Do you know the Brief Insights series of books? It’s similar to the Very Short Introductions series, in which a broad topic is covered in one concise, well-written volume. The many titles are as far-ranging as Kafka, Music, Existentialism, Literary Theory, Relativity, Statistics, and Modern China. Recently I read the volume Postmodernism, by Christopher Butler, an Oxford University English professor. In this book, Butler explains postmodernism’s roots in the works of Derrida, Foucault, and Barthes, as well as its rise in the context of the avant-garde. Butler explores postmodern expressions in politics, visual arts, literature, architecture, and music, showing how postmodernism has broadened our cultural tolerance and opened doors of pluralistic expression. But he also discusses postmodernism’s failure as a tool for democratic negotiation, as well as its opposition toward humanistic concepts of individual agency and responsibility.
I first learned about postmodernism in 1992, in a BYU literary theory class taught by Cecilia Farr. In that class I read, among other things, Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, a book I’ve returned to many times over the years. In that book, Lyotard defined postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives,” a skeptical approach to any grand story about the meaning of things. For Lyotard and other postmodernists, these metanarratives include the Enlightenment, the American Dream, Marxism, Christianity, the Scientific Revolution—any overarching story that purports to comprehend Truth. (Ironically, it seems to be the metanarrative of postmodernism itself that, alone, is exempt from postmodernist incredulity. Go figure.)
Of course, as a BYU student I understood what postmodernists might think of Mormonism. Not only is Mormonism a metanarrative, but it’s rooted in a narrative—the Joseph Smith story. Still, I found value in the postmodern perspective. It helped me better understand the world I live in, where competing stories of meaning constantly vie for our attention and allegiance. I also found value in the postmodern term “discourse,” a word used to define the linguistic systems (that often go unexamined, the postmodernist’s claim) of cultures and professions—for example, those of medicine, religion, or law. Butler’s definition of “discourse” is “a historically evolved set of interlocking and mutually supporting statements, which are used to define and describe a subject matter” (59-60). It seems to me that this definition could double as a definition for a work of fiction—and the process that occurs when one writes fiction. As a fiction writer, I see my characters in a similar way, as members of a discourse community. Each character in a work of fiction is a unique situating of any number of stories, giving each character an overarching, defining “lifescript.” What are fictional characters if not unique and coherent perspectives on the world, often in contradiction with others?
In Cecelia’s class I also learned that postmodernists seek to legitimate the marginal. Right away I saw that the privileging of pluralism might prove positive for Latter-day Saints. Shouldn’t any advocate for pluralism, I thought, be willing to make room at the table for a Mormon writer? (Perhaps they don’t, but they should—to be philosophically consistent.) I assumed thus, and in grad school at Illinois State University I saw a pluralism loophole that often gave me voice. While my fellow grad students sought their own identity—the more radical the better, it seemed—I took on the “radical identity” of being an orthodox, active Mormon who was married and had children. Cultivating one’s weirdness seemed to be a privileged means of signification in grad school, and as a Mormon, I was all set!
As a study, postmodernism offers the Mormon writer a lot to chew on. However, it also presents perspectives antithetical to Mormonism. Again, Christopher Butler’s book Postmodernism proved insightful, as his examination is not all laudatory. For example, in a postmodern perspective, individuals are not ultimately free, nor can they be held responsible for their actions. As Butler says it, “the term preferred by postmodernists to apply to individuals is not so much ‘self’ as ‘subject,’ because the latter term implicitly draws attention to the ‘subject-ed’ condition of persons who are, whether they know it or not, ‘controlled’ (if you are on the left) or ‘constituted’ (if you are in the middle) by the ideologically motivated discourses of power which predominate in the society they inhabit” (68-69). It’s one thing to see individuals as making choices within the communities they inhabit. It’s quite another to see them incapable of choice within the linguistic prisons of their discourse communities.
The latter reminds me of the 19th century literary movement called naturalism, which applied principles of scientific and mechanistic determinism to the actions of characters. In the naturalistic approach, people are merely animals responding to environmental forces and internal drives which they can neither understand nor control, making them victims of biological or socioeconomic determinism. As a Mormon writer, I’m dubious about any world in which characters are robbed of agency and accountability. Even setting aside the religious concerns, I think it makes for less-interesting characters!
Another problem I have with postmodernism is its ultimate rejection of authority. In the final chapter of Postmodernism, Butler says that “much postmodernist analysis is an attack on authority and reliability—in philosophy, narrative, and the relationship of the arts to truth”; therefore, “their skepticism about truth often deprives them of a proper concern for the activities of reason-giving and rational negotiation and for procedural justice” (143). Butler goes on to say that postmodernism does not allow “that the attempt to be reasonable, and truthful, to back up assertions by verifiable evidence, and so on, is essential if we are to come to the negotiating table with something other than implied threats” (150). Finally, Butler concludes, “The best that one can say here, and I am saying it, is that postmodernists are good critical deconstructors, and terrible constructors” (151).
Creative writers are constructors. True, a builder must sometimes dismantle and even destroy in the building process—a fascinating paradox. Just as the scripture says, “to every thing there is a season … a time to break down, a time to build up” (Eccl 3: 1, 3). But the ultimate goal of the creative writer is to make something, not undo something. Postmodernism gives us tools to deconstruct—which can be necessary—but no tools to construct, which makes it only half a toolbox.
For the Mormon writer, then, postmodernism is a mixed bag. It offers a fascinating rationale for our world of competing perspectives. It offers a means for critiquing power structures and deconstructing conflict. It advocates a pluralist philosophy that may be used to help legitimate the role of Mormon letters. However, postmodernism also asserts a number of things that, as a Mormon, I find difficult to accept. For example, being incredulous toward all metanarratives might make it difficult to engage Mormonism at all. Furthermore, Mormonism aligns itself quite readily with other beliefs that the postmodernists oppose, such as the human capacity for reasoning and democracy, and the liberalizing principles of the Enlightenment. While postmodernism speaks of “the victimhood of subjected subjects,” Mormonism asserts an existential view of individual agency. And finally, postmodernism tells us we cannot transcend language or discourse. In grad school I had a Catholic friend who liked to say, “I believe in extra-linguistic reality.” As a Mormon, I had to agree—and still do.
Much value remains in understanding, though, even in understanding things we don’t agree with. The better we understand the cultural influences upon us, the better we can write and think and contribute in the world of Mormon letters—and in the world generally. Brigham Young wanted all the truth he could get, no matter where it came from. The way I see it, postmodernism offers truths that can benefit the Mormon writer.
Perhaps Brother Brigham would say to us, “Learn all the truths you can, and come off a true Mormon writer!”