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A Big Fat Lie About Postmodernism

A year or two ago I took a course online about debunking popular misconceptions about things.

What you are NOT supposed to do, when debunking a popular misconception, is start with the popular misconception, and then say that it’s incorrect. What will stick in people’s heads if you do that is the misconception. Research has shown.

I need to talk about post-modernity in the class I’m teaching this session, because the book uses the historical changes that we can label “pre-modern to modern to post-modern” to organize its presentation of the world religions. Which makes sense, because these historical changes have had a big impact on the world religions, and that impact can be seen in lots of ways, in particular in some of the diversity that is part of all the major religions.

So I have been looking for graphics and memes and illustrations of postmodernism, for slides.

This has prompted me to yearn to debunk A POPULAR MISCONCEPTION ABOUT POSTMODERNISM.

Because I keep running into this POPULAR MISCONCEPTION ABOUT POST-MODERNISM. It’s popular, but it’s a MISCONCEPTION. [I will argue this with anyone.]

Here’s what a lot of people say (cutely, in memes on the internet, a lot), about postmodernism, that is a MISCONCEPTION. In fact, I would even go so far as to call it “liar, liar, pants on fire” material.

The MISCONCEPTION is the notion that “postmodernism says that there’s no such thing as objective reality, so everyone can just make up their own reality.”

Postmodernism does NOT say that.

It is true that “postmodernists” question what we can know about objective reality, and question how objective we can be about anything we know, and question the universality and stability of what people know, and point out the social constructed-ness and the political character of a lot of things, and of a lot of what we know about things.

None of that amounts to a denial of the existence of objective reality.

Just because you might not be able to know something, or agree about it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Postmodernism is compatible with objective reality.

[Of course, it had better be, eh?]

sun on desert horizon with Joshua trees

8 responses to “A Big Fat Lie About Postmodernism”

  1. How so? Is postmodernism simply defined by historical time? Or is it designed by culture? Is culture aligned with “popular” thinking? If what is “popular” in this historical time says there can be no objective reality than how is postmodernism compatible with objective reality?
    Just askin ……..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You mean how so is it a big fat lie? Here goes:

    I was playing fast and loose with the terminology of postmodernITY and postmodernISM, for one thing. Although I think I could be forgiven for that. Often, I think, the way people use the term “postmodernity” is to refer to a historical time period. Which arguably includes now. I’m inclined to accept that argument, these days, although back in the 1980s and 90s I wasn’t so sure.

    Postmodernism usually refers – with more and more clarity as the decades have advanced – to a collection of ideas about the way things are, and how the way things are plays out in architecture, art, literature, political discourse, etc. It’s tied to the work of theorists like Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, … just to name three, mainly because they’re ones I actually read in college. Mostly I just read about people. That’s another story.

    So when someone creates a meme or a little :20 video clip that announces that “postmodernism says that there’s no such thing as objective reality …”, that someone is presumably referring to that stuff I read in college. They probably think they learned this from some class they took.

    This just proves that a lot of people don’t pay attention in class.

    Because even Judith Butler doesn’t quite say “there’s no such thing as objective reality.” She says something more like “what you insist on calling objective reality is not what you think it is, but is instead what you experience and call things, and then turn around and try to make others conform to, and what you experience and call things is deeply conditioned by all kinds of social and cultural etc. forces.”

    Even in postmodernity, if you say someone said something they didn’t say, it’s still a mistake.

    On the other hand, your point about “well, if by “postmodernism” you mean the present cultural moment, and if the present cultural moment is constituted by what people go around thinking and then acting on, and if what people are going around thinking and then acting on is that ‘there’s no such thing as objective reality,’ then, isn’t it true that there’s no objective reality?” is an important one.

    I deny that this cultural situation means that “there’s no objective reality.” My “web of belief” (thanks, W.V.O. Quine) holds that some things just aren’t amenable to cultural construction. The elusive “objective reality” would be one of those. [Still something of a Kantian, here, evidently, as well as Christian.]

    But I hasten to add: alas, yes, if a bunch of people run around thinking the [I would say, extremely dysfunctional and false] thought that there’s no such thing as objective reality – rather than the more demanding, but I would argue, more accurate, thought that what we probably mean by “objective reality” is a lot more difficult to know and to communicate about than the modernists ever thought it was, and is perhaps even radically unknowable and incommunicable, although that shouldn’t stop us from trying, since in some important respects we actually live there whether we know it or not, and furthermore, that the non-universally-true, non-absolutely-true, local and socially constructed realities we also live in are just that, realities, with genuine consequences for the people who inhabit them – then it is, I suppose, accurate to say that this is a culture that denies the very existence of objective reality, and that, too, is a local reality with real consequences.

    And those consequences are, in my view, negative.

    So: here’s a little part of the world I live in that I would like to change, if I could.

    Hence the post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As a person too old to consider himself “postmodern” and a former student who didn’t pay much attention in class, I appreciate the lesson. It seems to me labeling any time in history in which we still live lacks objectivity by default.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am a postmodernist—and a non-cognitivist. Perhaps postmodernism doesn’t directly claim there is no objective reality, it does claim that even if there is no objective Truth (which serves as a proxy of reality), and if there were an objective Truth, there would be no way to prove it.

    Looking at objective reality, it would be pretty improbable that reality is objective rather than objective, as it relies on subjective sense data—and nothing is perceptible other than through this subjective sense data. We have no access to the objective even if we surmise it exists. I won’t bother to regurgitate the thought experiments that run this path.


    • Hi, MG, Yes, thanks for clarifying that. It may have been rash of me to say I would argue with anyone.

      And I can see how the distinctions between “objective reality,” “objective truth” or “Truth,” “objective morality,” “noumenal reality,” etc. may not matter much from the perspective of folks who are firmly committed to the theory that the existence and nature of objective reality imposes, or at least ought to impose, some absolute constraint on the socially or narratively constructed kind of reality. I gather from the tone of the memes I was objecting to that they are put forward by folks with these commitments. And I admit that the main motivation for my post was my irritation at people saying things like “so, since there’s no objective reality, we can all just say and do and be whatever we want” – as if the mere advancement of postmodern theories had suddenly dissolved all social institutions, norms, discursive power relations, etc. etc. and we all suddenly speak private languages. Wow, there’s some powerful theory. (Though, in that case, I wonder, why even make memes?? Intersubjective communication – how cliché.)

      Even so, it seems to me that the main postmodern objection to appeals to “objective reality” is the idea that we actually live there and that our ideas [whatever those are, in deference to your non-cognitivism] simply mirror it, rather than taking seriously the idea that we live primarily in our institutional, social, narrative, perceptual, perspectival, etc. etc. realities, to which our ideas and talk about things have a much more complex relationship.


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