Edward Docx on the death of postmodernism


I had one of those “happy coincidences” with my holiday reading this summer.  Whilst reading “The supremacy of Christ in a postmodern world” [proceedings from the Desiring God conference 2006] I came across an article by Edward Docx on the death of postmodernism in Prospect Magazine.  I’ll post this week on what I’ve learned about postmodernism, on why Christ is supreme and then on applications, as I see them, for ministry.  Today, it will do to demolish postmodernism with the stroke of a pen as a self-contradicting or self-destructive worldview (actually Edward Docx demolishes postmodernism with the stroke of his pen).

Docx (I can’t help but wonder what life is like for someone whose surname is the same as a Microsoft Office file type) believes that:

postmodernism is really an attack not just on the dominant narrative or art forms but rather an attack on the dominant social discourse. All art is philosophy and all philosophy is political. And the epistemic confrontation of postmodernism, this idea of de-privileging any one meaning, this idea that all discourses are equally valid, has therefore lead to some real-world gains for humankind.

This is the self-contradiction of postmodernism.  If postmodernism is an attack on the dominant social discourse and this attack itself becomes the dominant social discourse, does it not then attack itself and if not, why not?  Postmodernism, it seems, has critiqued, or condemned, all worldviews, all metanarratives; all, that is, except its own.

If postmodern thinkers and philosophers turned their criticism on their own worldview it would leave them without any grounds from which to criticise others.  It might also help to ask questions like: If saying that there is no metanarrative is itself a metanarrative then why is this metanarrative better than others?  On what authority does this matanarrative stand? Why is the idea of no metanarrative appealing?  Postmodernism is a metanarrative which by its own rules must be mistrusted.

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3 Responses to Edward Docx on the death of postmodernism

  1. andyharker says:

    Thanks for this. Edward Docx’s analysis is very thought-provoking. The ubiquity, commercialisation and internal incoherence of post-modernity must be sapping its vitality. Just to chuck in something else that may be at least partly responsible for its demise: David Harvey, in ‘The Condition of Postmodernity’ writes, “Charles Jencks dates the symbolic end of modernism and the passage to the postmodern as 3.32 p.m. on 15 July 1972, when the Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St Louis (a prize-winning version of Le Corbusier’s ‘machine for modern living’) was dynamited…” Could the decline of postmodernism also be dated to the destruction of a building – this time 9.59am on 9 September 2001? Whether or not the WTC was a postmodern building is not important. The point is that from 9/11 onward it became impossible to assert (without qualification) that all discourses are equally valid and to be tolerated. Even the Western liberal (postmodern) discourse of tolerance makes the exception – …except religious terrorism. The argument against relativism used to invoke the case of Auschwitz – now we only have to go back 10 years to find a stunningly blatant, unarguable exposure of the evil of the human heart.

  2. Freddie says:

    Except that this isn’t a fair or accurate reading of the postmoderns. Indeed, the most famous postmodern thinkers were incredibly careful about applying the postmodern critique to their own postmodernism. I’m afraid that you’re too taken with your own cleverness, here.

    Your critique is a very old one. The problem is that it requires pomos to say what they don’t say: “it is transcendently true that there is no transcendent truth.” What they actually say– what I say– is that from the limited and necessarily contingent human perspective, and from the limited and necessarily contingent perspective that is my own perspective, universal or timeless truths appear unavailable to mankind.”

    Your argument presumes precisely the stance towards sweeping truth claims that postmodernists disavow.

    • neilrobbie says:

      Hi Freddie, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I’m not sure that there is any essential difference between saying “there is no transcendent truth” and “we can’t say there is a transcendent truth because we are too small” as the result is the same: postmoderns rule any truth claims out of court because, as you say, we can’t know the truth, due to our limitations. This supposition, that humans are too small to know anything for certain, is something the bible agrees with. As Job says:

      You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’
      Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
      things too wonderful for me to know. (Job 42:3)

      The starting point of any discussion about knowledge must, therefore, be “if humans are too small to know anything truly, is there any means by which we can know truth?” The answer Christ gives is that he is the truth because he is not human, but divine. He reveals the truth prercisely because, though human in nature, he is also divine in nature. How we know that Christ is divine is the next question, and one worth asking, don’t you think?

      Neil

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