The word ‘postmodernism’ has been so misused, overused, and abused that one hesitates to use it all.
Various circumlocutions which can substitute for that word may be more accurate, less misleading, and less charged. ‘Postmodernism’ has been used both as a term of condemnation and as a term of praise.
The word, or any of its grammatical variants, does not appear even once in Carl Schorske’s book, Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture, even though segments of the book are arguably about appearance of postmodernism.
Schorske captures one aspect of postmodernism - its privileging of emotion over reason - by contrasting two constructs, the rational man and the psychological man. Schorske’s “rational man” is a placeholder for Lockean and Cartesian understandings of human nature, and how such nature shapes culture, ethics, and social and political structures
Troubling is the hypersubjective and foundationless meanings attached to volatile political vocabulary like ‘justice’ or ‘oppression,’ which in the working’s of Schorske’s “psychological man” become synonyms for ‘comfort’ or ‘discomfort.’ Schorske writes:
Traditional liberal culture had centered upon rational man, whose scientific domination of nature and whose moral control of himself were expected to create the good society. In our century, rational man has had to give place to that richer but more dangerous and mercurial creature, psychological man. This new man is not merely a rational animal, but a creature of feeling and instinct. We tend to make him the measure of all things in our culture. Our intrasubjectivist artists paint him. Our existential philosophers try to make him meaningful. Our social scientists, politicians, and advertising men manipulate him. Even our advanced social critics use him, rather than the criterion of rational right, to judge the worth of a social order. Political and economic oppression itself we assess in terms of psychological frustration.
This postmodern understanding - if Schorske may be here understood as speaking of postmodernism - entails that there can be no case in which justice, in which the morally right thing to do, is painful.
Any apparent counterexamples - voluntarily embraced suffering for a cause - melt under the scrutiny of a Freudian ‘pleasure principle,’ which sees such suffering as overridden by a greater satisfaction from the fulfillment of the purpose for which the suffering was embraced.
Admittedly, there is an insight in noting that the pangs of hunger are gladly endured if one has forgone food in order to give that food to one’s child, or in order to lose a few pounds and thereby be healthier or better-looking.
But to judge a political or economic system based on whether those within the system experience frustration - and here Schorske has rightly described much of postmodern political pandering - is to ignore the reality that frustration and pain are necessarily part of human existence, and to forget that greater purposes are not always fully comprehended or known by those enduring hardship for their sake.
Frugality for the sake of frugality is not pleasant, and one cannot always see the purpose for which one exercises thrift. Yet it will ultimately serve a valuable purpose, and enduring it is a good thing - if not a pleasant thing.
The same is true of diligence.
The dismissiveness with which Schorske’s “psychological man” treats reason will cast both the individual and the collective adrift. Rational discourse about culture, society, or politics becomes impossible.
In the absence of reason, people merely emote, and do so in alternating and competing patterns, which then pass for ‘debate’ among a public which has forgotten what rational argumentation is.
Schorske seems to have accurately captured postmodernism, without even once having used the word!