How postmodernism is failing us – 4

Posted: October 15, 2014 by J in Theology
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4. Postmodernism has opened the door to radical individualism.  It is paradoxical that we could live in McWorld and yet be individualists – and yet it is undeniably true. It works like this. Postmodernism tends to undermine any larger story or cause that I might identify with. Tolerance is not a cause, just a low-grade ideal. There is no shared bigger picture or larger group that gives meaning to my life and yours.

Trouble is, this dynamic doesn’t stop when it gets down to the level of local community – it keeps on destroying the narratives that hold people together.  We learned it from Inception: if an idea is planted deep enough it will control your whole life. If big stories are suspect and relative, then smaller ones are too, and in fact any story.  In the end the only meaning I can access is the meaning I construct for my own life.

In which case there can be no real ‘us’. For the thing that used to maintain ‘us’ was the narrative. It’s only a short step from this to ‘life is all about me.’ The large metanarratives which postmodernism attacked did not break down into local narratives – they broke down into the individual story. Nor is there any narrative we are following that might give much importance to my neighbour’s life. This leaves radical individualism as the only available option.

The results have been catastrophic. We have seen our communities break down to the point where there is very little left. We no longer know our neighbours. Nowadays when people die, they are lucky if anyone notices. Or cares.


In finishing, let me say I’m no big fan of modernism either. But in exorcising that demon, seems to me postmodernism has left the house swept and available for seven even worse demons to take up residence.

I am looking for something better.

  1. richardrglover says:

    I’ve been wanting to throw my voice in the ring on these posts for a while – but I’ve been flat out, so just catching up now. Three things. Firstly, radical individualism isn’t really something introduced in postmodernism; it’s just the logical outworking of modernism. It’s probably the major source of continuity between modernism and postmodernism actually.

    Secondly, it’s worth making a distinction between postmodernism and postmodernity. The latter is the cultural milieu that has taken hold post-modernity; but postmodernism, the architectural, artistic, and philosophical movement that has developed along with postmodernity, is often quite critical of postmodernity.

    Thirdly, most postmodern philosophy isn’t actually against all big stories. Jean-François Lyotard coined the phrase in ‘The Postmodern Condition’, in which he used it to denote the kind of narrative presented in a scientistic worldview. His analysis argues that a metanarrative is a story that denies it is a story, and instead sees itself as mere, bald, scientific fact. The same book is an argument that overarching stories, along with language, are fundamental to human nature and society. It’s in part due to a poor translation from the original French, which just means ‘big stories’. To paraphrase Reformed philosoher and theologian James K A Smith, Lyotard’s target wasn’t the scope of such stories, but the kind of claims they made.

    So, in some ways, postmodernism is actually more open to community-building stories than modernism.

  2. J says:

    Hi Richard, thanks for weighing in. You’ve clearly read and thought about postmodernism, it’s nice to get some informed input into this blog series!

    On your point 2, Always hard with movements to tie down what they are and what they stand for! That makes it hard to comment on them: someone can always say ‘But look here’s an exponent who thinks differently.’ For the purposes of these posts I’m talking about postmodernism as a social movement/world view. Talking in massive generalisations – always risky!

    On point 1, of course postmodernists didn’t invent individualism. That was Protestants. 😉
    But I see modernism as having maintained community-metanarratives in a way that just can’t be done in the current climate. Like “empire” for example. Compare the WW1 posters ‘The Empire Needs Men!’ with the 1990s ‘Do something for yourself – join the army’.

    I think its only in the past generation or so that local community has so largely broken down.

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