Modernism, Ultramodernism, and Postmodernism

The terms “modernism” and “postmodernism” are very frequently abused.  As all terms of culture, they admit a wide variety of predications: were you to compare two things called “modern” or “postmodern” side-by-side, the connection may not be immediately evident, except that very probably they would both be ugly: regardless of whether they are architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry, or prose.  Aesthetic deficiency, however, is not the cause of the terms’ abuse.  Rather, they are abused by being used without a clear, causally-grounded definition of their meaning.  Ask an art critic about the differences in modern and postmodern art, and you are likely to hear all sorts of genetic explanation: the postmodern comes after the great wars, as a counter to industrialism, to excessive urbanization; or it begins with roots in the surrealists; it germinates in the counter-cultural movements of the 60s; or with structuralism and the departure from it; it’s a movement, an expression of skepticism and irony, of the contradictions of meaning and the consequent meaninglessness; it’s an attitude.

Notably, the artistic perspective overlaps with the philosophical (or sophistical, as it were): “postmodern philosophy” embraces nearly all of the above descriptors with additions of power structures and struggles, deconstructionism, metanarratives, hyperreality, and so on.

Such synchronicity does not obtain for the term “modernism” as applied to art and philosophy–modernist art (along with its typical “cultural” understanding) being understood as, in general, the liberation of the individual and the individual’s capabilities from hierarchical societies beginning in the 19th century, with the emergence of democratic republics, of capitalism, and the crumbling of the remaining monarchical governments: characterized by individual success, power, innovation, but also a sense of loss; of nature, of order, of purpose.  Philosophical modernism, by contrast, begins with Rene Descartes in the mid-17th century and is commonly (although incorrectly) characterized by its dispute between rationalism and empiricism and by the emergence through it of a scientific method.  While true that the scientific method emerged at the time, “modern” philosophy had little to do with it–a being-towards the development of such a method having slowly developed over the prior centuries.

Rather, what characterizes modern philosophy is twofold: first, its decision not only to reject but to completely ignore scholastic philosophy (though it appropriated, and often violently misappropriated, many of its terms and ideas from scholasticism), and, second, its assumption that our ideas are the immediate and direct objects of our knowledge.  The first makes modern philosophy something of a historical anomaly, discontinuous from both the past and the future.  The second is its true defining characteristic: that is, the characteristic of idealism which contrasts with realism.  The immediate fallout of this idealism is that one appropriates an-at-least-implicitly dualistic worldview: one which divides subject over and against object, which severs the “internal” world of the knowing subject–the private sphere of our personal thoughts, emotions, judgments, feelings, beliefs, etc., accessible in principle only to ourselves–from the “extramental” world which exists independently of our thought.

This notion of the psychological-subject as veiled off from the “objective” world does anticipate, in fact, cultural modernism: for the split of subject and object engorges the primacy of the individual, not just as a one-among-many, but as a unique “self” to the development, formation, and dignity of which the world plays only an auxiliary role.

These threads of modern philosophy and modern culture (individualistic expressionism, self vs. the world, some tenor of dualism, the presumption that we know our own private thoughts primarily and only through them do we have access to the world) are not, lost in the so-called postmodern movements.  The fundamental difference between the two, as I see it, is the utter dissolution of Christian sentiment in the postmodern: that is, the moderns (increasingly Protestant or otherwise outside Catholic orthodoxy) held a tenuous connection to Christianity–held decreasingly on the basis of intellectual conviction, up to the point that, in the 20th century, it was for most a merely sentimental artifact, maintained by social convention and expectation.  As the 20th century demolished these conventions and expectations, religious adherence and therefore the Christian sentiment likewise crumbled, ushering in the so-called postmodern; “so-called” because its primary intellectual convictions are not truly post-modernity, but rather carry the same convictions of modernity to their logical extreme (modernity’s principles being antithetical to Christian or religious belief of any kind).  I call this movement, therefore, ultramodernity.  The incoherence of any narrative of reality on modern philosophy’s principles or presuppositions is only the final conclusion to which they inescapably lead.

As a corollary, any true postmodernism must liberate itself from those threads; not merely react to them (as might be observed in ultramodernist collectivist movements, which seek to overcome the divisions of subject and object, etc.), but recognize that wrong principles dispose us towards wrong conclusions and therefore abandon them as principles.

It is, still disentangling itself from the Way of Idea(li)s(m), that the Way of Signs–the semiotic development abruptly halted in the 17th century with the rise of modern philosophy and re-emergent in the late 19th and early 20th (despite some decades’ worth of attempts to bury it) through Charles Sanders Peirce–promises a liberation from the false dichotomy of subject and object and re-discovers not only the essentially transcendental cognitive basis of human beings but the implicit possibility of all things to be thus cognized (Deely 2001: Four Ages of Understanding, 614):

[Peirce] quickly reached the substantially same conclusions that [17th century scholastic thinker John] Poinsot had reached: that the sign consists not in a type of sensible thing but in a pure relation, irreducibly triadic, indifferent to the physical status of its object and to the source of its immediate provenance, nature or mind.  Since all thought is in signs, and all signs are relations, the same bone which was related in nature to a dinosaur could come to be understood in thought as related to a dinosaur.  The fact was inscribed in the being of the bone; thought had only to realize it.

Peirce, who (Deely 2001: Four Ages, 613) “violated the cardinal commandment of modernity: Thou shalt not learn from the Latins”, opened a new realm for philosophical development, beyond what the Latins accomplished but along the same frontier–a truly postmodern frontier, postmodern in the sense of standing free from its individualism, its opposition of self and world, its dualist presupposition, and its idealism.  It seems ironic, perhaps, that the postmodern begins by a retrieve of the medieval; but if there is one thing which genuine and pseudo-postmodernism have in common, it is a willingness to defy convention.

Where they differ is that the falsely-postmodern, the ultramodern which unjustly claims the name, defies convention as a matter of principle; that it seeks difference for the pride of acting for difference’s sake, a practice which becomes itself a kind of convention–which the scholastic John Poinsot insightfully noted in the transition of signs ad placitum (posited) to signs ex consuetudine (customary).  Contrariwise, the true postmodern defies convention because the convention is false; because it is humble before the truth.

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