When it comes to writing about specific themes of the modern and postmodern era, it becomes difficult to classify them perfectly. There were many characteristics of these eras and these characteristics permeated all aspects of life. For the purposes of this project, I will discuss the themes of the self, relativism/universalism, and belief/skepticism. While many of these themes are interconnected in many ways, it is easiest to discuss them separately in order to see how they are all in play when it comes to the student works.
The self has always been an important concept. For many centuries humans have been asking who we are. But over the course of the 20th century, the self evolved into the focus and center of life. In the modern era, people were aware of the self and its complications. Virginia Woolf discusses the idea of the self unable to reach out to other individuals in many of her decidedly modern novels. Likewise, in the postmodern era, the self was a focus of fiction. The quintessential postmodern novelist, Thomas Pynchon, writes of a woman named Oedpia Maas who is trapped in her own paranoia and lost in herself. The difference between the conceptions of the self that Woolf and Pynchon posit are the purposes for which they are writing. Virginia Woolf switches seamlessly between different character’s inner worlds while Pynchon focuses on one character throughout a novel. While you leave Woolf’s novels with a feeling of the great complexity of each individual’s inner worlds, you leave Pynchon’s with a deep discomfort at your own inner world. In the end, Woolf celebrates the complete otherness of the other, while Pynchon explores the otherness of the self.
The postmodern era gave rise to this self awareness, this self paranoia. The self became the other. It became fragmented and inauthentic. The idea was that we have to spend a great deal of time working on understanding ourselves. This isolated the self from others. If it was too difficult to figure out the self, then we could never bare to understand another. David Foster Wallace called this solipsism, the self alone. People turned inward rather than reaching outward. Self reflection became an important task to becoming an enlightened individual.
Like so many changes in the postmodern era, this may have been an effect of World War II. The horrors of the war made many people question the importance of reaching out to others. The battles were not fought on American soil, but the realities made people question human nature. If the holocaust could have happened, then what are humans truly capable of? What are we truly capable of? When skepticism of government took hold, people began to find importance in examining their own cultures and societies. It was another practice in self-examination. This was simply a brief introduction to the large changes that took place pertaining to the concept of the self in the postmodern era. They will be discussed further in the student works pages.
Below are some Google Ngrams of phrases having to do with the self and their usage over the course of the 20th century. They are a good demonstration of the drastic changes that occurred during the postmodern era.
In the modern era universal morals and ideals were considered true and normal. Lyotard believed that the postmodern era should be defined as simply the breaking down of these ideals or metanarratives. When such ideas are broken down, and universals are not accepted anymore, then relativism kicks in.
Many of the philosophers that influenced modern thought believed in systems of morals. When there is a system of morals that attempts to define right and wrong, there are universals of some kind. Kant is perhaps most famous for his Categorical Imperative. This is a complicated and wordy concept, but the simplest way to understand it is through the example of lying. If you lie, then under Kant’s system, you are saying that it is okay for anyone to lie under any circumstance. But when people are able to lie under any circumstance, the truth becomes impossible to know and therefore the lie makes the truth a paradox. If your action cannot be considered acceptable under all circumstances, then it is wrong. This means that there are universal wrongs, such as lying, killing, cheating etc.
Even Kant’s counterpart, John Stuart Mills and Jeremy Bentham and his Utilitarian method are somewhat universal. This system states that the whatever does the greatest good for the greatest number of people is right. This was the thinking used to justify the atomic bomb.
But the postmodern era began an age of diversity. It was a time when people of color demanded their voices be heard. It was a time when women refused to be ignored any longer. The postmodern era was the age of the individual. When the platform for being heard grew, so did the questions surrounding universal morals. When universal morality systems could be used to create something as devastating as the destruction of cities and the decimation of a people, how could we trust in them any longer?
The postmodern was the time of the flower children who suggested that everyone minded their own business and enjoyed their lives as they wished. Universals became less and less important in the light of the growing relativist movement.
The ideas of Wittgenstein and Barthes may have influenced this. When Barthes wrote about the death of the author he said that the author is no longer the authority on their texts. Because we all come to reading with our own backgrounds, we interpret the way we will and the author has no right to be any righter than we do.
Wittgenstein discussed the idea of language games where we use a different system of language depending on what circumstances we are in. If the self cannot even universalized and it is fragmented, then how can the whole world be united in set systems of belief?
Most of the philosophers of the modern era were faithful Christians who took the existence of God as a given. This changed, however, when Nietzsche famously proclaimed that “God is dead.” Whereas philosophy had once been required to have some grounding in religion, now it was free to question the world without the confines of analyzing it strictly through a Christian understanding.
This did not simply remain within the context of the religious sphere, however. This skepticism began to seep into all areas of life, especially politics. People were not naïve enough to believe their government and ruling bodies were perfect in the modern era, but they generally had more trust than many in the postmodern era. An important factor in this change was the McCarthy era. During this time, hundreds of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers and suffered because of these accusations. Oftentimes these accusations were baseless and lacking in evidence. This began a mistrust of the American people with their government who many viewed as taking away their rights. When the draft came out for the Vietnam War, this further angered many against the government. The postmodern shift was a time of unrest. It was a time of protests and uncertainty. Community living and cults formed because people felt as though their leaders were failing them and wanted to remove themselves from society.
It was a period of tumult in which American idealistic views were put the test and often shattered. When President Kennedy was assassinated, many were devastated and heartbroken. When Nixon’s Watergate scandal was underway, people felt as though the government was false and corrupt. People no longer trusted in authority. This idea is explored more in the section about the student protest publications that embody this ideal of the postmodern era.