Sunday, January 22, 2012

Untangling Modernism and Postmodernism

In my rants here I’ve been throwing around the words “modern” and “postmodern”, and I’d like to set forth what I mean by that highly general, and thus potentially quite useful distinction.


In my view, the essential difference between the modern and the postmodern is that modernity is the purported cultural progress in architecture, painting, music, mass media, and philosophy, resulting from the Scientific Revolution, while postmodernity is the cultural disarray resulting from the depletion of the fuel needed for that progress. The fuel in question is faith in what postmodernists call the modern “master metanarrative” or myth, which I call Scientism. This myth presumes that society in general can progress just as well as can institutional science, that just as scientists discover how nature operates according to laws, we can discover the rules of how we ought to behave and we’re able to follow those rules and so progress towards a perfect union. In either case, the abilities needed for that progress are, first of all, Reason as opposed to tradition, authority, intuition, faith, or revelation, but also the scientistic virtues (or vices, depending on your viewpoint) that motivate the modern experiment. These virtues include intellectual curiosity; optimism about our cognitive potential, including our abilities to discover, comprehend, and digest the natural truths; and pride in the autonomy and dignity of hyper-rational scientists and their analogues in the other social spheres. In short, modernism, the set of ideas implicit in the cultural phenomenon of modernity, is equivalent to secular humanism, to the ideology that reason, freewill, and sentience render us godlike, equipping us with the potential not just for omniscience through scientific methods, but for happiness and prosperity.  

The so-called New World of North America, colonized by Europeans, became the testing ground for the modern hypothesis that social progress is possible by liberally employing reason in all walks of life, without hindrance from tradition or special interests. In particular, the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence enshrined the values of secular humanism. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the stated or implicit rights of people in a capitalistic, democratic society. Those three values are maintained, first, by using relatively unrestricted science to produce lesser goods as demanded by an equally unrestricted marketplace, that is, by a population that’s allowed to develop its own desires instead of having them controlled by a powerful institution like the Church; and second, by relying on the wisdom of rational, free citizens to hold the reigns of political power through elections of political representatives.

Theoretically, then, the Western success in using technoscience to raise the standard of living with machines (robots or armies of human labourers) that mass produce goods to satisfy basic needs and whims alike, should be cause for celebrating the modern metanarrative. What’s become apparent, instead, is that modern history is greater cause for mourning. Scientism, in the sense of faith in social progress through hyper-rationality (the application of reason throughout society at the expense of nonrational sources of beliefs), is widely regarded as bankrupt. This is because the promised progress has either not materialized or been revealed as a charade. Far from dignifying people in a modern society, capitalism and democracy degrade the majority, both at home and abroad. Democracy and capitalism are vulnerable to hijacking from “special interests” that replace the Catholic Church’s feudal autocrats. These modern oligarchs are the wealthiest managers and bankers who use technoscience to consolidate their power, including public relations to demagogue the masses, supercomputers to manipulate the stock market, and scientifically-managed political campaigns to ensure that only Serious, centrist politicians, friendly to the permanent oligarchy, are nominated or elected.

In the British industrial revolution, material goods were produced by virtual slaves under horrendous conditions, reestablishing a class of miserable labourers to service the elites’ decadence. (Something similar is presently happening in capitalist China.) After the New Deal and WWII, the American middle class was created, raising the standard of living for most Americans. But the free market required the exporting of American manufacturing jobs to third world peoples who live in relative squalor, so that once again “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” depended on a gross power inequality between consumers and producers. The cheaper the goods produced, the more profit for owners of the means of production and the cheaper the price for consumers; but the wealthier the consumers, the greater their pride and thus the less content they are actually to get their hands dirty and work hard to produce their luxuries.

Of course, the Great Depression, the World Wars, and the many genocides of the last century helped to disabuse modern folks of the scientistic myth of progress. One of the natural truths discovered by scientists and engineers is the means to create the nuclear bomb. This weapon of mass destruction ended WWII but also threatens us with Armageddon, with the final war. Whether we can accommodate that particular piece of scientific knowledge depends on whether we’re smart and noble enough to manage nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, as cognitive scientists have investigated human nature itself, we’ve learned that we’re not nearly as rational, free, or as conscious as modernists boast in their humanistic myths. For the most part, we’re deluded, easily manipulated animals whose capacities for reason, freedom, and consciousness are islands floating on seas of biases and fallacies, of biochemical and physical processes that determine our behaviour, and of unconscious, modular neural programs. 


And so we arrive at the postmodern malaise, at the disenchantment, cynicism, apathy, and nihilism that follow from the collapse of the justifications for the modern project. To be sure, modern infrastructures, including the institutions of science, democracy, and capitalism remain intact. What’s collapsed is people’s confidence in the utopian benefits of those institutions. Modernists are hyper-rational whereas postmodernists are hyper-skeptical, meaning that modernism presupposes the excellence of reason and of the secular humanistic character, whereas the postmodernist doesn’t take those valuations for granted, but systematically “deconstructs” all metanarratives so that, through her, Reason destroys itself and the Promethean hero. For example, the philosopher David Hume pointed out that no one perceives a unified self through ordinary introspection; instead, we perceive a not-so-godlike bundle of associated thoughts and feelings. And Nietzsche called attention to the will to power that lies behind pretenses to pure rationality. More recently, academic postmodernists reject all manner of authority by cynically reducing the epistemic value of any statement to an expression of some personal quality of the speaker. For example, the pragmatist Richard Rorty maintained that instead of pretending to be objective seekers of absolute truth, we should admit that ideological differences are based on nothing more than feelings of social solidarity.

One of the defining characteristics of postmodernism, then, is endless self-consciousness: a postmodernist has no religious faith, takes nothing for granted, and so is preoccupied with “unmasking” other people’s delusions and underhanded stratagems for acquiring power, and with proving that she herself is innocent of such sins. Always on guard against hoodwinking with a myth that merely masks the speaker’s crude personal agenda, the academic postmodernist speaks in concentric circles of qualifications and apologies, taking back with one hand what’s offered with the other so that nothing is left but noise and the stench of condescension. And thus, more broadly, postmodern culture is filled with self-referential phenomena like The Simpsons and the Scream movies; what Jay Rosen calls savvy journalism that pretends to be neutral and objective; the postmodern novel that eschews character and plot as modern devices for reinforcing faith in absolute knowledge of a pre-established order; the postmodern painting or sculpture which is celebrated not for its beauty but for its demonstration of the artist’s impudence; and disposable postmodern pop music which consumers prefer to steal on the internet, because of its worthlessness. 

Ironically, then, postmodernism brings to fruition the modern exploration of the self. When the Church lost its control over European thought, as medieval merchants acquired economic power and Renaissance ideals took hold, making way for the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, the Europeans’ cognitive capacities were further unleashed in the Enlightenment. Modernism is largely the celebration of that growing freedom of thought. Modern painters, for example, created abstract works to experiment with the artistic media, traversing the range of our possible modes of expression. The more closely we look at ourselves, though, without the blinders of religious dogmas, the more unsettled we are by the disparity between what we wish we were, according to premodern or modern myths, and what we actually are. In the postmodern period, we look at ourselves and see not dignified, rational, godlike beings, but enslaved, selfish, largely irrational dupes or alienated cynics.

As to what I personally take from postmodernism, I agree that modern metanarratives have run their course. However, I reject postmodern nihilism and fatalism, and the contention that no conceivable myth is suitable or necessary to live an elevated life. (See Nietzsche.) In fact, true nihilism is probably impossible for any human being, since we’re hardwired to resolve our disparate experiences with a coherent worldview, which requires the engagement with philosophy; to express our emotions in a normative distinction between what we regard as sacred or profane; and to justify that distinction even in the inevitable absence of sufficient reason, taking a leap of faith. The most general stories we tell to rationalize those human practices are myths. As Nietzsche and Joseph Campbell said, the difficulty is creating, in effect, a suitable postmodern myth, a myth that enchants even after science disenchanted the world.

Granted, as I say in my rant on scientism, following Erik Davis’ thesis in Techgnosis, David Noble’s The Religion of Technology, and other works, we should expect that the scientific disenchantment of nature is only superficial. So-called postmodern secular culture has its religious aspects, but the myth that best captures the postmodern zeitgeist is as yet unclear to me. What I mean is that identifying just what we authentically believe, deep down, in our postmodern culture, about ourselves and our place in the universe, is exceedingly difficult. There are still plenty of vestigial modern or premodern myths (philosophies of life) which must be discarded as irrelevant. Moreover, many unknowing postmodernists and victims of efficient public relations campaigns are beholden to mere memes, delusions, or propaganda, which don’t rise to the level of myths. Certainly, there’s no shortage of postmodern philosophy, but much of this philosophy is pretentious posturing and gamesmanship, gibberish, or dreadful prose poetry that doesn’t come to grips with the modern inheritance that surely mustn’t be abandoned, which is modern science’s accumulation of empirical knowledge.


  1. I am not sure how to interpret your posts when you write about Scientism and secular humanism.

    It sound like a critic of that goes something like this: applying & relying only on reason and the scientific method has not saved us from social ills of capitalism, oligarchic structures and oppression and has increased consumerism & materialism. Secular humanism and science has also failed because it does not give people a sense of purpose, culture or myth?

    The last sentence is almost certainly not what you think, but I find it hard to decode your actual critic, if what you are writing is a critic or just worded to sound negative.

    The word Scientism is mostly used with in a negative & condescending context, usually with what I find straw man arguments that to my reading don’t hold up to scrutiny, for example attributing worldviews and ideals to secular humanist or scientist that they do not actually hold.

    Do you label the capitalist and political spheres as relaying on values from secular humanism, empiricism, etc? To me the current political and economic system is far from rational or scientific.

    Interesting reading, keep them coming.

  2. Torkel Odegaard,

    You ask some good questions. I lay out how I use the word “scientism” in my Sept 2011 article/rant, “Scientism: Modern Pagan Religion.” As I say there, I use the word mostly in a broad, somewhat idiosyncratic way, although in some rants I use it in the more familiar, strict sense. I agree that it’s often overused in strawman arguments, but I do think there’s currently a pragmatic, positivistic prejudice in North American academic circles towards the sciences and against the humanities. Scientism in the strict sense is the idea that all genuine knowledge comes from the sciences and that the humanities are pretty much good for nothing. In my broader sense, scientism is a closet religion prescribing worship of the idols that follow from the Scientific Revolution, including modern liberal democracy and capitalism, high technology, materialistic happiness, and the oligarchic conquerors of so-called free markets. I stress the religious aspects of this scientism, or as it’s better known, of this secular humanism, but even I don’t know sometimes when I’m using hyperbole or satire and when I’m stating exactly what I believe. Indeed, I’m figuring out my beliefs on some of these difficult topics largely by writing this blog.

    Regarding your latter questions, I certainly agree that the US in particular is at least superficially hostile to reason and especially to science. And on the surface, Americans are very Christian. But as my rant on Christian chutzpah contends, things aren’t so straightforward. Non-ascetic Americans (and Canadians, Europeans, etc) can fairly call themselves Christian only if that word is defined in such a way that it makes no reference whatsoever to Jesus, in which case we need to look more closely at what postmodern Christianity entails. Now, while conservative Americans pretend to be hostile to science, they also claim to be in love with capitalism. The goal they actually pursue most of all isn’t anything as nonsensical as finding a way into a transcendent heaven, but is rather just that of trying to succeed in secular terms with their families. Like most people, ordinary American conservatives just want to be happy here and now (whereas Jesus called that secular goal folly).

    What distinguishes conservative secularism in the US, though, is the high-powered free market demagoguery (from Fox News, the Republican Party, talk radio, etc) which apologizes for the exploits of American plutocrats. As I say in my second rant on this blog, “Conservatism: Myth-Making for Oligarchy,” oligarchs are worshipped virtually as real-life demigods who are believed to have achieved the ultimate secular goal of being supremely happy in a materialistic sense: their money and power provide them with a superabundance of pleasures. These oligarchs stand victorious in the social Darwinian struggle of the free market; they’re rewarded by the invisible hand, which is either God or nature’s cosmic creativity at work in evolving all emergent forms of complexity, from molecules to societies to galaxies. In reality, of course, oligarchs are probably more stressed-out and miserable than impoverished Africans, and the American economy is rigged to provide the rich with socialist welfare (too big to fail, etc). But those are the conservative myths that rationalize the American dominance hierarchy (its oligarchy), and that have much more impact on conservative Americans’ behaviour than does anachronistic Christian theology.

  3. Thanks for your response, it clarifies it a little.

    Surprised that there are not more comments, as there is so much expressed here that should trigger discussion.

    One other thought that I had when reading this post, is how modernism and post modernism ties in to Relativism and Objectivism. I am not that deeply knowledgeable about any of these to philosophies. My instinctive feeling after having only briefly encountered these philosophies is not that positive, especially moral relativism and the view of objectivism that laissez-faire capitalism is the ideal political-economic system. Would be interesting to hear your views.

  4. I haven't yet talked much about moral relativism. Where I do talk about it, I see it and multiculturalism as features of liberalism in its postmodern stage of decline. I talk a lot about free market economics. See especially "Conservatism: Myth-Making for Oligarchy," specifically the section on libertarian conservatives. See also Sept 2011 "Scientism: Modern Pagan Religion" and "Political Correctness," at the end of the section on the Magic of Political Correctness. In fact, you can always run a Google-powered word search of this blog.

    Although in my explanation of modernism and postmodernism I don't refer to relativism directly, I do so implicitly when I say "Always on guard against hoodwinking with a myth that merely masks the speaker’s crude personal agenda, the academic postmodernist speaks in concentric circles of qualifications and apologies, taking back with one hand what’s offered with the other so that nothing is left but noise and the stench of condescension."

    Instead of owning up to anything or standing confidently for some cause, the postmodernist detaches and meekly holds all viewpoints to be equally valid--or rather equally baseless as power grabs or mere expressions of emotion, gender, or historical context. But this meekness is just a pretense, a game in which the liberal can feel superior to everyone for not being gullible enough to swallow a myth that compels an exclusivistic defense of some position. Like everyone else, the postmodern liberal has strong emotional ties to certain positions on social issues. It's just that the liberal's modern rationalistic myths are no longer compelling, and so this liberal no longer has any straightforward secular justification for her values.

  5. This is a beautiful distinction between modernism and post-modernism, and I've read a bunch regarding the always-fluctuating distinction.

    Moreover, that the postmodernist person sees him/herself as alienated cynic is very telling.

    But I wonder if you distinguish between modernity and its purported metanarrative, the Enlightenment? Knowledge in antiquity entailed the love of truth (Wahrheitsliebe) and truth in love, which meant knowledge had an erotic aspect. But the Enlightenment changed our relation to knowledge that it ended up being about power. If knowledge has become power, and power is knowledge, then thought has sunk into the sphere of politics. No longer do ideas provide ecstasy in understanding or stimulate, because our relation to truth is now suspicion and interrogation, and all thought has shifted to strategic function.

    While Enlightenment intended itself as a step towards superior understanding, away from a naive one, it was an ambivalent step, rife with mixed feelings: hope for a better POV and nostalgia for the loss of the old POV. Since the Enlightenment became a polemic attack on authority and tradition and prejudice, it got embroiled in a dispute with stubborn and recalcitrant parties who had their thumbs on the scale. Since the Enlightenment's sole credit was its superior insight, it had to shift gears and move the dialectic to a rhetorical one in order to persuade.

    But soon enough, this tactic backfired on the Enlightened thinkers. Despite turning knowledge into power, the intelligentsia began a campaign of internecine, which left us no recourse but cynicism.

    1. Thanks! This distinction is fundamental to a lot of what I say on this blog. For example, the connection between liberalism and libertarianism (classic liberalism) makes sense in those terms.

      You make a number of very interesting points about the Enlightenment. When you talk about knowledge and power, this is similar to what I say in "Scientism," "Philosophy and Social Engineering," and "Existential Cosmicism and Technology" (you can find these in the "Map of the Rants," through the link at the top right of this blog). So I think we're on the same page although we might use different words.

      Now I'm not sure I understand your last point about the cause of postmodern cynicism. I think you're saying that we want more than just technoscientific power over nature; we want meaning, such as the purpose that came with the old teleological, Aristotelian worldview. Are you saying, though, that the elites had to engage in a conflict with the Church and thus with meaning, and that's why we're forced to be cynical, because the Enlightenment worldview is insufficient? (You didn't quite finish your last sentence.)

      At any rate, this is actually central to my blog: as Nietzsche said, atheistic naturalists need myths they can believe in. The philosophy I'm working out here, which I'm calling existential cosmicism (until I think of a better name), is meant as a sketch of what the more complete Enlightenment philosophy/religion would look like.

      Mind you, I wonder whether you've left out the role of modern secret societies (Freemasonry, Illuminati, etc), which supplement the power aspect with various myths. I don't say much about this, but see "God and Science: the Ironic Theophany."

    2. Thank you for the swift reply and I will read those essays on your blog. I find your existential cosmicism very intriguing, as a matter of fact. We seem to agree on much, and I will unpack a bit more on cynical reason and the Enlightenment.

      You're right that I didn't quite finish that last sentence - closer to a fragment.

      ... cynicism - the enlightened false consciousness, the disappointed consciousness of modernity, a reflective schizophrenia that is aware of the self as a contradictory being that aspires to a dignified, rational being yet remains a selfish and irrational dupe.

      We are disappointed with the emergence of irrationality & the paralysis of reason, as well as the widening gulf between our knowledge and our actions. Enlightenment has soured us and left us stuck in self-denial while surviving a society yoked to instrumental rationality. Modernity churns out the perfect citizen: masochists who manage their depression in order to continue working. We sacrifice ourselves and force others to compromise. As cynics, amidst lost innocence, we yearn for pleasure of power and knowledge. Enlightenment promised us the utter victory of reason, but left us a world gripped by irrational forces (will to power and knowledge) and epistemological anarchy.

      The only thing left to us post-moderns is disappointment, disenchantment, that there's no way out of the rubble of failed ideals. Our excessive focus on survival has yielded a nasty political realism, and this corrosive realism has exhausted itself in its excessive overkill by the end of the 20th century. The atomic bomb is the ultimate expression of Western philosophy - the objectification of the will to power that underlies every desire of self-survival. Moreover, the bomb is also the termination of the Western subject. Enlightenment philosophy is utterly allied with the efforts to guard ourselves, within and without.

      Is there a counter-philosophy, a counter-movement to the bomb and ourselves?