• Brendan Graham Dempsey

After Postmodernism: 3. Spirit and the Specter of Identity

"Adoration of the Mystic Lamb," Martin Wittfooth



As you recall, we saw that the formulations of Postmodernism put forward by Jean-François Lyotard, David Harvey, and Fredric Jameson were all framed in important ways as narratives of subtraction or loss. For Lyotard, this was the loss of the grand narrative; for Harvey, the eternal and unchanging; for Jameson, the deeper meaning. Could it be, I then wondered, that all of these were in fact but facets of the same thing, elements of a greater whole, of which each thinker was only grasping a part? I am now ready to answer this question. For, it but remains to ask: What single thing, once had but recently lost, might be called a grand, overarching and world-orienting narrative; a thing that was likewise understood as “the eternal and unchanging”, while also providing the depth of foundational meaning, the basis for all hermeneutic gestures of interpreting reality in relation to something beyond mere appearance? What is this, if not religion itself? God, or, transcendence broadly conceived?

If I am right about this, then Postmodernism can justifiably be seen as a culmination of the modern projects of “disenchantment” and secularisation. It is, as it were, the high-water mark of anti-supernatural materialism. In it, all notions of a “higher” order, all “spiritual” notions such as “truth”, “purpose”, “soul”, “self”, were abrogated by jettisoning metaphysics entirely.

This helps to explain, I think, the Postmodern preoccupation with surfaces, since the whole dialectic of “transcendence/immanence” was resolved into a one-dimensional monism of total immanence (or, what Charles Taylor has called “the immanent frame”).[1] With the collapse of all ontological “dimensionality” into a single plane, “depth” is indeed lost (à la Jameson). In similar fashion, the old Platonic dialectic of Being/Becoming is resolved in favor of a totalised Becoming, with the resultant loss of Being’s “eternal and immutable” possibilities (à la Harvey). With the collapse of transcendent/immanent dimensionality, all relationships of one to the other are lost; as a result, any notions of immanent existence finding its meaning relative to transcendent goals are also lost. The whole notion of a “meaning to life” thus becomes lost, since life (set in the immanent frame) has nothing to/for which it can be a means. There is no narrative that can take life itself into account, for there is no position outside of it, as it were, from which to tell such a story. As a consequence, all grand narratives of meaning become senseless (à la Lyotard).

Interestingly, we see hints of this idea in Jameson’s Conclusion to Postmodernism, reflecting on a “diagnosis” for confronting the “mirage” of metaphysical notions. For him, this looks like:

the effort to imagine a way of living that could radically eschew these illusions [of metaphysical Being]…a life in time capable of doing without the longing to become the “in-itself-for-itself” (“what the religions call God”), and this down to the very microstructure of our most minute gestures and feelings. This ethical ideal of anti-transcendent human existence…is surely one of the most glorious of all post-Nietzschean Enlightenment visions, which tracks religion, metaphysics, and transcendence into the most seemingly secular spaces and events of an only apparently “enlightened” modern world. …Yet what is worth asking today about this seemingly Utopian and unrealizable vision of an authentic or “textualized” existence in full postmodernism is whether it may not very precisely be one of the transformations of everyday life and of the psychic subject designated by the term postmodern. (p. 339)

So much for the synthesis of these three seminal formulations of the Postmodern. The elephant in the room was no less than “what the religions call God” (at least to the extent that God is the traditional epitome of transcendence). What Postmodernism signaled then, one could say, was the loss/removal of spirituality itself from cultural production—in philosophy, the arts, etc. Nietzsche’s prophetic utterances, issued almost a century earlier, had been fulfilled: God was indeed (and at last) dead.[2]

The importance of this becomes crucial when considering what is happening now. For Postmodernism has seen a wide-scale rejection in the past decade, as we have been discussing. Specifically, its totalising immanence is what has come under scrutiny. People are not so keen, it turns out, on living in a world without meaning and depth, place and purpose. Indeed, from this perceived lack has sprung the whole Postmodern “crisis of identity.” This dissatisfaction and disillusionment with Postmodern immanence has thus occasioned the return of what I call “ontological dimensionality”, the non-monistic, multi-planer mapping of reality that allows for some relationship between different modes of existence (and thus depth, meaning, even teleology).

Generally speaking, this return is taking two forms. The first is simple reaction, a conservative backlash against the whole Postmodern paradigm and an eager re-positing of the old transcendentals (cf. footnote 3 for a brief consideration of figures like Stephen Hicks and Jordan Peterson). They are representative of a long-standing conservative protest against Postmodernism, one that has been simmering, as it were, for decades, outside the “in-crowd” of the academy and public intellectual circles. With the demise of Postmodernism, though, their responses are finding a wider audience, the broader public being primed, as it were, for giving such values a second look.

But the traditional immanent/transcendent paradigm was only one form of dimensionality, the one lost in Postmodernism with the collapse of multi-dimensionality into the singular plane of totalised immanence. With the end of Postmodernism, we are seeing not only the return of this old model of dimensionality, but also other, new models of dimensionality. This project is characteristic of a second response to Postmodernism’s decline, one might call it the progressive response. Like the political persuasion of the same name, it is more pronounced among the younger generation, particularly millennials. Unlike the reactionary approach, it does not aim simply to treat Postmodernism as though it never happened. This generation is too much a product of Postmodernism to simply renounce out of hand its profound critiques of transcendent claims and causes. It has, you could say, digested already its damning critiques. And yet, what it is compelled by it also largely wishes to reject, as unfulfilling, superficial, unproductive, etc. As a result, it is pursuing dimensionality, but from a very different angle. If reactionaries are seeking the old X/Y dualism, these progressives are looking for a Y axis. They are finding it within the immanent plane itself. The Postmodern immanent frame is not actually rejected at all, but rather sublated, complexified such as to tease from it some analogy of transcendence, an immanent transcendence. Here a new horizon opens up, a kind of sub-dimensionality, where the relationship is not the old “below/above”, “natural/supernatural”, “this world/other world”, etc., but rather more based in intra-immanent language, such as “outer/inner”, “constituent/emergent”, “self/universe”, even “unhelpful constructs/ helpful constructs.” Immanence itself is reconsidered, you might say, as the new locus of transcendence.

One can already see this sensibility in Hassan’s essay. It is why the author is so keen to qualify his “truth”, “trust”, and “spirit” as being “all uncapitalized.” This is why his recourse to universals must be positioned as “empirical” and not “Platonic.” The desire is for transcendence, but of a kind shorn from metaphysics. Further, this revived sense of dimensionality is what explains the seeming return of “modernist” (or, anyway, pre-Postmodern) ideas, methods, forms, etc. In actuality, they are not (necessarily) the same old ideas and methods at all; they have been baptised in the fires of immanence. Their similarity to earlier forms owes both to sharing a commitment to dimensionality. But the “spirit” of Hassan is miles away from, say, Hegel’s Spirit, and obviously much farther still from the Holy Spirit of Christianity. It is spirit “reinvented”.

Having used Hassan’s essay to prefigure some of the main threads of what is arising “beyond Postmodernism”, and having furthermore attempted some of my own preliminary theories accounting for such threads, I would like to turn to the heart of the matter and explore some of the “post-Postmodernisms” that have been proposed by theorists and artists since the turn of the millennium. After we tour these models of the post-Postmodern, I’d like to attempt some synthesis, to see how these different articulations relate, what they have in common, and to argue (as I did with Lyotard, Harvey, and Jameson above) how they might be seen as diverse refractions of the same cultural wavelength.

NEXT POST: After Postmodernism: 4. Remodernism

[1] To speak metaphysically, I mean “monism” here in a very broad sense, as referring to an understanding of reality as made up entirely of one substance or nature. Historically, as in the philosophy of Spinoza, this was treated rather pantheistically, even mystically, imbuing that monistic substrate with the essence of the transcendent. But the term might also be taken in the other vein, as that substance entirely robbed of the transcendent, an immanent materialism that admits no rivals. So might one use the term in reference to a metaphysics of total materialism, which is to say, an anti-metaphysics: a monism of the physical, period. [2] At least as a cultural dominant. We must remember that considerations of cultural periods deal in residual, dominant, and emerging features, in heuristic labels and generalisations. God, of course, continued to be a persistent feature of culture in the post-war period, but increasingly as a relic, a vestige, a token of reactionary Christian fundamentalism, say, not as an energizing force in Pop Culture or elite art galleries, in acclaimed literature or academic debate.

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Contact Brendan at generationofleaves@gmail.com