What is postmodernism? I don't really know, but I have a feeling about what it is. This feeling comes from one or two books, many conversations with students of philosophy, an article here and there, and especially being privy to the torrential backlash from strident rationalists and their op-ed pieces in Skeptic or Scientific American . I used to openly mock it, but now I have a different idea of its value.
The last few months I have been, largely unintentionally, building a new theory of the world. Theory isn't quite the term: a loose coalition of theories, a web of many strands that I periodically find an opportunity to expand outward or knit inward. What sort of theories? Theories of how to think, how to identify myself, what identity is, what it is to be human, what technology and culture are and how they shape us, how we relate to each other and the world, what spirituality really means, what knowledge is, and the meaning of mystery. And all of them quite uniquely flavored by my history -- and strangely, this subjectivity comforts me.
And the theories themselves aren't strident recipes for understanding. Indeed to have any theories at all about such high-level constructs one has to abandon the luxury of empiricism or even the presence of a coherent argument. But that is the price you pay for leaving the world of objects and agents and entering the world of meaning, people, beliefs, and culture. And, while it takes faith in your intelligence and your wisdom, and it tests your tolerance of ambiguity and paradox, the rewards are manifold.
It seems to me that of the many things we become emotionally and intellectually invested in -- religion, politics, art, science, literature, sport, society, whatever they are -- most serve as hotbeds of proxy symbolism, as foundations on which to bolt the meaning of our lives, and so they unavoidably trap us. And then, trapped by our existential need for these things, we are subsumed by the detail, distracted by the texture. Instead of being porous to the experience of life, the tide of mystery goes out and we become like fetid pools, gradually growing more uncomfortable.
What is real life? There is a mystical quality to it, I believe: the acknowledgement that nothing really makes sense, and furthermore, cannot be expected to make sense. The world is flux, chaos, contradiction; but these qualities only scare us for as long as we expect the world to be rigid, ordered, amenable to the rather pitiful analysis that we, as humans, are equipped to perform.
So how to respond? I guess laughter is important. Laugh at what you cannot understand; laugh at what you think you do understand, because you are surely wrong; and especially, laugh at others when they realize they have no idea either. And so too with empathy: give in to the welling up of sorrow, sadness about the violence and harshness of the world. But also delight at its small and plentiful daily gifts, for they will never dry up.
Okay, I now realize that I've sort of lost track of what I wanted to say. But maybe that is quite appropriate.