To Postmodernism and Beyond:
12 Tips for Untangling Yourself from Postmodern Confusion
A few existential antibiotics for the effective treatment of postmodern-induced uncertainty
"Reality isn't what it used to be."
- Walter Truett Anderson
Untangling yourself from postmodernism is no easy task.
“Postmodernism” and “confusion” seem to go together like oxygen and air. There might be no such thing as postmodernism without confusion. If you could subtract out all confusion, postmodernism itself might cease to exist.
But if we untangle ourselves from a few key postmodern ideas, we might rediscover a sweet sense of clarity that somehow went missing sometime in the recent past.
And that’s our goal here: to clear some fog.
The “fog of postmodernism” goes something roughly like this:
Nobody knows anything. Nothing really means anything. And the opposite: anything can mean anything. Anything anyone thinks can be deconstructed. Everything anybody says is wrong, if you want it to be. So, do what you want. Believe what you want. Nothing matters. Have fun!
Does that sound strange? And confusing?
Exactly. Welcome to postmodernism.
The underlying cause of much of this confusion is simple: bad ideas.
Ideas often spread like germs, and we often wind up encountering them much in the same way that we catch a cold – without knowing it.
It all starts with somebody getting a bad idea. Then they share it with others, and it catches. Then it’s just in the air. Then we get infected, and it’s inside us. We don’t know how or why, necessarily, but we’re still suffering from it.
But instead of sneezing, in this particular case, we just find ourselves in a foggy-headed haze of confusion. The “PoMo Flu.”
This particular strain, by our read on the matter, is an inevitable side-effect of living through "The Death of God," which is our way of describing the general climate of what we're experiencing today. The idea here is inoculate ourselves against it, so whatever happiness, sanity, and inner strength we have stays safe and protected through it all.
Or maybe we can approach this from a different way.
Maybe Postmodernism works more like fairy tales.
In most fairy tales, good kings or queens see their kingdom flourish. When there’s a good king or queen, citizens are generally happy and successful, nature is green and thriving, and everyone is whistling or singing.
Bad kings or queens, on the other hand, see their kingdom wither. Citizens are usually poor and miserable, nature is cold and barren, and almost everyone is fearful, distrustful and hostile.
The bad kings typically create this sorry state of affairs in ways that are entirely predictable. Lack of self-awareness, for example, is one key ingredient. Another is that they come up with rules that everyone else must follow, except for themselves. They give themselves a pass for all of their own rules.
“No bonbons for anyone! All bonbon-eating is hereby banned! By royal decree!” the king declares. But of course, the king himself, on the other hand, eats all the bonbons he wants. The rules apply to others, but not to him.
Ideas are often like the kings or queens in fairy tales.
Certain ideas can be like bad kings or queens.
Ideas can cast a spell of confusion, mistrust, and despair across the entire kingdom (although instead of “kingdom,” in this sense, it’s an individual person.) They can also declare a lot of rules for everyone else, but avoid adhering by those rules themselves.
They’re phony, in other words. Or in fancier words, it’s a “performative contradiction” – they say one thing and do another. The old-fashioned word for this is “hypocritical.” Or maybe more simply: “it contradicts itself.”
Certain postmodern ideas are “bad” in this manner. Or really, to be fair: the ideas themselves are sometimes fine. They have some grains of truth in them. But then folks over-apply them, and make them the sole explanation for everything. And this overreach makes them toxic, germy, and fog-inducing.
We’ve gathered twelve examples here.
1) “All truth is subjective.”
That statement above makes an objective claim about “all truth.”
See the trick there?
Is the statement that “all truth is subjective” objectively true? If it isn’t, then that claim is meaningless. If it is, then that means that all truth actually isn’t subjective.
It’s like a king declaring, “All human beings are always wrong about everything. Except for me.” “All truth is subjective, except for the idea that all truth is subjective. That one is objective. That one gets a pass. I hereby declare that no one else gets to eat bonbons. Except for me.”
The grain of truth here is that some truths are subjective.
It just overreaches when it makes this claim for “all truth.”
2) “The only truth is what we can see and prove.”
This statement itself isn’t anything we can see or prove.
We can assume it, sure. We can declare it, and argue for it. But if this statement is really true, then we should be able to see and prove that statement itself. And if we can’t see and prove it, then it must not be true.
The grain of truth here is that being able to see and prove things does make things much easier.
It just overreaches when it makes the claim that truth is only what we can see and prove. Or, as it is often used: anything we can’t see and demonstrably prove isn’t true. Some things you can see and prove, and that’s great. But there are also plenty of things that we can’t see and prove that are true.
For example, think of someone you love. Then, let’s imagine that you make a claim: “I love that person.” A skeptic, then, would ask you to prove it. Assuming the skeptic was determined and clever enough, he or she would remain unconvinced. (Proving stuff to skeptics can be surprisingly difficult.) But your ability to prove it or not doesn’t make your love any less true.
3) “Nobody knows anything.”
This statement claims that we know that nobody knows anything.
Do we know this for sure? If we do, then it isn’t true. (Because we do know that.) Or if we don’t know this, then we’re uncertain about it. Which leaves the door open that somebody might know something.
Again, this idea is making the claim: no bonbons for you. Only for me.
The grain of truth here is that, of course, there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world. We often think we know things that we eventually discover to be illusions.
It just overreaches when it makes this a declarative, categorical, universal claim. Just because we don’t know some things doesn’t mean we don’t know anything.
(Quick side note: More information is available to us today than any known generation throughout history. Yet in the midst of all this, many of us feel less certain about what we really know. Interesting, right?)
4) “There are no grand metanarratives.”
This statement is a grand metanarrative.
Is it true that there are no epic, sweeping, comprehensive stories that encompass everything? If it is, well, that’s a pretty epic, sweeping, comprehensive story that encompasses everything, isn't it?
The grain of truth here is that some traditional “grand metanarratives” have problems, bugs, inconsistencies, and so on.
It just overreaches when it claims that no grand metanarratives exist. Perhaps they do, but we just don’t understand them yet, or haven’t discovered or fully articulated them yet.
5) “We’re nothing but atoms, molecules, and brain chemistry.”
That statement was written by a human that is “nothing but” atoms, molecules, and brain chemistry.
The sentence above is a statement about the nature of human beings. It’s form of toxic reductionism that’s very popular these days. It implicitly assumes that a whole is “nothing but” its parts. It reduces things down to the level of their components.
For example, saying that a brick, a tree, and a dog are “nothing but” atoms implies that there’s no essential difference between a brick, and tree, and a dog. And if we’re playing that game, we could say that the sentence “we’re nothing but atoms, molecules, and brain chemistry” is “nothing but” a bunch of letters, or black marks, or pixels. In which case, why would we bother reading it? Or writing it?
But someone did write it, and if you’re reading this, right now, it’s because there’s something happening on an entirely different level than mere letters, marks, or pixels. When you arrange pixels into letters, and letters into words, and words into sentences, you can suddenly discover that an entirely new something appears: meaning. Which is to say, the words mean something. And that statement – “we’re nothing but X” – is one human trying to describe a truth to another, which is a process taking place way beyond mere atoms.
The grain of truth here is that, yes, atoms, molecules, and brain chemistry are elements that serve as part of our physical makeup.
It just overreaches when it makes the claim that this is all we are. It goes too far when it presumes that we’re “nothing but” those things. Toxic reductionism gone rampant excludes a lot of life, and a lot of the important stuff.
6) “No view is superior to any other.”
This view is claiming to be superior to all others.
If this statement is true, then the idea that “no view is superior to any other” isn’t superior to the view that “some views are superior to others.” If you have a telescope and I have my head stuck in a hole in the ground, your view of the stars is superior to mine. And that's OK. If I want a better view, I should pull my head out of the hole.
All to say, this view tries to be superior by using a dirty trick of kneecapping every other view – except for itself, of course. Bonbons for me, it says, but not for you.
The grain of truth here is that some views think they’re superior when they really aren’t.
It just overreaches when it makes the claim that no view is ever superior to any other, ever.
7) “No one should judge anyone else.”
This statement is a judgment on judging.
“No one should judge” is a moral claim. It declares something that we “should” or “shouldn’t” do. If it’s true that we shouldn’t judge, then that would include the judgment that “judging is bad” and “not judging is good” – both of which are, of course, judgments.
All of which presumes that it’s possible to not judge. And that seems to be something we can’t not do. (It’s similar to choosing: if you choose not to decide, you have still made a choice.) And of course, nobody actually lives by this on a consistent basis, in real life. Why? Because it’s impossible. This phrase is usually just pulled out at certain moments when it’s convenient.
The grain of truth here is that, of course, some folks are moralistic finger-waggers, which those on the other end of the finger generally tend to dislike. “Don’t judge,” then, in some cases, can sometimes just be a way of saying “leave me alone, and let me do what I want.”
It just overreaches when it becomes its own form of finger-wagging.
8) “Nothing matters.”
This statement is claiming that nothing matters, and it matters that nothing matters.
If nothing truly matters, then nihilism being true or not wouldn’t matter, either. Yet if someone is at least bothering to say this, they must believe on some level that something matters. Even if that “something” is what they think is a core insight into how things really work.
The grain of truth here is that some things, to the best of our knowledge, truly don’t matter. (A lot of celebrity gossip, for example.)
It just overreaches when it makes a declarative, categorical, universally-applicable statement that nothing matters. Maybe it’s true that a lot of stuff really doesn’t matter, but that doesn’t mean none of it does.
9) “There is no truth, only opinion.”
Is this statement an opinion?
If it is just an opinion, then it isn’t really saying anything about how the world actually works. It’s just one opinion being declared among many. But if it’s not just an opinion, then there actually is truth beyond opinion.
The grain of truth here is that folks are endlessly confusing their opinions with the truth, and the truth with mere opinions. And sorting that out is no small task.
It just overreaches when it claims that there is no truth, or grains thereof, and there’s only opinion. Just because opinions are sometimes confused with truth doesn’t mean that’s always the case.
10) “Truth is just opinion held by those in power.”
This statement claims to be actually true, and not merely an opinion held by someone in power.
If the above statement is really true, then it’s actually just an opinion held by those in power. Which is to say, it isn’t true. Or, if it’s really true, and not just an opinion held by those in power, then truth isn’t just opinion held by those in power.
The grain of truth here is that folks with power usually have a much easier time telling their side of the story. And folks without power generally have a much harder time of it.
It just overreaches when it claims that this is how it works all the time.
11) “The only thing we can trust is science.”
That isn’t a scientific statement.
If the only thing we can trust is science, then there must be a wealth of peer-reviewed, falsifiable, replicatable, publicly demonstrable empirical experiments that confirm that only science is trustworthy and nothing else is. But there aren’t any of those – not that we know of, anyway – which, according to that statement, would mean that we can’t trust science.
(Also, to be fair, this isn’t really a tenet of postmodernism itself. But it is something often said these days, in our postmodern age.)
The grain of truth here is that we can trust science in a lot of areas.
It just overreaches when it claims that it’s the only thing we can trust. Things that we can discover through falsifiable, replicatable, publicly demonstrable empirical experiments and so on are great, of course. But there’s a great deal of reality that just doesn’t fit into that box. It can be like looking at reality through a keyhole: some things you can see very well. There’s just more going on than what you can see through that keyhole.
12) “There is nothing outside the text.”
This statement, though, is claiming to be “outside the text.”
This is a little morsel from Derrida that (if we’re allowed to say something means something, which we probably aren’t) probably means something roughly like this: there’s no ultimate, final authority that endows any communication with “outside,” objective truth or universal meaning. It’s not saying that there’s no such thing as objective reality; it’s just saying there’s no one around who really knows anything about it.
But Derrida, in saying that, is slyly claiming to give us the skinny on objective truth and universal meaning. (Because he's allowed to, even though none of the rest of us are.) And even if it’s to say that he doesn’t think it exists.
The grain of truth here is that many things can be viewed or understood by multiple perspectives, and measured in different. You say tomato, I say tomaaahto; either way, it tastes the same in spaghetti sauce.
It just overreaches when it claims that there is always, categorically, universally nothing “outside the text,” in all cases, without exception. Sometimes, there’s a high degree of intersubjectivity, for example, where many folks come to the exact same conclusion about something that’s supposed to be unknowable. Which makes it hard to imagine that there really isn’t something “outside the text.”
"Philosophy makes progress not by becoming more rigorous
but by becoming more imaginative."
- Richard Rorty
So, where does this leave us?
Hopefully, better off.
Hopefully we can exit this little exploration with a little more clarity, a bit less confusion, a slightly greater appreciation that things aren’t always as simple as some of the popular sloganeering might lead us to believe.
And to be fair, none of this is meant to be seen as exhaustive, original, or comprehensive. We aren’t trying to pick on Derrida, for example, by misrepresenting and then dismissing him. There’s a lot more to him, and all this, and to all of us, than what we can capture in a few words.
So, where do we go from here?
We could go in several different directions from this point.
From here, for example, we could explore how logic often winds up curling back on itself and biting itself in the butt. (Something both Kant and Nagarjuna noted a long time ago.) Nothing like a few antinomies to get a party started, as the saying goes. Or not.
We could talk about how paradoxes often look to us like the seams of the universe, where the stitching together of two different pieces of fabric don’t quite match up. (Something August Turak noted a while back.) Nothing feels quite like a nice, clear, buggy glitch in the Matrix.
We could delve into Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, which roughly demonstrate mathematically that no formal system can be both consistent and complete, and the effort to find something that’s both is mathematically impossible. Which seems to parallel our explorations above. Which is to say, we could take each of the statements above, and if we see it as complete, then it seems to become inconsistent. Or if we see it as consistent, then it seems to become complete. So, in a strange way, it can all seem to be not one, and not the other, and not both, and not neither. And so the answer, then, seems to be whatever’s left after those options.
Which brings us to paradoxical thinking, where things are a bit more fluid, nonlinear, and intuitive than the normal 2+2, straight-line kind of thing. This is a realm with a bit more wiggle room, where different, seemingly contradictory truths can sometimes reveal themselves to be complementary. Which can sometimes be a pretty cool thing.
Hopefully, all of this can help us to avoid a few existential sand traps.
It can be a good thing sometimes to just appreciate the simple complexity of things without falling into nihilism, narcissism or total confusion.
Wherever we do wander from here, hopefully there will be a little less fog.
So we can enjoy a better view.
And eat all the bon-bons we want.
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