Under the post-modern onslaught, all boundaries and distinctions rapidly fall. Some of the losses associated with the collapse of traditional distinctions have been trivial, but others have been earthshaking, and there seems to be no way to distinguish between the two in a post-modern context. People no longer know where the lines fall.

Some sociologists believe we are now moving into a new and very different type of society. The social change, that began to accelerate 300 years ago, has continued at such a pace that the theories and assumptions we had about modern society no longer explain the society we find around us.

The main characteristic of postmodernism seems to be a loss of faith in the ideas of the Enlightenment. It is argued by postmodernists that people have become disillusioned with the idea that we can use science and rational thought to make the world a better place. People have become disillusioned with the idea of progress. There is greater understanding of negative effects of so-called ‘progress’, such as pollution, environmental damage and damage to human populations.

We are also seeing the disappearance of old certainties. In the past gender roles, ethnic differences, social class differences were all clear cut and people generally conformed to societal expectations. Today the old distinctions are blurring and people choose who they want to be, and how they want to behave.

Postmodernists also argue that other characteristics of modern societies are disappearing.

  • The big production companies making vast quantities of the same product are becoming more diversified and there has been a growth of small companies producing goods for very specialized markets.

  • New social movements are connecting people across traditional class and ethnic boundaries; movements such as gay rights, environmentalism, feminism, and new religious movements.

  • The significance of nation states is in decline. Today many multi-national companies are larger and have more power than most countries, and within countries more provision is being privatized and less is provided by the state.

  • Employees are less likely to have long-term careers and jobs for life, employment is more uncertain and there has been a big increase in part-time, temporary and agency employment.

Despite all this evidence, the concept of a postmodern society is a very controversial one. Many sociologists accept that society is changing a great deal but do not accept the term postmodern. Some sociologists, including Anthony Giddens, prefer to describe society as in a stage of ‘late-modernity’.

Modernism always celebrated the new and considered ideas from the past to be ‘old-fashioned’. Postmodernism borrows from the past and combines a wide range of styles together - a ‘pick and mix’ approach. A good example of a postmodern building is a shopping centre called the Trafford Centre, in Manchester. This looks like St Paul's Cathedral from the front, a Norman castle from the back, inside one section is the deck of an ocean liner, and in another is a Victorian palm house.

Distinctions between the cultures of the different social classes have been blurred, for example by the use of opera as a theme tune for the football world cup. The process of globalisation has also meant the blurring of traditional cultural boundaries. Today Coca-Cola can be found in the remotest regions of the world.

Contemporary, or postmodern, society is characterized by a newfound ability to control the world of nature and worlds of illusion. It immerses people in a virtual environment of images and simulations, and encourages the acting out of desires, including desires that once seemed off-limits to action and experience. Ultimately, it seeks to turn reality into a simulation and make simulations seem real, so humanity will have the ability to control and create its surroundings at will.

How does postmodern society use this newfound power? It certainly has used it to enormous good. But it has also used it to create an emerging worldwide culture in which images, simulations, story lines, performances and rhetoric are employed to manipulate the public and sell it products, phony candidates and false ideas. Thus postmodern society turns out to be a realm of illusion in more than one sense.

Stephen Connor says that the "concept of postmodernism cannot be said to have crystallized until about the mid-1970's…”. Modernity had received some strong criticism, and it was becoming more and more tenable to assert that the postmodern had come to stay, but it took some time before scholarship really jumped on the bandwagon. At this point it is important to distinguish between postmodern and postmodernism. Postmodern refers to a period of time, whereas postmodernism refers to a distinct ideology. As Veith points out, "If the modern era is over, we are all postmodern, even though we reject the tenets of postmodernism.

So exactly what is postmodernism? The situation is profoundly complex and ambiguous. But basically speaking, postmodernism is anti-foundationalism, or anti-worldview. It denies the existence of any universal truth or standards. Jean-Francois Lyotard, perhaps the most influential writer in postmodern thought, defines postmodernism as "incredulity towards metannarratives." For all intents and purposes, a metanarrative is a worldview: a network of elementary assumptions. . . in terms of which every aspect of our experience and knowledge is interrelated and interpreted. Metanarratives are, according to postmodernist scholar Patricia Waugh, "Large-scale theoretical interpretations purportedly of universal application." The postmodernist's, it would seem, would tolerate having a coherent worldview so long as it is kept from being asserted as universal in its application. This is not the case though. The goal, so to speak, of postmodernism is to not only reject metanarratives, but also the belief in coherence. Not only is any worldview which sees itself as foundational for all others oppressive, belief that one may even have a coherent worldview is rejected as well. Nevertheless, there are many worldviews around today, and the postmodernist finds it to be his responsibility to critique, or "deconstruct" as they call it, such worldviews and "flatten them out," so to speak, so that no one particular approach or belief is more "true" than any other. What constitutes truth, then, is relative to the individual or community holding the belief.

As we have seen, for the postmodern thinker, there are no absolute truths or foundations to work from. Properly speaking, then, postmodernism is not a worldview per se; it does not attempt to construct a model or paradigm that orders reality; reality alludes attempts at conformity for the postmodernist, and so he deconstructs all attempts at creating such absolute foundations. Modernity and Christianity debated as to which view was true; postmodernism attacks both Christianity and modernity because they claim to be "true." Christianity affirms certain necessary beliefs that must be assumed in order to make sense out of the world (e.g., that the triune God exists, that he is both transcendent and immanent, that the Bible is his Word). Postmodernism rejects the idea that reality makes sense in any absolute fashion, and reduces any construction to personal or cultural bias. Truth is a social construct, pragmatically justified, so as to make it one of many culturally conditioned approaches to the world. Postmodernism, then, is not so much an orthodoxy (a positive belief system or worldview), as it is an orthopraxy (a series of methods for analysis).

In continuing to remove the possibility of any ultimate knowledge, postmodernism confuses the traditional distinction between the subject of knowledge (the knower) and the object of knowledge (the thing being known). Man does not sit back and passively receive knowledge about the world; rather, man's interpretation is, ultimately, the way the world actually is, as it is revealed to him, or to a culture. This confusion of subject and object has earned postmodernism the labels of nihilism and relativism. Logic, science, history, and morality are not universal and absolute; they are the constructs of our own experience and interpretations of that experience.

Why do the postmodernists draw these conclusions? As we saw above the idea that reality was orderly and that man was simply a passive observer was called into question. Kant's "Copernican Revolution" in philosophy argued that the mind "brings something to the objects it experiences . . . The mind imposes its way of knowing upon its objects.” It is the object that conforms to the mind, not the mind to the object. It would seem then that reality is what we perceive it to be. Charles Mackenzie observes:

If in knowing an object the human mind virtually creates knowledge, the question has been raised then, What is the external world when it is not being perceived? Kant replied that we cannot know a thing-in-itself (ding an sich). The world, as it exists apart from our experience, is unknowable.

As such reality, as it really is, is unknowable. The "thing in itself," cannot be known. The only thing that can be known is our personal experience and our interpretation of that experience. Since each person's experience is all that can be known, it cannot be concluded that man can know anything in any absolute sense. All one has is his own finite, limited experience. Logic, science, history, and ethics are human disciplines that must, and do, reflect human insufficiency and subjectivity.

Another reason the postmodernists draw these conclusions comes from the fact that the existentialists, with their rejection of rationalism and empiricism, focused philosophy on the human experience, especially as it is communicated through language. Language is the way man expresses these experiences of the world, therefore to understand the world, as best we can, we must look to what is said about reality. But subjectivism is all we can have since the best we can do is experience and interpret what others have experienced and interpreted reality to be, and so the spiral continues downward. Thus, for the postmodernists, any assertion of absolute knowledge is seriously questioned and ultimately rejected. Therefore history is seen as a series of metaphors rather than an account of events as they actually happened. After all, the one recording the events was writing and recording the events as he saw them. Someone else may have seen it differently had they been there. In issues of morality no one particular view is seen as foundational. Rather, each culture's, and ultimately each individual's, view on ethics is just as valid as the next. This view is the basis for the assumptions of "Multiculturalism," and the "Political Correctness" movement in today's society. Rather than affirming any one morality as absolute, every person's moral persuasion is to be respected no matter what it is, and language must be revised so as to not favor any one outlook and thus offend another.

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