Postmodernism Dictionary – Some thoughts on materialism and universal truth

It is important to discuss how definitions are approached from a postmodern perspective. First, as should be evident, there are no universal definitions of any particular word. Meanings are socially constructed. We can talk about how a word is generally used or used by a particular individual, but we can’t talk about a universal approach to language. Furthermore, the same word is often used differently in different settings (Wittgenstein’s Language Games). This makes language and communication a complex process which lacks the certainty assumed in modernity and premodernity. My suggestion is to hold on loosely to language and definitions. In other words, it is more important to understand how the word is being used by a particular individual in a particular setting than to debate specific universal definitions of a term or approach to language. A final note, you will find other scholars, including postmodern scholars, who would not agree with the definitions provided here. This is just another wonder of the postmodern world!

(From “Postmodernism Dictionary“)

I used to wonder about the meaning of “postmodern” whenever I came across this word in the past. After coming to learn more about progressive christianity or emergent movement in which this word is sometimes mentioned, and after watching a bit of the video on the French philosopher Jacques Derrida whose work deals with post-structuralism, I began to understand a bit more about the idea behind postmodernism and post-structuralism.

I just learnt from Wikipedia that “Postmodernism is in general the era that follows Modernism. It frequently serves as an ambiguous overarching term for skeptical interpretations of culture, literature, art, philosophy, economics, architecture, fiction, and literary criticism.”

On the other hand, “Modernism, in its broadest definition, is modern thought, character, or practice. More specifically, the term describes the modernist movement in the arts, its set of cultural tendencies and associated cultural movements, originally arising from wide-scale and far-reaching changes to Western society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In particular the development of modern industrial societies and the rapid growth of cities, followed then by the horror of World War I, were among the factors that shaped Modernism.”

So my understanding of modernism so far is that it is mainly a development of ideologies and practices that are fuelled by the industrial revolution of modern technology since the 19th century onwards. Postmodernism, on the other hand, followed after that era, which might have been an attempt to reflect on the established ideologies and practices so as to question the norms and assumptions that have been adopted as “absolute truths”, and to continually redefine what is truth, so to speak.

Some of the terms in the above-mentioned postmodernism dictionary stood out for me, such as “materialism” and “ultimate truth/universal truth”.

Materialism: This position believes that all things that are real have a material or physical substance. It discounts any metaphysical reality (i.e., non-material). This is often used interchangeably with physicalism.

I think modernism that developed in the 19th and 20th centuries has led to people to embrace materialism as well. Modern science and technology since the industrial revolution in the 18th-19th centuries have enabled people to “modernise” their way of living, such as travelling in trains, cars and planes instead of travelling on animals and in boats, and manufacture products on a mass scale to make life more convenient for as many people as possible. As a result, many people began to see materialism as a new way of life, as modern societies adopted a consumerist culture. It came to the point where many people think modernism and materialism is a hallmark of being more “advanced” in their civilisation, and they began to reject traditional ideas that had to do with non-material reality (or metaphysical reality) and dismiss these ideas as “backward” or “superstitition”.

According to Wikipedia:

“Modernism’s stress on freedom of expression, experimentation, radicalism, and primitivism disregards conventional expectations…. modernism flourished mainly in consumer/capitalist societies, despite the fact that its proponents often rejected consumerism itself.

This merging of consumer and high versions of modernist culture led to a radical transformation of the meaning of “modernism”. First, it implied that a movement based on the rejection of tradition had become a tradition of its own. Second, it demonstrated that the distinction between elite modernist and mass consumerist culture had lost its precision. Some writers declared that modernism had become so institutionalized that it was now “post avant-garde”, indicating that it had lost its power as a revolutionary movement. Many have interpreted this transformation as the beginning of the phase that became known as postmodernism. For others, such as art critic Robert Hughes, postmodernism represents an extension of modernism.”

(From Wikipedia)

Modernism/modernity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I agree that postmodernism is mainly an attempt to address the problem of modernism that results from the institutionalisation of ideologies and practices. My understanding is that since the 19th and 20th centuries have witnessed many scientific and technological breakthroughs (such as the discovery of penicillin in 1928 by Alexander Fleming and the invention of airplane by the Wright brothers around 1900, as well as formulation of scientific theories and mathematical formulae by notable scientists such as Albert Einstein and so on), the authorities and governments wanted to standardise these information and authorised textbooks to be used in schools, colleges and universities so that these information can be passed on to the younger generations. However, one side effect of such standardisation of information is that many people began to treat the information as “absolute truths”, and settled for rote learning and memorisation of facts, formulas and theories. Also, such institutionalisation of modernist ideologies and practices tends to discourage critical and creative thinking, as any other viewpoints that deviate from the established ideologies would be seen as unconventional or even heretical.

This is especially so in the religious circles where institutional churches have somewhat adopted a modernist and materialistic view as well, and discounted metaphysical truths. Hence, any views that pertain to the mystical aspects of life are quickly dismissed by the institutional churches, and any views that challenge their literal interpretation of the Bible are deemed as heretical.

Hence, I believe this is where postmodernism comes into the picture, to critique the established ideologies and practices that have become so ingrained as the “norm” or “absolute truths” in modernism. While not all of the modern ideologies and practices are bad or negative, as they have served to make life better in some aspects for humankind, there are some ideologies and practices in modernism that have caused much harm in terms of being discriminatory and fear-based to control and manipulate the masses, such as gender discrimination and social classes.

For example, I see Galileo as a postmodernist who was ahead of his time. Even though he lived in the 16th century (at the time when the Catholic Church might have considered themselves as “modern”), he was one of the pioneers who challenged the catholic church’s dogma about their view of the solar system. Today, I would see that the astrophysicists and quantum scientists such as Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Max Planck and Gregg Braden are part of the postmodernist movement to challenge the ideologies and practices of modern science (and religion) and reconnect us to the metaphysical reality that the ancients had known long time ago, and acknowledge that there is something beyond our physical world that is universal and operates via energy fields or vibrations. I would say this can be considered as ultimate truth or universal truth, which the Postmodernism Dictionary defines as follows:

Ultimate Truth/Universal truth: Ultimate truth is also referred to as capital “T” truth or universal truth. This truth applies in all times and in all situations. At times, ultimate truth will be separated from smaller truth which may not be universal in their application across situations and time. Ultimate truth is often written as “Truth” in order to distinguish it from smaller “truths.”

I would say Jesus himself is a postmodernist who was ahead of his time, even though he lived in the first century AD in Israel (assuming he is a historical character). He came to challenge the established norms and practices in the religious and sociopolitical world, such as the man-made Sabbath laws, as well as oppression of women and minorities in those societies. Jesus is also a “deconstructionist” to me – he deconstructed all the complex theologies and theories about God that religion has created into a simple axiom that says God is Love, and there is no fear in Love.

So I would see postmodernism as a continual effort that is not so much confined to any particular era (although it is widely seen to be operating in the late 20th century onwards), but rather it is an ongoing attempt to question, to critique, to demolish, and to deconstruct any particular stronghold or structure or hierarchy or system that has been set up by instutitions or authorities as a means to control or subjugate or manipulate the masses, so as to set free the oppressed, the marginalised and the discriminated, as well as to acknowledge, to embrace and to explore the mysteries and the mystique of the universe that we live in.

Related links

Exploring the philosophy of Jacques Derrida – Deconstruction and Post-structuralism

Post-Modernism in a nutshell

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