Postmodernism is woven through my educational history, through my time as an academic, and through the experience of my generation. It’s something that I’ve had to grapple with, sometimes in groups or intellectually, sometimes alone and at the core of my being.
Here’s the thing.
I am and have been so far gone as to be someone inclined to embrace the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. To intuitively accept the notion that what is named exists; that what isn’t, doesn’t, in a very real way, for human cognition. That in fact boundaries and edges and names are things and creations, forms of rhetoric and performance and ways of exercising power rather than ontological forms. That so many forms knowledge, truth, and empiricism are thus expressions of social constellations, rather than the other way around. Though this may sound radically liberal, it isn’t; as a friend once pointed out, this is presumedly the same way in which that most conservative soul, the god of the religions of the book, also was said to operate. In the beginning, after all, was the word as the writing goes, and all that exists proceeded from it, yet at the same time the word as it is written proceeded from the peoples about which it claims to speak and it is the word itself that reassures us that both things are true. This is a language game writ large, if ever there was one; its reality is in its embedding and it is nonsense as apart from it.
The discourse on discourse, however, has been reluctant to engage with seminal circularities like this one—that language and being are both part and parcel of the same emergent experience of being—that the rhetoric and performance both are consequences and have consequences and that all of this has an incarnated, embodied quality into which time is woven as well. That assemblage and bricolage and transgression thus come to us as generations and yet are also generative; that we are—but also that we create—things of consequence and inertia indissolubly bound up with utterance, performance, and action. That we and all of these things are not less real as a result, but rather remain as real as they were always presumed to be.
And so I am coming to the point in my life where I am ready to play the role of the conservative postmodernist. Things may not exist de jure in the universal and prior sense, according to the given laws of a clockwork universe—or they may; I don’t claim to know. But what I tend to believe is that as either co-creators or as complete creators of the universe in which we live, we have a distinct responsibility to move beyond criticism and deconstruction and to credit that these, too—indeed, that all things that we do—are also acts of construction, whether we wish to influence the world or not.
Interpretations become truths once we have pronounced them, for the pronouncement is a fact-on-the-ground, a truth in its own right, and it acts in the world as any other truth might to build the realities that themselves build future truths, however malleable we wish truth to be.
Rather than implying less responsibility, as many often take this to mean, it ought to imply more. The building of reality in which we all participate is of no small consequence. It may enable, constrain, injure, or heal others, the world, and future generations. If due to our postmodern sentiments we as a people in a particular time are less sure of our footing in statement and in action, then we ought to be more conservative about our utterances and gestures, realities that they are, with the knowledge that we create the barbed wire fences of the future, or pull the rug out from under the residents of the future with each passing moment.
The problem with postmodernism is a circular one. If it is all sophistry and epiphenomena, yet we know that as a self we exist and sometimes cry out in pain, then we must concede that the fruits of these things are nonetheless real for us and others, and that these fruits have real effects. We can either then choose to take responsibility for these effects or not. Here a moral judgment comes to the fore; one must choose between nihilism and being in earnest. Put this way, I don’t believe that anyone has ever not been earnest in their being without being dead shortly thereafter, whether or not they admit this to themselves. To wake up and eat in the morning is to give up the game.
And with the moral judgment made, if one chooses earnestness, then one must have a theory for how being works, for how to pursue being effectively. One must discriminate between the less effective and the more effective, dare we say the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ with respect to this earnestness, and even if one can’t do so with certainty, one certainly tries.
In short, postmodernist criticisms may or may not be valid, but even if they are, the fact remains that we believe things, that things mean something to us, that we take these things to be external to us, that we also pronounce things that are external to others yet nonetheless affect them, that we don’t like to suffer, that we care about some people and some things and presume that they, too, can suffer, yet don’t wish them to do so. A postmodernist moral foundation ought to suggest that in our uncertainty and doubt, our responsibility for careful reflection, discrimination, and generation is increased as a result—not lessened—because we remain responsible for the things that we must honestly concede are important to us, yet we have conceded even greater uncertainty in how to do right by them.
This is the sense in which postmodernism reaches its limit. Do we care? If so, we act accordingly, whether we admit it or not. And in doing so, we discriminate and we evaluate according to meanings that we do, in fact, hold—even if secretly. We build the world, both according to law and in pronouncement of the law, even if we then run for cover.
And running for cover buys us precious little, except to make us look, both to ourselves and to others, like cowards.
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Even shorter version: Postmodernism, for all its complexity, changes nothing. It is like saying that the sky is blue only because I am a human that sees it through eyeballs and uses words to describe the experience. Well, I am. And so, as far as we know, is anyone else that cares about, or has ever named, its color. And to say that this is merely a unsupportable presumption based on my having chanced only on other humans that also credited the existence of a blue sky, and on no animals or coffee tables that did so, borders on either intellectual dishonesty or on nihilistic intellectual obstructionism. It’s hard to say which.