The Cul-de-Sac of Postmodernism

I didn't know it, but I was born into a time without a center, uprooted and in flux. In many ways I think my own trajectory recapitulates (to bastardize the Haeckel's phrase) the historical trajectory of Western thought. I grew up religious, and I was as sincere a believer as I think one can be. I was born with asthma so bad that I was regularly hospitalized and more than once my mother was warned that I might not survive the night, but my belief in a creative and intelligent design filled me with such comfort that I found it impossible to be afraid. There was a plan. Whatever happened was part of it, and thus good. I wonder sometimes if this wasn't how medieval people felt for a thousand years, despite the horrors that they often endured. But just as the medieval period came to a close with the Renaissance as a new generation began to value personal experience, reason, and logic, my own love of science fractured my relationship with my childhood beliefs and led me down the path of reason. 

For me, this led to a decade long reassessment of my relationship to religion and belief until I landed firmly in a materialist philosophy. I have to say, I feel that a decade is very good compared to the three or four hundred that it took Western philosophy to move from the Renaissance to the culmination of the Age of Enlightenment. And I think that I took Enlightenment values to heart: reason as a guide for making decisions, constitutional government and individual rights as a basis for organizing society, education for all, and most of all a sense of progress. John Amos Comenius, an early Enlightenment Moravian (or Czech now), is a personal hero of mine. He laid the groundwork for the modern educational system, and he was the first to promote universal education.

The Enlightenment was over long before I was born (the French Revolution in 1789 is often used as a marker for its end), and I grew up in a modern and postmodern world. Modernism grew out of disillusionment following the horrors of the First World War, and then was firmly locked in after we repeated the whole thing with the Second World War. Modernism retreated from universal values, and especially from a sense of progress. Artists and philosophers moved towards irony and absurdity to express their feeling of losing value, and Nietzche summarized what was left when you took away universal values and the idea of progress - the will to power. Born in in the latter quarter of the 20th century, I can see that I integrated modernist sensibilities from birth. I love irony, tend towards the absurd in my humor. Modernists loved to turn old values upside down, dash tradition to pieces, and try something brand new to world, and I love all of this. But for me, it's not a belief system, rather a way of approaching the world - an attitude. The problem for many modernists was that this pretty much summarized their viewpoints as well, and they were unable to come up with a coherent belief system to guide social action.

Finally, the postmodernists (Derrida's speech in 1965 to Johns Hopkins is a handy marker for the movement's beginning) were able to articulate what the modernists had been trying to express in their minimalist music, happenings, and abstract art. Postmodernism is the era I was born into, and while the name has changed frequently (deconstructionism, structuralism, posthumanism, cyborgism), I think that its permeation of our culture is too deep to ignore. I take its claims seriously, and I think they inform many of my decisions, yet in the end, it feels difficult to move forward without resorting to the old Enlightenment values that started it all, and I wonder if there is some way to blend the two into a stronger philosophy (cyborgists should love that - but they probably won't). 

Postmodern articulated the feelings of the modernists around two keys tenets - there is no center, and people like power. A million ramifications flow from these two statements, and there is no way I can do it justice or pretend that I understand it all. But the fundamental idea isn't complex. If there is no objective truth and no universal values, then there are only preferred truths and values. Why prefer one truth or value system over another? Power. Look behind any belief system, and you will find the tendrils of power, oppressing some and privileging other. And who can deny these claims? Even a single reading of Howard Zinn's "A People's History" or Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow" should be sufficient to convince a person that privilege and power are constantly operating throughout society. The idea is horrific to me not just for the perpetuation of injustice, but also its inherently bleak take on humanity.

The human posited by postmodernists is a character from Kafka, navigating mazes of power, sometimes attaining enough agency to rebel against the current power structure, only to replace it with another one just as oppressive. The philosopher Simon Thorpe has denied this terrifying end point and argued that postmodernism can lead to revolution through interconnected grass roots movements to promote new power structures that are equal and just. But honestly, that doesn't give me much hope. For me, the postmodern world that I inhabit now feels like it's necessary to entertain fifty contradictory elements at once. I still believe the Enlightenment values of universal education, constitutional government, and reason as a tool to guide decisions, and although postmodernism correctly points out deep fundamental cracks in these ideas, what else is left? How can we make decisions as a group without reason and objective scientific truth? Is climate change a fiction? Is education? Can we agree on fundamental human rights, or is each one hiding a power grab? The postmodern viewpoint doesn't feel like it gives me any tools to build, only tools to tear down. It doesn't feel like it gives me faith in another person's charity and humanity, only a sense of suspicion of their motives. Postmodernism offers no clues as to how progress can be made because it doesn't believe in the idea of progress, only the reorganization of power structures. 

I wish I knew of some way forward, but I don't. Philosophically, I feel that we have backed ourselves into a cul-de-sac. Maybe it's possible to reinvigorate the old Enlightenment values that gave rise to the first schools, the first encyclopedias, the first hospitals, and Declaration of Independence. To dust off our belief in self-determination, the dignity of humans, and progress while still keeping our eyes open for injustice. Or have we reached the point where it just seems like an absurd hope?

Is it possible to have the heart of Voltaire and the eyes of Foucault?