You’ve probably heard the words “modernism” and “postmodernism” before.
Perhaps you heard them uttered by a stuffy professor or some nerd with a bow-tie in an art gallery. But I’d like to take a few minutes to convince you that they are practical and important terms.
First, some definitions.
Modernism is the assumption that the world is clearly-defined and measurable. There are facts that exist independently of any of us. Gravity will always be gravity. Two plus two will always be four.
Modernism arose in the 17th century, with the scientific revolution, and later, the Enlightenment. Modernists held that our understanding of reality could be infinitely improved upon through experimentation, observation, and reason.
Postmodernism, on the other hand, believes that certainty is impossible. No matter how many times you observe something, you can never know if it’s entirely true, mostly because the observer is always fallible.
Postmodernism arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to a number of havoc-wreaking discoveries in the hard sciences.
- Einstein’s relativity showed that, in fact, gravity is not always gravity.
- Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem showed that mathematical systems are self-contradictory.
- Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle showed that it’s theoretically impossible to measure anything with complete accuracy.
To put it succinctly, modernism is the assertion that truth can be known definitively. Postmodernism is the assertion that truth can never be known definitively; it can only be guessed at and approximated, at best.
Winning the Meta-War
While this all sounds like highly abstract mental masturbation, these two philosophical dispositions have actually infiltrated our day-to-day lives. And, I would argue, there is a kind of meta-warfare quietly going on between the two factions around the world.
Modernists believe that truth exists and, therefore, power merely is a question of what is most factually accurate. Modernists believe in evidence over feelings. They see history as a series of struggles that bring humanity closer to truth.
Postmodernists believe that truth is subjective, that facts are socially constructed and arbitrary, and, therefore, power is a question of which group has the biggest gun or loudest bullhorn.
Postmodernists believe that people’s feelings matter more than evidence—as evidence is always corrupted by the individual narratives that present it. As a result, postmodernists see history as a constant struggle between various groups and their narratives.
Modernists believe in the sanctity of cultural traditions. Postmodernists see these traditions as evidence of oppression.
Modernists believe in protecting institutions. Postmodernists believe institutions merely serve the elites who run them.
Modernists believe in the accumulation of scientific knowledge. Postmodernists are skeptical of science, as numbers can be easily manipulated to fit groups’ narratives.
Stop me if this sounds familiar…
Modernism thrives in a slow-moving world where there are broadly held truths that everyone agrees upon. Postmodernism thrives in a fast-moving world full of uncertainty and doubt.
It’s no surprise then that the internet has brought a rapid rise in postmodernist thinking around the world.
One of the effects of the internet and social media that I’ve often talked about is the contrarian nature of seemingly everything. If you go online to find some nutrition advice, you are quickly bombarded with 19 different people who tell you that nutrition advice is wrong, the food is wrong, the agriculture companies are wrong, the trainers selling it to you are wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
This constant contrarian nature of the online world is the undertow that pulls us out to the postmodernist sea. In constantly being exposed to the world’s flaws and foibles, we lose faith in everything and everyone. Knowledge itself becomes politicized.
Postmodern thinking radicalizes people, not because it makes them go crazy, but because it makes knowledge appear to be arbitrary and political.
Postmodernism is the reason why everything seems to be becoming politicized these days, even if it shouldn’t be.
It’s why academic journals rescind scientific research because some groups may find it offensive.
It’s why corporations have begun to adopt slogans that have absolutely nothing to do with their products and please only a tiny fraction of their customers.
It’s why politicians who lost elections claim the vote was fraudulent without any evidence.
It’s why public figures unironically claim they have “alternative facts” as if the term wasn’t an oxymoron.
Need Help Figuring out What to Give a Fuck About?
The Destructive Forces of Irony
If there was one public figure who died recently that I could bring back to life, it would be David Foster Wallace. Aside from being one of my favorite authors ever, Wallace was a brilliant social commentator.
Wallace wrote many essays in the 1990s about the effects of television on his generation—the short attention spans, the perniciousness of 24/7 entertainment, the alienation and fragmentation of culture.
In one essay, he took particular aim at the trend of irony—or what we would refer to today as snark, cynicism, or hipsterdom—the fact that it’s “cool” to say and do things that subtly undermine or mock things that are mainstream, common, or popular.
Wallace observed that, unlike previous generations, his generation enjoyed TV shows that poke fun at the wholesome, nuclear family. They preferred talking heads to satirize and mock public figures rather than sincerely engage them. They were attracted to information that undermines and exposes the flaws of our society rather than sings its praises.
This trend of deconstructing the social order for entertainment purposes was something new in the 1980s and 90s, and it worried Wallace deeply. He argued in an essay aptly titled “E Pluribus Unum” that this obsession with “ironic” art and media could potentially have destructive effects on society.
This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Irony is singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.
I’ve written many times about the negativity bias—the fact that negative information gets more attention and feels more intelligent and important to us than positive attention.
One thing Wallace pointed out is that the expansion of media (i.e., the greater competition for our attention) necessitates greater negativity and irony (or snark/sarcasm), as that is the kind of information that wins the most attention.
It’s much more exciting to see a documentary showing governmental corruption than governmental policy-making. It’s far more entertaining to read about how diets are scams rather than understand actual nutritional science. It’s more engaging to learn about a leader’s private failings rather than their public successes.
Wallace is clear that these trends represented the rising tide of postmodernism in full force. They point to the perpetual fallibility of knowledge, the untrustworthiness of all authority, the fault lines within all human experience.
But he also made a sadder, more personal observation about postmodernism, as well. It seems to bring about a sense of unbearable loneliness and oppression:
I find gifted ironists sort of wickedly fun to listen to at parties, but I always walk away feeling like I’ve had several radical surgical procedures. And as for actually driving cross-country with a gifted ironist, or sitting through a 300-page novel full of nothing but trendy sardonic exhaustion, one ends up not only feeling empty but somehow… oppressed.
Postmodernism generates a sense of loneliness because it fosters distrust and distance rather than trust. Postmodernism fosters oppression because it rewards social status to those who tear down, not those who build up.
Wallace finishes the essay by arguing that it’s only sincerity—that corny, “aw shucks guys!” practice of actually stating what you mean and showing that you care—that can give our lives a sense of meaning and fulfillment.
The problem is… sincerity is not cool. Sincerity does not entertain. Sincerity is lame. It’s also incredibly easy to criticize or show to be hypocritical.
Yet, sincerity is still vitally important.