Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Myth of Postmodern Community (as argued by an orthodox rebel)

One sure thing you can say about postmodernism is that it loves "community". At least, it loves its idea of "community". Whether or not you've heard of "postmodernism," and whether or not you believe that the term has become irrelevant and outdated, if you've lived through the past thirty or so years of western history then you've been influenced by its ideas (whether or not you know it). You have been influenced by the notion(s) that there is no ultimate, overarching idea or "narrative" that explains everything away. You have been influenced by the notion(s) that since there is no overarching narrative that explains everything away, there is now only our individual narratives. And thus (the aged postmodernist sage says triumphantly) we are now free to share our individual "stories" (i.e., subjective experiences) in the great "dialogue" and/or "conversation" of humanity. Hence, postmodern "community".

For the average postmodernist (again, whether they call themselves that or not), all outer forces or influences are a threat to the individual self. Governments, institutions, traditions, cultures, customs, families, and even other people are all conspiring against you to try and "write" you, i.e., conscribe you into some predetermined role or identity made up out of their own nefarious (or simply different) intentions and agendas. We have all (says the aged postmodern sage) been victims of this conscription in the past (esp. minorities and women), and it is our joy and glory to break off these meta-narrative chains and dance in the limitless sunshine of our subjectivity.

The problem is this: dancing is something that you do with others. Yet "subjectivity" is a necessarily particular and individual thing, belonging solely to an individual subject. Now, dancing is surely a communal thing (at least when your dancing with someone rather than at them), but how is subjectivity communal? How can something so fundamentally individual be a basis for communion with someone else? The truth is that it can't. It's like having a "dance" where everyone danced with their own style, to their own music, at their own speed. The result would be a hilarious and pathetic mess.

Our aged postmodern sage (bellowing deeply from his decaying lectern) tells us that we must cast off all of the oppressive narratives of every outer stimuli and assert our own self, our own identity. Then he tell us the reason why: all that those oppressive narratives did was to teach us to hate others (because they were "different," "foreign," etc.) and ourselves (because you aren't keeping "the rules," "the norms," etc.). Once we finally cast off those oppressors, we can finally come together out of love and mutual respect and understanding. In short, we can finally have real community.

The postmodern sage can say that if he wants but it does not change the fact that you cannot build community around self-assertion. Community is about being a part of something bigger than yourself, based around a common, unifying factor. Self-assertion, however, cannot be that factor. It has only the power to fragment, not unify, because it is all about the self, not the group. The all-powerful "I", not the tertiary "we". It is the unconquerable will that has the courage to never yield to any outside force, and it is the center of the postmodern universe.

You see, postmodernism is fundamentally a hyper-individualistic, self-centered philosophy: it asserts the self against all comers. The "I" must necessarily be all-powerful for the individual subject because the "we" is necessarily a threat to the subject. Remember: every narrative that is not your narrative is out to conscribe you into itself, to define you, to demarcate you, to load you with the heavy burden of its set identity for you. That means that everyone who is not you is necessarily a threat to you. What community is there is such a worldview as that? There is no community. No real one anyway. Every assembly of postmodern types (both secular and religious) is not a community. Rather, it is a gathering of unconsciously narcissistic people using others as an audience to their own self-aggrandizement. It may have something like "dialogue" and "conversation," but it does not have community. All that it has is merely us talking about ourselves for the sake of ourselves, and that is not community. That is the lonely "I" gnashing its teeth in the dark. Perhaps postmodernism did in fact free us from hateful, scheming oppressors; but in doing so it has left us in the void, with only the echo of our own voice to comfort us.

Community, real community, requires humility. The humility to see all "others" (including governments, institutions, traditions, cultures, customs, families, and other people) as not a threat to the self. The humility to not live and die on the hill of self-assertion,  self-creation, self-aggrandizement, self-discovery, self-knowledge, self-love, self-fulfillment, self-actualization, and self-satisfaction. The humility to die to self and live for others. It is true that we must use our heads when surveying those others; after all, not all dance partners are equal (and only One is perfect). Yet we must live and breath in the truth that there is no love or satisfaction or knowledge or identity without others. That is why postmodern "community" is a pipe-dream. Their hyper-individualism, treating all others as a threat to the self, creates only a lonely isolationism that becomes the greatest oppressor of all.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

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