On Postmodernism

It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.

Karl Popper

Postmodernism is a concept now close to the center of public discourse. Some consider it the cause of social discord, while others defend it as an important cornerstone of social progress. In fact, both positions are right, yet we require a clear theory of postmodernism in order to understand why.

So, how can one defend postmoderism while also defending those criticizing or impugning it? The reason is very simply that there exists authentic postmodern awareness of varying degrees of maturity, and inauthentic dogmas pretending to an awareness that has yet to be realized. It is ironic, then, that many people with authentic postmodern awareness end up criticizing dogmas masquerading as postmodern, while people who have yet to awaken authentic postmodern awareness attack those fielding the critiques, humorously defending the melange of dogmas mistakenly perceived as “postmodern.”

Authentic postmodernism is simply an awakening in our relationship to meaning. It is the realization that value is not intrinsic to objects and events, and the subsequent realization that the meaning of such objects and events is not universally clear. It is the categorization of valuation as internal and separate from the external objects and events of the world, and the realization that on a planet with virtually limitless different internal frames of experience, there exists no universal reference frame for the valuation that interpretation rests on. A simpler but less clear way of saying this is that valuation is subjective, and a much less correct way of saying it is that everything is relative.

Importantly, there is also a process of maturation following the authentic postmodern awakening as the specific realization is slowly generalized to all elements of perception, experience, and interpretation. Following authentic postmodern realization it still takes years and even decades to unpack the meaning one has mistakenly come to assume is intrinsic to the various objects, events, and elements of our experience. In the past, I have been very critical even of authentic postmodernism, on the basis that the maturation process is often actualized in one or more dysfunctional ways, leading to a society that is directed away from healthy subsequent realization. With the present societal reality, though, criticizing the inauthentic dogmas and absolute junk running amok and masquerading as authentically postmodern seems far more urgent.

Unfortunately, no amount of reading or study will ever awaken genuine postmodern awareness. An authentic postmodernist is awakened via realization, and through no other mechanism. Reading and studying postmodern thought may help trigger the realization among some, but among many others it is only a dream for the future. One of the reflections of this, rather embarrassingly, is that Western media and academia have become overrun with mediocre dilettantes churning out facile sophistry (with the imprimatur of a supposedly postmodern collective understanding), because neither they nor the people who recruit them have awakened any real postmodern realization. It’s worth taking a moment, then, to preemptively refute a predictably tiresome boilerplate academic response to what I’ve already claimed. That being that if things don’t have intrinsic meaning, then nor can “my definition” of postmodernism have any. Yet it is for precisely this reason that postmodernism must be understood as a specific realization, rather than as a body of theory or a set of ideologies. If postmodernism were an ideology, then of course it would be a self-flattening and self-erasing proposition resulting in publications that amount only to firework displays, which even the authors apparently would not consider meaningful.

The single overarching mistake, then, is confusing postmodernism as a subject of study, when it is more precisely an awakening in our relationship to meaning which like anything else may give rise to study, and which opens the door to subsequent maturation. With that said, let’s deconstruct inauthentic postmodernism more specifically. If authentic postmodernism is the realization that value is not intrinsic to things, what are some of the ways this realization can often be convincingly counterfeited?

  1. Authentic postmodernism is not the claim that nothing has meaning, it is the realization that meaning is not intrinsic to objects and events. The authentic postmodernist recognizes a world filled with meaning, but understands that the meaning is extrinsic to the objects and events of the world. Authentic postmodern awareness is awakened as an expansion in our relationship with meaning, and therefore by definition cannot be a truncated or narrowed relationship with meaning as compared with scientific modernism, but must rather be a broader and more holistic one that is inclusive of scientific modernism. Ideologies claiming that nothing has meaning, or that there is no objective reality simply reflect a truncated or narrowed relationship to meaning and are therefore not reflective of the expansion following authentic postmodern realization and maturation.
  2. Authentic postmodernism is not reflected in the claim that there is no objective reality, which is a daffy absurdity and a denial of reality; Authentic postmodern awareness does not deny that standing in front of a moving train will result in injury or death following collision, and therefore does not have a problem with accepting self evident empirical realities for the purposes of prediction and expanded understanding. The realization that valuation is not intrinsic to the objects being valued does nothing to overturn the reality of the objects themselves.
  3. Authentic postmodernism is not an ideology related to the supposed equivalence of all valuation, it is only the realization that valuation is not intrinsic. It may seem as though this realization leads to proposing an equivalence of all valuation, since if valuation is extrinsic there is no frame universally justifying one valuation over any other. The mature postmodernist, though, will never claim that no interpretation can be treated as more credible than another. The very essence of a postmodern awareness is a refutation of valuation being intrinsic, which as a category of interpretation is explicitly claimed to be less credible (or outright mistaken). Similarly, if all valuations are to be treated as equivalent, one must eventually confront the fact that some valuations are bound to be more accommodating to alternative valuations than others. It is therefore absurd to suppose authentic and mature postmodernists would not eventually qualify and rank interpretation according to competence and inclusion.
  4. Authentic postmodernism is not the parroting of dogmas about female or LGBT oppression. An authentic postmodern awareness simply understands that the mistaken assumption that valuation is intrinsic to such things as biological sex or homosexual proclivity may end up marginalizing individuals, and therefore seeks to deconstruct those valuations as extrinsic rather than intrinsic to identity. “Postmodern” feminists who advance oppression narratives are not engaging in authentic postmodernism, but rather in its opposite. They who construct intrinsic and essentialist valuation around male and female identity, rather than deconstructing it, are not authentically postmodern. Changing the intrinsic valuation of female identity, for example, from caretaker to victim is not challenging intrinsic valuation, it is merely constructing a different variety of intrinsic valuation.
  5. Authentic postmodernism is not the parroting of dogmas about racial privilege. It might be one thing to deconstruct cultural identities that develop around race, but if one may only deconstruct the supposed cultural identities of a single race, then the process of critique is only a front for the more covert racial narratives that the superficial process of critique operates on.
  6. Authentic postmodernism is not Marxism, which actually proposes that valuation is intrinsic to commodities as a function of the labor required to produce them.
  7. Authentic postmodern awareness is not a decision that is made. One does not decide to become a postmodernist having researched it for a book or decide to “hold postmodern views” for cultural or academic status. Actually, the authentic postmodern awareness understands that such cultural and academic status may be constructed around one or more intrinsic valuations somewhere, and would actually seek to unpack and deconstruct them.
  8. Authentic postmodern awareness is not the avoidance of judgement, as commonly claimed, it is more specifically the avoidance of implying that valuation is intrinsic to something, which may seem to others superficially like a desire to avoid judgement. The idiotic avoidance of judgement results in a narrowing in our relationship with meaning, rather than an expansion of it.

The precise nature of expansion in our relationship to meaning following postmodern realization lies in our quest to unpack and disentangle the implicit or assumed valuation that objects and events are often assigned. In so doing, the postmodernist comes to recognize a deeper relationship with meaning than the modernist because the postmodernist is aware of the multitudinous interpretive valuations that objects and events are implicitly assigned as a result of valuation being mistakenly treated as intrinsic. Modernists still assume that clear valuation is intrinsic to objects and events, and their supposed reason is therefore handcuffed to whatever valuations are taken as clear. They engage in reasoned discourse, of course, but always from within a frame where the meaning of things is intrinsic and assumed.

Let’s consider evidence as a categorical example. Since evidence is contextualized from the meaning attributed to an object or an event, a modernist’s relationship to evidence is handcuffed to whatever web of valuation is understood to be intrinsic to the objects and events that give them meaning. Thus, despite what people say, postmodernists are far and away more capable scientists than modernists are because they understand that valuation is not intrinsic to objects and events. Since competent scientific analysis is based on evidence, it is therefore also fundamentally based on our relationship to meaning. Considering evidence objective is valid but incomplete, since evidence still hinges on the valuations used to contextualize objects and events.

The value of public policy, for example, can often be credibly recognized as universal care or credibly recognized as tyrannical, and as a result there is ample evidence for both interpretations. A modernist who recognizes valuation of some public policy as intrinsically one way or another will never recognize evidence for an interpretation that requires a different web of valuation, even as that evidence may be expanding in front of them. The ongoing COVID boondoggle in the West is an excellent example. The valuation of the measures being taken is clear and unambiguous to many modernists, who view them as intrinsically precautionary, and as such no evidence for the rapid expansion of tyranny is recognized, despite the almost staggering volume of evidence for it; such evidence is simply contextualized in a different web of valuations of the objects and events around us. The modernist’s commitment to the meaning of objects and events being intrinsic and obvious handcuffs their interpretive range and truncates their relationship to meaning.

Social justice advocacy often seems superficially premised on a postmodern realization, namely that no universal reference frame exists to uniquely value one culture or gender identity over another and that therefore “dominant” cultures and gender identities occupy arbitrary positions in our collective consciousness, which may not serve the greatest good. Yet even accepting this framing, no genuine postmodernist would so callously propose the sloppy legalisms as the frauds in our universities do to remedy these supposed oversights. The premodernist and modernist both recognize valuation as intrinsic to the legalisms and therefore that they are clear and unambiguous. The genuine postmodernist recognizes that the valuation and meaning is not intrinsic to the legalisms but must be interpreted. The authentic postmodernist is therefore correct in a profound way that the modernist simply has no understanding of. The title IX debacle in the United States university system should put this point to bed convincingly. It was contrived to prohibit discrimination based on gender, which modernists will recognize as an intrinsically meaningful statement and will universally support. Yet if you think that such a statement cannot be misinterpreted you would be incorrect. As Karl Popper said: “It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.” The valuation necessary for unambiguous interpretation is not intrinsic to the legalisms being contrived and proposed. So self-styled postmodernists advocating an expansion of such legal contrivances as hate speech laws are simply kidding themselves. Although genuine hatred does exist, there remains no universal reference frame for the valuation necessary to unambiguously interpret what constitutes hate versus what constitutes genuinely valid criticism, but far more damningly than this, there is no universal reference frame even for the valuation necessary to unambiguously understand the spirit in which such legal contrivances are being proposed.

This second more damning problem is exactly why chicanery in contemporary politics often succeeds. Premodernists and modernists are handcuffed to whatever web of valuations are viewed as intrinsic with respect to the raison d’etre of public policy and the expansion of associated legalisms. It is the authentic postmodernist who is free to consider the valuation of objects and events, offering a wider latitude for interpretation. The authentic postmodernist cuts through manipulation as a result, because they are not wed to the intrinsic valuation commonly understood for various things. This often results in authentic postmoderns being accused of conspiracy theory, but the explanation here is simple. The mature postmodernist has spent years unpacking the meaning the culture mistakenly assumes to be intrinsic to things. The postmodernist can recognize the credibility in alternative interpretations because they are flexible to recognize alternative valuation in objects and events that others simply do not see.

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