For decades we’ve been hearing about the problem of Postmodernism. I suppose I get, in a vague sort of way, what people mean by this: moral relativism, mistrust of objectivity and scientific, religious, and other authorities, “incredulity toward metanarratives,” as Jean-Francois Lyotard defined the term in The Postmodern Condition in 1979.
Don’t we find much of this radical skepticism in the work of David Hume? The Cynics? Or Nietzsche (a Postmodern ancestor, but also claimed by Pragmatist and Existentialist thinkers)? A problem with blanket critiques of Postmodernism is that the word has never represented a cohesive school of thought (nor, for that matter, has Existentialism).
The term derives from an architectural movement of the 1960s that is, itself, impossible to clearly define since it intentionally grafts together approaches and traditions in experiments that celebrate kitschy excesses of style and that defy narrative coherence. Postmodern architecture gave us modern malls and multiplexes, aiding and abetting late capitalist sprawl. (But this is another story….)
Lyotard certainly fit the stereotype of the Postmodernist philosopher, with his lifetime of socialist activism and theoretical hybrids of Marx and Freud. He gets little credit, though he put the term in circulation in philosophy. Instead, Michel Foucault is often cited as a significant influence, though he rejected the categorization and thought of himself as a modernist.
Many a survey of Postmodern thought, such as this YouTube video series by Then & Now, begins with Foucault. The series covers other thinkers we don’t always see put in this box, like sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and 19th century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Nietzsche appears, of course, in two parts, as well as Eve Sedgwick, Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.
But in many ways, Foucault may be the best place to begin. As professor of philosophy Scott Moore writes:
If postmodernism is understood as a rejection of… an Enlightenment point of view… one that is characterized by a detached, autonomous, objective rationality… then Foucault is surely a postmodernist. Turning Bacon on his head, Foucault affirmed that it is not the case that knowledge is power, but power is knowledge. Meaning, those people who have power (social, political, etc.) always decide what will or will not be counted as “knowledge.”
Unlike, however, many later cultural theorists who inherited the cumbersome label, Foucault looked not to the present or the future in his work, but to the past, re-interpreting primary sources from ancient Rome to the post-WWI global economic order, through several different disciplinary lenses.
Then & Now creator Lewis Waller takes a postmodern approach to this series himself. In the video “Detachment, Objectivity, Imagination: A Critique,” he makes a case that Romantic historians like Michelet, Thierry, and Carlyle had a “better understanding of the reality of the historian’s craft than the scientifically minded did.” It’s a contrarian argument that begins with Sir Walter Scott and that may unsettle your preconceptions of what the catch-all term Postmodernism might include.
See more videos from the series above and watch all of them on YouTube. You may or may not feel like you have a better sense of what Postmodernism means in general. If we take it as shorthand for the loss of unchallenged heteropatriarchal power, then it is, I suppose, a problem for many people. If we take it to mean a mode of thought that “problematizes” seemingly simple concepts we mistake for the very structure of reality, then it “is also an attitude,” writes Moore, “and it has been most artfully practiced by Socrates, St. Augustine, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and a host of others.”
Maybe Postmodernism has appeared in every period of philosophical and literary history. Only it hasn’t always been so… well… so overwhelmingly French, which could have had more than a little to do with its negative reputation in Anglophone countries. Put your metanarratives aside and learn more here.