & co.) use evolutionism (to be distinguished from evolution) and other ideologies that claim to have universal explanatory power. The list goes on and on. Certainly, there are shifts in, say, architecture (where the term postmodern was first coined) and certain literary styles. But the differences are slight shifts within an overarching framework of modernism; there is no clear break by any means.

Moreover, in theology, the continuity with modernity is even more apparent. The central issue raised by modern theologians — Schleiermacher is the highest example, of course — is the doctrine of God. In the late medieval era, it was ecclesiology-sacramentology and soteriology. (We could keep going back in time and identify the key issues, but that’s not important right now.) In the modern era, the being of God is the question under discussion. What do we see in the era of “postmodernity”? The doctrine of God. See the debates over the impassibility of God, for example, or the debate over open theism in evangelical circles. The point is: the doctrine which characterizes the debates of modernity remains the doctrine characteristic of our present time.

But if all that remains unconvincing, I think we find the most solid cultural sign of modernism in the fact that our culture has become more scientistic, not less. Scientism is the ideology of the scientific Enlightenment, the notion that modern science will provide the answers to our problems. Postmodern theorists heralded the end of the Enlightenment hegemony. But we see just the opposite. Take, for example, the “new atheists,” like Richard Dawkins. This group of people turn to modern Enlightenment science to reject God; theirs is simply the outworking of the atheistic ideas that began in the scientific revolution. Or take the Intelligent Design camp. Here we have a movement which seeks to claim validity on the basis of Enlightenment standards. They are seeking the legitimacy of modernity. Or take the culture’s almost unlimited hope in science to solve all the world’s problems, from energy to cancer to replacement organs to genetic mutations. Our culture, more than ever, sees the scientist as the hope for humanity. If there was ever a more convincing sign of our culture being solidly modern, it would be the modern religion of scientism.


Drew said…
"the postmodern worldview"

I have read a lot of theory that has either been labeled "postmodern" (e.g. Derrida, Foucault) or is unabashedly postmodern (e.g. Baudrillard). I am not convinced there is anything such as a postmodern worldview. I think it has become a construct in order for people to differentiate themselves from any social structures that maintain a set of non-negotiable truths that are exocentric and immutable (e.g. a set of assumptions that we can very generally characterize as modern).

What sounds like a postmodern view is, I think with Habermas, a thread of self-critical reflection that is a cornerstone of modernism. What emergents call postmodern is in fact a practice ot taking a few ideas here and there and finding ways to apply them (non-hierarchical worship for one).

But the continual idea of postmodernism comes out as being rather anemic becuase it has no real means to re-structure reality. Deconstruction is good for a critical method, but in the end it does nothing to rebuild anything. This is the practical problem in any postmodern theorizing that I have written on quite a bit in the past.

In my judgment, the emergent language tends to look at postmodernism as a form of ambiguity. Hence, McLaren, Jones and others use almost intentionally evasive language that refuses to stand in convicted claims about reality. This is why I think both critical theory and pragmatism, which are both thoroghly modern - including Rorty - are correctives and means to make any postmodern discourse actually work.

You can read my critique of exactly this issue here:
IndieFaith said…
Though I am not advocating our present predicament as 'postmodern' I do think it is okay to acknowledge the crises experienced in art (representation), literature (meaning), theology (historical criticism), and even science (instability of place) that emerged in the twentieth century. These disciplines needed to wade in chaos for a time and did emerge somewhat differently, often rediscovering older narratives. However, on the cynical side western capitalism and science has largely rolled on unhindered by these experiences. In many ways creating a new epoch was just another market creation.
I am not greatly troubled by an increasingly ahistorical use of 'postmodernism'. I always simply looking for good work. I suppose what does concern me is the way this movement, perhaps expressed in the EC proliferates 'new' expressions of theology and church that do not any longer have a grasp on the contributions of the 'modern' period but are only used to tell the story of postomdernism.
Danny Houck said…
Hey David,

I don't think anyone wants to call Augustine postmodern per se; Smith (I think) would affirm that Augustine is a premodern. He sees certain premodern thinkers as anticipating (to some degree) certain developments in postmodern thought; e.g. Augustine's beliefs on rightly ordered loves are, in some ways, parallel to Heidegger's insight that the human being is, "essentially," being-in-the-world. Augustine's anticipation of this insight does not mean he was postmodern; everyone knows that Augustine prioritized soul over body in ways Heidegger found unacceptable. Arguably Heidegger himself wasn't a postmodern, though I have no idea what Smith would say about that.

My point is, Smith and others who see postmodern philosophical insights anticipated in earlier thinkers aren't committed to (and usually don't, in my experience) labeling such thinkers postmodern, and hence aren't committed to dehistoricizing the movement.

At this point I think it's important to distinguish postmodernism from postmodernity. The former is often (and I think should) be used to refer to the intellectual movement of postmodernism, which is identifiable, though of course not easily or neatly. Postmodernity is/could/I think should be used to refer to the broader issues related to our "postmodern age." In the latter sense, I agree with you. More or less, "we" are still moderns. But that does not mean that there is no intellectual movement called postmodernism which is characterized by a rejection of some central modern claims, e.g. the rejection of metanarratives founded on universal reason, strong epistemological foundationalism, mind/body dualism, and the like. It's not a tidy picture, to be sure, but it has nothing to do with whether new atheists are still going around championing metanarratives, or if theologians are focusing on the doctrine of God.
J*Rob said…
You seem to have the resources to answer your own question within your post. Augustine and Pascal are inspirations to but are not among the postmodern because postmodernism is so reactively defined by modernism -- Augustine managed to influence Aquinas and the Reformers without himself being a Thomist or Protestant, after all.

The hermeneutic of suspicion and the (attempted) breaking down of so many dualisms are certainly characteristic of "postmodernism;" so "postmodernism" for you post may just be this class of reactions against modernism. It hasn't really escaped modernism, of course -- after all, YouTube is quite "postmodern" but involves nothing like an embodied anthropology -- but that's why "modernism" still appears as the suffix in the name.

But I think what you're really getting at is that "postmodernism" doesn't have a new worldview that replaces those of modernism, and that's true as far as I can see. I don't think we've yet been able to break out of the world of, say, Kant.

Peace to you.
Anonymous said…
While I would agree with Danny over how Smith isn't trying to dehistoricize 'post-modernity' I do see a valuable insight in your post. Interestingly enough, I think an analogous situation (the difference might outweigh the similarity though) might be present in America's definition of terrorism in the 'war on terror'. The fact that the semantic-range of terrorism has come to include such disparate organizations as Palestine Liberation Front, HAMAS, Continuity Irish Republican Army, and Shining Path points to this. These organizations come from very different geo-political, economic, and social realities; yet they are all included in the ever expanding definition of terrorism. Hence, this might be another case of a word being emptied of its meaning due to a particular 'social imagination's' desire to impregnate it with whatever it hates.