Postmodernism is a philosophy that is beneath ridicule, although strictly speaking it isn’t really a ‘philosophy’ but a cultural trend, more or less defined or expressed in the work of certain key thinkers; in this case a few French intellectuals of the 60s, 70s and 80s. When we say ‘Postmodernism’ (or ‘pomo’) we are referring, generally, to what all these thinkers have in common, with each other and with postmodern culture more generally; the commonality, rather than the many exceptions. This commonality that can reasonably called solipsistic, meaning we are speaking of a philosophy, a wider cultural trend and, for many, an existential reality based on the unstated assumption or experience that nothing exists but the self. It’s hard to overstate the horror of this.
Postmodern culture was actually born with civilisation, and the fundamentally solipsistic religions and philosophies it engendered. It was then reborn, in the European Renaissance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as dualism, the splitting of reality, by the intellectual ideologues of the West, into a realm of truth and meaning, called mind, and an inert, meaningless and mechanical realm of mere matter, called body. The movement known as Romanticism, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with its focus on the emotional self, also allowed for some solipsistic posturing, but it was not until the start of the twentieth century, and the appearance of Modernism, that the wretched self-obsessed cultural world we exist in today first appeared.
Where Romanticism had questioned rational meaning, Modernism threw meaning itself into doubt. Truth, beauty, reality and so on became, for the writers, artists, philosophers, architects and ideologues of the West, uncertain, they had to be questioned. This notion was, for some artists, an opportunity to explore new means of expression and to introduce uncertainty and unpredictability into their work, sometimes drawing on primal artistic forms, in which fidelity to an objective ‘reality’ was secondary to an inner truth which transcended it. This was sometimes a good thing. The mad, ecstatic, explosive music of Igor Stravinsky, for example, the disconcertingly fragmented poetry of T.S.Eliot, the profound critique of industrial civilisation offered by D.H.Lawrence and the unsettling, primal images of Pablo Picasso all expressed, through the elemental fluidity of their modernist forms, a new kind of depth.
For most artists however, Modernism was an excuse to disappear into their own abstract selves and to completely divorce their intellects from the sensory or social world. The coldness of modernist architecture, ‘cut off’ from nature, the difficulty of modernist literature, no longer interested in being accessible and entertaining, or of reflecting a shared world, and the impenetrability of modernist art, self-contained, self-referential and relentlessly abstract, combined to exclude ordinary people from great art, to make them hate and fear it. Henceforth, great or high art was for intellectuals, for the elites. It was also for the most part ultimately meaningless.
Some modernists had hoped to radically undermine the unnatural, inhuman world they found themselves in, but they were unaware that the cold formalism, hyper-abstraction, lack of interest in nature and fundamental self-absorption of their work was in no sense inimical to the spread of the technocratic system, which was spreading further and further over and into the earth. Rather than abandon the intellectual inwardness of Modernism, however, culture-makers who followed them, those of the late twentieth century, immersed themselves further and further into it. As direct experience of consciousness, nature, living sensate culture and meaningful tradition receded almost completely from ordinary life, artists and thinkers began to embrace was to amount to the end of art, the end of literature, the end of meaning and the perfect culmination of the cultural madness of civilisation; Postmodernism.
The essence of postmodernism is that not just meaning is subject to radical questioning, but that it does not exist at all. In other words representation — language, image, sign, idol — does not refer to anything real. For one of the earliest key thinkers of postmodernism, Jacques Derrida, language can say nothing but itself, there is nothing authentic, no inner truth, that lies beyond or within it, and all attempts to reach such a truth (through, for example, binary opposites, such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or ‘real’ and ‘unreal’, or ‘deep’ and ‘superficial’) are doomed. Following two of the most famous madmen in Western thought, Nietzsche and Hamlet, there is ‘nothing good and bad but thinking makes it so’. There is no nature, no origin, no reality; that is reality.
Postmodern philosophers who followed Derrida — Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Jean-Francois Lyotard — all considered meaning, truth, consciousness, the I reading these words or any kind of foundational, experiential quality, to be an illusion created from language, or from the represented fabric of society — meaning from that which has power over society. How such a nightmarish philosophy is supposed to justify or explain itself without such foundations is, of course, never answered, nor is any hope offered that man can find his way out of such a condition, for there is and can be no exit.
All this explains one of the defining features of postmodern philosophy, its inability to say anything intelligible and interesting and its tendency to produce, in lieu of meaning, stylistic quagmires of turgid, abstruse, impenetrable flannel. Here is a typical example, from the opening of Derrida’s pomo ‘masterpiece’ Margins of Philosophy;
Ample to the point of believing itself interminable, a discourse that has called itself philosophy — doubtless the only discourse that has ever intended to receive its name only from itself, has never ceased murmuring its initial letter to itself from as close as possible — has always, including its own, meant to say its limit.
It doesn’t matter to postmodernists that this is opaque, that it is stylistic self-pleasuring, that, once one has cleaned away the sewage from what is being offered, it amounts to, at best, a trivial, plasticky observation (which might be something like ‘philosophy describes itself’). It doesn’t matter to postmodernists that nothing is really being said, for the self-declared reason that nothing can be said. Derrida told us that meaning does not exist, he told us that language cannot say anything, and then he proceeded to write several books in which nothing was said. Wild applause!
What this means is that there is no reason to meaningfully engage with postmodern thought, without descending to its farcical, self-parodic level. It’s like arguing with an insane neighbour about the demons she says you emit from your soul which are passing through the walls and clogging up her plumbing. What are you going to say? ‘No I’m not’? There is no way to enter into the insane framework in which she is speaking and, within that framework, express sanity. Many, perhaps even most arguments, are like this.
The common features of postmodern philosophy are much the same as those of postmodern art and literature which, we can say, precedes and envelops its philosophical expression. In place of meaning in postmodern literature we find self-consciousness (in which, for example, the reader is reminded he is a reader and that nothing he is reading is real), self-referential language games (puns, for example, or references to other works of literature, perhaps by the same author), purely formal experimentation (no capital letters, no ‘e’s, written backwards, etc.) or various titillating ‘devices’ to keep the reader from losing interest (sex, violence, gossip confession, etc.).
Postmodern art is the same (e.g. a kilometre-long hole drilled under an art gallery, filled with copper, plastered over and then exhibited) as is postmodern cinema (e.g. a film about a film about a film). An actual, sensory world in which actual, sensory people actually exist, in their bodies, either does not exist in postmodern art (note that in modern literature there is a total lack of interest in what people look like or in their material origins) or it exists by accident, contingent upon whatever mere ideas the artist has spun from his or her brain.1
This isn’t to say there is anything inherently wrong with formal experimentation per se, or in ‘mashing up’ styles and ignoring or subverting traditions or conventions, or in what is called in theatre ‘breaking the fourth wall’ and drawing attention to a work of art as a work art, or in that staple of pomo art and literature, ‘fragmentation’, the breaking up of form in order to express the dissolution of self, or even in weak puns, obvious artifice, sex, violence, swearing, CGI and other common pomo tricks and gimmicks. Great art uses all of these techniques; but that they are all purely formal devices. There is no meaning in any of them unless they are subordinate to meaning.
So what is meaning? This question is impossible to literally answer. In fact it is the purpose of art to non-literally express a truth which cannot be literally grasped, a truth which is necessarily invisible to ego. As I have explained in detail in Self and Unself, there are two kinds of egoic untruth or psychological-ideological lie, one, literalism, objectivism or realism, is the belief that truth exists, but it is literal — the ‘amazingly accurate’ painting, the ‘peer-reviewed’ essay, the ‘true story’ movie (along with cookery, sports, cars, etc.) — and the other, solipsism, subjectivism or Postmodernism, is the belief that truth does not exist — Damien Hirst writing ‘Steak and Kidney’ on a drug box, Rooney Mara eating a pie, Slavoj Žižek drinking a can of coke.
When literalists or solipsists hear, for example, Bach’s Matthew’s Passion, neither of them hear the truth. If they are classical music enthusiasts, they will hear the technical brilliance of the piece, and, very likely, as it is near-impossible to extinguish humanity completely, they will (in a good interpretation) detect gleams of depth and beauty in the sounds that reach their ears, but the truth of the piece will no more hit home than it would if an android were listening, because there is no home, just a cacophony of fragmented forms.
This is why complaints that postmodernist art is meaningless are, to postmodernists, meaningless. For postmodernism, Bach’s Passion exists, essentially, on the same level as advertising, the hollow, barren, deathlike void of which which all postmodern philosophy partakes of and ‘references’.2 In fact advertising in its crudest form — telling an audience the value of something — is essential to postmodern art, which cannot stand for itself and must be explained. This is why the work of, say, Andy Warhol, requires galleries, brochures and a circus of celebrity endorsements. If you found his Brillo soap pads on a rubbish heap you wouldn’t pick it up unless you already knew it was by him, whereas if you found a fragment of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, or Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Specter or Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (which, incidentally, was a 16th century prediction of postmodernist state) sticking out the back of a demolished sofa you’d know they were special.
If Postmodernism had been confined to a few absurd philosophy texts and ridiculous paintings, we might be justified in ignoring it, but it isn’t just a body of theory or an artistic movement, it is reality, everyone’s reality; which is how it came to be. Culture is a whole, a gestalt, and so we find our postmodern world came to be reflected in postmodern art just as we find postmodern art reflecting our postmodern world. We now live in a shoddy, cardboard reality and endless, schizoid horror show in which physicality plays, increasingly, no part whatsoever. Physically interacting with others, physically experiencing others, physically engaging with the world through the senses, rather than through the mind, are all becoming obsolete. We now live in an ersatz counterclock world on which, it is seriously suggested, minds, long understood to be completely separate from bodies, can actually be uploaded into machines. We now live on a papier mâché planet on which people can, on a whim, choose to be a different sex and force others to address them as members of that sex. We now live in a virtual reality in which no aspect of culture, which increasingly comes to us entirely through the screen, can be trusted and which might as well not exist at all. We now live in a machine world in which those who control what comes through the screen, don’t merely control reality, but create it; whether that reality is that we are ‘really’ at war, or that we are ‘really’ in the middle of a pandemic, or that we ‘really’ need this or that technocratic intervention; all this is immaterial, because there is no matter. In fact there is no reality to speak of — there is just information — which makes it completely nonsensical to talk of reality.
This brings us to two pomo-philosophers who criticised, as much as they contributed to, the postmodernism condition, and who certainly did have something important to say about it.3 These writers — Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard — deserve to be read. Foucault’s analysis of power, and the means by which it distributes itself across modern institutions (‘power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms’), and Baudrillard’s chilling analysis of virtuality, which evaporates power within the entire unreal system (‘Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real’), are both indispensable guides to the almost unimaginably subtle nature of the appalling prison we have built ourselves.
The problem is that because there is no ultimate reality for Foucault and Baudrillard, they have nothing of interest to say about what lies beyond the limits of the institutional or virtual reality they describe. This explains the curious paradox of their presentation, which is at once hyperdense, studded with ludicrously opaque pronouncements (or, in Baudrillard’s case, absurd exaggerations), and, at the same time, its ‘weightlessness’, the sense that there is nothing ‘solid’ under it, as if it all, ultimately, relates only to itself. Their work resembles ‘fan fiction’ about a popular superhero show; not as vapid, to be sure, being that we are trapped in an infinitely complex and actual science fiction show, but still, ultimately, exclusive, limited and unable to see through to any kind of actually existing quality ‘behind’ the spectacle or simulacrum they criticise, a quality which Postmodernism and modern academic social-theorising explicitly repudiates (Baudrillard: ‘the real is no longer possible’).
In this they are like many, many people caught in our ‘postmodern’ condition. A commonplace complaint about contemporary thought is that it is unable to even imagine a world worth living in. There are no inspiring visions of the future in serious analysis or in literature, pulp or otherwise. In fantastic science-fiction the ‘postmodern’ genre of cyberpunk rules, in which the culture of the twentieth century is combined in ever more degraded forms. Magic and myth have all but vanished up their own slick, vapid, middle-class BBC arseholes. But this is about to change. The horrific virtual environment which Baudrillard describes is cracking up. Already the fault lines are visible and already a new excluded class — excluded from the postmodern condition — is forming. New cultural shoots are appearing.
Where? Well, here for a start.
- Students of psychology will recognise some of the features listed above as almost identical to those of schizophrenia, in which paralysing self-consciousness, impenetrable self-referentiality and shallow, formalistic forms of expression (which manifest as the famous dry smirk of the schizoid personality) dominate. This is because the postmodern state is, essentially, a schizoid state, manifest as global culture. See Louis Sass, Madness and Modernism.
- This is why postmodern loves to ‘mash up’ high and low art; not because it wishes to express a truth that is both deep and superficial (as all great artists, from Shakespeare to the Beatles, loved to do), but because it sees no real difference between a Chopin nocturne and an Ed Sheeran number 1.
- Probably more than two. Obviously I haven’t read every thinker who falls under the rubric of ‘postmodern’.