03 August 2007


Brilliant deep thinkers in the mid to late 19th century and early 20th century, like Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, through their argument against objectivity, and emphasis on skepticism concerning social morals and norms laid the groundwork for the existentialist movement.

Other notable precursors of postmodernism include Laurence Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy, Alfred Jarry's Pataphysics, and the work of Lewis Carrol.

Art and literature of the early part of the 20th century play a significant part in shaping the character of postmodern culture.

Dadaism attacked notions of high art in an attempt to break down the distinctions between high and low culture; Surrealism further developed concepts of Dadaism to celebrate the flow of the subconscious with influential techniques such as automatism and nonsensical juxtapositions (evidence of Surrealisms influence on postmodern thought can be seen in Foucault's and Derrida's references to Rene Magritte's experiments with signification).

Some other significant contributions to postmodern culture from literary figures... Jorge Luis Borges experimented in metafiction and magical realism; William S. Burroughs wrote the prototypical postmodern novel, Naked Lunch and developed the cut up method (similar to Tristan Tzara's "How to Make a Dadaist Poem") to create other novels such as Nova Express; Samuel Beckett attempted to escape the shadow of James Joyce by focusing on the failure of language and humanity's inability to overcome its condition, themes later to be explored in such works as Waiting for Godot.

Writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus drew heavily from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and other previous thinkers, and brought about a new sense of subjectivity, and forlornness, which greatly influenced contemporary thinkers, writers, and artists. Karl Barth's fideist approach to theology and lifestyle, brought an irreverence for reason, and the rise of subjectivity.

Postcolonialism after World War II contributed to the idea that one cannot have an objectively superior lifestyle or belief. This idea was taken further by the anti-foundationalist philosophers: Heidegger, then Ludwig Wittgenstein, then Derrida, who examined the fundamentals of knowledge; they argued that rationality was neither as sure nor as clear as modernists or rationalists assert. Both World Wars contributed to postmodernism; it is with the end of the Second World War that recognizably postmodernist attitudes begin to emerge.

It is possible to identify the burgeoning anti-establishment movements of the 1960s as the constituting event of postmodernism. The theory gained some of its strongest ground early on in French academia. In 1971, the Arab-American Theorist Ihab Hassan was one of the first to use the term in its present form in his book: The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature; in it, Hassan traces the development of what he called "literature of silence" through Marquis de Sade, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, Beckett, and many others, including developments such as the Theatre of the Absurd and the nouveau roman.

In 1979 Jean-François Lyotard wrote a short but influential work The Postmodern Condition: A report on knowledge. Also, Richard Rorty wrote Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes are also influential in 1970s postmodern theory.

However, Postmodernism movement actually began with architecture, as a reactionary movement against the perceived blandness and hostility present in the Modern movement. Modern Architecture as established and developed by masters such as Walter Gropius and Philip Johnson was focused on the pursuit of an ideal perfection, harmony of form and function and dismissal of frivolous ornament.

Critics of modernism argued that the attributes of perfection and minimalism themselves were subjective, and pointed out anachronisms in modern thought and questioned the benefits of its philosophy. Definitive postmodern architecture such as the work of Michael Graves rejects the notion of a 'pure' form or 'perfect' architectonic detail, instead conspicuously drawing from all methods, materials, forms and colors available to architects.

Postmodern architecture began the reaction against the almost totalitarian qualities of Modernist thought, favoring personal preferences and variety over objective, ultimate truths or principles. It is this atmosphere of criticism, skepticism and subjectivity that defines the postmodern philosophy.

Postmodernist ideas in the arts have influenced philosophy and the analysis of culture and society, expanded the importance of critical theory, and been the point of departure for works of literature, architecture, and design, as well as being visible in marketing/business and the interpretation of history, law and culture, starting in the late 20th century; these developments (re-evaluation of the entire Western value system (love, marriage, popular culture, shift from industrial to service economy) that took place since 1950/1960, with a peak in the Social Revolution of 1968) are described with the term postmodernity, as opposed to the "-ism" referring to an opinion or movement.

As something being "postmodernist" would be part of the movement, "postmodern" would refer to aspects of the period of the time since the 1950s, a part of contemporary history; still both terms may be synonymous under some circumstances.


W. Travis McMaken said...

"Karl Barth's fideist approach to theology and lifestyle, brought an irreverence for reason, and the rise of subjectivity."

I don't know how you can read even one paragraph of Barth and conclude that his work promotes an irreverence for reason and the rise of subjectivity. While he is fideist in some sense, it is not a Christian ghettoization but a commitment of faith to not allow Christian belief to be called into question by other ideologies.

Gotham City Insider said...

Some fundamentalist and evangelical critics have often referred to Barth as "neo-orthodox" because, while his theology retains most or all of the tenets of christianity, he is seen as rejecting the belief which is a linchpin of their theological system: biblical inerrancy. Which to me is quite a laughable linchpin for we all know the Bible is a work of fiction written by mere mortals, is it not? It isn't a biography or an autobiography, it's a book of tales, arguable and disputable and subject to criticism like any work of fiction.

Such critics regard proclaiming a rigorous christian theology without basing that theology on a supporting text that is considered to be historically accurate as a separation of theological truth from historical truth

Barthians respond by saying that the claim that the foundation of theology is biblical inerrancy is to use a foundation other than Jesus Christ, and that our understanding of Scripture's accuracy and worth can only properly emerge from consideration of what it means for it to be a true witness to Jesus himself.

The relationship between Barth, liberalism and fundamentalism goes far beyond the issue of inerrancy, however. From Barth's perspective, liberalism, as understood in the sense of the 19th century with Friedrich Schleiermacher and Hegel as its leading exponents and not necessarily expressed in any political ideology, is the divinization of human thinking.

This, to him, inevitably leads one or more philosophical concepts to become the false God, thus blocking the true voice of the living God.

This, in turn, leads to the captivity of theology by human ideology. In Barth's theology, he emphasizes again and again that human concepts of any kind, breadth or narrowness quite beside the point, can never be considered as identical to God's revelation.

In this aspect, Scripture is also written human language, expressing human concepts. It cannot be considered as identical to God's revelation. However, in His freedom and love, God truly reveals Himself through human language and concepts, with a view toward their necessity in reaching fallen humanity. Thus Barth claims that Christ is truly presented in Scripture and the preaching of the church, echoing a stand expressed in his native Swiss Reformed Church's Helvetic Confession of the 16th century.

In general, Barth stands in the heritage of the Reformation in his opposition against attempts to closely relate theology and philosophy. His approach in that respect is termed "kerygmatic," as opposed to "apologetic."

Keep in mind this is all coming from a devout agnostic = me. I may not believe what Barth says but I KNOW what he said.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Two things:

First, it is not a good idea to equate the 'neo-orthodox' and Barth. The former is more a school of English reception of early Barth, in relation to some of Barth's early colleagues, than it is consistent with Barth's own mature theology.

Second, I don't understand how your comment responds to mine. Please enlighten me.

Gotham City Insider said...

Well, part of me actually agrees with you that it is not a Christian 'ghettoization' but actually - and much the opposite - a dedication to his faith that he wished to prohibit or shield Christian beliefs from being questioned by other ideologies. I think its somewhat interesting, albeit a bit of rabbit hole we're dancing around here, that Barth was largely responsible for the writing of the Barmen declaration which rejected the influence of Nazism on German Christianity—arguing that the Church's allegiance to the God of Jesus Christ should give it the impetus and resources to resist the influence of other 'lords'—such as the German Führer, Adolf Hitler. Preventing or prohibiting or simply frowning upon others criticism of the church or even their mere discussion of the church in any way - save for in a positive light - would seem quite akin to the Führer's himself and his basic rule book. Perhaps Barth knew he stood on shaky ground inside a glass house and feared others poking holes in his theorem. I'm just thinking aloud now, I don't really know... I'm just making a suggestion as to what it seems was going on with the convenience of hindsight.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Barth was very attentive to criticisms of Christianity. People like Lessing and Feuerbach were always in the back of his mind. Furthermore, he made critical use of Kantian and Marburg Neo-kantian epistemologies. Also, he had ways of speaking about the church being confronted by God's word outside of the church. I don't think that Barth was trying to shield Christianity from external criticism as much as he was adamant in recognizing that Christianity is a confession of faith and that, as such, is not reducible to the realm of that which is explicable by human investigation, etc.

Gotham City Insider said...

Ok, now you're gonna make me go dig out my copy of The World as Will and Representation. Thanks! Like I had nothing to do this week :)

Epistemology, to me, is like explaining the concept of infinity or metaphysics. And don't get me started on reliabilism.

I tend to be more of a Darwin guy, myself. That might explain something. At least, I hope it will.

I don't believe in absolutes. I don't believe in infallibilism. I think we spend our lives searching for the absolute; but that there is no absolute to be found; it's different to everyone and hidden in a myriad places. I think the idea of absolutes is just silly, really, its just not possible.

And I'm probably the wrong guy to discuss Christian belief with as a recovering Catholic.

W. Travis McMaken said...

"Recovering Catholic" eh? Have you given the Protestant churches any thought? :-)

As a Protestant, I believe that there is an absolute (the Triune God) and that this absolute reveals himself to us in a fascinating myriad of ways, but definitively in the history of Jesus Christ and normatively in the Scriptures.

That said, I pretty much agree with you on human inability to know absolutes, etc. Without God's self-revelation, I think things are pretty nihilistic. Construction of our own realities, Nietzsche, and all that.

Coincidently, I'm curious (if you don't mind my asking and / or sharing), why are you a 'recovering' Catholic?

Gotham City Insider said...

Well, maybe recovering Catholic was a bit misleading for I am still firmly planted - albeit betwixt - agnosticism and atheism -which I happen to think is where the truth - or the closest thing to it - may lay.

One Sunday when I was young I was at church with my folks. I can still remember - quite vividly the coincidence - as the priest was giving his sermon about loving one another and turning the other cheek and the like - a homeless man wandered in - smelling like he hadn't showered since 92 B.C. and generally upsetting the old women in their Sunday bonnets.

Almost immediately the homeless dude was escorted out by the ushers as the Sunday bonnets sighed in split relief / disgust.

Right there and then I realised it was all a crock of shit and I never looked back. I've only returned to church for weddings and funerals ever since. And while I am still very much in love with the art, architecture and the mythical "fear of god" aura of the roman catholic church, the rules and rhetoric just aren't for me. I would never rain on anyone elses parade and I have respect and can understand why some turn to god and believe in god and need to believe in something but it just isn't for me. I believe in my dog.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Dogs are cool; I'm a big fan of dogs.

But, some of the best advice that I have ever heard is this: "Don't blame God for the crap that people do, especially people in the church."

Of course, Protestants developed the notion of Christians being simultaneously saints and sinners precisely for this reason - they recognized that even the 'saved' act like real jerks sometimes.