Differentiating Between Postmodern Culture & Postmodern Theory
The statement “we are living in postmodern times” has almost become cliche in today’s society. Even most of postmodernism’s strongest opponents quickly acknowledge this. However, it is much less clear what is meant by this statement. In correctly understanding postmodernism, this issue must be addressed.
Postmodern Culture. The statement that we are living in postmodern times is an acknowledgement of postmodernism’s influence on contemporary culture. It is not, however, stating that postmodernism as a theory has been commonly accepted. We see the influences of postmodernism all around us. It can be seen in popular movies like The Matrix and popular music such as the Indigo Girls’ song Closer to Fine. There is something about postmodernism that people are resonating with, even if only at an unconscious level. However, we can still see modernism abounding in large scale dominance in much of culture, too.
Nietzsche had much to say about such trends. In his view, paradigm changes are often first seen in arts long before the rest of the culture. Art may even play an important role in bringing about these changes. However, art reaches the unconscious of individuals and cultures long before it dwells in the conscious. Postmodernism dominates the unconscious expressions of many individuals and aspects of our culture despite the conscious questioning, fears, and resistance.
Postmodern Theory. Postmodernism can be seen in cultural trends; however, it is not yet the dominant philosophical or epistemological paradigm. When speaking of postmodern theory, we are referring to the more solid beliefs and approaches to knowledge that are espoused by individuals and groups. When we discuss the realm of theory we are entering the conscious realms. The applications of the theory are more intentional.
The field of psychology provides a good example of this. New articles and psychological orientations espouse a postmodern approach. There is also a recognition of postmodern influences on culture. However, psychology is still trying to prove itself as a modernistic science. Modern science is based upon the principles of Newtonian physics and a belief in an objective, knowable truth. Postmodernism is build off the principles of the new sciences including quantum physics and chaos theory which maintain a skepticism about about objective truth and our ability to know it.
When examining the various academic and intellectual fields, most are moving into postmodernism (see Postmodernism and the Academic Disciplines). Strong postmodern movements can be seen in the hard sciences (quantum physics), anthropology, sociology, education, and religion/theology. Popular culture is edging closer to postmodernism. The movement of psychology further in the direction of modernism and Newtonian science while the rest of the academic disciplines and culture moving toward postmodernism presents a precarious situation. This is not to say that psychology should uncritically accept postmodernism or even agree with the primary principles. However, it is important for psychology to begin to dialogue with postmodernism at a deeper level than what is commonly seen at this point. Currently, postmodern dialogues occur in more specialized settings or theories instead of engagement in dialogues on a broader scale.
Relating and Confusing Postmodern Thoery and Postmodern Culture
The connection between postmodern theory and postmodern culture should be evident. The philosophical untertones of the times always impact the culture at large. However, it is also a mistake to equate them as being identical. There are many reasons for this; two of which will be discussed here. First, popular culture often distorts and simplifies the philosophy. In popular culture, postmodernism often appears as relativism instead of a complex approach to knowing. Second, at the cultural level paradigms often get inconsistently intermixed.
One of the most common errors that I have seen in critiques of postmodernism involves confusing postmodern culture and postmodern theory. In other words, they confuse postmodern cultural trends with postmodernism.