The "Post" of Postmodernism and Religious Implications

Working from Varieties of Postmodernism by Roger Luckhurst
Occasional Papers in Philosophy, 9, Department of Philosophy, University of Hull.
Postmodernism has a number of definitions according to the areas and extent in which it is studied. The prefix "post" meaning "after" suggests a shift in epoch, but this itself is not postmodern, and "post" must mean something that respects the critical difference maintaining tasks of various postmodernisms.
There are a number of standard approaches to postmodernism.
There is the aesthetic, or where it is a criticism of texts usually by the creation of opposites. This extends into writing, music, architecture, art, where divisions into high art and low are undermined, where everything is criticised and the categories of modernism thrown into a happy chaos of jumbled up styles.
There is the sociological, where modernism in history moves to postmodernism, and where there is a new epoch from a shifted economic and social base and a cultural shift to match that results. This in general is the creation of new forms of internationally owned, locally responsive, capitalist bodies, undermining the nation state and every cultural artefact, high, low, transnational or local, anything, anywhere in the world is marketised.
The third area is philosophical, where grand narratives of ideology are undermined, replaced by micronarratives - temporary, shifting ways of understanding the fractured realities that surround us with immediacy.
The problem is that these areas overlap. Each has aspects of the other within their own fields, and in any case postmodernism is about the breaking down of boundaries, so that one cannot categorise in the above manner easily.
There seems in any case to be a contradiction between postmodernism as an historical shift to a new epoch, and the philosophical approach which undermines all mention of epochs. Thus far postmodernism undermines itself: it is a contradiction or a paradox.
One solution is to subsume postmodernism, as Jameson (1984) argued. He keeps the Hegelian-Marxist historical approach, and subsumes the effects of postmodernism to this shift in reality. You might lose the ability to see the historical process within the cultural mishmash of postmodernism, but it is nevertheless an historical process. This alienates the individual in good old fashioned Marxist fashion, but in a newer cultural output that results from capital getting everywhere into everything, which undermines meaning and therefore reading and seeing one's place in history.
Whilst with Baudrillard, one can no longer within postmodernism reflect on anything, because there is nothing that can be reflected upon and reflection is replaced by simulation, in effect Jameson has historicised the appearance of ahistory which he reflects upon. Every text becomes interpreted as part of that epoch shift from the top down. Culture is read from the socio-economic epoch shift down.
If one sees the post of postmodernism as historical and epoch making, there is a problem as where postmodernism begins and modernism ended, even taken in detail. Some of the aesthetic and philosophical features of postmodernism can be detected in the actual critical approaches within modernism. Modernism was itself a varied and critical and aesthetic series of changes (socio-economic, philosophical and aesthetic), and to ascribe these to a history of moving to postmodernism is to impose an interpretation on a modernist past that makes that modernism reduced in its scope (and impact) as modernism.
If one proposes a history of postmodernism replaces modernism, as a change in epoch, as therefore one movement replacing another, then it is a perverse situation that something that represents diversity, as does postmodernism, becomes a singularity instead, and this singularity does violence to the plurality actually within modernity! Which is why Jameson plasters on top of postmodernity the singular Hegelian-Marxist project. He is no postmodernist.
Difference then is superficial in his scheme, as must postmodernism itself be superficial. The conceptual language itself cannot reflect back the causal unity, cannot be a unity itself, but that unity is provided in the objectivity of Marxism. Most postmodern thought, of course, does see in difference the inability to produce a unity because there is difference and is no epoch to reflect upon. Difference is to be respected and celebrated, and this is the task of postmodernism.
Levinas (see Hand, 1989) argues that Western knowledge has been all about acquiring that which is beyond into knowledge, and knowledge makes the other self-same. Thought wins out over the other. This is, in essence, unethical, because it rejects the sovereignty of the other. To subsume it into a package of knowledge is to do violence to the other, indeed declaring war on it. Postmodernism then is about sovereignty, about accepting the other as other. In this sense the "post" in postmodern is not a shift in epoch, it is a post critique of modernism which has acquired and dominated.
Taking this further with Lyotard (1988), an example of the demand of knowledge in terms of witness falsifiability does the holocaust an immense harm, because its witnesses are dead ( we have seen this matter reflected in the writings of David Irving and narrow, distorted demands for evidence). We cannot impose one method of evidence: there cannot be one singular and concensus method of doing justice. One must preserve difference in order to preserve the sovereignty of the subject, in this case the Jews and others murdered in the gas chambers.
So postmodernism is about difference, and that difference extends to the term itself, and its application. There is no one epoch change in history - this does violence to all the different realities around. Postmodernism is itself many local, likely to be transient phenomena within different disciplines.
For Lyotard (1984), postmodernism is about being outside the preset rules of doing the work of the writer and artist. The postmodern writer is "post" these rules, and there is no pre-determined way of judging such work. The rules, as such, are being sought and postmodernism stays within this seeking flux.
Postmodernism therefore is about a criticism of the domination of modernism and stands outside the rules that allow modernist dominance: it is a diverse entity which finds space undermines rules of dominance and respects radical difference. At no point can postmodernism become a closed system, and deconstruction is always critical and particular.


There are a number of criticisms of Roger Luckhurst's argument. First of all he places a lot of reliance on one particular epoch change argument, being a Marxist one. Clearly such a postmodernism is not postmodernism. It is an illusion in culture, an ahistory within history, of something which causes alienation from the same source, being a more intense and globalised economic structure of ownership and control across national boundaries forcing the decline of the national state. One wants to see the tackling of a sociological postmodernity that is postmodernity, accepting that this does undermine the boundaries between disciplines that modernity did help create, unless one accepts that postmodernity is just high modernity (Giddens). Secondly, this is a philosopher's approach, that postmodernism succeeds when understood philosophically rather than as approached from social science. However, Luckhurst's conclusions do have some interesting implications for religion.

Religious Implications

Although we might treat religious modernism as liberalism stripping down what can no longer be believed, thus turning Christianity ultimately into a form of religious humanism, we should respect the varieties of experience of religion as undergoing a modernist (liberal) experience. If postmodern religion is seen as an historical change away from reductionism, from demythologising to remythologising, this does violence to the remythologising of modernism. For example, was the Oxford Movement, or Victorian Gothic, an example of modernism or postmodernism? When did postmodernism, the remythologising of religion beyond objectivity, begin?
It is best therefore to see postmodernism in religion as protecting the sovereignty of the other believer. Pluralism is strengthened and respected, and not subsumed to some over arching modernist and reductionist position (eg a creative spirit working behind all religions, or evolution being supported by God, or the highest real). Rather we apply postmodern criticism to any belief position locally, to remythologise it, and try to live in plurality. A Unitarian position of radical pluralism, where each happily debate with the other, but where difference is fundamental, and where dissensus replaces consensus, is where postmodernisms are at work.

Hand, S (ed.) (1989), 'Ethics as First Philosophy' in The Levinas Reader, Blackwell.

Jameson, F. (1984), postmodernism, of the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, New Left Review, No. 146.

Luckhurst, R (1992), Varieties of postmodernism, Occasional Papers in Philosophy, 9, Department of Philosophy, University of Hull.

Lyotard, J-F (1984), The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester University Press.

Lyotard, J-F (1988), The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, Manchester University Press.

Adrian Worsfold, August 2000