Pomo perplexities

A good summary by a postmodern of the perspective for which he stands: “Postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good.” Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke, 1991), p. ix.

It appears that in Jameson’s definition “modernization” is the reduction of all things to raw material, technology and human will, while “nature” is the aspect of things that resists that reduction and so retains its autonomy with respect to man. So interpreted, the statement strikes me as accurate. If someone were fully modern things wouldn’t have natures for him, they’d simply be what he made of them. And the belief that things are whatever one makes of them is postmodernism.

The flaw in the belief, of course, is the assumption that modernization can go to completion, that the world can become a self-contained man-made system in which all questions are either political (what shall we choose to do) or technical (how shall we do it).

That’s not possible, though. We simply can’t grasp things whole in such a way. Apart from narrow issues of technical feasibility, there’s the problem that if we could control things and their significance comprehensively, and so make them what we please, language would lose meaning because there would nothing settled to anchor reference. When one man’s “meat” is literally another man’s “poison,” and something similar is true for all pairs of opposites, words become useless for communication.

One consequence is that politics and technology become impossible and the system collapses. That’s what happened at Babel ( Genesis 11:1-9 ). Postmoderns, who make fun of settled meanings and claim to have overthrown the modernity that their position depends on, should be aware of the problem. So the real question is why so many intelligent people fail to go beyond postmodernism and recognize that an authoritative way of settling things is necessary not simply for social harmony but for the mere ability to speak coherently. Or maybe that question is not such a question. After all, who likes doctrines like Papal Infallibility that tell you that at some point there has to be a bottom line that doesn’t depend on you?

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