(This is a supplement to a presentation on Postmodernism and Creative Mythmaking, a presentation I gave on July 21, 2002, at a conference on Personal Meaning in the New Millennium in Vancouver, BC, Canada.) Revised slightly, July 27, 2002.
What is Postmodernism?
Postmodernism is an intellectual movement that has emerged since around 1960s. Its essential idea involves the denial of any objective and absolute truth. Rather, ideas are viewed as being social constructions. It is a broad movement with many different writers, often disagreeing among themselves. There is no manifesto or consensus, but the ideas noted above may be discerned as a common thread. There are also several stances, some being more dramatic or extreme and others more modest and moderate. In another sense, postmodernism is an intellectual response to the postmodern condition.
What is the postmodern condition?This term refers to the way the world has been changing in the last third of the 20th Century and continuing into the present and foreseeable future. The rate of change has increased so that the search for stability becomes an increasingly elusive phantom. The major factors contributing to the postmodern condition include the impact of electronic communications–especially television and the internet, inexpensive phone accessibility, etc; less expensive and more prevalent modes of transportation, associated with greater mobility, migration among nations, travel, and intercultural contact; urbanization, sub-urbanization, and a new form of re-rural-ization, leading again to more moving away from communities of birth and religion and towards more multi-faceted new collectives. This also involves a diffusion of traditional values and identities."Without quite noticing it, we have moved into a new world, one created by the cumulative effect of pluralism, democracy, religious freedom, consumerism, mobility, and increasing access to news and entertainment. This is the world described as "postmodern" to denote its difference from the world most of us were born into." (O'Hara & Anderson, 1991)A number of writers have commented on what the postmodern condition does to the individual (psychologically) and the community (sociologically), as noted in the references at the end of this file.
Where did postmodernism come from?Its roots are multiple, including trends in literary criticism, anthropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis, psychology, philosophy, feminism, the arts, etc. Several names have been more prominently associated with this movement, such as Jacques Derrida, Lyotard, Michel Foucault, but many people find these writers a bit extreme and obscure. I suspect that some precursors may also be found in the previous intellectual fashion, existentialism.
One of the earliest statements that suggests a postmodernist view is from Friederich Nietzsche, who said, "All knowledge is perspective." This means that any fact or belief is embedded within a frame of reference. A related, earlier, precursor is Socrates' dictum, "Know thyself," because, simply, knowing thyself isn't all that easy. People fool themselves, and they do so in order to serve not only vanity, but also social and economic position. One of my favorite quotes is from the comedian, Robin Williams, who played an extra-terrestrial visiting Earth in a television sit-com of the mid-1970s, "Mork & Mindy." At one point he shook his head and said, "Reality?! What a concept!"
Why is Postmodernism Important to Know About?I think at its best (in a more moderate stance) postmodernism is a more systematic way to practice intellectual humility, to bring attention to the limits of certain kinds of thinking, and thereby counter certain absolutist claims of extremists and dogmatists in all fields. This philosophy allows for a challenging of the tendencies to rely on the authority of what has already been created--what Moreno called the "cultural conserve," and to dare to engage in the act of creativity--and its associated activity, creative mythmaking (see the link to creative mythmaking on this website.)
What does philosophy say about this?There is a sub-field within philosophy called "epistemology," which explores the question, "How do we know what we know?" Alternative questions have to do with, "Might we be deceiving ourselves?" or "Could this be illusion?"
That last question also overlaps a bit with metaphysics, which involves the questions, "What is real, in contrast to what is un-real?" "What exists?" "Why is there anything other than nothing?"
Philosophy grows, and the aforementioned fields of psychology, psychoanalysis, anthropology, comparative religions, feminism, linguistics, etc.-- all have served as the kind of intellectual microscopes that have made it possible to probe certain seemingly obvious terms–God, goodness, evil, truth, error, etc.–and what is found is a welter of often inconsistent ideas at different levels of consciousness. Since part of the challenge of philosophy is to seek to find a rational way to coordinate different ideas, this more careful exploration has forced the evolution of the field to a point of more complexity.
But how can anyone doubt truth?Well, truth is a bit like the apparent solidity of objects. If you get up close enough, many objects are more porous than they appear, and at the atomic level, there is apparently a great predominance of space with active energies operating within that space, sort of like the way propellers seem to generate the appearance of discs. Similarly, when any truth is probed carefully, it becomes more porous, relative to circumstance, frame of reference, and constructed often largely in terms of language. Those truths that seem more rooted in basic fact often are in themselves lacking in much significance–the meaning is then superimposed, and depending on the meaning-makers, there may be a number of possible interpretations.
This attitude seems darn-near wicked!Yes, the challenging of absolute truth, objective truth (i.e. out-there, for all peoples and all times in history), strikes to the heart of much of the meta-narrative of our Western culture. (In contrast, there are aspects of religious thought of the East–of Hinduism and Buddhism, for example–that see much of the world as illusory, that don't share in this "common sense" view of the fact-icity of the world.)
To challenge truth is to challenge much of religion in the West, which threatens a sense not only of personal faith, but collective morality. (Many religious people strongly feel that religion is a necessary requirement for morality, and that the godless cannot be trusted or respected. Only the fear of ultimate God-imposed punishment keeps people in line. Obviously, this common view that projects its own unconscious immorality and conflict on others. Anyone who knows a goodly number of agnostics and atheists knows that the vast majority of them are as moral as most "believers.")
"Relativism" is a term attributed to many "secular" nonbelievers, and it seems to suggest a lack of moral grounding, conviction, an overly "permissive" attitude that makes excuses for criminals and other types of wrongdoers.
In fact, there do seem to be a few who use relativism as an intellectual cop-out from their own challenge of finding their deeper values. (That takes thought, and it's nice to have an excuse to avoid thinking–in this case, the wrong understanding that contemporary philosophy's challenging of absolutism makes the personal challenge of clarifying, prioritizing, and deciding a "fruitless" endeavor. This is only true if it is imagined that this kind of intellectual engagement must result in ultimately "true" conclusions. However, in fact, it is quite possible to live a life in which the mind continually strains toward "more" truth, knowing that "ultimate" truth may be far beyond anyone's reach, or in truth, may be a misleading goal.)
Most people who have entertained a moderate use of postmodernist concepts feel no obligation to be absolutist about the impossibility of being absolutist. (This is recognized as a paradox.) Pure and extreme positions are almost by definition less responsible, intellectually, than viewpoints that recognize that there can be alternative viewpoints. In other ways, there are ways of being quite responsible in using postmodernist ideas as tools rather than as ideologies.
Relativism in itself is no answer, you see. It is only a door to finding ways to wrestle more vigorously with a wide range of problems, primarily ethical and political. (See my webpage on current ethical issues.) Even fundamentalists in the Bible belt, I think, would find it impossible to build full consensus on all of these issues, because there would even then be many different interpretations of various Biblical passages. Even if I were to concede that ultimate truth might be found in the Bible, I would deny the capacity of humans to discover that truth for all situations and all peoples and all times, because people inject their own biases and use scripture as a rationalization.
What does postmodernism speak to or contrast itself with?Two themes stand out. One is the idea that there is an objective, "out-there" absolute truth, that is valid for all times and places. The other, related historically, is the acceptance of the ideals and modes of thought of modernity. Post-modernism wants to move beyond these world-views.
Modernity: The main elements of the culture of modernity characterize Euro-American civilization from around 1700 to the late 1960s, and still represent the dominant ethos today, although the postmodernist sensibility and the postmodern condition rapidly are becoming more recognized.
Modernity arose as a relatively more rational and progressive idealism that contrasted itself with a superstition-riddled and socially rigidified traditionalism of the medieval and late Renaissance period. It prided itself as being more possessed of truth than that earlier era. Its success was reinforced by the advances in technology in industrialization and arms, transportation and communication, which made colonialism possible and brought great wealth based on exploitation of indigenous peoples and ecosystems.
The ideals of progress, and especially tendencies in Westernized cultures (including, now most industrialized countries of the East) to believe in many of the ideals of capitalism. Although colonialism is now in disrepute, the "White Man's Burden" was a major myth that justified extensive economic and social exploitation of those less well-technologically-endowed, under the guise of bringing the advantages of "civilization" and the benefits of "true religion." The pervasive senses of ethnocentrism, nationalism, racism superiority, the separation of business and ethics, and the blind belief in science as a near-religion, all are part of the mainstream of modernity. Modernity was also largely patriarchial, although its most flagrant forms have become less respectable, they still are pervasive.
There are many modern ideas that most people who think of themselves as postmodernist would go along with, but not uncritically. There remains that sense of questioning, probing, and consideration of the limits of these ideas.
Some Associated Useful IdeasPostmodernism also introduces a goodly number of concepts that can be helpful in promoting a more vibrant intellectual awareness. For example, the following terms:
Discourse. This suggests not only verbal conversation, but addresses the kinds of messages being sent, received, and propagated in formal and informal contexts. Media of all types are part of our cultural discourse, and this includes advertisements, entertainment, and the quality of images and sounds, as well as rational exposition or discussion. It's what's being talked about, the action reflection of "common sense" (or commonly-held non-sense). The term's value is that it recognizes the general category that includes many types of communications, interactions, and even modes of thought.
Marginalization. This term recognizes that mainstream discourse often "behaves" as if certain ideas, issues, or sub-groups of people simply don't exist, or hardly exist. In the mid-1950s, the mainstream media marginalized African Americans or Hispanics except in a few servant or character roles. Gays and lesbians have been largely marginalized, as have the aged and the disabled, although this is becoming less prevalent. By noting this term, it suggests that we should continue to wonder what aspects of life are subject to varying degrees of denial and repression.
Narrative. This term recognizes the subtle story-like form of much of our social constructions. In modernity, much was spoken of as dry fact, but there was a kind of denial of the idea that facts didn't in fact stand alone, but were pulled out selectively to support this or that general interpretation, this or that story, which in turn tended to support certain beliefs and the established status of certain groups. Narrative is a less grandiose term than "myth," but really it serves almost the same function. Individuals, groups and nations all have their selected histories, the stories which tend to justify or create a coherent meaning for their existence. In this process of narrative, elements that don't fit are often ignored or actively repressed. Some narratives thus foster the marginalization of those sub-groups or issues that suggest a different interpretation. For example, in the modern, mid- 20th Century, the cowboys were good guys and the Indians were bad guys. The idea that the caucasians of European descent were less than noble in their treatment of the Indians was marginalized until around the 1960s. It wasn't part of the narrative.
Meta-narrative: This term recognizes that sets of beliefs and stories are often embedded in even more fundamental sets of beliefs and stories. The histories of some group, their pioneering efforts, might be set within a broader frame of the belief in progress, exploration, and the superiority of Christian culture over "heathen" indigenous culture.
What are some positive implications of postmodernism?While some of the more prominent postmoderist writers are overly obscure and excessively intellectually- game-playing, and some of their positions more extreme, for me the challenge was to access what was really relatively valid about this viewpoint. Ken Wilber (2000) described the situation well, and I recommend his treatment of the subject.
Another implication is that postmodernism is a theoretical or philosophical justification for encouraging people to think and imagine creatively, as discussed in my talk and now the paper on this website on creative mythmaking.
In 1996 I wrote a paper that spoke to some implications of this new worldview for those who are conducting psychotherapy, though in retrospect, many of these principles could be applied to many other life roles. They are noted elsewhere on this website: Implications of Postmodernism for Psychotherapy
Anderson, Walter Truett. (1990). Reality isn't what it used to be. San Francisco: Harper & Row. Excellent and readable survey.
REFERENCES ON POSTMODERNISM
Barratt, Barnaby B. (1993). Psychoanalysis and the postmodern impulse. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Berger, P. & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. One of the seminal books.
Blatner, Adam. (December, 1997). The implications of postmodernism for psychotherapy. Individual Psychology, 53(4), 476-482. (check this link on this website)
Cahoone, Lawrence E. (1996). Introduction. In his edited volume, From modernism to postmodernism: An anthology. Blackwell. (pp. 1-23).
Doherty, W.J. (Sept-Oct, 1991). Family therapy goes postmodern: Deconstructing clinical objectivity. Family Therapy Networker, 37-42. Very good review, including noting deconstruction, feminist critique, constructivism, and the tendency towards integration in the field.
Gergen, Kenneth J. (1991). The saturated self: Dilemmas of identity in contemporary life. New York: BasicBooks/HarperCollins Excellent overview of the postmodern condition.
Gergen, Kenneth J. (2001). Psychological science in a postmodern context. American Psychologist, 56(10), 803-813.
Griffin, David Ray. (Ed.) (1988). Spirituality and society: Postmodern visions. Albany: State University of New York Press. (Also several other more recent bookss in this series edited by Griffin; especially note his introduction to the series)
Griffin, David Ray. (1988). The reenchantment of science. Albany: State University of New York Press. (Introduction)
Lehman, D. (1991). Signs of the times: Deconstruction and the fall of Paul de Man. New York: Poiseidon. Good overview and critique of the excesses of deconstruction, especially in the field of literary criticism.
Lifton, Robert Jay. (1993). The protean self: Human resilience in an age of fragmentation. New York: BasicBooks/HarperCollins. This outstanding psychiatrist addresses the ways the postmodern condition can have an impact on people's lives, and more, how they can respond both constructively or regressively.
Pardeck, J.T. & Murphy, J.W. (1993). Postmodernism and clinical practice: A critical analysis of the disease model. Psychological reports, 72, 1187-1194.
Smith, H. (1989). Beyond the postmodern mind. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing.
Singer, M. (1990). Postmodernism and medical anthropology: Words of caution. Medical Anthropology, 12(3), 289-304.
Spretnak, Charlene. (1997). The resurgence of the real: Body, nature and place in hypermodern world. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Stroebe, M., Gergen, M., Gergen, K., & Stroebe, W. (1992). Broken hearts or broken bonds: Love and death in historical perspective. American Psychologist, 47(10), 1203-1212.
Spitz, E.H. (1993). Calvin and Hobbes: Postmodern and psychoanalytic perspectives. Psychoanalytic Review, 80(1), 55-82.
Wilber, Ken. (2000). From modernity to postmodernity (Chapter 13, pages 158-173), in Integral psychology: Consciousness, spirit, psychology, therapy. Boston: Shambhala.
On ConstructivismEfran, J.S., Lukens, R.J. & Lukens, M.D. (1988). Constructivism: What's in it for you? Family Therapy Networker, 12(5), 26-36. (And other articles in this issue's special feature devoted to the subject)
Fish, Vincent. (1993). Poststructuralism in family therapy: Interrogating the narrative/conversational mode. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 19(3), 221-232.
Hermans, H., Kempen, H. & van Loon, R. (1992). The dialogical self: Beyond individualism and rationalism. American Psychologist, 47(1), 23-33.
Hoffman, Lynn. (1990). Constructing realities: An art of lenses. Family Process, 29(1), 1-12.
Neimeyer, R.A. (1993). An appraisal of constructivist psychotherapies. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61(2), 221-234. Excellent overview.
Watzlawick, P. (1976). How real is real? Communication, disinformation, confusion. New York: Random House. This and the next two by this author are good overviews.
Watzlawick, P. (Ed.) (1984). The invented reality: How do we know what we believe we know; contributions to constructivism. New York: W.W. Norton.
Watzlawick, P. (1990). Munchhausen's pigtail, or, psychotherapy and "reality." New York: W.W. Norton.
Weingarten, K. (1991). The discourses of intimacy: Adding a social constructionist and feminist view. Family Process, 30(3), 285-306.
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