The word “postmodern” is often used to describe the age in which we live as if the hand on a great cosmic clock struck “Postmodern” at the turn of the 20th century. The implication, of course, is that anything that’s not postmodern is outdated. Let’s take a step back, though, and analyze this term so glibly invoked for so many applications. The philosopher Jean Baudrillard used Disneyland as a metaphor for the postmodern world, (1) and I find it to be the clearest explanation of what postmodernism really teaches. Here is my version:
The throngs of eager Disneyland visitors know full well that the park is a false reality. The Mickey walking around is clearly not the real Mickey—in fact, there is no real Mickey. Tomorrowland clearly does not depict a real place or time. The whole park is filled with concrete portrayals of things that were, originally, figments of imagination. Each concrete portrayal symbolizes a thing that does not exist. Each symbol points to nothing. The creators of the park, however, have invented a game in which people pretend that the symbols point to real things. The visitors, by playing the game, can leave their lives in the world outside and immerse themselves in this false reality created for their amusement.
Here’s the key to understanding all things postmodern: the world outside the park is no different than the unreal world inside the park. The only reason we think it is different, according to the postmodernists, is that we haven’t realized that all of the symbols on which we base our reality point to nothing. Among these symbols are the words we use, the education we get, the theories we hold, the money we earn (they have a point there); and the religion we value.
Here’s another way to look at it. Imagine you walk into a Catholic church, and each wall is lined with images of the saints. The Bible tells us that death is a sleep, of course, and the dead saints are lying in their graves, waiting for the resurrection, so we know that those images do not actually point to saints up in Heaven—at best, they point to nothing that currently exists. (2) The postmodern philosopher would say that those images of the saints mean something because the people that worship those images, by their belief in them, give them meaning. The philosopher would add that the difference between the Disneyland visitors and the people praying to the saints is that, in contrast to the church members, the Disneyland guests (we hope) realize that they participate in a false reality. Likewise, all the symbols on which our society is based only mean something in the sense that we, by our collective consent, impart meaning to them.
How did society arrive at this postmodern age? According to the philosophers, when the clock struck “Postmodern,” it chimed “God is dead!”(3) “God is dead” may seem like a strange way to phrase the belief that God does not exist, but it describes quite well the philosophy behind it. Keep in mind that, according to this philosophy, all things receive their meaning by human consent and belief. God, as a construct, ‘died’ when humanity (with the help of Marx, Freud, Darwin, and others) finally realized that He did not exist. “God is dead” means that God never existed except as a figment of our collective imaginations, and now we have ceased believing in the reality of our imaginings. Postmodernism, then, is a logical outcome of the breed of materialism that rejects the existence of all things outside of the material world.(4)
- Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation tr. Sheila Glaser (Ann Arbor, MI: U of MI Press, 1994) p. 12.
- If I remember correctly, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used this metaphor to explain postmodernism.
- The second installment of this article will further pursue the relationship between atheism and postmodernism.
- There are many different types of materialism, and some might allow for the existence, but not the action, of a supernatural or preternatural being. For the purpose of my argument, there is no difference.
God’s presumptuous gravediggers and the postmodern agenda (Part II)