Postmodernism is one of those terms you do well to quote a lot in public. As it can be made to fit most trends and is anyway barely understood, its mere utterance makes you sound intelligent. The nimbleness of the concept: elusive, supple and blended into every environment leaves you grasping for it like an occupying force chasing guerrillas who vanish like ghosts. It began as an intellectual movement in architecture, but spread quickly to other disciplines and defined itself against the oppressive modernism of the last century. The suffocating embrace of big ideologies that end in ‘ism’ – communism and fascism most egregiously – was loosened by thinkers who despised the notion of any one over-arching truth. These iconoclasts took a sledgehammer to the building of the twentieth century and having shattered the whole, encouraged people to pick up the pieces to make their own truths (note the plural).
The current era of bespoke, personalised service is a testimony to this. So is the familiar refrain of pick and mix spirituality, where people take what they like from different belief systems, wrenching them from historical and theological context in order to create a lifestyle that helps them the better to cope. One of the more pernicious contributions of post-modern thinking has been the facility for holding two irreconcilable truths in our hands without any sense of embarrassment. Human beings have always been hypocritical, unable to live up to what they confess, but post-modern thinking has given this intellectual credibility and helped to rupture the link between belief and conduct – a development that has taken its toll of those in Christian discipleship.
Christians have endured an awkward relationship with postmodernism, rightly seeing in its radical subjectivity a direct challenge to some critical objective truths which the Nicene Creed has crystallised. This is not to say that the faith cannot steal eclectically from postmodernism in the best traditions of its victim: some innovative fresh expressions of church are a tribute to its influence.
At its best, postmodernism rid us of (to paraphrase Tony Blair on Gordon Brown) the big clunking fist of ideology and replaced it with the playful caress of humour and irony. That earnestness is no longer considered a virtue but self-awareness is can be attributed to its allure. Problems have developed in late post-modernity with the relentless plundering of these new virtues: art, architecture and comedy have been drenched in flippancy like a doughnut in sugar. In straightened economic times, this kind of superficiality can appear insultingly misplaced. A new seriousness may be called for.
Perhaps the most enduring and troubling of postmodernism’s tenets relates to the one ‘ism’ it has been parasitic on: capitalism. With the dethroning of objective merit (i.e. who is to say what is good and what is bad when it comes to artistic expression?), market price has become the final arbiter of value. Like damp, this process of commodification has spread across the public sphere. I doubt this was the remotely the intention of the first thinkers of postmodernism, but their playing with the fire of truth was always going to have unseemly consequences. Our society may have embodied the observation of Oscar Wilde as one that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.