9/11 And The So-Called Death Of Postmodernity
Postmodernity as an academic and cultural project was greatly challenged by the events of 9/11. But, that didn’t mean it was finished.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, there was a lot of busy chatter in the world of academia. No-one quite knew what social changes would emerge from the horrors of those days (and few could have predicted the tumult that would result from the ‚Äúwar on terror‚Äù) but for some there was a sense (or hope) that we were on the verge of a significant shift in intellectual history.
I heard several prosaic (and premature) announcements of the death of postmodernism.* It was obvious that some of these thinkers had a vested interest in seeing its demise. Though they may not have wanted to admit it, their career, or the foundation of their field of study, was under too much threat. If postmodernity is a valid analysis, it challenges methodologies in a number of fields, including theology.
The oft repeated claim was that postmodernism lacked substance and thus could not speak to the deeper issues of the human condition.
When the planes hit the Twin Towers, I was attending a conference in London that purported to be about Theology and Culture. The most bizarre thing was that after the news spread of what was happening in the US, apart from a hastily arranged and thoughtful memorial from the University Dean, the conference proceeded as originally planned.
Speaker and dreary speaker read diligently from prepared manuscripts then fielded robotic questions from their half interested audience. The whole struck me as plainly absurd. The day after the towers fell, as I was listening to an acutely tedious and painfully overwrought paper it struck me; isn’t this is proof that contemporary theology is just as impotent to speak to the deeper issues of human condition as postmodernism?
Upon reflection I realised that I was wrong, but I was wrong in the same way as those who all too opportunistically claimed the death of postmodernism were wrong. My contempt for the conference and the methodology of many of the speakers may have been justified – but my assumption of theology’s inability to adapt and address the current situation was based on all too small a sample.
Just because *some* theologians could not connect their work to the greater trends in globalisation did not mean that task was impossible. In the same way the death of postmodernism was being hailed by those who only had a very small sample of the field themselves.
In February 2001 I gave a paper entitled Resentiment, Otherness and Evaluative Hermeneutics, (drawing on writers like Baudrillard, Zizek and Bauman) where I argued that the benefits of our current global moment were under direct threat from “fundamentalism fuelled by resentiment.” This threatened to destroy the potential for global mutuality and beneficent cosmopolitanism. Although I proposed a morality based on hermeneutics, my final evaluations was not optimistic,
“Of course, the question remains if we will ever truly be “fellow strangers‚” in a global sense. Cosmopolitanism secures for us the possibility of mutuality in encounter but does not yet contain the mechanics for cross-contextual democratic aims.”
Postmodernism was not without its own critical apparatus before 9/11 and it has matured further in the years hence. If anything, I am more optimistic now about the prospects for a postmodern approach to spirituality and culture than I was five years ago.
This is because our moment has become profoundly political. We have experienced the fissure that I and others feared between cosmopolitanism and fundamentalism. But our public debate, our comedy and entertainment have evolved in ways that closer match the postmodern analysis of media and information. This is very difficult, if not impossible for those who wanted to claim the death of postmodernism to explain.
The aberration was not postmodernism, it was the naive a-politcal decade – the Forrest Gump era that came after the end of the Cold War -the “Don’t Worry Be Happy” years. Maybe some thinkers thought *that* was postmodernism – it wasn’t.
Whilst the debate about postmodernism and theory has evolved in many ways since 9/11, in some sections of the church there are still naive assumptions about it (almost as naive as the assumptions about the rightness of the counter-cultural critique). Sadly, as is often the case, a big slice of theological pie is undercooked.
Theology is not the same as dogmatics; rather theology is the application of dogmatics to the challenges of contemporary life. A properly cultural theology demands a sense of morality, of transcendence, an account of evil and death and full narrative of the body. These may have been limitations in postmodern thought but to claim postmodernity has no concern for them, with all we have seen in social change over the past five years is jejune. There is no way to deny our global reality is postmodern, nor can it be denied that our postmodern moment is deeply concerned with the greater questions of life and critical nuances of truth.
This forces us to reflection upon the effect of location, since it is central to postmodern understandings of globalisation. To surrender cultural theology to the academy, especially in these unsettled times is a recipe for disaster and an invitation for a self-serving discourse. We need theologians within academia, but we also need theologians in churches, in workplaces, even in independent think-tanks. Now, as much as ever, we need theologians who can speak from within specific, particular and embedded cultural locations. Moreover, we need theologians who can look closely at the social realities we face with honesty, not fear.
* The great irony was that so many people described seeing the planes fly into the Twin Towers with reference to movies and film (e.g., “It looked like a movie” etc). This sense that film mediates reality for us, giving our minds categories for interpreting the reality we see in life is a central idea within Jean Baudrillard’s postmodern theory.