Sunday, September 13, 2009
First Aired: 
Sunday, August 19, 2007

What Is It

In art, architecture, music, film, literature, sociology, communications, fashion and philosophy there is a contrast between "the modern" and "the post-modern." But just what are the main hallmarks of the postmodern? How does the "postmodern" differ from the "modern?" Is the postmodern an improvement over the modern? John and Ken are joined by Gary Aylesworth, Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Illinois University, to explore the contours of postmodernism in philosophy, literature, and art.

Listening Notes

In the first segment of this episode, John and Ken try to pin down what exactly postmodernism is.  They know that Finnegan’s Wake is a postmodern novel and that Jacques Derrida is a postmodern theorist, but plenty of questions remain about where the modern ends and the postmodern begins.

John and Ken agree that a central theme of postmodernism is to quit looking for central themes.  Ken believes postmodernists gave up optimism and universal objectivity and replace them with pessimism and skepticism.  John has a slightly different interpretation, according to him postmodernists did not replace the optimistic, modernist narrative with a narrative of their own.  Instead, postmodernists wanted to give up grand-narratives altogether and focus on living in the moment without ideological constraints.

Guest Gary Aylesworth joins the program and offers his own description of postmodernism, by Aylesworth’s account, it is a hallmark of postmodernism not to be sure whether you know it when you see it. Ken presses Aylesworth, asking what postmodernism’s take away message is. Aylesworth insists that there isn’t one main idea of postmodernism but concedes that contextualism is a common thread throughout many postmodern works.  Contextualism is the notion that works of art, architecture, philosophy or music aren’t meaningful on their own—they’re part of a larger context.  Ken suggests this might be a banality so Aylesworth continues contrasts postmodern contextualism with the modern notion of purity.  Whereas modern architects believes a building’s meaning is self-contained postmodern architecture brought along with it an awareness that a building isn’t just a building, understood in context a building is also signifies something about the culture that created it.

 John reads a listener’s e-mail, the listener says he enjoys Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow because it challenges the use of  grand narratives without denying narratives entirely.  Aylesworth agrees that this is a distinctively postmodern characteristic, Gravity’s Rainbow doesn’t deny all narratives it simply draws attention to the fact that there exist many narratives instead of one, dominant grand narrative.  John quickly notes that this seems problematic for postmodern philosophers.  Philosophy’s job is finding unifying themes and constructing grand narratives, so postmodern philosophy must be an oxymoron.  Aylesworth defends postmodern philosophy, arguing that postmodern philosophy challenge the use of grand narrative in philosophy and there is nothing anti-philosophical about that—philosophy is all about pushing boundaries.  Ken agrees, postmodern philosophy challenges us the abandon the modern philosophical ambitions to understand universals like Truth and Reality. 

John agrees with the postmodern critique of universals, but laments the fact that postmodernists replace these universals with an unimpressive and un-robust sense of reality, truth and the self.  Ken, on the other hand, enjoys that element of postmodernism, he thinks that grand narratives like Truth and Reality are just a stand in for divine providence.  But in the end, both John and Ken agree that postmodernists tend to through the baby out with the bathwater—they tear down modern narratives without leaving us any alternatives. 

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 6:54)  Zoe Corneli compares the postmodern with the modern in literature, music, film and television.
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:52) Ian Schoales reports on some absurd applications of our postmodern vocabulary.