Postmodernism is a cultural movement which has marked the last few decades of the 20th century. It is there, even here, but many people are not sure what it is. Partly, this is because it is defined negatively as consigning modernism to the past. The irony of this move should be clear. But it is also not clear what modernism is and has been. Some see modernity as starting with the Enlightenment. Others see it as a movement at the beginning of the 20th century. What started at each of these times is also in dispute. The approach adopted here is to identify a number of postmodernisms, each of which might be important in their own way, and reflect on each of them.
The Frankfurt School and Rationalism. During the thirties a school grew up which mounted a critique of Enlightenment rationalism. Jurgen Habermas revisited the tradition of German rationalism. He noted the power and self-belief of Hegelian rationalism, the belief that the State really could march towards some logical-rational synthesis which would mark the final advance of Reason. But, noted Habermas, Nietzsche was both a turning point and marked the inadequacy of this view. He recognized the need for myth. Adorno and Horkheimer critiqued Enlightenment instrumental rationality – the kind which works out the most logical means with which to pursue ends. This approach, recognized by Max Weber, and developed by Austrian economists, Robbins and the Chicago School was foundational to business and management studies. They argued that inevitably this rationalism attaches itself to myths. As Jews they had experienced the perverted efficiency of the Nazi myth of Aryan supremacy. But other myths were open to a similar critique – ones like Modernity, Freedom and Consumerism. Marcuse in One Dimensional Man showed the similar lostness of a consumer culture. They thus cast a big question mark over the whole modern Enlightenment agenda of instrumental rationality. There is an overwhelming emphasis on efficiency, but to what purpose? Speed, leisure, national output, weaponry, trade, media communications all increase, but why do we need them? This vacuum at the centre of Enlightenment culture was not one which the Frankfurt school felt they could fill. Their value system tended to be of a kind of liberal Marxism. All they felt able to do, other than serve the myth, was to oppose it.
French Structuralism. One form of postmodernism occurred in French culture. It had the character of a reaction to rationalism, and especially the rationalist thinking which attatched to the ego in the form of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. Beause this was a philosophical dead-end, a number of thinkers looked for a richer way of addressing human thought and culture. The key was language as understood within a French tradition of linguistic anthropology, especially in the work of Ferdinand Saussure, was language, la lange. As opposed to Modernism which saw language as giving an objective picture of reality, the Structuralists saw it in the following ways.
• It operated through difference, opposition, polarisation, which are our ways of making sense of the world.
• Language involves using signs – words, letters, signifiers, proper nouns – which we both use and need to study – semiotics.
• Language has many different codes of meaning and grammars which signify the relationship which we see things as having to one another.
• We construct myths which explain areas of experience.
• We are subjects, not consciousness. We are decentred into the signed world we live in. this move was anti-existentialist.
• We normally engage in the social construction of reality.
• There is no privileged language.
This way of approaching academic work grew in the thinking of Saussure, Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes and others. It was a way of moving away from old-style rational/logical philosophy into a wider relationship with cultural life and from escaping the inexpressibility of existentialism. Its advantage was that it allowed anything to be considered which was presented in signs and it detached meaning from what the author intended. Its problem was that it gave the possibility of establishing the truth over to the signifiers and became enmeshed in linguistic relativism. In principle, scholarship and learning had no possibility of deeper insight.
Wittgensteinian Language Analysis. A similar move had also taken place in Britain, although under the influence of a single man, Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was from Vienna, came over to Cambridge and worked with Bertrand Russell and others to develop a logical propositional language which would describe the world in a neutral, scientific and unquestionable way. This he set out in the book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) this great book set out the problems of this agenda. First, it was self-refuting. He stated the issue this way. “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it. He was also faced with the limits of this kind of modernist language. “The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists – and if it did exist, it would have no value…. We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course, there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer…” This language was also unable to address causality, ethics, the will, the person, the past, laws of nature and indeed, most of what human life is about.
When Wittgenstein, already by 1920, had revealed the weaknesses of this modernist mode of thought, he worked through to an alternative position, with the help of Frank Ramsey and Piero Sraffa, first in the Blue and Brown books, and then in Philosophical Investigations (1953). This book subordinated philosophy to language and especially the way we use language in life. Meaning, language games and the use of language in the way we live became the frame of reference of the book. Again, it gave over any claim to privileged status in philosophical statement. It was a radical conversion to philosophical humility. The most of philosopher could do was to clarify, to clear away the undergrowth of confusing statements and define what people actually mean. The end result is the subordination of philosophy to language and linguistic relativism.
French Postmodernism. From this school emerged French Postmodernism. By changing codes of meaning and exploring difference, it was possible to deconstruct a whole range of modern myths. This involved moving from the frame of reference which had authority to another one which does not to show that it makes a great deal of sense. Foucault looked at the relationship between sanity and madness. We assumed that mad people were in asylums and sane people outside. Wrong on both counts, said Foucault. Why do we say freedom and lock people up? Perhaps to teach them crime. There is an important French tradition of the fool as wise, and much that Western modernism claimed as sanity could not stand examination. The weapons policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD for short, is an obvious example. He also looked at the idea of sexual emancipation, and showed it to be a myth, because it enslaved many people while claiming to liberate them.
Leotard similarly announced his, and the broader culture’s, incredulity towards the Enlightenment metanarratives. These include:
• Science, which is supposed to set us free, but makes mistakes and enslaves.
• The Workers’ Revolution, which was supposed to usher in a new age, but led to the murder and suppression of millions, including workers.
• Wealth Creation, which was supposed to be to the benefit of everyone, but is for the few.
• Education, which was meant to teach us how to live better lives, but has lost its inner values.
• Technology, which often pollutes, complicates life and turns out to cost us more effort and money.
• Freedom, which widely seems destructive of relationships and personal wholeness.
• Nationalism, which has led to millions of people being at each other’s throats for much of the century.
• Modernism itself, which assumes that the new is better, when often it is not.
This willingness not to believe in the great themes of modernism can be expressed in a general distrust of big answers, including Christianity. However, because modernist themes were largely seen as replacing Christianity, this conclusion only follows if Christianity has the same character as Enlightenment metanarratives. Arguably it does not, because Enlightenment thought focusses on human possession of knowledge, while Christianity emphasises humans receiving forgiveness, salvation and knowledge from God. In this sense, Christianity is the one untested metanarrative within modernism..
Another theme was Derrida’s dethroning of the authored text. Within modernism we give authority to the author’s view of what she/he writes. But why? asks Derrida. The author’s work is compiled from a myriad of sources, and it will be read in a variety of ways. More than that the style now is to put together experiences which may be very different. Les Miserables at a London Theatre incorporates a multitude of different life experiences and interpretations. Television puts anything alongside anything else, either consecutively or by the use of a remote control. This change of focus diminishes the author’s idea of creativity, authority, uniqueness and individualised scholarship. It exposes some of the arrogance of textual construction and scholarship.
Critique of the Enlightenment Metanarrative. A number of Christian writers have undertaken a deeper questioning of the Enlightenment agenda. They see the underlying problem to be with the Enlightenment’s move from acknowledging God as central to human existence and understanding to making Man the measure of all things. The problems which then follow from the Enlightenment metanarratives above all follow from the denial of God. As Paul says in Romans 1 21-3, For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for human or subhuman idols. The formative thinkers in this tradition were Theo Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd who identified the underlying patterns of thought which the Enlightenment thinkers had adopted from Greek and Renaissance thought. Dooyeweerd’s New Critique of Theoretical Thought is a magisterial survey. Already in the 30s they had put together a Christian critique of rationalism.
Other scholars followed in this tradition. They included Mekkes, Van Til, Popma, Zuidema and Van Reissen, especially with his analysis and critique of technologism. Hans Rookmaaker produced the first radical critique of Modern art and working with Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri at Huémoz, Switzerland, mounted a contemporary Christian cultural reflection on modernism. Evan Runner at Calvin College in Michigan opened up a similar philosophical critique. Bob Goudzwaard opened up the critique of modernist perspectives in economic theory. A later generation of theorists who addressed the inadequacies of the whole Enlightenment enterprise include Bernie Zylstra, Sander Griffioen, Al Plantinga, Richard Mouw, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Elaine Botha, Pete Steen, Elaine and Alan Storkey, Jim Skillen, Roy Clouser, Leslie Newbigin, Graeme Cray, Peter Heslam, Philip Sampson, David Lyon and others. The common understanding of these people is that only when modern and postmodern cultures are properly seen in the light of biblical revelation will their weaknesses be evident and the actual difference between Christianity and western culture, especially Modernism, emerge.
A postmodern view of the Modernist Epoch. The Enlightenment perspective is a long-term one, whereas the phenomenon of modernism is quite directly identifiable with the whole of the 20th C and no more. Another postmodernist critique addresses just the rise and fall of modernism. Broadly speaking, Modernism can be understood as an era that adopted a particular approach to the past. Earlier, there had been a belief in progress and in some continuity between the past and the future. The French Revolution had tried to make a clean break with the past, but it had been suppressed, deemed a failure and drowned in Conservatism. Modernism not only sought to make a clean break with the past and despised its values and principles, but it also sought to capture the future and realize the future in the present.
Past (obsolete) Present ◄ Future
This perspective puts a great emphasis on the visionary, the creator, the one who can capture the future. There was a dogmatic commitment to the future. One always marched forward. New was better. This began the era of Movements; to be stable or stationary was inadequate. Science Fiction emerged as a genre. Garden Cities, Utopias, New Deals, Communist and Fascist visions of a New Society abounded. Within USSR Socialism a planned future was the fundamental model of change.Very often particular visions of what the future should be conflicted; for some it was a futuristic university, but for others it was a new shopping mall.
The break with the past often happened across the generations. The Young, to whom “the future belonged” rebelled against the previous generation. Angry Young Men, or the 60s Generation rebelled against their parents’ values and priorities. Mao Tse Tung advocated the Great Leap Forward in which teachers were vilified, and the young, with the help of Mao’s Little Red Book, were to break unfettered into the future. Thatcher’s children were to do a new thing. After a while this faith in the new foundered. Sometimes the future was faced more with fear and foreboding. Often a new nostalgia for the past developed and the future receded. Past, Present and Future were faced with less emphasis on the future and more on the present.
Cultural Relativism. In previous eras cultures have often lived in relatively self-contained units of nation and language, or they have involved western colonial export of culture. There are many exceptions to this, like the spread of Christianity, but the generalisation holds in that many people lived in fairly homogeneous cultures. The 20thC has seen the migration and transmission of cultures as never before. People movements have been unprecedented, and culture has moved with education, media, consumption and politics. As a result a high proportion of urban people encounter several, even many cultures. Cultural relativism requires that each is treated as of equal validity. Early in the century theorists like Max Weber and Piritrim Sorokin had faced the theoretical issues, as had Anthropology as a discipline. They of course faced the question of when beliefs and truths should be seen as fundamental and when relativized.
More popularly, it was faced in terms of whether Westernism should have a privileged place over against other cultures. Modernism assumed that it should. Post-modernism doubted this for a number of reasons.
• The West rightly had a sense of colonial guilt. They knew they had imposed their culture on others in a rather bad-mannered way. We’ll kill you if you don’t conform.
• If personal freedom becomes the overarching norm, then we are as free and right to believe anything as anything else.
• If scientific rationalism offers no basis for any beliefs, values and views of the world, then all religious and cultural views have equal validity.
• The internal dilemmas of Westernism have produced a loss of cultural confidence and a turning to other religions and cultures. E.g. Beatles and Sergeant Pepper’s..
• The political principle of impartial treatment of religious groups is in place. It is sometimes reconstructed as impartial tratment of religions.
Deconstruction of the Person. Perhaps the deepest dilemma in postmodernism concerns its understanding of the person. More directly, this is a permanent identity crisis. It is difficult to state this problem, because people remain as they have always been, created by God. They are no different. But the cultural perception of the self in the West has gone through countless revolutions, each of which has changed people’s self-consciousness. The strongest faith in the late 20thC has been in the self, the individual, and it has therefore fragmented under the weight of this faith, when it cannot be met. The earlier problems created by the conscious/subconscious, impressive/expressive, mind/emotion polarities were serious. Existentialism as a philosophy destroying any idea of the self was widely discussed in the 50s and 60s. After that there was no obvious secular ontology of the self. It was a question of how one could achieve wholeness, create oneself, achieve individuality, get it together or make a life.
But postmodern explorations have opened up how fragmented personhood has become. Below are some of the more obvious tensions.
• The presentation of self to one or more audiences leaves the question of who is the self presented and what happens when the selves don’t match?
• The Narcissistic self is self-preoccupied, but when the image in the water is examined it dissipates in ripples.
• Lifestyle involves the incorporation of the “self” in the style.
• Transsexual, gay and lesbian idioms raise questions about gender identity.
• Changing “effective” parents raises questions about the familiar self.
• Changing friends, jobs, partners, home, place of eating, pub and church induces a lack of sense of personal permanence. Am I still the same person?
• The underlying perspective of needing to create myself means that I cannot be, but only become – for a while.
Much postmodern literature and film presents the self as reinvented, kaleidoscopic, repackaged, as the outcome of events and experiences. Finding oneself, not living, is the focus, or if that is unattainable, having experiences which add up to a life.
A Postmodern view of Time. Linked with this is the change in the sense of time which occurs within postmodernism. The Christian understanding of time is of a created reality within which we live as past, present and future, all of which are lived before God. Time is thus open before God and not closed in Fate, Historicism or Determinism. Modernism broke with the past. The distinctive characteristic of postmodern time is to break also with the future and live only in the present, with the qualification that both the past and the future are brought into the present. Moreover, the present is “my present”; it loses meaning as history except as I can appropriate it to myself.
PAST: This occurs as dinosaurs in films or as toys. Braveheart is more important than Robert the Bruce. “Where were you when Kennedy was killed?” becomes “Diana’s death really upset me.” Gradually history becomes personalised in order to get people interested. It is dramatically recreated for us. There is a nostalgia industry and the museum culture is reborn as collecting things from the past to see now and experience the past.
PRESENT: This is overwhelmingly full of experience, which becomes the key category. Our own experience is augmented by the experience of others through news, media gossip, story, and the public lives of the media stars. The now reaction as choice dominates with weakened relationships to past and future. Credit brings consumption from the future into the present. “Love” is instant and implies less long-term commitment. Leisure is the point of life.
FUTURE: It takes care of itself. It is unpredictable and will come later as the present. Life is a series of existential present moments. Planning doesn’t work. To be young now is where it is at and old age and death are to be held at bay for as long as possible. “Settling down” and moving out of a present-focussed culture is a life-stage problem.
Of course, people continue to live lives where past, present and future lived before God matter, and the reality of this breaks in on present-focussed living. “The past catches up with me.” or “Short-termism doesn’t work.” Because the present is packed, in order to live, time escapes us.
The Spectator Problem. Another postmodern problem was the decentring of the self, or the movement away from living. For most of human history people have just lived. Modernism involved a strong understanding of the person being in control of life. Postmodernism is marked by a deep sense of being a spectator. This is both actual – many spend a third of their waking lives as media spectators – and also philosophical. We are taught, even required in a variety of contexts, to stand outside what we believe and are committed to doing. We move from doing sport to watching sport. The Royles TV programme allows us to watch spectators. We don’t have political convictions, but evaluate those who do have them. Films from Bret Easton Ellis and others underline the Spectator problem. The problem is not How should we then live? but how do we feel about those lives we observe on the soaps and other forms of spectatorism.
This is aided by the Third Person move. “I am Napoleon” or “This is unjust” can, indeed should, be judged true or false. He says he is Napoleon is true and provided observer status is maintained the underlying question of truth or falsity is not addressed. Most news is Third Person news. It has Spectator status and allows us to disengage.
This adds up to considerable areas of passive living, often third or fourth hand. We can watch programmes which show us what we watched in the fifties. The issue for many spectators is how they kick-start into living.
The problem of reflexivity.
The Reconstruction of Public Values.
Reconstruction of the Personal.
Hypocrisy, Language and Truth.
In Christian terms, much of the deconstruction of modernism is overdue. Indeed, an important question is why, with some exceptions, Christian failed to do this task themselves and vested most of their energy either in defending traditionalism against modernism or in surviving within modernism. Still there are important questions about the extent to which biblical studies and theology are now conceived within modernism.
Equally, too, we can now see the weight of the Christian scholarship which has critiqued the Enlightenment and Modernist agenda. The weight of the work of Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, Runner, Plantinga, Rookmaaker and Schaeffer is that they have seen the culture as Paul saw it in Romans 1, as lost without God. That recognition needs to be gently and articulately conveyed throughout the culture as a whole. As yet many Christians have not even seen the issue and continue to carry their personal faith in the limousine of modernism or to the next postmodern busstop.
Further, many of the postmodernist analyses of language, communication, logic, institutions, metanarratives and so on hold. They engage with partial truths, some of which Christians have or have not seen. Postmodernism thought thus requires proper engagement and critical evaluation by Christian scholars. Much of this has not yet been done.
But postmodernism also reacts against modernism in directions which comport with Christianity. The respect for the person and their beliefs, the holistic views of the person, the changing locus of truth, the pluralism allow the Christian faith to be heard and lived. This is important. Those who think in terms of straight-line movement away from a Christian past do not see culture in biblical terms, for the biblical understanding of culture is far more complex. Many walk backwards towards Christian culture, reacting to earlier lies and myths, but not facing God and seeing the central truths of their existence. This kind of movement is not insignificant. Argentinian Christians attest how after the military dictatorship, when the hubris of the system had been brought low, people were more open to the Gospel. Many, both Christian and Nonchristian are not aware of these freedoms. Others have taken full advantage of them. Spring Harvest was Christianly post-modernist before most people knew the word existed.
But postmodernism is also a further move into western secularism. It is a move from the big gods, the modernist metanarratives, to the little ones, the gods of hearth, home and circumstances. When we realise how small they are, perhaps they can be swept aside and the house of faith really cleaned up for the Lord Jesus.
Saussure’s Course in linguistics
1920 Wittgenstein’s Tractatus
THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL
Dooyeweerd’s De Wijsbegeerte der Wetsidee 35-6
1950 Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations
Schaeffer and Rookmaaker develop L’Abri
Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture
1970 Foucault Archeology of Knowledge
A Clockwork Orange
1980 Lyotard’s The Post-Modern Condition.
Newbigin the Other Side of 1984 Prince Charles “Carbuncle..”
Thatcher’s “Back to Victorian Values”
1990 Fukuyama’s “End of History?”
Pulp Fiction 94
2000 Tate Modern The Dome
Theodor Adorno (1903-69) Frankfurt School,
Theodor ADORNO and Max HORKHEIMER The Dialectic of Enlightenment 1947
Theodor ADORNO The Dialectical Imagination London: 1973
Theodor ADORNO Against Epistemology Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982 
Jacques DERRIDA Writing and Difference London: Routledge, 1981
Herman DOOYEWEERD The New Critique of Theoretical Thought 4 vols. Pa: Pres. and Reformed, 1957
Herman DOOYEWEERD Roots of Western Culture Toronto: Wedge, 1979 [1945-8]
Michel FOUCAULT Madness and Civilisation London: Tavistock, 1967
Michel FOUCAULT Discipline and Punish London: Allen Lane, 1975
Hans Georg GADAMER Truth and Method London: Sheed and Ward, 1975
Anthony GIDDENS The Consequences of Modernity Cambridge: Polity, 1990
Bob GOUDZWAARD Idols of our Time Leics: IVP, 1984
Jürgen HABERMAS The Philosophical Discourse on Modernity Cambridge: polity, 1997
(ed) Stuart HALL Modernity and its Futures Oxford: Blackwell, 1992
David LYON Postmodernity Buckingham: Open University Press, 1994
Herbert MARCUSE One Dimensional Man Boston: 1964
Hans ROOKMAAKER Modern Art and the Death of a Culture Leics: IVP, 1970
Alan STORKEY A Christian Social Perspective Leics: IVP, 1979
Alan STORKEY The Meanings of Love IVP 1994