It’s Raining Tacos?

Digital communication is powerful. As the late Uncle Ben said, “With great power comes great responsibility.

Postmodernism has had an incalculable effect on our world. From academia down to blue-collar workers, its lack of overarching, objective meaning, replaced with a focus on relative meaning found in ourselves or our culture, has called the idea of knowable, transcendent “truths” into question. It is no wonder then that postmodernism would not have the staying power as a satisfactory philosophy for the real world. People cannot consistently live what postmodernism preaches. We all intuitively know that some things are just true or false, so it would only be a matter of time before this movement faded and the Western world shifted another direction. Indeed, echoing Nietzsche, it might now be appropriate to say “Postmodernism is dead, and we have killed it.” In the arts, in the news, and in philosophy, people just aren’t taking the old postmodernism as seriously anymore, as a look at what is being printed and produced these days will show. I came across a wonderful piece by the philosopher Alan Kirby on the Death of Postmodernism  that beautifully addressed some concerns I’ve had about where our culture is now moving.

With postmodernism waning, what might post-postmodernism look like? This is our era and our time. It appears to me that this period in which we are currently living is moving more in the direction of modernism, the period that occurred before postmodernism, that was characterized by analytic, empirical, and scientific truth based on human progress, “pulling itself up by its bootstraps” as it were. But it does not seem to be exactly like modernism–the current cultural climate appears to have taken Postmodernism as a caution to the dangers of ignoring particulars in its quest for universal truth. The implications of this look promising, as people will be more open to discussing transcendent truths while remaining grounded in the particulars of reality. Unfortunately, the  balancing act ensues between postmodern and modern tendencies often tips one direction or the other, and both exist in weird ways in our post-postmodern age. As I see it, there are two (often overlapping) main groups, the super-modernists (typified by the new atheists), and the social media-inspired, postmodern-ish worldview (i.e. a lot of it found on Reddit) that’s not all that different from the old postmodernism, at its core. My favorite name for the new period is pseudo-modernism, as I think it captures this balancing act perfectly. Of course, all is not well with this post-postmodern period. It carries both the good and bad of its predecessors, modernism and postmodernism.  In his Wendell Berrry-esque critique of pseudo-modernism, Kirby notes the surface level engagement and “triteness” that combines the worst of both modernism and postmodernism in the period. This arises from the new “social media approach” to texts:

The pseudo-modern cultural phenomenon par excellence is the internet. Its central act is that of the individual clicking on his/her mouse to move through pages in a way which cannot be duplicated, inventing a pathway through cultural products which has never existed before and never will again. This is a far more intense engagement with the cultural process than anything literature can offer, and gives the undeniable sense (or illusion) of the individual controlling, managing, running, making up his/her involvement with the cultural product. Internet pages are not ‘authored’ in the sense that anyone knows who wrote them, or cares. The majority either require the individual to make them work, like Streetmap or Route Planner, or permit him/her to add to them, like Wikipedia, or through feedback on, for instance, media websites. In all cases, it is intrinsic to the internet that you can easily make up pages yourself (eg blogs).”

Continuing this line of thought, Kirby muses:

A pseudo-modern text lasts an exceptionally brief time. … Text messages and emails are extremely difficult to keep in their original form; printing out emails does convert them into something more stable, like a letter, but only by destroying their essential, electronic state. Radio phone-ins, computer games – their shelf-life is short, they are very soon obsolete. A culture based on these things can have no memory – certainly not the burdensome sense of a preceding cultural inheritance which informed modernism and postmodernism. Non-reproducible and evanescent, pseudo-modernism is thus also amnesiac: these are cultural actions in the present moment with no sense of either past or future. The cultural products of pseudo-modernism are also exceptionally banal, as I’ve hinted. The content of pseudo-modern films tends to be solely the acts which beget and which end life. This puerile primitivism of the script stands in stark contrast to the sophistication of contemporary cinema’s technical effects. Much text messaging and emailing is vapid in comparison with what people of all educational levels used to put into letters. A triteness, a shallowness dominates all … for now we are confronted by a storm of human activity producing almost nothing of any lasting or even reproducible cultural value – anything which human beings might look at again and appreciate in fifty or two hundred years time.”

From never-ending, looping Vines, to “tacos falling from the sky—no need to ask why,” the proliferation and popularity of often pointless internet memes  just beg asking “why?” Much of internet culture is reminiscent of filler. “Where did the time go?” we often ask after spending an afternoon mindlessly flipping through and “sharing” the internet’s products. It is not that these things are bad in themselves, but their popularity and obsessive enjoyment shows a lack of something better, in many cases. What Kirby is seeing in this second strain of the new era is a natural result of postmodern nihilism. If the truth is not knowable from impartial analysis of facts, but nevertheless obviously exists, then we must make it ourselves, in “community,” or more correctly, the pseudo-community typified by the internet that gives a sense of presence and companionship without the real thing. The shift in what constitutes meaning from the individual or the community to the interactive virtual world is still not based on transcendent, true truth like classic theism, or even Enlightenment objective truth. Instead, meaning is created (or at least extremely influenced) through interaction with other people on the web. This is not all that different from the cultural relativism of the 70s, except that now, the meaning-culture has shifted to the worldwide web. When society “lives” online, the nuances of the real world and the physical presence of others must be simulated, which confines users to the functions the social media programmers have defined. As a programmer myself, I can attest to the ultimate rigidity and forced guidelines software imposes on the user, whatever appearances of total freedom such software may provide. Furthermore, internet and social media users are not forced to confront people with whom they disagree or dislike. “Unfriending” a person or clicking away from a difficult web article means that you can create your own reality much more easily, not growing in intellectual or spiritual maturity as you think and pray through life’s important issues in genuine community with embodied persons. To sum up the similarity to cultural relativism that pseudo-modernism shares, I must agree with Kirby that

To a degree, pseudo-modernism is no more than a technologically motivated shift to the cultural centre of something which has always existed.”

What then should be the response of Christians to this new trend? While our pseudo-modern age has fractured into the super-modernism and digital relativism centered on the interaction of people to “make” truth, these systems still center on Man for their source of truth. I suspect that there are even deeper trends between the banality of pseudo-modern expression and the backlash move toward extreme modernism to provide a cohesive and objective reason for living. To clarify the problem of truth in digital relativism, it is helpful to remember that for truth to be non-arbitrary, it must be grounded in a sufficient metaphysical source. Modernists, postmodernists, and pseudo-modernists all try to place that source of truth in man- in the author, in the reader, or in the conversation. Yet man is finite, capable of making moral and mental mistakes and contingent on things outside himself for even his very breath. Not only does life have an external meaning, but that meaning is found in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, who frees us from the pointlessness of living for ourselves, so that we can say that
“whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ…” (Philippians 3:7-8, NIV)

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