Postmodernism (aka pomo), a wide-ranging and pervasive intellectual concept and movement, is hard to talk about precisely. Many minds have contributed to its complexity, many others have transformed it into a pop culture referent. Its usage grew vague, as it came to try to mean whatever anyone wants to say it means: everything to everyone, nothing to no one. What’s more confounding is that in many quarters, it has now been left behind as an old-fashioned and uncool intellectual fad, even though it is only a few decades old.
Nevertheless, it may turn out to be a useful analytical tool, as we are increasingly drowning in two questions: Where are we and how did we get here?
One attempt at a succinct definition of postmodernism:
A general and wide-ranging term which is applied to literature, art, philosophy, architecture, fiction, and cultural and literary criticism, among others. Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tried to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one’s own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.
Postmodernism is “post” because it is denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and it lacks the optimism of there being a scientific, philosophical, or religious truth which will explain everything for everybody – a characteristic of the so-called “modern” mind.
From the PBS show Faith & Reason
Did some people “want” a pomo president? In some ways, yes. Let’s assume we can’t stand still, as individuals, as nations, as societies. Which we can’t. Whatever modern moment we reached, it turned out to be unsatisfying for a lot of people, for a lot of different reasons. One reaction is to want to “get back” to an earlier point. But that is impossible; there is never going back. If you can’t go back, and refuse to continue on the current path, why not, essentially, throw it all away—all the “modern” thinking and principles that got you where you didn’t want to be.
And so, pomo Trump. Defying objective truth, defying explanation, defying principles. The intellectuals who gave us postmodernism believed it to be a way of looking at the world. They also knew that, like existentialism, its wholesale adoption as practice rather than theory was problematic. Like a tree without roots, a house without foundation.
In contemplating those questions—where are we and how did we get here—we are through the postmodern looking glass. The other even more important question—how do we get out of here—is the most important question of the age.