Moe Syzslak called it “weird for the sake of weird.” But back in my academy days, whenever I’d interact with self-identified analytic philosophers, they’d often make fun of ‘post-modernism’ as an idea. Or else outright spit abuse at it.
This is one reason I never entirely warmed to the broad style of analytic philosophy – I could always sense a futile anger in that history of contempt for alternative approaches to writing and thinking. I’d think, “Really? You’re going to get that angry about this?”
|I would genuinely like to know if this makes a good
metaphor to explain what postmodernism is. Please
let me know in the comments, or on Twitter.
But the term postmodern, in its very simplest conception, just means that modernity is over. There was once a thing called modernism, modernity, the modern. An approach to the world and life. A particular set of broad presumptions about how humanity and the universe worked.
So the word postmodern means that, whatever those presumptions are, they no longer hold. The world has changed, and it’s made modernity obsolete.
Like all the traffic signs that remain visible over the waterline of a flooded city. You can see them, you know what they mean, but the roads they’re built to control are five feet below you and you're in a motorboat.
Antonio Negri refers a lot to the postmodern era in Empire and this is exactly what he means every time. Now, he often discusses different aspects of this transition and what’s changed. But if you understand this sense of the term as the most basic, always underlying the more specific explorations, you’ll never scratch your head in any discussion of postmodernism again.
Not as much, anyway.
That transition from modern to postmodern will be a central idea to analyze in my own book Utopias. One image of perfection and progress was shattered in the West. Another had to replace it, but it was going to be a tough battle to work out what that new image would be.
And modernity’s image of social progress was intrinsically corrupt: it depended on the ascendance of a state and a bureaucracy over all of society. More than that, the development of the state was seen in mainstream Western culture as the highest achievement of humanity.
The apologists of imperialism and the European conquest, genocide, and exploitation of foreign peoples weren’t aberrations. Most people excuse the evil actions of their society as grounded in a higher virtue. And they actually believe this higher virtue, because otherwise they’d have to admit that they’re justifying piracy and violence.
|You can't turn away from or justify the violence of
your own society and politics when it starts to turn on
So you had John Stuart Mill – who is standard reading in introductory moral philosophy courses – arguing seriously that England had a moral duty to occupy and control India to rise their civilization up to the most advanced culture of the West. People used to believe genuinely in the White Man’s Burden as a real moral mission of Europe.
The First World War was the moment when that moral illusion had to shatter. Of course, no one realized it all at once. But this is what happens when a bunch of states who’ve defined their entire existence through the mission of conquering the world have run out of space.
They have nowhere left to invade but each other. The First World War was when the imperialist states of Europe brought their full military might on each other. Blackadder was right.* For the first time, the powerful industrialized nations of Europe were fighting enemies of comparable technological power.
* "Well, you see, George, I did like it, back in the old days when the prerequisite of a British campaign was that the enemy should under no circumstances carry guns -- even spears made us think twice. The kind of people we liked to fight were two feet tall and armed with dry grass."
Stalemate could be the only result. And stalemate with military technology powerful enough to conquer the world and kill millions of people from Africa to India and China had the actual results you'd expect.
Empires of conquest weren’t the leading edge of social progress. They were devastating military machines. The dream was gone because we realized that it masked a nightmare.
And some of the people with the deepest, most terrifying insight into that nightmare were the philosophers who lived in the period surrounding the First World War. They were prophets of modernity’s unmasking, conquest’s betrayal of itself to the conquerors themselves.
They looked into the face of terror, and had to deal with the fact that it was their own faces. . . . To be continued