This post is a followup to last week’s, and is best read in tandem with it. I argued that the difference between modernity and modernism (which is to say, the difference between modern and modernist) really matters. The question for this week: can the same be said of a difference between postmodernity and postmodernism?
It is not disputed that there is a set of ideas, however vaguely specified it may be, which became popular sometime after the mid-1970s and has regularly been referred to by the label of postmodernism. Postmodernism has some points of agreement with modernism, but generally tends to define itself in terms of its differences from modernism. But is there such a thing as postmodernity?
I don’t think so. Or at least, to the extent that there is, it is not that important. Thus the point I ended on last week: while Ken Wilber is technically right to say that those spiritualities that want to survive in the contemporary world must come to terms with modernity, he is not even technically right to say that they must come to terms with postmodernity.
The definitions of the modern era or modernity vary wildly and I’m not going to try to pin it down precisely here, but I may name some things that are most generally and broadly taken to make for a modern age, a modern state of being – modernity as opposed to modernism. Among others, these may include: advanced technology and the social arrangements it makes possible (such as rapid global travel), an economy characterized by varying amounts of capitalist markets and central government planning, the legal treatment of individuals as bearing rights independent of their familial or tribal status, central governments associated with nation-states or multinational states that provide a formally stated set of laws and associated punishments, a widespread social respect for the methods and conclusions of natural science as generally reliable in predicting the behaviours of natural phenomena, and most generally a world characterized everywhere by regular rapid change. But which of these are we “post”? If anything, in the late 20th and 21st centuries – the era characterized as postmodern – we have more of all these than ever before. We remain at least as modern as we have ever been.
Postmodernity, then, is not an era or a state of being in the way that modernity is. We all are and must all be modern, but we do not have to be postmodern. For the word “postmodern” is really just a (somewhat confusing) shorthand for “postmodernist” – it denotes the ideology of postmodernism, comparable to the ideology of modernism, and not a state of being comparable to being modern. There is postmodernism in the sense that there is modernism, but there is no postmodernity in the sense that there is modernity.
David Harvey, a Marxist geographer and one of the more influential critics of postmodernism, uses the term “postmodernity” in his title, and he does so in a way that suggests there is indeed a postmodern era. There has, he suggests, been a broad change since the 1970s in economic as well as ideological conditions – the former a postmodernity that accompanies postmodernism. He’s referring to the transition away from the “Fordist” societies of mass production and mass consumption that prevailed in the mid-20th century and toward the “flexible” production system that prevailed under Reagan and after, with welfare states and labour unions disempowered. (Harvey would agree that a postmodern world has hardly been good for the marginalized.)
But Harvey, as far as I can tell, would actually agree with the overall contours of my argument. For him, both the economic change that is postmodernity and the cultural change that is postmodernism are relatively small changes within the overall fabric of modern capitalism. They are a short-term change like the Fordist era itself, a change spanning decades and not centuries. To the extent that we can speak of postmodernity, then, it is merely one small and short part of modernity, and one that might well be ending – as postmodernism itself might be. When I began both of my graduate degrees, in 1998 and 2000, you couldn’t escape conversations about Foucault and Derrida, the postmodernist heroes. By the time I left the faculty track in 2010, the excitement had moved on to other figures like Slavoj Žižek, who – like Harvey – regularly declaims postmodernism on Marxist grounds.
Now to speculate about an end to postmodernism (as an ideology) is not to say that modernism has returned in full force. Indeed, if anything it might be getting weaker. In the early 21st century what is old is increasingly fashionable, in a way antithetical to modernism. But that’s not the same as the relativist ideas, such as a critique of truth, that typically characterize postmodernism. Rather, we might understand modernism – the enthusiastic endorsement of modernity – as one characteristically modern ideology. The modern rejection of modernity, which I spoke of last week, is another. Between those polar attitudes to modernity there are many options, of which postmodernism is only one.
With all that said, let us now return to Wilber’s claim. Do spiritualities in today’s world need to “come to terms with postmodernity” in the way that they need to come to terms with modernity? No. Postmodernism is merely one way of reacting to and coming to terms with modernity, just as modernism and anti-modernism are. One must indeed come to terms with it if, as Wilber and I do, one is trying to understand and come to terms with every major philosophical worldview that has been advocated. But the circumstances of today’s world do not force it on us in the way that they force modernity. We have to be modern, even if we oppose that modernity and wish to go back to a state that preceded it. We do not have to be postmodern, in any respect at all.