A Transient Age: The Dawn of (Post-) Post-Modernity
October 6, 2016
Postmodernism already seems passé--so 1970s, or at least 1990s. But if postmodernity has already passed us by then what ideological age is this? Post-postmodernity? It's obvious we love to consider ourselves "post-" whatever came before us: we not only consider ourselves post-modern but post-colonial (in history and politics), post-traditional (as students, workers, and families), post-structural (in philosophy and literature), post-binary (in sexual ethics and identity), post-Christian (in religion and culture), and so on. To be "post" is to be current, with it, on the leading edge; so it seems almost inevitable that we--whoever "we" are--would want to be post-postmodern just as soon as morning-show hosts and suburban mega-church leaders embraced being postmodern. But to be post-postmodern isn't easy. Being "post" anything is reactionary. To be post-colonial, for example, is still to be defined in colonial terms, just in the negative; the same holds for being post-traditional, post-structural, post-binary, post-Christian, and whatever else we claim to be post. While we may think we are clear about what we no longer are we continue to live in the long shadow of what was, not knowing how to define ourselves in any other terms. It's not surprising, therefore, that many people view postmodernity not as the dawn of a new positive era of some sort but as the twilight of modernity--"late modernity." I'm not sure this is the most helpful way to think about the current age, however. While postmodernity may have been almost purely reactionary at the outset it is not just modernity's last rights. Something different is happening here, something new, something that may be so bizarre that it is surely unsustainable, but something nevertheless different and discontinuous with modernity. We are indeed post-modernity. Consider our shifting concept of liberty. Broadly speaking, pre-modern liberty was a freedom to be virtuous and do good as you were able. In the medieval mind, to be human, male or female, royal or noble or common, and if common a tradesman or merchant or peasant, was really to be something--something that defined who you were and what was expected of you in life. To be free was to be free to play your part to the benefit of everyone around you, according to your station and opportunity. The modern mind conceived of liberty more in terms of self-expression. You really are something but who you are may not correspond to your situation in life. To be free, then, was to be free from social constraints that hindered you from being truly and fully who you are. Personal happiness was no longer bound up in fulfilling some sort of socially defined role but in being authentically you. This self-expressive concept of liberty eventually brought modernity to the gay rights movement. The argument was simple: God made some people gay and gay people need to be free to live authentic gay lives, whatever that entails. That argument was adapted in a fairly straightforward way from previous civil rights movements but was to the modernist concept of liberty more or less what phenomenology or existentialism was to modernist philosophy--it's twilight. At the dawn of the present eclectic, disordered, and decentered age--the postmodern or perhaps post-postmodern era, depending on your view--liberty is no longer conceived in terms of being be free to be who we are but free to be whatever we will. Liberty is not only cut loose from virtue but even from nature. Already, the arguments of the pioneering gay-rights activists who claimed to be something in particular--gay or lesbian--and operated within the old binary strictures of male and female have been discarded. Male and female are not natural givens but just two socially constructed and privileged points on the wide spectrums gender identity and sexual desire. Not even human nature is a given--we are supposedly transient all the way down, and therefore ready to be transcended and free to be whatever we will. This transient age in the history of ideas will be transient indeed; the damage we do to ourselves until it passes, however, may endure till Christ returns.