A Postmodern Condition?

A Postmodern Condition?

There was a time when the word “postmodern” functioned as a shibboleth in Christian circles. Growing up in conservative evangelicalism, I was taught that postmodernism was the root from which all the baser aspects of contemporary culture grew. By abandoning the concept of absolute truth and the demands of a transcendent moral law, postmodern philosophers not only endorsed complete relativism, but, in so doing, also justified the untrammeled hedonism of consumer culture. Given this definition, the Christian response was seemingly clear. To avoid the perils of relativism and hedonism, it was necessary to obey the absolute truth of God’s word as articulated by the preacher (whose message conveniently corresponded to the unreflective opinions of the congregation). In contrast, according to progressive evangelicals, postmodernism was a means by which to expunge the elements of pagan culture that had corrupted the purity of the Christian faith. According to progressives, institutional Christianity had made a Mephistophelian pact with the Roman Empire from the time of Constantine (or even St. Paul). On this reading, postmodernism, by abandoning logocentrism, allows us to purge Christianity from the corrupting influence of pagan philosophy and follow the pure teaching of Jesus as articulated by the preacher (whose message, again, conveniently corresponded to the unreflective opinions of the congregation). Thus, regardless of which side one took in the dispute, one couldn’t deny the contemporary importance of postmodernism. It constituted an ideological line in the sand, forcing one to take a stand either for or against it. Whether right or wrong, it was taken to be something momentous.

This is now no longer the case. Over the last several years it has become clear that postmodernism now no longer has the intellectual energy it once did. This might seem strange given that within popular culture controversies about postmodernism, “cultural Marxism”, and the antics of so-called social justice warriors seem to be more strident than ever. But note the negligible role that actual postmodern theory plays in these altercations. At best there is a vague reference to power (interpreted through the lens of intersectional feminism), and, at worst, words disappear entirely under the threat of brute physical force. What use is French theory when it’s easy to punch a Nazi?

The decline of postmodernism’s intellectual appeal can be accounted for in several ways. First, and perhaps most straightforwardly, one could argue that postmodernism is false. Another strategy would be to claim that postmodernism fell victim to its own success. As postmodernism colonized the humanities, it gained adherents but lost intellectual quality. Though the major postmodern philosophers were critics of the broader philosophical tradition, they were nonetheless steeped in it. One cannot understand Lyotard, Derrida, and Foucault, for example, without a familiarity with the philosophies of Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche. But as postmodernism was adopted by fields that lacked an adequate background in philosophy, a generation of scholarship emerged capable only of citing dogmatic formulations without being able to understand the seminal texts of postmodernism. This, one could argue, is one of the primary sources for the current mobification of the university.

While there is an element of truth to these explanations, I am interested in exploring what I take to be a more substantial reason for postmodernism’s decline. I suspect that the primary reason for the intellectual collapse of postmodernism is that it fails to offer a plausible ground for its hopes. To this end, I propose to examine one of the central texts of postmodern theory, Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.

This work contains Lyotard’s famous definition of postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives.”[1] A metanarrative (métarécit), for Lyotard, is a big story (grand récit) that explains and legitimates a smaller story (petit récit). So, for example, one’s own little story of growing up and enduring the drudgery of school can be explained and legitimated by appealing to a bigger story, such as that of learning to be a responsible citizen in a democratic nation state. It is this grander story of the progress of the nation that gives meaning to the details of one’s private story of going to school through one’s childhood and shows why the tedium was worthwhile. This, then, is how Lyotard distinguishes between the modernity and postmodernity: Moderns accept metanarratives whereas postmoderns reject them.[2]

Lyotard is often read as offering this definition with glee. On this reading, Lyotard celebrates the collapse of modernity since it allows us to develop our own personal narratives apart from the carceral grasp of a metanarrative. But, when examined more closely, Lyotard’s account of the shift from the modern to the postmodern condition proves to be a good deal more pessimistic. Lyotard notes that this shift was inaugurated by the the advent of computerized society. He observes that the appearance of this new technology brought with it a revolution in society on the scale of previous technological revolutions, and, as a result, fundamentally changed our definition of knowledge:

the nature of knowledge cannot survive unchanged within the context of general transformation. It can fit into the new channels and become operational, only if learning can be translated into quantities of information…. Along with the hegemony of computers comes a certain logic, and therefore a certain set of prescriptions are accepted as ‘knowledge’ statements.[3]

According to this new model, knowledge must be reduced to information and harnessed to facilitate commerce. Within such a society “knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorized in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange. Knowledge ceases to be an end in itself, it loses its ‘use-value.’”[4] In this manner, knowledge becomes intelligible only as a mode of capitalist exchange:

It is not hard to visualize learning circulating along the same lines as money, instead of for its ‘educational’ value or political (administrative, diplomatic, military) importance; the pertinent distinction would no longer be between knowledge and ignorance, but rather, as is the case with money, between ‘payment knowledge’ and ‘investment knowledge’—in other words, between units of knowledge exchanged in a daily maintenance framework (the reconstitution of the work force, ‘survival’) versus funds of knowledge dedicated to optimizing the performance of a project.[5]

This, then, is the context in which Lyotard introduces the loss of metanarratives. The process of becoming postmodern is a process in which knowledge becomes a commodity. In such a society education would not focus on truth but on productivity:

The question (overt or implied) now asked by the professionalist student, the State, or institutions of higher education is no longer ‘Is it true?’ but ‘What use is it?” in the context of mercanitilization of knowledge, more often than not this question is equivalent to: ‘Is it saleable?’ and in the context of power-growth: ‘is it efficient?’ Having competence in a performance-oriented skill does indeed seem saleable in the conditions described above, and it is efficient by definition. What no longer makes the grade is competence as defined by other criteria true/ false, just/ unjust, etc.[6]

In other words, the basic social force Lyotard identifies as ushering in the postmodern age is precisely what contemporary theorists would decry as neo-liberalism. It is this new totalizing demand for efficiency that renders traditional metanarratives implausible. In such a context, we can no longer believe in a self or knower that can be developed through education as the old German ideal of Bildung maintained. “The old principle that the acquisition of knowledge is indissociable from the training (Bildung) of minds, or even of individuals, is becoming obsolete and will become ever more so.”[7] Likewise, since nation-states are ceding their sovereignty to multi-national corporations, traditional metanarratives of democracy and citizenship also fall on deaf ears. It is no longer possible to believe in the hero of liberty and that “all people have a right to science.”[8] Lyotard thus sums up the situation as follows: “What is new in all of this is that the old poles of attraction represented by nation-states, parties, professions, institutions, and historical traditions are losing their attraction. And it does not look as though they will be replaced, at least not on their former scale. Each individual is referred to himself. And each of us knows that our self does not amount to much.”[9]

If this is the catalyst for postmodernism, there is little reason to think that its arrival would be liberating or that it would usher in a more just social order. Rather, it gives us reason to doubt that knowledge and justice could correlate with one another.[10] If knowledge is a commodity to be bought and sold like any other, the sole criterion by which it will be evaluated will be efficiency, and efficiency and justice can diverge radically. So, it seems that the postmodern condition would be more naturally greeted by mourning rather than celebration.

But, surprisingly, Lyotard’s only response to such pessimism is to assert that it has become passé:

Turn-of-the-century Vienna was weaned on this pessimism: not just artists such as Musil, Kraus, Hofmannsthal, Loos, Schoenberg, and Broch, but also the philosophers Mach and Wittgenstein. They carried awareness of a theoretical and artistic responsibility for deligitimation as far as it could be taken. We can say today that the mourning process has been completed. There is no need to start all over again. Wittgenstein’s strength is that he did not opt for the positivism that was being developed by the Vienna Circle, but outlined in his investigation of language games a kind of legitimation not based on performativity. That is what the postmodern world is all about. Most people have lost nostalgia for the lost narrative. It in no way follows that they are reduced to barbarity. What saves them from it is their knowledge that legitimation can only spring from their own linguistic practice and communicational interaction.[11]

Lyotard’s central contention is thus that we are now at a stage in history where mourning for the collapse of meaning is no longer appropriate; we now have no desire for a nostalgia for lost times (and their metanarratives). Interpreted weakly, Lyotard should be understood as making the sociological claim that people don’t feel pessimistic about the loss of metanarratives. Perhaps this is true and Lyotard is reporting on French insouciance, but he also appears to be making a stronger claim when he asserts that society needn’t be reduced to barbarity on such a scenario. The worry that the lack of metanarratives would reduce us to barbarity suggests that Lyotard is making the normative claim that we shouldn’t feel pessimistic about the loss of metanarratives.

But Lyotard’s response to the concern that the loss of metanarratives will lead to barbarism is inadequate. He contends that there is something about the very nature of language games (Sprachspiele), that can allow one to resist barbarism. Yet this response is puzzling since any language game, even tyrannical ones, could satisfy such desiderata. Lyotard later attempts to spell out his argument more clearly by appealing to the nature of science, maintaining that what he calls paralogy[12] can offer a postmodern account of legitimation.

Lyotard’s argument amounts to the contention that scientific progress requires criticism in two key aspects. First, the practice of science requires scientists to dispute and refute each other’s claims. Science, on this understanding, is meant to operate through conflict rather than mere consensus. Second, scientific progress requires the ability to dispute not only the particular factual claims of scientists, but also the entire scientific framework governing one’s research. For example, Copernicans were not confined to disputing epicycles but had the ability to challenge the Ptolemaic system as a whole. Lyotard concludes that, since such instability is essential for science, science can give us an account of legitimation that does not depend on metanarratives. He calls this paralogy and claims that we can, in this manner, reconnect knowledge and justice. [13] “This sketches the outline of a politics that would respect both the desire for justice and the desire for the unknown.”[14]

But Lyotard’s more substantial account is no less problematic than his original formulation. For, apart from the traditional metanarrative justifications of the progress of science (e.g. the duty to uncover the truth, the right to free inquiry, wonder at the divine order in nature, etc.), there is little reason to believe scientific practice to be better than any other language game or to trust that there is such a thing as scientific progress. Lyotard points to the practice of science as a legitimation of paralogy, but what legitimates scientific practice? Given what Lyotard has noted earlier about the advent of computerized societies, it would seem that the most plausible, and perhaps the only, legitimation of science would be its contribution to the production of monetary value. But, if the ultimate legitimation of scientific practice is its production of monetary value, then paralogy itself will be subsumed and legitimated by the logic of commerce. Thus, there would, in fact, be no way out of the tyranny of efficiency.

This, I contend is the fundamental reason why postmodernism falls flat today. Lyotard has failed to adequately ground his hopes for the postmodern condition. As a result, postmodernism not only faces deep theoretical difficulties, but it also no longer appears to be an adequate sociological account of developed nations such as the US. The past few years have been marked by a renewed nostalgia for metanarratives across all dimensions of the political spectrum, with the right looking to the concept of the nation state and to religious norms and the left looking to traditional Marxism. On both sides of the divide, there is a sense that something has been lost by reducing all values to the values of commerce. We yearn for a framework to make sense of the chaos and to carve out a refuge for the human spirit. The facile optimism of traditional postmodernism is thus no longer available to us. Lyotard was wrong: the work of mourning has not yet been completed. We need to face nostalgia head on and come to grips with the extent of our loss. Only then, perhaps, will redemption come.

© Peter Yong

[1] Jean-François Lyotard, Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge trans. Bennington and Masumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002, xxiv.

[2] “I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal ot some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermenutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.” Lyotard, Postmodern, xiii.

[3] Ibid, 4.

[4] Ibid, 4-5.

[5] Ibid, 6.

[6] Ibid, 51.

[7] Ibid, 4.

[8] Ibid, 31.

[9] Ibid, 14-15.

[10] Ibid, 40.

[11] Ibid, 41.

[12] One wonders whether Lytard is trying to invoke Kant’s paralogisms of pure reason.

[13] One wonders how this differs from Hegel’s claim that scientific progress is generated through determinate negation. If it doesn’t, it is not clear why Lyotard thinks he has progressed past the metaphysical metanarrative of the German Idealists.

[14] Ibid, 67.

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