What Is Postmodernism? | Where
did Postmodernism come from? | The
affinity for existentialism | Commentary
on existentialism | What is
deconstruction about? | Commentary
on deconstruction | What is
Constructivism about? | After Postmodernism
| What does it all
mean in practical terms?
What is Postmodernism?
|Copyright © 1997, Dorian Scott Cole
||What is Postmodernism?
Postmodernism is a way of thinking that so far
has eluded precise definition. I intend to leave it that way.
Postmodernists tend to dislike labels. But how do you describe something
without defining it?
Define and describe are two words with very different long-term implications.
One is a closed language system. The other is an open language system.
When we define something, after the scientific model, we state very objectively
the precise meaning, or qualities, or properties of something. We then
have a standard that says that all other things that don't match this precise
definition are not this thing. This is closed, a static model that can't
change, not a dynamic one. This is very useful in hard science.
A description can be a very subjective account that gives an impression
of something. It may not be scientifically accurate, it may not be complete,
and it may lack the fine detail that a definition would contain. Descriptions
are open - that is they can change - a dynamic model. Social science is
dynamic - things change. Descriptions are very useful for accounts of social
phenomenon which are dynamic.
So why not define it? There are several problems
inherent in pinning labels on things. For one thing, if you put a
label on something, then that is what it tends to become. It is the
proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy. The subject becomes its description
because it thinks it is that.
How do you define something that is amorphous?
Postmodernism may be different tomorrow than it is today - it is in process
of becoming. Once you define it, then it no longer has the freedom
to become - it is. It would become fixed in time and knowledge.
For example, you can't define a butterfly as a caterpillar with wings -
a caterpillar becomes a butterfly through metamorphosis. A process
of change takes place and the thing is no longer the thing that it was.
We tend to use definitions for control. If
we don't know what something is, we can pin a label on it, and give the
label a definition. That makes the unknown subject known so that
we can understand and control it. I'm not at all sure that Postmodernism
lends itself to control. Controlling it may put an end to it
because it may very well be the essence of the beast to only exist when
it is not controlled.
Labels also tend to restrict how we see things.
If we label someone as having a psychological disorder, then that label
is used to explain everything about that person. But few people have motivations,
behaviors, and actions that can be explained by only one label.
When a phenomenon is observed, the observation may interfere
with the phenomenon. For example, do protesters become more
violent because the camera is projecting their image into millions of living
rooms across the world? Will reporting on Postmodernism change what
Postmodernism is? Should it?
The observer may look at the wrong subset of ideas. Psychologists,
anthropologists, biologists, physicists, the man on the street, and many
others may have a representative subset of ideas about what Postmodernism
is. Various ideas may occur in each of these subsets. But Postmodernism
might not be represented by any singular subset.
The position of the observer may interfere with the validity
of the report. How can someone who is part of the subject
give an objective and impartial report of what it is? I am definitely
If Postmodernism is a category, what falls in that category?
Any kind of information can be categorized. Under the category
the Thursday ski nosetooth, I can list people who show up at physician's
offices on Thursdays with a runny nose, one tooth missing, and who report
having gone skiing on Saturday. I would be the only unifying
element in the list. The category would basically be meaningless,
yet no one could deny it was a category. Is Postmoderism simply an
eclectic collection of characteristics that have nothing to unite
Obviously it relates to a grouping that is "after modernism." Beyond
that, the characteristics must be obverse. In other words, If I postulate
that the characteristics of Postmodernism must be united by a common theme,
then Postmodernists must be capable of being characterized by the same
theme (within reason - bellcurve). Otherwise I have only identified
a subset of beliefs, or even a fad, within humanity that aren't consistent
from person to person.
I'm not prepared to rigorously investigate the classification - only
to point out the pitfalls. For example, one could speculate that
Postmodernists are united by a common purpose, but I would find it highly
questionable to assert that Postmodernism and all Postmodernists are united
by a common purpose. I sincerely doubt this.
I will go so far as to say that I think Postmodernism involves characteristic
methodologies that stem from an underlying attitude - but I'm not prepared
to prove these. What I am prepared to do is identify the buzz-words
identified with Postmodernism, on the assumption that people talk specifically
about their peculiar beliefs, and allow those buzz-words to characterize
the methodologies of Postmodernism.
For the preceding reasons, everything I say should be taken with some
skepticism. Ultimately researchers in the arts and humanities will
have their say, and the people who feel they are Postmodernists will actually
describe what it is, and historians will probably have the last word.
But what I will try to present here is a subject that, I think, defines
what it is by a characteristic way of thinking.
I think it is important to answer the question, "Did I became a Postmodernist
through exposure to it, or through some other means?" In other words,
is Postmodernism a self-perpetuating movement? If Postmodernism is
influencing the way people think, then it is a movement. But if people
are already disposed to think in this way, then Postmodernism is only a
way of characterizing them.
I have always been a Postmodernist. It is in my nature.
When my grandparents brought their new grandson a toy, the first thing
I did was take it apart (deconstruction). I wanted to know what it
was made of (reductionism). I wanted to use the parts for something
else (constructivism). They brought me a wagon with the wheels welded on.
Sometimes life has brought me a wagon with the wheels welded on.
I have never changed. I applied the same principles to everything
- education, religion, career - I take things apart, analyze what works
and doesn't, and put them back together so they accomplish the purposes
I want them to. I like cultural anthropology, philosophy, psychology,
and science. These sciences explore the world, analyze it, and try
new things. When I read about Postmodernism, I realized it was me.
Is reductionism Postmodern? Reduction reduces things to their fundamentals.
Is a wagon a wagon, or is it a collection of individual components?
Do components become more than the sum of their parts?
A train is a collection of wagons. We understand wheels, axles,
bins, and hitching. They make a wagon, they make a train. A
train is a just-in-time delivery vehicle. It is part of a manufacturing
system. Understanding the parts enhances the structure, it doesn't
Reductionism is probably not part of most Postmodernist's philosophies.
It is associated with the modernist tendency to reduce and define so that
the whole is obscured by parts.
Postmodernists prefer to "deconstruct" to clear away the debris and
find the valid elements that make up meaning.
|Postmodernism, I think, in the most basic sense
is a major step in the reinvention of ourselves. This is the essence of
it - reinventing ourselves.
||Postmodernism, I think, in the most basic sense
is a major step in the reinvention of ourselves. This is the essence of
it - reinventing ourselves (to borrow a PBS phrase). Postmodernism
has several consistent characteristic attitudes.
I'll call these characteristics "attitudes" because I think these attitudes
involve ideas and emotions, and so influence the methods of Postmodernists.
I believe emotions are involved because modernist institutions and thinking
restrict the freedom of people to vary from the uniformity of a society's
norms. This is occurring because we have become a very small world
- a very diverse society with many conflicting beliefs about the meaning
of our lives. When a clash of ideals, or a restriction of freedom
occur, an emotional reaction, I believe, must occur.
These attitudes don't necessarily describe Postmodernism - they may
just be attitudes that are common to people who are also Postmodernists.
For example, (as a deconstructionist would) I question if existentialism
is an idea that is central to Postmodern thought, or if it is simply an
attractive parallel way of thinking that operates synergistically with
Characteristic Postmodern attitudes are:
These attitudes are exemplified in the buzz-words predominating this land
of thought: Relativism, existentialism, deconstruction, and constructivism.
Deconstruction of society's meta-narratives that control or influence the
meaning of our lives.
Deconstruction of Modernist institutions, structures, and thinking that
dictate uniformity in the meaning of our lives.
Tolerance toward pluralism and diversity in society and philosophy.
Deconstruction of truths.
A comfortable tolerance of "not-knowing" meaning and truth.
Permissiveness of fragmentation - especially when forced classification
will create disharmony.
Find meaning or make-meaning where there appears to be chaos and disorder.
Insistence on relativism.
Pursuit of meaning-making.
Insistence that structures must have efficacy.
To put this another way, Postmodernists seem to be saying, "There seems
to be no meaning for many individuals in many modernist meta-narratives,
institutions, and structures, because we are a very pluralistic world with
many views of truth and meaning. So let's examine these things
that are held as truths, and the institutions built on these truths and
see what the core values are and whether these core values contain anything
that is truth (which some would argue that none do) and rebuild these institutions
to properly serve all the individuals within our world."
did Postmoderism come from?
I'm sure historians will try to pin specific dates on Postmodernism
and call it a movement. I'm curious about the outcome, because
I think Postmodernism ultimately will defy historians, except to see it
as recurring phenomenon that arises from social conditions and precedes
times of profound change in the world.
Modernism can be considered "the current day," regardless of the time
in history, and refers to the existing institutions - particularly those
that reflect the things that create meaning in people's lives. Postmodernism
is not an era, but a way of thinking. It was an attitude present
in the Ancient Greeks, in the Protestant Reformation, and in current Reform
religious movements (Reformed church organizations and community churches).
I think it is present in the political reformists in Russia and China.
But I think reform movements within institutions (such as Catholic and
Protestant religious institutions) are constrained by their doctrines of
absolute truth, and a resistance to deconstruction, and rightly so. We
all must be true to ourselves. But being a reformist doesn't necessarily
make one a Postmodernist. Postmodernists seem to have that
mindset of relativism, deconstruction, and constructivism - a combination
of methodologies that create a specific type of reform. Not reform
for the sake of reform, but a problem solving reform that addresses certain
types of problems: meaning-making and pluralism.
In the next section I will try to explain what these terms mean.
For example, deconstruction does not mean destruction or critiquing.
It is not a bunch of rebels on the warpath to tear down society's institutions.
|Does Postmodernism hold that there are no absolute
affinity for existentialism
Many Postmodernists have formed an affinity for existentialism.
This raises many questions for Postmodernists to clarify. Many existential
thinkers hold that there is no such thing as absolute truth - everything
is relative. Does Postmodernism hold that there are no absolute truths?
Or does it concede it is on a search to eliminate absolutes and truths
that are invalid? Or is Postmodernism simply comfortable living with
the absolute truths held by individuals in a pluralistic society?
Answering yes to the first question, that there are no absolute truths,
is likely to remove Postmodernism from being a way of thinking into being
an actual religion. Answering yes to the second question, a search for
truth, is likely to make Postmodernism an unwelcome investigator in religions.
What is existentialism, and where did it come from?
There are many doctrines that call themselves existentialism, and they
bear no relation to one another. Existentialism has a rich heritage,
and no real definition. Existential thinkers have come from
very religious backgrounds, agnostic backgrounds, and atheistic backgrounds.
Because of its tenet of relativism, and rejection of absolute truths
(in the eyes of some), existentialism can support almost any doctrine.
However, it is more typically characterized by some very worthwhile ideals
- the problem of man's existence (search for meaning), man's freedom, and
his responsibility for what he does and what he becomes.
These are high ideals with which every person can identify, and the
concern of every major religion.
Although existentialism is primarily a post-World War I phenomenon,
the philosophical mentor of existential thought is the 1800's Danish religious
thinker and writer, Kierkegaard. He basically asserted that man must
make a choice between God (ethics) and things, which is an assertion as
old as religion. But Kierkegaard focused on the theme of "dread,"
which is a consistent theme in existential thought.
Why dread? It is thought that the World Wars in the first half
of the 19th. century emphasized a tragic aspect: death, nothingness, meaninglessness,
suffering - and the inevitable dread. Existentialism is equated most
strongly with this background. From this tragic background, people
looked for answers - for meaning for their lives - a reason for being -
a reason for all of this suffering. And from this "You can only count
on yourself" environment, came some noble ideas about man (the atheist
Sartre): man is free and responsible, but only responsible to himself.
Then, following the attack on existentialism that it is based on nothing,
and that it is not only not soundly reasoned out, but is philosophically
untenable, existentialists put forth another really great idea - relativism.
At this point, existentialism can support any and all systems of thought
Existentialism is centered around self. I suppose these are reasons
why psychology has an affinity for it - psychology is the science of self.
But in centering around self, existentialism orders every bit of the world
around the self-interests of the individual (nihilism). There is
very little room for a social basis of meaning-making for the individual.
Existentialism also rejects absolutes. This is another reason
why people in general might have an affinity for existentialism, because
the assertion of absolutes generally brings people with differing beliefs
into unresolvable conflict.
Most people define themselves by others, and find life very meaningless
without others, and most seek to do acts of charity and good-will for others.
A system of thought that confines meaning-making to only self-oriented
associations seems inadequate to the task. Although people can do
altruistic deeds for selfish motivations, it gets very difficult to explain
all of human motivation in these terms. The element of self-interest can't
be separated from the motivation for any human deed, yet it doesn't explain
I think the inability to define psychology in anything but individualist
terms comes from too much study of the individual while pretending the
social aspect is irrelevant. (My bias - I look at man from a social
constructivist point of view.) To me, ignoring the social aspects
is like studying only the south pole of a magnet. Without the north
pole, the south pole has no effect. It is meaningless. In fact,
if you cut off the north pole, it is still there - it is inherent in the
metal. It is the molecular alignment in the metal that creates the
magnet. The alignment is consistent everywhere in the magnet.
You can't cut off the north pole - it is. It is the same with people
- the influences that are within man are so related to society that you
can't cut society out of man.
Many existential philosophers have held high ideals for existentialism,
especially the freedom of man and his responsibility, and the pursuit of
meaning-making. My bias is that I think these are the highest
ideals, either in an existential framework, or a religious framework.
I believe the ultimate goal of man is to become a free agent who is not
just willingly responsive to his responsibilities, but also is self-directed
about what to do with his life and in the world.
The main area in which religious existentialism clearly differs from
non-religious existentialism is in the areas of absolutes. Non-religious
existentialism denies that there are any absolutes (except the real world).
In some practical ways, this may be correct - existentialism, and man,
may be unable to see or understand absolute truth. For example, if
you stand at any point on earth, you are unable to see any end. In
fact, the earth appears flat. The earth is too large for people to
grasp, and since it is round, there is no real end. Yet it is an
To me, coming to a knowledge of truth is like journeying around the
earth. You don't know where the journey will end, but by taking
the journey you get to know the earth in all its different versions.
And each time around, if you take a different path you get to know variations
of the versions. Yet they are all connected. But each cycle
you grasp the patterns more quickly and the journey represents a vortex.
The important thing to do is to take the journey and believe in it.
Postmodernism isn't the only way of finding answers to pressing questions.
Religions and politics that declare absolutes generally work out compromises
permitting tolerance. The pitfall is that during difficult times,
people go into protectionist modes to ensure their survival. During
such times, they frequently disavow anything that is different from them,
and possibly destroy it.
What is deconstruction
about? Deconstruction is about not taking anything for granted.
Modernist institutions - those built on ideas of absolute truths - should
be reduced to their component parts, and analyzed to see if truth is in
them and if they serve an appropriate purpose. And the tools we use to
examine them should also be inspected, because the tools themselves are
often the result of modernist construction.
As we experience life, our beliefs about life change. But the
institutions we leave behind remain until we change them, and they are
built on our perceptions of reality.
What is the position of religion on suffering, meaning, hopelessness,
Not coincidentally, all the major religions stress the value of suffering
as the agent that motivates change within man (as the result of doing the
wrong things - not the result of war).
All the major religions hold that man is free to make decisions.
Some religions assert the meaning of man's life to be determined by the
absolute truths in the religion.
Billy Graham, regarding the the use of the Internet for religious messages,
stated, "In the midst of chaos, emptiness and despair, there is hope in
the person of Jesus Christ."
The feelings experienced by those post-WW1 people who became existentialists,
is universal to man.
What about God?
Deconstruction is primarily a literary tool. Words, it believes, only
point to other words. At some point one needs to get back to reality. Is
there any such thing as truth? Can philosophy and science arrive at the
truth? Philosophy, like computers, is no smarter than the person entering
the information. If the person entering information can't ask the right
questions or supply the right facts, he can't get intelligent answers.
Rational thought has not proven to be a good way to ensure safety for
everyone. Rational evaluation too easily slips into rationalization
and justification that support other agendas. Thus we were presented with
the Crusades, witch burning, and the licensing of mistreatment if the mistreater
had the money to pay the religious fee. We may think we are beyond that
as a civilization, but people purchase the right to mistreat others in
court every day. All it takes is a shrewd lawyer and enough money.
Scientists often have biases that shape their research. Their results
can be similarly biased.
So to a Postmodernist, truths are questionable. But should all
truth be rejected? It seems to me that deconstruction is a reaction
to the over-construction of knowledge - building theories of unity and
paradigms of hierarchy where relationships are more figments of a biased
imagination than of reality.
Questionable doesn't mean invalid. Things labeled as truth should
be deconstructed. Philosophy can't provide absolute answers - it
is itself a faulty methodology. But if the truth withstands an informed
scrutiny then that truth can't be labeled invalid. Philosophy is
not the arbiter of truth, but is a tool of inquiry. It is man who
must make the ultimate decision about truth.
|As for me, I have enough experience with life
to know that truth exists in unselfish love, kindness toward
others, the pursuit of ideals in godliness and right, self protection,
the value of self, and the need for self-growth. Where there is real
love, illusion matters little because divine guidance can't be far removed
and delusion can't stand.
is Constructivism about?
Constructivism is about achieving new order, guided by the core processes
within us. I can do no better than to defer to the Society
for Constructivism in the Human Sciences (see the Message from the
Executive Director), and to recommend the book Constructivism in
Psychotherapy, Edited by Robert Neimeyer and Michael Mahoney.
Apparently the bell has rung and time may be up for Postmodernism, ready
or not. Are people growing tired of everything being questioned and
just want to get on with making-meaning? Is Postmodernism actually
paralysis? How do we get on with it?
The "Conference on After Postmodernism" was held at the University of
Chicago, November 14-16, 1997. The purpose was to begin a discourse
that moves on, after postmodernism.
does it all mean in practical terms?
I can only speak personally, and not from working in an environment
These attitudes are reflected in many of my writings:
In The Angry Doves, my novel about the Middle East, the theme
is to "let people be who they are," which encourages "micro-politics,"
pluralism and diversity, and fragmentation.
In Priest of Sales, my screenplay about personal freedom, the
theme is about finding meaning and freedom. (Both of the foregoing
stories will eventually be available free on this we site.)
In writing instruction, my emphasis is on deconstructing technique and
identifying audience needs, then ensuring the efficacy of the written product.
In government, I favor sunset legislation regarding government institutions.
Every institution the government creates should be periodically examined
to see if it is needed, effective, and if it is fulfilling the role it
was designed to fill, or should be stopped.
In politics, I favor localization of government and sufficient fragmentation
to allow people to be who they are (freedom and democracy). But I
am certainly for the wider role of government in keeping peace and in assisting
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