The Postmodern Rebel


I’ve been reading up on postmodernism lately to get a deeper, philosophical sense of this multitasking, low calorie, auto-updating world we live in. This article is pretty informative; allow me to highlight what it identifies as the key features of the postmodern age. I’d say it’s a pretty competent summary.

(1) The quest for truth is a lost cause. It is a search for a “holy grail” that doesn’t exist and never did. Postmodernists argue that objective, universal, knowable truth is mythical; all we have ever found in our agonized search for Truth are “truths” that were compelling only in their own time and culture, but true Truth has never been ours. Furthermore, if we make the mistake of claiming to know the Truth, we are deluded at best and dangerous at worst.

(2) A person’s sense of identity is a composite constructed by the forces of the surrounding culture. Individual consciousness–a vague, “decentered” collection of unconscious and conscious beliefs, knowledge, and intuitions about oneself and the world–is malleable and arrived at through interaction with the surrounding culture. Postmodernism then, in stark contrast to modernism, is about the dissolving of the self. From the postmodernist perspective, we should not think of ourselves as unique, unified, self-conscious, autonomous persons.

(3) The languages of our culture (the verbal and visual signs we use to represent the world to ourselves) literally “construct” what we think of as “real” in our everyday existence. In this sense, reality is a “text” or “composite” of texts, and these texts (rather than the God-created reality) are the only reality we can know. Our sense of self–who we are, how we think of ourselves, as well as how we see and interpret the world and give ourselves meaning in it–is subjectively constructed through language.

(4) “Reality” is created by those who have power. One of postmodernism’s preeminent theorists, Michel Foucault, combines the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas about how those in power shape the world with a theory of how language is the primary tool for making culture. Foucault argues that whoever dominates or controls the “official” use of language in a society holds the key to social and political power. (Think, for example, of how official political “spin” control of specific words and phrases can alter the public perception of political decisions, policies, and events.) Put simply, Nietzsche said all reality is someone’s willful, powerful construction; Foucault says language is the primary tool in that construction.

(5) We should neutralize the political power inherent in language by “deconstructing” it. Another leading postmodernist, Jacques Derrida, theorizes that the language we use when we make statements always creates a set of opposite beliefs, a “binary,” one of which is “privileged” and the other of which is “marginalized,” and the privileged belief is always favored. For example, if one says “Honey is better for you than white sugar,” this statement of opinion has “privileged” honey over white sugar. In the arena of morals one might say “Sex should only happen in marriage,” in which case the experience of sex in marriage is “privileged” and sex out of wedlock is “marginalized.” Derrida argues that all language is made up of these binaries, and they are always socially and politically loaded. “Deconstruction” is the practice of identifying these power-loaded binaries and restructuring them so that the marginalized or “unprivileged” end of the binary can be consciously focused upon and favored.

A post by Joey unearths a more creative description of the postmodern condition as articulated by G.K. Chesterton. To wit,

The new rebel is a skeptic and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty, therefore he can never be a true revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind, and the moral revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it.

Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, then he writes another book or novel in which he insults it himself.

He curses the sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it.

As a politician he cries out that war is a waste of life, then as a philosopher that all life is a waste of time.

A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself.

A man denounces marriage as a lie, then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie.

He calls the flag a bauble, then he blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble.

The man of this school goes first to a political meeting where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts, then he takes his hat and umbrella, goes on to a scientific meeting where he proves that they practically are beasts.

In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines.

In his book on politics, he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics, he attacks morality for trampling on men.

Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt; by rebelling against everything, he has lost his right to rebel against anything.

It will take another post for me to expound on how my life is steeped in the postmodern condition. Suffice to say, this has profoundly influenced my views on education, politics, and religion. This also explains the sense of weightfulness I feel towards life, which stems not from a sense of duty but of an imperative to use my power wisely not just for myself but for others too.


3 thoughts on “The Postmodern Rebel

  1. Nice summary of pomo thinking.

    I have a question: why did you post the Chesterton quote? I would say that the “modern skepticism” that Chesterton is responding to is not quite the same thing as the issues you listed above. Certainly there is overlap between modern and postmodern, but Chesterton seems to be responding to a specific skepticism of modernity that differs from postmodernity.

  2. Also…if I may….I disagree with the article you cited when it says:

    Perhaps the most general characteristics of postmodernism are fragmentation and pluralism. Our culture is rapidly reaching the point where we no longer think of ourselves in a universe but rather a multi-verse. In the postmodern worldview, transience, flux, and fragmentation describe our growing sense of how things really are. Where do we see this played out around us?

    I think that the characteristics listed in the article (that you reproduce here) actually suggest that we can (and should) deconstruct fragmented reality. Baudrillard certainly took this approach. The point is that “postmodernism” should not be equated with “fragmented” or “pluralistic.” That’s a very very big mistake. Fragmentation is occurring for many reasons in the U.S. (and elsewhere), but it has little to do with theorists like Foucault or Derrida or Nietzsche. At least, that’s my opinion. To understand the fragmentation requires many other tools.

    Fragmentation, in my opinion, is a very modern product: industrialization, consumerism, capitalism, etc. The movie Fight Club has always intrigued me, because at its core, the film presents characters who are very postmodern: searching for more wholeness and sense of connection.

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