Despite its contributions, postmodernism is also the subject of much criticism. One of the most recurrent is its tendency to nihilism, that is, to pleasure for nothing. Postmodern deconstruction may be efficient at demonstrating the randomness of many of our concepts, but it can lead us to a point where we have nothing but deconstruction. We find that the world is made up of dichotomies or binary oppositions that cancel out, without any logic, leaving us with an immense void.
Another weakness of postmodernism is its relativism. In the absence of an absolute truth that can be objectively identified one gets subjective opinions. There is an expectation of postmodern theorists that this leads to higher levels of tolerance, but ironically the opposite is true. Without objective truths individuals are isolated in their subjective opinions, which represents a division of people, not an approximation. Moreover, postmodernism leads to a concern that all claims may be attempts at usurpation of power.
But the main weakness of postmodernism is its internal inconsistency. As mentioned in previous posts, postmodernism can be defined as unbelief about metanarratives. But would not postmodernism itself be a metanarrative? Why would this metanarrative be above criticism?
Another way of defining postmodernism is by its claim that there is no absolute truth. But is not this an absolute truth? Is it not an absolute truth, according to postmodernism, that there is no absolute truth? This circular and contradictory reasoning demonstrates the internal fragility of postmodernism. Finally, what happens if the hermeneutics of suspicion is turned against postmodernism itself? What gives us assurance that postmodern authors do not themselves have a secret political agenda hidden behind their speeches?
It is possible that postmodernists do not really feel affected by this kind of criticism, if they are consistent with the perception that there is no real world out there, or that “there is nothing outside the text”, but that the Reality is produced by discourses. That is: conventional theorists seek a truth that corresponds to reality. Postmodernists wonder what kind of reality their speeches are capable of creating.
Be that as it may, in spite of the preached intertextuality (the notion that texts refer only to other texts, and nothing objective outside the texts), postmodern theorists continue to write in the hope that we will understand what they write. Moreover, postmodernists live in a world full of meanings that are if not objective are at least intersubjective. Perhaps our language is not transparent, but that does not mean that it is opaque either. Clearly we are able to make ourselves understood reasonably well through words.
As C.S. Lewis said, “You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see”. This critique fits very well to postmodernism.
7 thoughts on “Some problems with postmodernism”
Very nice remarks. A deconstruction of post-modernism indeed.
I do not think the “postmodern” can really be said to be any school, any movement, any specific group of thinkers. If we think of Kant as high-modernism, then positivism was very postmodern.
You talked about a few thinkers — Derrida and Foucault (Continentals). Really, Continental philosophers do not seem to have broke with the past as much as the analytic tradition, which began a little before the turn of the 20th century and totally contrasted with all philosophy beforehand. What precedence was there for Bertrand Russell, W. V. O. Quine, or Rudolf Carnap? Their ideas are much more extraordinary and revolutionary, though they leaked less into the public mindset.
Analytic philosophers also challenge the idea of objectivity or “randomness of our concepts,” though, in my view, much more constructively and literately. Absolute truth may just be unable to be accessed through our fallible frameworks (Quine), feable explanatory tools (Popper), or our language itself (Wittgenstein). I don’t think challenging objectivity or truth is really too wild, nor does it mean we must fall into nihilism or randomness.
I have also heard good arguments that Hayek fits well into the postmodern paradigm (placing caps on knowledge, etc.). There really is no going back.
Frederic Jameson, a scholar on postmodernism, notes the bizarreness of unbelief about metanarratives being itself a metanarrative. But is this really problematic?
I know hardly anything about Derrida, but when I think of postmodernism I mainly think of Jacques Lacan and Judith Butler. The latter, in my opinion, has absolutely wasted all of her time, but I think the former has interesting things to say, and both are Continentals. Sometimes we have to raze the whole damn thing to the ground before we can build back up again.
I agree with a lot of what you said. If you read my previous posts you will see that I find some value in postmodernism. But if we take its main pressupositions at face value, we end up with nothing. It is great to question if our knowledge is all that good and to keep learning. It is retarded to think that we can learn nothing. If we can learn nothing, excuse, I’m going to the beach.
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