Postmodernism was a broad movement that developed in the late 20th century and almost immediately began to dominate the intellectual, academic and artistic scenes, especially in Europe and the US.
As a philosophy, and a scholarly and artistic method, — postmodernism was highly critical of ‘metanarratives’ or methods of reaching holistic truths through science, empirical inquiry and readings of history mainly developed during the Age of Enlightenment and/or the Age of Reason in the 18th and 19th centuries. postmodernism is seen as an attack on modernism.
The emphasis on reason, science, democracy and the capitalist system during the era of Enlightenment is often seen as the main catalyst which propelled the Western world towards modernism, which is often explained as a mindset, attitude and a movement. Modernism looked at modifying and readjusting traditional modes of political, social, economic and theological beliefs in accordance with modern ideas of progress.
A critique of colonial modernism that has led to the romanticisation of irrationality, ghettoisation and the emergence of Donald Trump’s ‘post-truth’ age
In this context, modernism dominated Western politics and the arts across the 19th and much of the 20th century. It created powerful narratives to explain economic, social, military and political progress as the result of scientific advancements, free enterprise, individualism, secularism, and a linear reading of history, in which humans continuously evolved and modified their need to innovate and invent and thus dominate the planet and its resources.
Interestingly, both capitalism as well as socialism/communism were products of modernism, and so were the thriving Western democracies as well as modernist authoritarian regimes.
Historians see ‘postmodernism’ as initially being a project of leftist intellectuals who presented it as a critique against modernism in the 1960s. In their essay for the 1996 anthology Cultural Studies and Critical Pedagogies in Post-Modern Spaces, Colin Lankshear and Michael Peters suggest that postmodernism began as a cultural movement during the radical youth and student movements of the late 1960s, in which the protesting youth described economic, political and social progress guided by modernism as tyrannical.
After the collapse of the student movements, former leftist intellectuals and artists rebounded in the late 1970s to denounce modernism in a more articulate manner. The most influential were Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. They took to task modernism’s idea of history, art, politics and even language, to demonstrate that they were inherently biased towards truths which were manufactured to keep the political, economic and intellectual status quo in power. The postmodernists believed that there were no universal truths but that every culture had its own understanding of truth, scientific or historical.
Postmodernism began as an attempt to free leftism from the baggage of Marxist metanarratives but, according to the American literary critic Fredric Jameson, it eventually became the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism.’ Its emphasis on scepticism and scathing critique of Enlightenment and modernism marked the destruction of modernist metanarratives (which were also denounced as being ‘colonial’). But as critics such as Jameson point out, in its attempt to destroy the whole idea of metanarratives and replace it with regional and cultural micro-narratives, postmodernism ended up creating its own metanarrative and colonising tendencies.
In her March 2017 essay for Areo magazine, journalist and author Helen Pluckrose writes that postmodernists drew inspiration from controversial philosophers such as the 19th century German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche, who romanticised ‘unreason’ and irrationalism. In his book The Seduction of Unreason, Richard Wolin writes that the early fascination with Nietzsche gave birth to Nazism in the early 20th century, even though Nietzsche was apparently not a racist.
Wolin writes that Nietzsche’s attack on the idea of holistic truths, both theological and scientific, excited the late 20th century postmodernists who critiqued modernist ideas in such a manner that they opened up the scene for what is now being termed as the ‘post-truth’ age. Donald Trump can now tweet whatever he wants to and call it the truth because, to his supporters, that is the truth which, according to postmodernist doctrine, cannot be questioned according to the perception of the truth of his critics.
On the other hand, quite like the ‘alt-right,’ the so-called liberal-left too is not that far behind, as they now seem to spend every waking hour ‘discovering’ sexism, racism, etc., in the ‘subtext’ of a text that might have nothing like that in it at all. This too is postmodernism.
The postmodernist critique of modernism also excited non-Westerners who, for example, began to reject science as a ‘Judaeo-Christian construct.’ Since, supposedly, every culture has its own truth, various Muslim ‘scientists’ and Indian Hindus began to construct ‘Islamic science’ or ‘Hindu science.’ If Muslims want to derive energy from jinns or Hindus believed they can cure cancer with cow dung, so be it. This is their truth and can’t be questioned — or else you have a colonial mindset.
No wonder then, in the last decade or so, postmodernism has increasingly come under scathing criticism. It is denounced as being a naive intellectual fetish which spiralled out of control, romanticising suspicion, sensationalism and irrationalism. And in its passion for pluralism, it has curtailed universalism and integration and encouraged the ghettoisation of cultures with their own set of truths, no matter how irrational they may be.
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 23rd, 2019