What could get humanists to squint differently at postmodernism? Perhaps a gentle, slow, and gradual persuasion back into a conversation? What would be the goal—perhaps to contemplate, even with reluctant awareness, that late 20th century Western European and North American humanism, which we inhabit or claim, is not only synchronous with, but also that this humanism and this postmodernism are mutually informed?
So, yes, in the few months that I have been a member of the Minnesota Humanists organization and the half-dozen of its events I have attended since, two people have brought up the word 'postmodernism' to me, one tentatively and the other dismissively. Tentativeness at least says that one is uncertain about the meaning of this word and its relevance to our daily humanist lives. Uncertainty may indicate a mind open to dialogue and exploration...or not. Dismissal gives an impression that the speaker has explored the word/concept and concluded that it is irrelevant to, even incongruous with, humanist principles. With regard to the dismissive stance, three things remain unclear to me: the degree of exploration of the subject that this person might have done, the congruence with any specific humanist principles, and the possibility of further dialogue. I cannot even imagine the number of times a person might have thought of uttering the word and elected not to, or the number of people for whom postmodernism is absent.
The humanist tentativeness and dismissiveness about 'postmodernism' meet on this common ground: that it is chaotic, even nihilistic. It may be considered a good humanist position to adopt an attitude of judicious suspicion of a concept that is perceived as new-fangled. After all, humanists worth their salt do not blindly embrace concepts but maintain a critical distance and approach the target cautiously, using those valuable tools of Evidence and Reason.
It is remarkable that most humanists that I have spoken with appear to have embraced Reason and Science without much fuss. Was there a time in the past when self-proclaimed humanists squinted at, looked askance at, rubbed their chins/beards at, i.e., approached Reason and Science with caution, to understand them better before hugging them close? Or was it an anxious rush to adopt them as defense against the unpredictability and chaos that followed from superstition and blind belief?
Squinting can potentially lead to all kinds of eye-problems and migraines, but I'm hoping to get us to approach more closely the connections of this concept, postmodernism, to the humanisms of today. That approach would simply involve using the time-honored humanist abilities of intellectual curiosity, deferring judgment for the sake of gathering further knowledge, and accommodating the unfamiliar into a world-view that changes because of it.
And I have a few dimensions to introduce, so this is Part I. It produces only one framework and one idea. The framework: the history of the phenomenon, indeed the condition of modern civilization that is indicated by the term 'postmodernism,' is mutually formed with late 20th century Humanism. The one idea: how structures are created by humans, and what humans do when structures are exposed or crumble.
In Western Europe and North America, Postmodernism is the name given to the period roughly from the 1960s, which experienced the aftermath of the World Wars, and which was expressed through world-wide political, cultural, and economic turmoil. With the onset of the 1960s, most colonies had become independent nation-states, neoliberal economics had restructured the relationships between nations, balances of political powers shifted through the Cold War to result, among other things, in the global supremacy of the United States. The 1960s and the eras after saw, as any reader of this history is likely to know, simultaneous (and again, world-wide) expressions of resistance to economic and cultural oppression by workers, women, students, and the indigenous, among other marginalized peoples.
Participants, observers, scholars, philosophers, and activists during these decades since the 1960s live and theorize the overturning of life as one knew it, by reanalyzing structures of relationships that no longer seem to suffice or hold true—structures such as language, family, races, classes, and other systems of belief and adherence. Binaries such as master/slave, man/woman, black/white, rich/poor, and low/high seem no longer to be natural, comfortable, or shared. The various social resistances of these times—anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal—challenge all these structures.
Some of us lived through these eras of turmoil, whether we believed or participated in those struggles or not. It is difficult to imagine that the humanist principles of belief in the human spirit, equality, and tolerance that many humanists claim today were not also influenced by these times. Or are you saying that these principles float through time and space, untouched by the times, and descend in pure form upon its adherents?
Certainly, it seems that only chaos and unpredictability ensues from the 1960s, and that postmodernism becomes easily identified with producing and reinforcing meaninglessness. Actually, what the variety of voices in postmodernism do is bring up to the surface and to the light an awareness that had been buried—that structures and relationships that had been thought of as given are actually constructed by humans. Moreover, this awareness produces two situations—one, a demand for ways to explain and analyze the emerging experiences, and second, an opportunity for reshaping our philosophies and our lives. And what good humanist would argue with, shirk from, or dismiss such amazing opportunities?
These exposures can make us squint. In a refusal to accept, we can produce humanist grimaces in response. Or...make us stop in amazement at all the stuff we have yet to uncover, know, define, or experience. Just this Sunday morning, I heard Guy Harrison on Atheist Talk Radio, discussing, his book Think, Why You Should Question Everything, emphasize that Wonder is still available to the atheist. I will add that it is certainly within the realm of possibility that a humanist may be struck with awe at the connections between concepts s/he embraces and others that s/he approaches tentatively or dismisses. [The MN Humanists Association is also a sponsor of this radio show; Harrison's book is available on amazon.com]
It is ironic that humanists of the last 40 years have experienced the turmoil and upheaval, and yet have labeled postmodernism for having brought it on. Does it surprise you to find that postmodernism shares with humanism approaches to social, political, economic, cultural, religious, and other structures? In one particular way, at least: in understanding that these are indeed structures, created by humans, and not mysterious or natural phenomena.
In Part II of Squinting At Postmodernism, I may address the notion of the Local and the Universal, or the relationship of Subjective and Objective realities, the Moral Life, or even the Stories that We Believe. Eventually, I will address the histories of our most 'sacred' principle: Reason based on Evidence.
Meanwhile, I invite you to respond to this post or even anticipate connections between Postmodernism and Humanism. Perhaps Grassby's book, Postmodern Humanism, will be a start?