In 1979, the French thinker Jean-Francois Lyotard explained postmodernism as an “incredulity towards metanarratives,” those predominant illusions by which we make sense of the world, the myths of progress, liberty, and rationality.
Indeed, skepticism and its resulting indeterminism have discredited moral and intellectual hierarchies and made “truth” – transcendental or transcultural – absurd. This process of crumbling metanarratives has recklessly been accelerated by the technological developments which have expanded our capacity to store, process, access, and circulate information.
In this postmodern situation, planetary consciousness is a reality, and what used to be remote events on the other side of the earth now impact us directly. As a result, we must endure the additional anxiety of global threats, including nuclear war, terrorist attacks, overpopulation, ecological catastrophes and fatal disease. Ironically, while basking in the darkened glow of our smartphones, planetary consciousness is refined, our awareness of local events deteriorate precipitously as neighborhoods and cities steadily become more alien and aggressive.
The information age has increased the anxiety we experience in other ways as well because everyone is now bathed in a torrent of images, events, and manufactured data that are exploited and constantly reinterpreted. This deluge of information is dissolving distinctions; nature and culture, form and content, subjectivity and objectivity, sanity and insanity are becoming problematic.
This obscuring of differences has aggravated the impact of skepticism and exacerbated late 20th century’s epistemological crisis. Having rendered boundaries and distinctions dubious as well as having disregarded the prescription for generating meaning, “indeterminism” can be described as nothing less than Mal du siècle, the sickness of the century. All claims of truth are equally valid or invalid, as the principles for making such discriminations are themselves suspect. There are no privileged points of view, only dominant ideologies. Indeterminism has also fomented a vast flattening experience and eroded the shared compromises that allowed for differences. Accordingly, social instability is increasing, and limiting controversy has become the primary business of social architects.
Postmodern culture mirrors the current consciousness. It can be detected in the principles of artistic production that involve rehashing bankrupt traditions for ironic effect, as does Pop Art, and develop incoherence, what the composer John Cage calls “purposeful purposelessness.” Regardless of its objective, however, postmodern artistic expression is dissipating as it becomes the compromised tool of mass media and is absorbed into the data glut of mass culture. The collage of fragmentary episodes, vulgar entertainment, and continuous advertising firehosed through all our devices exemplifies the trend. The ersatz reality via television and the Internet is itself consuming more and more of its user’s attention; in effect, it is gradually becoming the user’s reality, deforming memories and melding facts and fiction. Language, too, is feeling the corrosive effects of indeterminacy. Having been deconstructed, language’s arbitrary ambiguity is undermining its competence.
And what about Postmodern society? To defend ourselves from an information deluge, we suppress or dump much of the information that constantly bombards us. Suffering from a sense of irreversible loss, keenly aware of a looming cultural crisis, and realizing that nothing can be done to reverse the process, we Postmoderns are plagued by a profound sense of guilt. To survive the intense pressures, we are becoming less tolerant, less communicative, and less resourceful. Exhausted and dehumanized, the Postmodern individual is necessarily maladjusted, diverting psychological energy into decadent narcissism or into a deep ressentiment that often explodes in violence.
With Postmodernism, it appears the millennial quest for certainty has finally exhausted itself into nothing.