Column: “Meaningful-Faith: Words, the Word, and a Life of Substance”
By Mark Williams, Ph.D.
Professor of Rhetoric, California State University, Sacramento
My workplace recently required me to upload and install some cloud storage access stuff. The webpage was, for a set of instructions on software installation—unusually excited about itself—and had some exclamation points about how wonderful it was. In their second, very excited, sentence, for example, they told me that their service was a secure* online storage option. Secure. With an asterisk, and I think we all know exactly what that means.
The asterisk takes you to a note where you are told that you should not store very important data here. Also, you should not store just regularly important data here.
Which brings us to Postmodernism. The word Postmodernism references a vague confederacy of ideas that are united primarily in their belief that Modernism was a flop. Today, the courage necessary for forwarding this critique of Modernism is like the courage needed to announce that Grizzly Bears should not be routinely slapped or that wet cement does not constitute an excellent substitute for soup. Well, yes, the observations are accurate.
However obvious it seems to us today, the Postmodernists were the first* group to speak this obvious truth out loud. When we say Postmodernists were the first group to speak this obvious truth out loud, we mean, of course, that Postmodernists were the second group to speak this obvious truth out loud, right after the Fundamentalists, who were making the Postmodernist’s point for them in, roughly, the very late 1800s, but whom we all happily ignore because, well, Fundamentalists. So, we give credit for this obvious diagnosis of Modernism’s ills to the Postmodernists because they were second, and they aren’t Fundamentalists, and they don’t get God involved. Also, they laugh more and drink good wine, and they aren’t embarrassed about either of those behaviors.
When we say Postmodernists were the second* group to speak this obvious truth out loud, we mean, of course, that Postmodernists were the third group to speak this obvious truth out loud, right after the Fundamentalists, who were making the Postmodernists’ point for them in the late 1800s, and the Catholics who were making the Postmodernists’ point for them in the mid-1600s (and who, to be fair, were doing it better than the Fundamentalists would 250 years later because, among other things, they were making the point in broad, educated Latin rather than narrow rural English). Nevertheless, we all happily ignore them because, well, Catholics for heaven’s sake. I mean, seriously.*
So, we give credit for this obvious diagnosis to the Postmodernists, because they were third, and they aren’t Fundamentalists or Catholics, and they don’t get God involved. As for laughing and drinking good wine and not being embarrassed about either of those behaviors, well, the Catholics, it must be admitted, hold their own with the Postmodernists on both those fronts.
Modernism (which Postmodernism took a number, got in line, and then boldly denounced after only 300 years of trailblazing by others) was the belief that pure science and pure math and pure utilitarian rationality would always lead pure people to the purest possible human decisions. In celebration of this idea, the heyday of philosophical Modernism (from, say, about 1880–1950) was the single historical period in which human beings most expansively and efficiently killed one another. As it turns out, you might need some moral judgment mingled in with your math and inventory spreadsheets if you really want to make decent human decisions.
While others had been pointing out Modernism’s limits, Postmodernism’s originality* lay in the novel way it decided to respond to the failures of Modernism. By suggesting that Postmodernism’s response to Modernism was original, we mean, of course, that the movement was highly derivative, cobbling ideas together from a dead Classical Greek guy named Gorgias and a dead German economist as well as a dead German philosopher named Nietzsche, along with a couple of living Frenchmen, just to make sure every corner of the world* was represented. By which we mean, of course, that the movement was built on an exceptionally narrow, white, male, Eurocentric, Western Civ foundation. But, to give credit where it is due, the inheritors of Postmodernism’s traditions have in recent years gotten a bit more like the Christians on that front, making themselves at home in various and diverse cultures, and teaching those cultures to think like “us”—the good guys who have come to make those other people’s lives better.
Postmodernism’s originality* lay in the fact that it uncompromisingly committed itself to the view that (1) language was a tool of power and (2) power is the only universal moral principle. In other words, discourse about truth and goodness, beauty and justice is always a disguise, masking an agenda of a powerful oppressor class. Thus, you can never take the plain meaning of any claim seriously. In Postmodernism, every word wears an asterisk. Like* this,* only* in* longer* sentences* and* with* words* like* metanarrative,* valorize,* hegemony,* intersectional,* and* embodied* transgressions* of* norms.*
When we say that Postmodernism uncompromisingly held the view that power was the only universal and that the meaning of words could never be taken seriously, we mean that Postmodernism held such views until Donald Trump, at which point its members universally discovered a universal commitment to universal moral frames like truth and justice and the common good. At that same moment, they also decided that the meaning of words should be taken very seriously.
That transition is a fascinating one, and tells us a lot about how the lines of language and the moral force of meaning flow across human communities, but we may need another column to explore it.
* Meanwhile, this column contains everything* you need to know about Postmodernism.