Insofar as postmodernism presents any sort of hope at all, it puts its hope in the exaltation of the interior life of the individual. It perceives that public space is no longer public in any meaningful sense, and so interior space becomes the location of human creative activity.
This leads to a fundamental frustration about the inability of the individual to separate him- or herself from cultural context: No matter where he goes, or what he does, he is unable to purge himself of banal, pop-stereotypical thoughts and behaviors. He finds himself acting out scripts that he has seen performed over and over again on prime-time TV. The song he heard on the radio at the supermarket stays in his head for days.
The “culture of death” thus becomes not merely an external wasteland through which we are forced to wander, but an internal wasteland that is always with us. This is the fundamental experience of postmodernity.
Given a broken and neurotic culture, it is understandable that people would wish to isolate themselves. The difficulty is that when cultural norms are dissolved, the individual is left without any frame of reference or means of communicating his experience to others.
Communication is essential to our vocation as human beings. Man cannot discover his meaning, his destiny or himself without reference to the other. Cultural boundaries exist in order to make this communion possible.
Wherever there are reasonable, agreed-upon norms, people are enabled to enter into deeper communication with one another. The norms function in much the same way as the traditional steps of a dance. When the footwork has been defined, it becomes possible for a couple to move effortlessly together through complicated patterns. If the dance is merely a form of undefined self-expression, the dance floor degenerates into a mass of bodies gyrating near each other, touching incidentally, without coherence.
Likewise, social interaction and communication, unbounded by cultural norms, becomes primitive and restricted. People do not know what is safe. They are afraid to make a move because they might trample on someone’s toes. The result is that every interaction becomes a complicated negotiation, an attempt to discover the personal boundaries of the other without accidentally overstepping them. This creates anxiety and reduces interaction to a small sphere of well-established safe zones: “How are you?” “Is that your dog?” “Looks like rain.”
The individual thus becomes hidden behind a series of shallow facades. He becomes isolated, cocooned within himself, enmeshed by personal symbologies that have no external meaning. Like the narrator in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, he becomes encircled by an increasingly meaningless swirl of interior detritus. He loses the ability to form a coherent personal order.
Personality requires a strong, ordering self — a self that must be founded on clear principles. Unmoored from absolutes, the soul is not free to flourish any more than a plant unmoored from the limitations of soil and water is free to grow in harmonious liberty. The person who finds himself without solid ground upon which to build an interior stronghold becomes increasingly dissolved within the conflicting demands of persona, bodily desires and subconscious impulses.
This is, not surprisingly, precisely how postmodern anthropology tends to describe the human person: a series of scripts, masks and personas without any fixed center. The attempt to elevate the personal above the universal thus leads to the dissolution of the personal.
Against this, Catholic teaching insists on the integrity of the person and the communal character of the human vocation. “Culture in fact is a reality born of self-transcendence; it takes shape from an impulse by which human individuality seeks to rise above its limitations in an interior drive to communicate and share” (Pope John Paul II, “Address to the World of Culture,” 1999).
Authentic culture is not restrictive. It does not limit the human person, nor confine perception within a narrow perspective. It provides form to individual human lives and creates a field of relationships in which personal expression is made possible.
Postmodernism is able to recognize the inauthentic core of the culture of death, but it is, so far, not able to provide an antidote. The retreat into private space will not suffice to answer the deepest questions of the human condition, nor will it protect the individual from the importunity of an inhuman society.
What is needed is a new culture. Not a return to the past, which is impossible, but as John Paul said, “a new cultural vision that will draw upon the heritage of the past in order to inspire and shape the future.” This culture will certainly be postmodern, but it need not be dissolute or devoid of hope.
As stated in Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World): “We can justly consider that the future of humanity lies in the hands of those who are strong enough to provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping.”
Melinda Selmys is a staff
writer at VulgataMagazine.org.