Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Postmodernity: Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, and Apostle Paul in Conversation

Postmodernity has become a popular word. There's Postmodern art, architecture, theology, etc. The confusing thing about Postmodernity is that it's a difficult word to define. In fact, some people would say that a definition would be paradoxical. It's a concept that is thickly nuanced and saturated with meaning. It's so meaning-filled that a strict definition is impossible. Instead of defining it, it's best to describe it. To develop a description of Postmdernity, we thought it would be helpful to explore some of the ways that the initial Postmodern philosophers began describing it. So, here is Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, and (slightly tongue in cheek) Apostle Paul in their own words:

"There is nothing outside of text" - Jacques Derrida

The way we see the world is influenced by our experience, culture, family, values, etc. Everything we look at is interpreted through our own context. That is why some people like the Chicago Cubs and other people like the Saint Louis Cardinals. Or why some people think the music of Aerosmith is better than the music of Jay-Z. We all have different tastes - and different perspectives. Everyone sees the world differently. Everything in life is interpreted. The whole world is a "text" to be read and interpreted through our different contexts. The Cubs aren't inherently better than the Cardinals. And Aerosmith isn't inherently better than Jay-Z. Different people just think differently because of the context of their lives. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche: "There are no facts, only interpretations." Trying to impose one interpretation (the Cubs are better than the Cards) is just silly - and imperial. There are many different, valid interpretations of which sports teams or music genres are better. And there are many different, valid interpretations of everything else in life. In Postmodernity, the whole world is a Rorschach test!

"Incredulity toward meta-narratives" - Jean-François Lyotard

In the 1950s, there were only three TV networks. All of them showed programming that was basically the same. European-American people, stories, and values dominated the airways. Everyone was supposed to be able to relate the stories and values of white suburbanites in shows like "Leave It To Beaver." In these shows, only one narrow understanding of education, marriage, vocation, family life, etc. was represented. Unfortunately, the stories and values of other peoples and cultures were left out. The meta-narratives of European-Americans dominated the TV. There was one universal norm of what an "American" should be like. But in the 1980s, cable TV changed all that. Suddenly there were many different channels to choose from. The stories and values of many different cultures and peoples became more represented on TV. Today, channels such as BET, LOGO, and UNIVISION provide diversity to the stories and values represented on TV. Thanks to cable TV, the dominance of one major meta-narrative has been replaced by an appreciation for a diversity of micro-narratives. Many different understandings of education, marriage, vocation, family life, etc. are now represented. The idea of a universal norm for what an American should be like has been dumped. Now there is greater appreciation for the diversity of peoples, cultures, values, religions, etc. around the world. Cable TV has helped to bring about what Lyotard called an "incredulity toward meta-narratives." The dominance of European assumptions has been questioned and challenged. In its place, there is greater respect for the dignity of the world's diversity. In Postmodernity, all ethical narratives are honored.

"Power is knowledge" - Michael Foucault

People used to say, "Knowledge is power." The assumption was that as people become more educated, they also become more powerful. But this is deceptive. Only those "in power" get to decide what is accepted as the "correct" kind of knowledge to be taught. The things that are accepted as "knowledge" are constituted within networks of power. Those in power get to decide what is worthy of learning and what is considered truthful. In short, "truth" is a function of power. This means that only one perspective is forced upon everyone as the one, only, and right perspective. Other knowledges and truths are oppressed and subjugated. That is the reason Foucault wrote about the importance of an "insurrection of subjugated knowledges." This means that the oppressed knowledges and truths should take their rightful place and demand acknowledgement. Not only are there other knowledges to be learned, but they should considered every bit as "right" and "correct" as dominant knowledge. Thankfully, with greater amounts of travel and communication, people are recognizing the value of other peoples' knowledges and truths. People are seeing that oppressed perspectives need to be more empowered, and dominant perspectives need to be more dis-empowered. We need a balance of what is considered "knowledge" and "truth" in the world. In Postmodernity, there are many knowledges and truths that are co-equally powerful.

"We see through a glass dimly and know only in part." - Apostle Paul

God is a revealed mystery. How can that be? Isn't that a paradox? Yes. And that's the point. All of us have experiences of God. But none of us can understand the totality of God. There are no words or doctrines that can describe God perfectly. In fact, you might say that we cannot speak of God at all. Yet we must speak. Peter Rollins describes our challenge of faith well: "That which we cannot speak of, is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking." We must speak. But we must speak with humble conviction, not idolatrous certainty. Our words will always be provisional, incomplete, imperfect, etc. Paul invites us to embrace humility with his words. We see God, but only dimly. We know God, but only in part. God is much more complex than we can fully comprehend as humans. Therefore, our task as people of faith is to have faithful humility in the face of a God who is a revealed mystery. In Postmodernity, people embrace their inability to see clearly and know fully as a matter of faith.

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