A Quick Attempt to Define Post-Postmodernism
By David Metcalfe
September 12, 2019
Superstition Ain’t The Way (The Modernist Movement)
Superstition guided human thought to a large degree for most of human history. Humans have always, of course, had some semblance of reason, but it was hardly used to its full extent, and in many cases, altogether abandoned for whatever superstitions were brought about within the culture.
Science, in an objective sense, has always existed (as long as the natural world has existed, anyway), but it was not harnessed effectively because the scientific method is by necessity one that relies on human reason and altogether discounts superstition. The scientific revolution occurred towards the end of the Renaissance (16th and 17th century), with men like Copernicus, Galileo and Newton leading the charge with a variety of dramatic new ideas and contributions. These ideas centred around a specific concept: scientific reason over superstitious dogma.
The philosophy of the Enlightenment, occurring shortly after the scientific revolution, was where the ideas for democracy, human rights, and limited government came about in America- and subsequently spread throughout most of the world. Enlightenment philosophy was not only critical of authoritarian governments, but also of religion. This doesn’t mean that all Enlightenment thinkers were atheist, of course, but that all gave a certain critical attitude towards religious dogma. Those who were Christian were more interested in proving Christianity true, and establishing doctrine, through reason and evidence, rather than authority, like had been long done by the Catholic Church.
Modern Problems Require Postmodern Solutions
This was the development of modernism: characterized by science, reason, evidence, and humanism. It lasted a long time, and came to define the 20th century; a century with more scientific and human advancement than any other century in human history. But with this advancement came a myriad of problems. Scientific progress made atomic bombs, chemical weapons, machine guns, etc., that killed millions of people. The harnessing of natural resources created environmental damage- even catastrophe- for many ecosystems and species. Capitalism had created massive wealth for some and left billions in poverty. The advancement of monitoring technology developed fears of a potentially omniscient totalitarian state (i.e. “Big Brother”). Advancements in chemistry had made it easy to synthesize narcotics like cocaine and heroine, which ravaged individuals and communities.
So, in a practical sense, modernism was limited. But it was also limited in a theoretical sense. Science, logic, and evidence did not come to prove ultimate truth on all, let alone any, matters that the Enlightenment thinkers had been so optimistic about. Science is limited to the natural world, and has no ability to know anything about metaphysical matters (what’s the chemical formula for love, or a kind heart?…for example). Logic is only as good as the brain that thinks it, and even the smartest humans are notoriously biased, illogical and unable to consider multiple perspectives. Evidence is essentially infinite; there is no way to get 100% of the available evidence to prove something, so any opinion has to be subject to change upon further evidence. These things, and others, made modernism theoretically untenable, and proved that science, logic, and evidence could become almost just as dogmatic as authority from government or religion had been in the past.
From these criticisms of modernism came “postmodernism”. Postmodernism served as a critique of modernist ideals. So, if a modernist said, “Advancements in medical science has saved millions of lives”, a postmodernist would respond, “Sure, but advancements in science has killed more people in war, processed and chemically made foods, and environmental damage than medical science has saved.” If a modernist said, “I know that God does not exist, because it is not scientifically proven”, a postmodernist would say, “You can’t know that something does not exist, because there may be evidence you have not been exposed to yet. Even if you had all of the evidence, your biased mind would never interpret it correctly. And lastly, science only tests for material things, so expecting to discover the existence of a metaphysical being through physical means is absurd.”
Postmodernism came to increasingly define academic circles in the latter half of the 20th century, and manifested its way into art, film, music, and all kinds of popular culture. But while postmodernism had many good criticisms of modernism, it had nothing to replace them. “Truth is relative”, “morality doesn’t exist”, “no one knows anything”, “all evidence is subjective”, the list of absences goes on. The list of presences…doesn’t really exist. If we really apply postmodernism to ethics, we can’t really say that the Nazis were wrong to murder the Jews. We can’t really say that racism is wrong. On and on, there are critiques of knowledge and morality, but there is no substance by which to build knowledge and morality from.
Postmodern Problems Require Post-Postmodern Solutions
We know that knowledge works, to some extent. It’s true that the excessive optimism and confidence of modernism was misplaced, but science, logic, and evidence do produce real, objective things (I would not be typing on this laptop right now if science didn’t work). The court system, though it does not reach a correct verdict every time, does use principles of logic and evidence to ascertain a greater likelihood of who is guilty (I’d like to see a hardcore postmodernist get convicted of a crime they didn’t commit and have the judge just randomly decide whether they are guilty lol).
We know that morality exists, to some extent. There are some things that seem objectively wrong. What if a certain culture murdered anyone who smiled? Would that be a just society? Why do we even desire a “just society”? Why do essential principles of justice transcend cultures? And, more practically, we can’t have a social, economic, or political system where justice is only an abstract, non-existent concept. We need real, practical justice in the world, and we need a way to define and implement what that is.
This “softening postmodernism” or “re-incorporation of modernism” is how I would define what is occurring in academia today. There is a recognition that, perhaps, both modernism and postmodernism operated too much on absolutes (postmodernism’s absolute rejection of absolutes was itself, an absolute). This recognition and movement past these two sides is what is being called, by some, “post-postmodernism”. The terminology lacks originality, but I guess that’s the best anyone’s come up with.
Post-postmodernism seeks to appreciate the value expressed by both modernism and postmodernism. In fact, there can even be a certain level of superstition incorporated. On matters that seem able to be mostly proved through science, logic, and evidence, that suffices. On matters that cannot be proved by those things, but are not necessary to be immediately applied, a level of doubt or agnosticism suffices. On matters of self-expression, cultural meaning, and social value, things like faith, subjective meaning, trust, relationships, and feeling can suffice.
The optimistic idea of completely solving the world is long gone and unlikely to ever return. But the pessimistic idea that nothing can be solved and life can never get better is also losing steam. A hybrid of these approaches- one that recognizes the benefits of modernity while still critiquing them- seems to be emerging in a greater capacity.
How this will play out and what effects it will have remain unknown. A knowledge of history is much easier than speculations into the future. What we’ve seen historically is continued progress, the advancement of knowledge, and the application of that knowledge into creating a more just society. There are still massive practical and theoretical problems to solve, and the potential of a new brand of modernism- post-postmodernism- will undoubtedly tackle those kinds of problems. Its success, and what critiques and limitations it will have to face, will be seen over the coming years.