Remembering Postmodernism Part One: Contingent Realities

On rereading my introductory post in this series, I realized I forgot to include an important caveat about the particularity of my perspective. To wit: I am, academically speaking, an Americanist—which is to say my principal research and teaching focus is on contemporary American literature and culture. To that end, my understanding of everything I will be talking about will be filtered through that particular lens of expertise. Postmodernism is, by definition, a global phenomenon, and as I will discuss in my next post, globalism as we know it is, to a large extent, the product of a world war in which the United States emerged as the hegemon of the Western world.

But however much the U.S. put its stamp on what we call postmodernism and postmodernity, there are many iterations specific to other nations, other cultures, other histories—not least of which is the weird Venn diagram of postmodernism and postcolonialism. Or the equally weird 1980s feedback loop between American and Japanese postmodernism.

But for the sake of keeping things simple, though I’ll be gesturing to other such iterations of the postmodern, I’ll mostly be keeping to my wheelhouse. So please chime in with all the stuff I’m leaving out.

OK, so that being said, let’s recap: my introductory post was basically about the complexity of postmodernism and the fact that there is no one definition, and that there is no unifying thread linking all aspects of postmodernism.

So let me suggest own theory of the unifying thread linking all aspects of postmodernism.

Very simply: the postmodern condition is one in which our tacit understanding is that language does not reflect reality, but that language creates reality.

Before I go further, let me stipulate that the phrase “tacit understanding” is doing the heavy lifting in that sentence: as I’ll elaborate below, there is a broad range of responses to my suggestion, not the least of which is outright hostility. An instinctive response from certain quarters to the idea that language “creates” reality would be to see it as confirmation that postmodern thought is all about absolute relativism and the denial of objective truth. As physicist and notorious anti-postmodernist Alan Sokal said in the 1990s, anyone suggesting that gravity was a social construct was welcome to walk out of his third-floor office window.

Except that neither I nor any “postmodern” thinker of any substance is suggesting that objective reality doesn’t exist, or that it only exists as something conjured from words, any more than the postmodern thinkers Sokal mocked believed we could all float up into the air if we just denied the existence of gravity or deleted the word from the dictionary. I find it’s useful in this discussion to make a distinction between “reality” and “actuality,” in which the latter is the world as it is, and the former is how we make it comprehensible to one another.1 No postmodernist thinker not holding court in a 3am dorm room blue with pot smoke seeks to deny the actuality of the world. We all inhabit bodies that feel pain and experience the sensoria of our immediate environments, and if we choose to step out of a third-floor window, it almost certainly isn’t to prove a point of about social constructionism.

In fact, the word and concept of gravity is as good a starting point as any. The word “gravity” comes to us from the Latin gravitas, which means “seriousness” and was one of the ancient Roman virtues. It also could mean dignity or importance, or the moral rigor required to undertake a task of great importance. When you consult the Oxford English Dictionary, the first three entries are (1) “the quality of being grave”; (2) “Grave, weighty, or serious character or nature; importance, seriousness”; (3) “Weighty dignity; reverend seriousness; serious or solemn conduct or demeanour befitting a ceremony, an office, etc.” Only after wading through those three entries do you get to number four, which breaks down gravity’s meanings “in physical senses,” and only at number five to you arrive at “The attractive force by which all bodies tend to move towards the centre of the earth; the degree of intensity with which a body in any given position is affected by this force, measured by the amount of acceleration produced.”

The mathematical expression of Earth’s gravity is 9.6 m/s2, which is your vertical acceleration should you jump out of a plane or Alan Sokal’s office window. A postmodernist consideration of gravity would not be skeptical of the fact that things fall, but rather would be preoccupied with how we understand it, and how the linguistic signifier “gravity” possesses meanings other than its mathematical rendering—pointing to its origins meaning seriousness and “weighty” as a metaphor referring to matters of importance, to the word’s shared root with “grave” and the semantic overlap there. One might also cite the history of how we’ve come to understand gravity, from Aristotle’s assertion that heavy objects fall because their element is of earth, and thus seek their natural state. Though the apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head is almost certainly apocryphal, it makes for a good story, even if his mathematics did not actually do much more than Aristotle to clarify not just how but also why gravity works. That had to wait for Einstein’s theories of relativity and the understanding of gravity as curvatures in space/time shaped by objects with mass. And even now, physicists still scratch their heads over the relationship between gravity and quantum mechanics.

None of which questions the actuality that objects fall to the earth at 9.6 m/s2. What it does do is get us into language games that highlight the contingency of meaning, and a simple trio of facts that I always lead off with in my first-year classes: all language is descriptive; all language is metaphorical; all language is rhetorical. Which is to say, all language seeks to describe the world, it does so invariably through analogy, and it seeks to persuade. What language creates, as I said above, is a shared reality that at its best sharpens and clarifies our understanding of the actuality we all individually inhabit. Also, it’s fun: one of the great pleasures of reading a gifted poet or prose stylist is seeing the ways in which they can make you think of certain things anew by using language in challenging and novel ways. Heh, “novel” ways—see what I did there? By which I mean even the humble pun has the capacity to highlight the slipperiness of our shared vocabularies. “I don’t think you quite grasp the gravity of your situation” is a pun that has been used, among other places, in Star Trek and Doctor Who to refer to the fact that the seriousness of one’s circumstances specifically relates to the imminent danger of falling from a great height. My favourite line from Back to the Future is when Doc Brown, puzzled by Marty McFly’s constant use of the word “Heavy!” finally demands whether something has gone wrong with gravity in the future. And of course, there’s the old chestnut that there is no gravity—the Earth just sucks.

But, I can hear some people protesting, maundering about the various meanings of gravity isn’t what we’re concerned with—what we’re concerned with is postmodernism’s denial of objective truth! Which is a big deal! And yes, it would be a big deal if that were indeed the case. The problem is that the word “truth” entails some significant gradations between straightforward facts in evidence and the capital-T Truths bound up in abstractions like justice, morality, and good and evil. Your average postmodernist has no quibble with facts in evidence, but takes issue with the notion of transcendent truths—such as a concept of absolute justice, or that evil exists outside of our capacity to characterize it semantically. Where people most commonly get postmodernism wrong is in characterizing it as a denial of actuality. One suggestion that has surfaced in a significant number of think-pieces over the past several years, that Donald Trump operates out of the “postmodern playbook,” insofar as he treats reality as fungible and truth as something subject to his own whim, is also a basic misapprehension.2 Postmodernism—or, more accurately, postmodern thought—isn’t about the denial of objective truth or actuality, but the interrogation of the premises and cultural assumptions on which the conceptions of capital-T objective Truths are based.

To return to my earlier assertion and its load-bearing words: when I say that “the postmodern condition is one in which our tacit understanding is that language does not reflect reality, but that language creates reality,” I’m not necessarily asserting that language actually creates reality. (As it happens, I find this understanding completely persuasive, but that’s just me). I grasp why this idea is anathema to many, many people, especially religiously devout people who are deeply invested in the assumption of transcendent Truths that exist beyond language. Relatedly, there is also the very long idealist tradition in Western thought and philosophy that is predicated on the basic idea that there is an objective, external Truth towards which we strive, with language as our principal vehicle in doing so.3 What I’m arguing is that the postmodern condition is one in which the prospect of language creating reality isn’t necessarily something that presents itself as such, but is rather a felt experience presenting in most cases intuitively as suspicion, fear, or just a general anxiety. It is usually not articulated specifically, except by nerdy academics like myself or in angry rejections of postmodern thought by other nerdy academics.

This is what I mean by “tacit understanding”: something bound up in a broader cultural condition in which the critical mass of information and the critical mass of media through which we access information, a global economic system that is bewildering to literally everybody, technology that far outstrips the average individual’s capacity to understand it—and I could go on, but I’ll refer you back to my previous post’s bullet-points—has created a cultural condition in which the language/reality relationship has become, shall we say, unmoored. This unmooring was not the specific creation of such anti-postmodernists’ bêtes noir as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault; it is, rather—as I will be delving into in future posts—the elemental lived experience of the cultural condition of postmodernity.

Or to put it more simply: you might reject with all your being the idea that language creates reality, but you live in a world so thoroughly suffused by consumerism, so fractured by the multiplicity of disparate media platforms, so atomized by digital culture, that your lived reality is one in which any access to what you consider objective truth is rendered at best deeply fraught and at worst impossible. Those who wonder at the lunacy of QAnon really need only understand this basic dimension of the postmodern condition: namely, that when people’s sense of reality becomes unmoored they will often latch onto epistemic systems that give them a sense of order (no matter how batshit that system might be). Conspiracy theorizing and conspiracy-based paranoia of course long predate the postmodern era, but they find particularly fertile ground in a situation where reality itself feels contingent and slippery.

By the same token, “the imagination of disaster”—as Susan Sontag called it in her classic 1965 essay—has become pervasive, either imagining extinction-level events (alien invasion, asteroid headed for Earth, etc.) that are ultimately averted after much destruction, and which re-establish a sense of order; or, increasingly, depicting post-apocalyptic scenarios in which civilization has collapsed and survivors navigate a new sparsely populated world. Both are fantasies of return: in the first case to a society in which we can have faith in our institutions, in the latter to a more elemental existence shorn of the distractions and trivialities of postmodern life. Indeed, I would argue (and have argued) that post-apocalyptic shows like The Walking Dead share DNA with fantasy like Game of Thrones, insofar as both zombie apocalypse and fantasy are inherently nostalgic, imagining as they do a return to premodern, pre-industrial worlds in which “objective reality” is boiled down the immediacy of survival, whether in the face of attacking zombies, or the imperative of destroying the One Ring4 … in other words, something elemental and visceral and not subject to the seeming infinitude of mediations and contingencies of meaning manifest in the postmodern condition. As a number of thinkers have suggested, it is easier to imagine the destruction of contemporary civilization than how it might be fixed. Perhaps most notably, Fredric Jameson wryly observed that “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism,” and that “perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.”5

Perhaps it is a weakness of our imaginations, but one that, according to Jameson’s voluminous writings on postmodernism, is entirely understandable. In what is perhaps the definitive study of postmodernism, his 1991 book Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson argues that one of postmodernism’s key features is its sheer inescapability: the “prodigious new expansion of multinational capitalism”—which is more or less synonymous with the postmodern condition—“ends up penetrating and colonizing those very precapitalist enclaves (Nature and the Unconscious) which offered extraterritorial and Archimedean footholds for critical effectivity.”6 Or, to translate it into non-Jamesonian English, if you can’t get outside out something—physically, mentally, or otherwise—how can you effect a proper critique? How can you address something with which you are always already complicit?7

Keeping in mind that Jameson made that observation about “Archimedean footholds” in a book published in 1991, I think it’s safe to say that we can remark, from our perspective thirty years later, on how the situation he describes has only expanded by a magnitude with the advent of the internet and the current impossibility—short of decamping to live “off the grid” in the wilderness (itself a disappearing enclave)—of extricating oneself from the digital networks that now penetrate all aspects of life.

So how did we get here? Well, that’s my next post. Stay tuned.


1. We find the same distinction in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who distinguished between the noumenon, or “the thing in itself” (das Ding an sich) and the phenomenon, or the thing as it appears to an observer. By the same token, psycholinguist Jacques Lacan—who weirdly is entirely ignored by postmodernism’s detractors (who generally choose to train their fire on Derrida and Foucault)—distinguishes between the “Real” and the “Symbolic.” The Real aligns with actuality, our experience of the world; the Symbolic by contrast is the realm of language, and any translation of the Real into language takes it out of the realm of the Real and into the Symbolic. In other words, your personal experience is specific to you, but is ultimately incommunicable as such—to communicate it to others means translating into the realm of the unreal, i.e. of language and our shared vocabularies.

2. The Trumpian world of “alternative facts” is not a product of the postmodern condition, but is more properly associated with authoritarianism—something Hannah Arendt, in passages much-quoted these past few years, asserted in The Origins of Totalitarianism: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist,” she writes, “but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” She also said that “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”

3. As I’ll discuss in a future post, modernist art and literature was largely predicated on the premise that true art was about the accessing of reality—T.S. Eliot called this the “objective correlative,” the idea that the right combination of words and metaphors could conceivably access the fundamental truth of a given emotion. But for the modernists, “objective reality” was vanishingly difficult to touch; its principal revolt was against nineteenth century and Victorian positivism, and its assumption that objective reality could be rendered unproblematically through the practices of realism.

4. There’s an article or possibly an entire book to be written about how the popularity of The Lord of the Rings in America was in part a function of antipathy to the early stirrings of postmodernity—especially considering that Tolkien was especially popular on college campuses in the 1960s, which, when you think about it, is more than a little counter-intuitive, that a deeply conservative, essentially Catholic story would take root amidst leftist radicalism. Even those people amenable to the rise of the New Left and the newly translated writings of Derrida and Foucault et al were inclined to wear buttons declaring “Frodo Lives!”, which suggests that postmodernist theory might have fascinated people, but the lived reality of postmodernity still inspired imaginative escape to worlds not ruled by moral ambiguity and contingent realities.

5. Fredric Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998. p. 50.

6. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. p. 49.

7. Because I don’t want these blog posts to turn into novellas, I will just quickly here note in passing that, within the arguments between those theorizing postmodernism, is this very question. More doctrinaire Marxists like Jameson or scions of the Frankfurt School like Theodor Adorno (more on the Frankfurt School and “cultural Marxism” in a future post) assert that the postmodern condition obviates the possibility of substantive cultural critique. Other critics and theorists see fifth columnists: Linda Hutcheon argues at length that postmodernist art and literature weaponizes irony and parody in what she terms “complicitous critique,” while such thinkers of the Birmingham School as Dick Hebdige and Stuart Hall—who effectively invented what we now call “cultural studies—argued that even within the worst excesses of a consumerist culture industry, artists carve out their own enclaves of resistance.

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