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post modernWith the exception of a few figures like Professor Peter Augustine Lawler, who is a self-identified “postmodern conservative,” conservatives are generally suspicious of the word “postmodern.” I think this aversion is uncalled for, and that the interests of a broadly-understood postmodernity align with many of conservatism’s central tenets.

Critics such as William Lane Craig have argued that our culture is not postmodern because it is not wholly relativistic. This is simply not true; postmodernism and relativism are not equivalent terms. The early postmodern philosopher, Martin Heidegger, made his entire project an analysis of being and what it means to be, going so far as to wonder: “Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing? That is the question.” These do not sound like the words of a mere moral relativist interested in deconstructing systems of power.

Neither is postmodernism simply an academic fad to students like myself. Something like relativism does exist in our colleges and universities, but it derives largely from the thought of Michel Foucault. But to disdain all of postmodernism over is the equivalent of assuming all liberalism is broken because you dislike John Rawls. What about Adam Smith, John Locke, and Edmund Burke? In fact, much of the direction the humanities have taken recently is rooted in something more modern than postmodern; namely, the influence of the social sciences, and the turning of literary criticism from textual analysis into a process for the cultural weaponization of words.

If anything, postmodernity provides a critique of modernity, because it dispels the commonly held conception that postmodernity implies relativism or the complete denial of all things good and holy. All that the term “postmodern” need imply is any thought that comes after modernity, and necessarily provides some movement away from it. In fact, Merriam Webster’s primary definition for “postmodern” is “of, relating to, or being an era after a modern one.” So, let us drop the preconceptions.

What, then, is modernity? Being a medievalist, I understand modernity not as modernism, or the literary, cultural, and general artistic movement of the early twentieth century, but as an epoch in history. When we say William Shakespeare wrote in Early Modern English or that Christopher Marlowe wrote in the Early Modern Period, we are coming closer to what I would describe as modernity. Modernity is essentially the post-medieval period up until today, which I would roughly place between the years 1500 and 2000, though of course the exact dates are up for debate.

In this sense, modernity is profoundly un-conservative. It is characterized by the replacement of an Aristotelian view of nature as having a telos with a view of nature as a purely material thing, isolated and manipulated for the benefit of mankind, rather than being an organic whole. Modernity saw the rise of liberalism as a political ideology from the likes of Francis Bacon, Karl Marx, and John Rawls. Virtually all contemporary progressives policies find their root in a view of history first propounded in this period. If nature did not have a telos, then history would, even if it were ill-defined. Modernity brought corporation capitalism, the degradation and exploitation of nature, and a bland consumerism, pulling many out of the churches and into the malls. The list goes on and on.

Conservatives tend to dislike these ideas. Modernity brought some good, of course, but its drive for constant change what those on the right find so repugnant. Postmodernity is not all good, either, but its return to an emphasis on non-modern ways of thinking has been invaluable, especially when tempered by a pre-modern understanding. As I have argued before, the postmodern turn away from environmental exploitation and toward a Christian idea of natural stewardship is partly conservative. This return to the subject, so common in early postmodern (and some modern) literature, reminds us not to objectify other people or treat them like our playthings. In the realm of technology, where man too often asserts himself as God, postmodernity may help temper this drive. Even if postmodernism does not teach us prudence, it does remind us that human beings are limited. Postmodern authors and philosophers like Milan Kundera and Martin Heidegger offer critiques many conservatives have found helpful, from dissecting the horrors of communism to interrogating the limitations of liberal philosophy.

Of course not all postmodern literature or philosophy is helpful to conservatives. But that was never my point. What I hope to do is break down the superficial repugnance both sides share for the other. If Mr. Grant, Jacques Derrida, Milan Kundera, and Edgar Lawrence Doctorow were better known to some conservatives, they might think differently about those who think from a postmodern perspective. We owe it to ourselves to use all the knowledge at our disposal, and not cut ourselves off from it.

So, let us drop the preconceptions.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of the Intercollegiate Review.

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6 replies to this post
  1. This is an excellent analysis. I was under the impression that ‘modernity’ originated with the Enlightenment? Also I thought PAL’s theme was that things are getting a little better and a little worse, which, sort of, follows Voegelin’s idea of losing and recapturing those social constructs that are particularly necessary in the on going conflagration between good and evil? I would like to read your analysis of those specific ways the postmodern movement is acting on ‘non-modern ways?’

  2. Very interesting article and a fresh topic.

    I would agree that there is some limitation of vision on the part of many conservatives when it comes to the “postmodern” label–I know that the Deconstructivist movement or “movement” while I was university did a lot to corrupt that term.

    But as one who loves the writings of, for example, Joyce (that means “Ulysses”), Durrell, Musil, Nabokov, etc–writers of the literary-postmodern category (though they would deplore any “category”)–I do think conservatives tend to dismiss great works of art based on the preconceptions you discuss.

    Thank you for the essay

  3. What I find missing in the discussion on modernism and postmodernism are their key concerns. The chief concern for modernism was the location of authority. The chief concern for postmodernism was how to prevent the misuse of authority. Modernism sought to replace the authority of faith with that reason and science. Postmodernism sought to prevent the abuse of authority by denying all metanarratives that could be misused. Both bring contributions.

    Modernism helps us understand the sphere in which both faith and the combination of reason and science operate. It certainly didn’t do that without error and sometimes it crossed some boundaries and infringed on faith, such as in Neoorthodoxy, but history has shown that it has its moments and turf.

    Postmodernism has a good ends but its means throws the baby out with the bathwater. And in so doing, it sabotages its own ends. But postmodernism does something else. It holds up a mirror in front of modernism and in front of premodernism so they can see what they have become.

    Thus it is difficult to see how one can be a postmodern conservative unless one is really a composite of very selective portions of premodernism and postmodernism.

  4. Some person somewhere once remarked Socrates thought HE was living in “modern times”.

    So, what IS “Modernity”? My starting place is Jacques Barzun’s “From Dawn to Decadence”. As analysis, it is a good introduction to the topic. But what, then is “postmodern”? Being only 16 years into the “Postmodern Era”, my own prejudice is that it is a tad bit early to make a definition. The Modern Era lasted 500 years, and I misdoubt in 1515 they knew what Modern was really all about.

    Alas, being “moderns”, we rush to define the indefinable, and to categorize before comprehending. But, carry on.

    In another 485 years, we may arrive at a definition of “Postmodern”.

  5. Very interesting and fresh article, thanks!. “Postmodern” is not an easy label. In philosophy, apart from the mentioned Derrida´s “deconstructionism”, it´s important Lyotard´s “grand narratives”. Both methods are ways no negate the avaliability of a common truth for everybody. Like in many other historical times, it´s a coming back to the “nothing can be known, nothing can be told” of sophist, academics and other “dark ages” philosophies.
    It looks to me like a step further into abyss from modernism rather than a way back to tradition. It´s not equivalent to “moral relativism” but it´s also key that for postmoderns no “universal moral rules” are legitimate.

  6. Post-modern relativism is absolutely correct. The Truth is revealed, it cannot be attained through reason alone. To those who have been blinded to the true causes of all things, they can only describe a planetary system of related but incommensurable orders. For those who can see beyond the visible, there can only be faith that the Order above all worldly orders will bring about a final reconciliation on its own terms. We can only pray it is merciful.

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