It all began with one simple idea which multiplied dangerouslyHow often have you been reading something quite pleasant and suddenly the author drops the fateful word – postmodernism? The argument begins to get fuzzy. You muddle through and hope that the rest of the article becomes clear. You also have a sneaking suspicion that a dictionary will be useless. And, anyhow, how are you supposed to know what postmodernism is if you’re not even sure what modernism is?

So let’s start with modernism. This is the philosophical term for philosophical offshoots of the Enlightenment, the complex of ideas that has shaped the modern world from the 18th century until the mid-20th century. Its characteristic features were — and still are — suspicion of authority and tradition as sources of knowledge and the conviction that human reason is the engine of progress. This implied that religious faith was a bad guide to understanding the world and that the unimpeded march of science and technology was a very good thing. The Enlightenment was optimistic: knowledge through reason alone would produce an ideal world which goes forever forward.

These key ideas sprang from a tectonic shift in philosophy begun by Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Instead of asking “How can I explain the world and understand it?”, he asked, “How can I be certain about things?”  This led him to the assertion that cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am”, was the starting point of philosophy. This launched a long tradition of which postmodernism is the most recent flowering.

After Descartes, philosophy followed two strands. The first strand was rationalism, the notion that sense data is suspect and that the truth can only be reached through reason. Ultimately this led to idealism, an attempt to explain the universe in terms of an absolute principle. More about this later.

The second strand was empiricism, the view that only sense knowledge is worthy of being trusted. Ideas, that is, concepts or reasoning which are unverifiable by the senses, distort the truth. Empiricism fostered progress in science and technology. And in the human sciences of sociology, psychology and history it led to positivism, which demanded that the human sciences should be based on the same methods as experimental science. This required the exclusion of certain notions from what had commonly been regarded as true knowledge. David Hume, for example, denied causality. Just because a green billiard ball strikes a blue billiard ball does not mean that the green causes the blue to move. It might have been an accident. So, although the word empiricism has a “scientific” ring, it really leads to a radical scepticism about the common sense world.

In the 20th century, the methodology of positivism was applied to language, what words mean and how we structure them. This has a long history, but it characteristically resulted in an analysis of texts on their own, without reference to the author and without reference to any truth that the author might be aiming at. An important offshoot of this approach was structuralism. It regarded language as just the most sophisticated way of using signs and symbols. The Columbus of structuralism was Claude Levi Strauss, an old leftie from Paris and an anthropologist of primitive societies. He taught that all discourse was simply power plays. Those who wrote used writing to subject and oppress those who did not write, either because they were illiterate or because they had no access to the apparatus of publishing. Understanding discourse involves analysing its assumptions, its prejudices and its access to the public forum. Without any reference to the truth or to the author’s intention, all discourse had to be “deconstructed”.

The recently-deceased Jacques Derrida is the most famous practitioner of deconstruction. This analyses sign systems, from billboards for Coke to Hamlet and the Mona Lisa, not in terms of the truths conveyed, but in terms of what they reveal about the power structures generating them. The corollary is that if you want to change the power structures, you must change the discourse, particularly the public discourse. This has some plausibility in literature, but in anthropology, sociology or psychology its effects have been quite pernicious. Deconstruction transforms every form of intellectual endeavour into a kind of fiction; they all are ways of constructing reality with words. All discourses are equally valid because they are not about reality anyway. Everything fed into the deconstructive shredder emerges as power. There are no rights, no justice, no truth, no value, no worth. This is the postmodern endpoint of empiricism.

The 1998 film The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir, captures the issues raised by the empirical strand of postmodernism. Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, insurance salesman living an idyllic life in a small American town who discovers his entire life is actually a reality TV show. Its message is that in a world in which all discourses are the same, the edges between entertainment fiction and reality are blurred. People live vicariously through their favourite TV characters but to some extent we are all TV characters because we too are manipulated by the media.  

Let’s return to the other strand of the Enlightenment, rationalism. It aspires to an understanding of the world which is free from the vagaries of sense perception. Thought leads to truth. In an odd sort of way, it recognises that that there is a spiritual reality, even if only in mathematical abstraction. The giant of rationalism is Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831). He believed that there is a world spirit which is the result of the accumulation of rational knowledge by humanity, especially by intellectuals. In the course of history this world spirit is refined through a dialectic, the clash of progressive and liberating ideas with the conservative ideas that have preceded them. It will culminate in an omega point in which everything is absorbed into the absolute. There will be no differences or distinctions; all will be part of the Absolute.

The State, he taught, embodied the Absolute because it somehow crystallised the best things of society in itself. While Hegel is far more sophisticated than I give him credit for here, the logical outcome of his philosophy was Communism and Fascism. In these regimes, the state was supreme and the individual counted for almost nothing. Rivers of blood ran from these “isms”, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Hegelian rationalism seemed to be bankrupt. The world had experimented with Absolute Ideas which explained all of history — and they hadn’t worked. Postmodernism is often seen as a sceptical response to the eclipse of these grandiose schemes.

Despite the temporary success of idealism, it had formidable intellectual foes. The first was Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). Reacting against the lack of attention paid to the individual by the idealist juggernaut, he focused on how the individual must assert his existence by constructing himself through his decisions. Freedom and choice become supreme in his philosophy. As a devout Danish Lutheran, his most important choices were those associated with religious faith and religious commitment.

An atheistic response to this all-consuming idealism came from the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980). He borrowed Nietzsche’s analysis of the death of God and the loss of meaning in the world. Life was an absurdity, a tragi-comedy with no meaning other than the one they chose. The Czech writer Franz Kafka captured this existentialist dilemma in his bizarre tales, The Trial and Metamorphosis and Sartre in his novel La nausée (Nausea). On a more popular level Alan Alda portrayed it in the absurdities of M*A*S*H.

The German philosopher Nietzsche (1844-1900) actually took this view of the world, known as existentialism, a step further than Sartre. In a world without God, is there any meaning? No, he says. Nietzsche claims that all humans act only for power. Some humans are more gifted than others and are not bound by the ordinary rules which bind everyone else. He calls them supermen, in the Nazi sense, not in the comic book sense. He imposes meaning on his life and the life of others, thus proving his freedom and establishing his identity. This strand of postmodernism is captured in the nightmarish 1982 film Bladerunner, one of Harrison Ford’s first major films. It highlights the creation of identity in the “replicants”, the struggle for power and the pervasiveness and power of propaganda.

Postmodernism is a set of ideas to be studied at university. But it is also an attitude to life. People not only think postmodern thoughts, they also live postmodern lives. They live without ideals, or ideas; their morality is homemade relativism; their commitments are fleeting; they distrust authority and “canonical” texts; they are sceptical about assertions of truth and falsehood. Films are a useful way of capturing this. The Truman Show and Bladerunner are two thought-provoking examples, but there is one which sums them all up, The Matrix. See that and you’ll understand more or less what postmoderism is all about.

Martin Fitzgerald is Head of Philosophy at Redfield College in Sydney.

Martin Fitzgerald has taught English, Philosophy, Latin and Rugby at Redfield College in Dural, Sydney, Australia for 28 years. He played Rugby as a schoolboy and young man and as he gets older, he says,...