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Postmodernism Can't Be.

June 23rd, 2011 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Theologian John Caputo, quoted at my friend Christopher Benson's blog, with a rather unsatisfying explanation of "postmodernism."

"Postmodernism thus is not relativism or scepticism, as its uncomprehending critics almost daily charge, but minutely close attention to detail, a sense for the complexity and multiplicity of things, for close readings, for detailed histories, for sensitivity to differences."

We used to have another name for this besides "postmodernism."  It was called thinking.  You don't have to read very far in, say, the Summa Theologiae to find out that Tommy Aquinas paid "minutely close attention to detail, etc."

But Caputo goes on with his description:

"For are not the modernists rather like the Shemites, furiously at work on the tower of Babel, on the “system,” as Kierkegaard would say with biting irony, and are not the postmodernists following the lead of God, who in deconstructing the tower clearly favors a multiplicity of languages, frameworks, paradigms, perspectives, angles? From a religious point of view, does not postmodernism argue that God’s point of view is reserved for God, while the human standpoint is immersed in the multiplicity of angles?"

Thanks for playing, Aquinas, but your construction of a "system" disqualifies you from the distinctly human activity of smashing things up.

Or is it distinctly human?  In a breathtaking moment, Caputo claims for the postmodernists that they are "following the lead of God" in tearing down the tower.  They very well may be.

Is it possible that the deconstruction (like the construction) might perhaps be better left to God himself?  The divine sanction that Caputo claims for the project potentially undermines his critique, if only because it turns into a project ("postmodernism") akin to any other sort of totalizing human project.  The self-consciousness of the effort of deconstruction potentially borders on the sort of hubris that the moderns get so often accused of.

All this to say, the task of deconstruction is a valuable tool to have the in the intellectual toolbox.  It serves an important heuristic function, chastening and cautioning us against the pretensions of certainty.

But when it is turned against itself, it reveals the fundamental paradox of our late modern world:  postmodernism simply cannot be, at least not without preserving the substructure of modernity.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.