Why Postmodernism Is Annoying


What annoys me about postmodernism is this: 

Hegel famously wrote, in the Preface to the Philosophy of Right, that "When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then a configuration of life has grown old, and cannot be rejuvenated by this gray in gray, but only understood; the Owl of Minerva takes flight only as the dusk begins to fall."  One can see his point - it is true that famous philosophers appear in history at the end of a historical epoch, or just after a major historical event - think of Plato writing after the Pelopponesian War, Grotius writing after the Dutch Revolt, Hobbes writing Leviathan just after the English Civil War, or Locke who supposedly wrote his two Treatises on Government in response to the Glorious Revolution (although current scholarship doubts this chronology) or, for that matter, Hegel himself, who arrived at Jena too late to witness the full flowering of the Romantic movement in poetry, art, literature, and philosophy, and saw himself as coming after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.  It can sometimes feel like philosophers always show up late to the party.  Even in Plato we can feel a little of this sense of belatedness, this attempt to restore a kind of order to a historical period that had been disrupted by a previous period of chaos, or to rekindle something that had already been fundamentally lost.  Lingering at the edges of the logical arguments, among the sheltering leaves of the plane tree (Platanus) above the reminiscences of Phaedrus and his dead teacher, one can feel the strong tug of nostalgia, literally the pain of the return home.

But with postmodernists, I always get the feeling that this is a faux-belatedness - that their sense of world-weariness is a choice, and a contrived one at that, merely for the purpose of trying to gain the unearned air of seeming philosophical.  Postmodernists are desperately attempting to impose a closure onto a historical situation that is more radically open than they would like to admit.  Their nihilistic fatalism ultimately is nothing but a pose, and a meaningless one.  Whereas in the case of Hobbes, there was a real rupture in society and the emergence of a new economic-political reality, with which a thinker like Hobbes had to contend in the world of ideas, in the case of postmodernism, the only thing that separates it from modernism is the mere declaration that we are now postmodern, with "post" having no meaning beyond "after".  They think they are so clever, and so naughty, especially when they declare that they don't believe in History.  But no one is impressed.  Ironically enough, they attempt to impose onto history a fatalistic narrative of decay, the supposed breakdown of meta-narratives, to cover over the reality that nothing fundamentally has changed, and they simply lack the courage, and the honesty, to be modern.

Kant once wrote about "lawfulness without a law" and "purposiveness without a purpose"; one might similarly describe postmodernism as "fatalism without a fate."

Besides - yes, sometimes philosophers come after the decisive historical event, and sometimes philosophy has this character of belatedness - but not always.  (And to imagine that this is always the case is, once again, ironically enough, to impose a dubious "meta-narrative" onto history - and a "stagist" one, at that.)  For instance: I've already mentioned that Locke probably wrote most of his Two Treatises before the Glorious Revolution, not after.  An even better example is Karl Marx.  Reading postmodernists, one gets the sense that it's all over but the crying.  But reading Marx, one cannot help but feel that what's past is prologue, and that the social revolution "cannot take its poetry from the past, but only from the future."  Perhaps that is why he is so often considered not to be a philosopher - then again, he felt as weary of the philosophers as philosophers feel weary of his politics.  And the same is true for Bakunin.  

Hegel should have realized that Kant, despite his many faults, interestingly enough, is free from the kind of feigned world-weariness that characterizes so many postmodern drips, especially when he writes his "Prolegomena" to a "Future Metaphysics".  Nor does Spinoza fit neatly into the stereotype of the owl flying at dusk.  He did not arrive to stitch together meaning after a historical rupture, but rather appears as a bubble, floating off in space, thinking entirely on his own, starting off from his own axiomatic principles as if no one had ever thought anything before.  It's probably partly the sheer independence of his thought that made him such a threat to his contemporaries - they didn't know where to place him in history (and we scarcely do either).  From their perspective, Spinoza was the rupture - the chaotic rip that tore the fabric of their worldview apart.  But from his point of view, all he saw was a profound continuity with the entire cosmos.  Then there's Leibniz: one might think, given the content of his philosophy, that he would have that same isolation - but in fact he draws from a deep philosophical tradition.  It goes to show you: not all philosophers are owls - they each have their own unique relation to history.

Come to think of it, Lyotard's own writing - at least the early stuff, like "The Postmodern Condition" - does not have that ponderous, world-weary quality.  It's actually delightfully naive and forward-looking.  (In later works, like "Postmodern Fables" he gets more smug.)  Perhaps Schiller's distinction between the "naive" and the "sentimental" would be useful in drawing the distinction.

In the contemporary world, look at Douglas Hofstadter or Nick Bostrom for examples of thinkers who are looking forward at the future.  (Not necessarily looking forward to the future, in rosy, optimistic ways - far from it - but straightforwardly looking at it.)  And the "Rationalists" (Yudkowsky et al.) are wonderfully naive - I think that's why I'm drawn to them, and away from postmodernism.  One reason that I admire Nick Bostrom is that it almost appears that it never even occurred to him to be postmodern.  He is beyond postmodernism.

 Next: Metanarratives of Postmodernity


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