With 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.