11/22/2004

What does post-Modern mean to you?

Given that the emerging church, emerging culture and a whole host of things are based on postmodernism it might be a good idea to figure out exactly what it is. The trouble with defining what it means is that it has mostly been defined by philosophers. And gosh darn it, those guys converse in a language that bears no relation to English (or even American).

Just to underscore the point I’d like to bring in Noam Chomsky. Now nobody could be further from a Chomsky fan than I am. My opinion of him to this point is that he’s a classic academic liberal who hides behind the skirts of the very society he condemns. So color me shocked when I read this in Chomsky’s entry in Wikipedia:

Chomsky has written strong refutations of deconstructionist and postmodern criticisms of science:
"I have spent a lot of my life working on questions such as these, using the only methods I know of; those condemned here as 'science,' 'rationality,' 'logic,' and so on. I therefore read the papers with some hope that they would help me 'transcend' these limitations, or perhaps suggest an entirely different course. I'm afraid I was disappointed. Admittedly, that may be my own limitation. Quite regularly, 'my eyes glaze over' when I read polysyllabic discourse on the themes of poststructuralism and postmodernism; what I understand is largely truism or error, but that is only a fraction of the total word count. True, there are lots of other things I don't understand: the articles in the current issues of math and physics journals, for example. But there is a difference. In the latter case, I know how to get to understand them, and have done so, in cases of particular interest to me; and I also know that people in these fields can explain the contents to me at my level, so that I can gain what (partial) understanding I may want. In contrast, no one seems to be able to explain to me why the latest post-this-and-that is (for the most part) other than truism, error, or gibberish, and I do not know how to proceed."
Chomsky notes that critiques of "white male science" are much like the anti-Semitic and politically motivated attacks against "Jewish physics" used by the Nazis to denigrate research done by Jewish scientists during the Deutsche Physik movement:

This simply underscores for me the fact that the postmodern conversation is one that is not accessible to the casual observer, so I decided to embark on a Dave’s Cliff Notes version for enlightened lay people. I realize that for the literary academics postmodernism has some kind of precise definition, but I haven’t seen a single one that manages to integrate the scientific perspective, and for me, above all else, it is science that is the final nail in the coffin of Modernity. Who knew?

And in other news, a friend of mine told me was talking with an architect about postmodernity and she insisted that the only field where “real” postmodernity lies is architecture. In some ways this underscores the meta-postmodernity of the term. People can’t agree objectively on what post-Modern is.

One key thing for me is that post-Modernism (and I deliberately use the hyphen and capital to underscore the meaning of the term) is not something you can accept or reject – it’s here whether you like it or not. The Modern era is going, going, gone (eventually). Dead era walking.

The world of the Middle Ages didn’t ask for the Modern era, it wasn’t designed or planned by anyone, it just happened as a result of the Renaissance, the Reformation and perhaps the crowning glory, the Scientific Revolution. None of them were planned by anyone, they just happened. Not only that, but the change took place over at least two centuries, in reality more like four. I’m sure if I’d lived through that transition I wouldn’t have been able to make much sense of it and there’s nobody then who did either, probably not even Sir Isaac Newton.

The Modern era brought us the scientific method, a vast improvement on primitive superstition. We discovered the earth wasn’t flat and that it revolved around the sun, not vice versa. These earth-shattering revelations shook civilization to its core. The fact that they were actually true and verifiable didn’t make them any easier to swallow. On the positive side it appeared that by diligently exploring and experimenting humankind could eventually solve the mysteries of the universe. However, even the great Isaac Newton (and I hate how people diss him because he wasn't another 300 years ahead of his time) cautioned thus:

"Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done."


The peak of the modern era may well have been the 1920s. Why then? Because in the 1930’s Einstein’s Theory of Relativity finally gained acceptance and the world began to change again. Newtonian mechanics explained a lot that happened on the macro scale, but the atomic scale proved to be quite different.

It took three hundred years or so for humankind to come around to agree with Newton's quote above. After three centuries of scientific discovery we are no closer to solving the meaning of life. If anything, the more we have discovered, the more we have found there is yet more to know. When every question answered raised two more, the belief that we humans can figure out God, the universe and everything dissipated rather quickly in the latter end of the 20th century.

However, just like five hundred years ago, the realization that the end of an era is upon us isn’t as obvious while we are in the middle of it. I don’t know when the term “Modern era” was coined, but I’ll bet it wasn’t until long after the “Modern era” was upon us. By the same token, I doubt the Middle Ages were known as the Middle Ages to middle-agers. So while we know we are in an era that comes after the Modern era, the only thing we know right now is that it is the era after the Modern age, that is, post-Modern.

One distinction of the current transition is that it will happen much quicker than the Middle age to Modern era transition. Just as the printing press was the technology that drove the Modern age, the computer, recently augmented by the internet, is the technology that is now driving the post-Modern era. Electrons travel a lot faster than paper and it’s ideas that turn eras. The faster the ideas travel, the faster the change. Even so, the post-Modern transition has been upon us for seventy years or so, and will probably take several more decades to complete. Another facet of the speed of change is that we now have a world of scholars, with learning being almost universal now, rather than the prerogative of the privileged few in all of history prior to the 19th century.

So what are we to make of all this?

First, “post-Modern” is a transition phase, not the end point of the transition. Whatever the historians call the subsequent era, it won’t be “post-Modern”. What will it be called? I’ve seen a proposal for the “Creative Age” which I think fits with the likely outcome of ever-expanding universal education and discretionary time.

And here I'm going to take a short break, with part 2 coming soon, looking to the implications for the future.

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