Thursday, March 22, 2007

Cultural Postmodernism

I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to understand postmodernity. It’s a pervasive issue these days and one that tends to get thrown around with reckless abandon. I’d heard all kinds of explanations for it, but they all sounded like a description, for lack of a better term, of symptoms, not the disease itself. You can only get so far with that. I would hear things like, “Postmoderns form communities,” “They want genuine interaction,” and “They are relativistic and don’t think in terms of absolutes.” This always seemed odd, as forming community and seeking genuine relationships was an integral aspect of human history as I’ve always understood it. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea of disregard for absolutes, either. Conversations with postmoderns almost always come down to some form of discussion of absolutes. A favorite band is the best ever and anyone who disagrees is a hopeless moron. The Republicans are completely evil fascists and the Democrats are the last bastion of freedom or the Democrats are baby killers and the Republicans are saints. It always sounded pretty absolute to me. If the desire to form genuine communities doesn’t define postmoderns and they don’t lack absolutes, there must be something else going on. Those “definitions” must be nothing more than symptoms. I started to feel like Dr. House yelling at his team to stop listing the problems and find an explanation that could explain them all. Then one day it all came together. A friend of mine was working on a B.S. paper for a somewhat misguided class on multiculturalism. We sat down to talk about the fact that I’m Norwegian. It became readily apparent that I don’t actually care about my Norwegian heritage, nor have I bothered to learn anything about it. After a while I started talking about history for reasons I don’t exactly remember. She gave me a kind of half amused look and said, “I’m doing the wrong paper. I should be writing about your culture as a historian.” A little later I made the comment, “Our culture is that which informs us of how we should look at the world.” It wasn’t until later that I realized I had answered my question about the roots of postmodernity. I had that one answer that explained all of the symptoms. The postmodern, as its name implies, came on the heels of modernity. Modernity, in turn, was ushered in with the advent of the scientific method. Before the modern was the primal. Societal formation during the three epochs varied, but it did so along cultural lines. The question of how culture is defined has not remained constant, however. During the primal era, cultural formation occurred along tribal lines. People, by and large, worshipped their particular tribal god, lived on tribal lands married within their tribal collective and basically spent their entire lives with people who looked, thought and acted like they did. During the modern era the tribal lines began to break down. Tribal gods gave way to the world religions. Tribal lands which had either expanded through conquest or been swallowed up by larger empires solidified in to arbitrary boundaries known as nation states. As the postmodern era those arbitrary boundaries are beginning to break down again because on some level people are realizing that they’ve been living in a culture that was imposed on them from an outside, artificial source. We are switching to a form of tribalism. But that tribalism has nothing to do with physical appearance or a particular god. It might be a political party or a band or a sports team or a particular city, but it’s still a tribal affiliation. All that’s happened is that the definition of what constitutes culture has changed. The internet has accelerated this process immensely. Pick any random idea and somebody has probably created a web forum for it with anywhere from a handful to thousands of fiercely enthusiastic members. They can meet and discuss and justify their particular culture at any time when not that long ago each individual person might have thought they were the only one in the world who thought that way. It used to be that we only thought of culture in terms of a half-dozen or so variables. There was race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, gender, language and possibly a couple others. Those traditional cultural lines have broken down, however. Races mix all the time, ethnicities are ignored by those who hold them and borrowed by others who want them, religious lines are crossed in the name of ecumenical understanding and so forth. As those lines blur or are erased entirely, something new has to show up to allow the self to be differentiated from the other. It is human nature to find an opposite, after all. Assuming this is right, I’m sure it will lead to a question of whether or not this is a good trend. I don’t think we can decide that yet. It is happening and cannot be stopped. We’ll have to wait for future historians to make those judgments…

1 comment:

Kelly Reed said...


Good first post. You're totally wrong of course. My postmodernity and relativism is asserting itself. I know you're wrong, I'm just unable to articulate how or where. Therefore, you must be hunted down, humiliated and destroyed before a worldwide television audience.

Have a nice day.