Human action is an expression of philosophy. Every decision we make is inescapably framed and guided by our ideas about the world. Sometimes these ideas are clearly communicated by our actions; we write a book or create meaningful art. Other times, our ideas are so silent we aren’t even aware of them; they become a kind of subconscious framework for our actions. I’d like to examine one particular philosophy which can be seen through a diverse range of human actions: postmodernism.
Not only can you read postmodern writing, you can see postmodern art and hear postmodern music – the underlying ideas are the same.
Without being dismissive or insulting, I’ll give you my analysis upfront: the philosophic ideas underpinning postmodernism can be best described as anti-mind. I don’t say that as criticism; I’m not saying postmodern art is objectively ugly. I mean, upon analysis, postmodernism tries to escape or reject the traditional function of the human mind.
Before defending this analysis, I’ll attempt to give a fair, brief explanation of “postmodernism.” I realize the term is very broad. So before people freak out, no, I am not lumping every artist and thinker into the same genre. Plenty of sub-categories and distinctions exist. I will only be referencing one particular strain of postmodernism.
If there’s any abstract, overarching theme in postmodernism, it’s a skepticism and rejection of structure. This could apply to social/political structure – e.g. why do we acknowledge social hierarchies? – or it could apply to language – e.g. how do words get meaning? A postmodern musician might ask, “Why is music limited by time signatures? And where do the rules for harmony come from?”
The postmodernist answer to these questions: all “structure” and “rules” in the world are ultimately social or linguistic conventions. These conventions are artificial and arbitrary at best – oppressive at worst. Therefore, the postmodernist task is to locate, challenge, and do away with artificiality, whether that means freeing men and women from social roles or liberating our minds from the “rules” of conventional thinking.
That’s the two-paragraph overview; now for some concrete examples. First, some visual expressions of these ideas:
Yes, it’s a black canvas. But don’t simply dismiss this as nonsense. Think about it: what is art? Is there any objective definition, or is it ultimately just a word? If it’s arbitrary, then nobody can confine the artist to say, “You can and cannot do this. These arrangements of paint qualify as ‘art’, while those do not.”
In other words, by making a black canvas, the artist has essentially said, “Screw you, rules. I’ll paint whatever I damn well choose.” It’s a philosophical statement. It also means that art becomes something necessarily subjective. To evaluate a work of art is simply to ask, “What does this work mean/feel like to the observer?” The artist cannot impose his ideas on his audience any more than a king can declare what qualifies as art. Take another example by the famous Jackson Pollock:
The photographer Hans Namuth gives us a clear interpretation:
“Pollock has managed to free the line not only from its function of representing objects in the world, but also from its task of describing or bounding shapes or figures, whether abstract or representational, on the surface of the canvas.”
Notice the language. The “line” is “freed” from its usual function. Think about it: who determined what a line is, anyway? If it’s an arbitrary social convention, then Pollock is indeed “freeing the line” by impulsively dripping paint across the canvas without any structure.
So, that’s how these ideas look. Here’s how they sound, courtesy of Yoko Ono:
That’s a rather extreme example, but try your best not to dismiss it out of hand. The sounds she’s making have no structure – no rhythm, no melody, no harmony. But that’s the point. It’s a kind of raw, unfiltered emotional expression, uncontained by any social conventions or rules. It certainly evokes a feeling in the audience, perhaps cringes or laughter, but that’s what art is supposed to do, right? You don’t have to like how it sounds, just like a poet doesn’t have to write pleasant words.
Here’s another musical expression of postmodernism, and it adds another key concept: chaos.
Notice, the musicians aren’t just playing notes on their instruments. The pianist strikes the wooden parts of the piano on several occasions. This is not meant to sound pretty; it’s meant to express an idea: our structuring of notes into scales and chords, our insistence on tempo and coordination – it’s all artificial, and no more objectively meaningful than accidental sounds. In fact, you could go so far as to say all music is fundamentally chaotic, and it’s only the mind which perceives an artificial order. Like seeing a face on the moon – it’s not there objectively, but our minds project order where there isn’t any. This means postmodern music, in a sense, tries to be truer to reality, as it preserves the chaos.
The concept of chaos is a wonderful segue into the last expression of postmodernism: written philosophy. Nietzsche was a precursor to postmodernism, but he expresses the ideas well:
“There are no facts, only interpretations.”
A radical statement, but think about it: what is a “fact”? Does the term reference something objective, or is it ultimately another social convention? To postmodernists, it’s the latter. Indeed, they argue that the concept of “objective reality” itself is artificial; therefore, all notions of “truth” are entirely subjective and do not represent anything outside of mere language.
Logic, too, is seen as a linguistic convention. Just like “art” has no objective definition, “logic” is also simply a word. This idea used to be especially popular with Marxists – the idea that different social classes had different logics. So, you might have proletariat logic, which would be different from bourgeoisie logic.
The French philosopher Jacques Derrida was an extremely popular exponent of these ideas. He famously said:
“There is no outside-text.”
In other words, humans are stuck in a kind of linguistic trap, from which we can’t ever escape. All of our thoughts require language – a subjective tool which can never access objective truth or have objective meaning. We’re permanently stuck with only subjective interpretations of the world.
Even something as simple as “seeing a chair” is illusory to the postmodernist. Where did your conception of a “chair” come from? What you conceive of as a chair devoid of objective meaning – it’s merely a word.
If this all sounds a bit absurd, that’s because it is – literally. Postmodernists (and existentialists) believe that humans must grapple with the absurdity of life. It’s our minds which create order out of chaos; the universe is ultimately senseless, and dealing with such absurdity is an essential part of living.
Alright, so that’s the philosophy expressed verbally, musically, and visually. Now I’ll give you my thoughts and explain why I call these ideas “anti-mind.”
First of all, as an anarchist, I am sympathetic to the idea of rejecting current political structures. And as an introvert, I also think most social norms arbitrary and absurd. But as a philosopher, I see some catastrophic errors in this worldview.
To put it simply: not all structure is arbitrary. Sometimes, the mind creates structure, but other times, the mind recognizes structure.
The confusion arises because of a consistent misunderstanding about the nature of language. Specifically, the relationship between language, the human mind, and the external world.
In one sense, it’s true that words are arbitrary – the specific assortment of letters or syllables which make up words are essentially a social convention. But that doesn’t mean the words can’t reference anything objective.
Sometimes, words don’t have objective reference; other times, they do.
Take the words, “North, south, east, and west.” What do the terms concretely reference? You can’t find “north” or “south” on a map. They are not a location. They’re arbitrary concepts – social conventions. It doesn’t make sense to talk about the “objective eastern direction.” After all, if you go east far enough, you end up in the West! Think about from a spatial perspective – who determines what’s “up” and “down”? If you are looking at Earth from space, you won’t find its objective “top” or “bottom.”
However, contrast this with the words “Hawaii” and “Australia.” The particular syllables we use in English to create these words are arbitrary, but they are referencing something objective and concrete. Looking from space, you can meaningfully point out Hawaii and Australia. They are not concepts. Our reference to them requires language and some degree of social convention, but that doesn’t change their landmass.
Consider mathematics. You can use any visual symbol to represent pi (represent it with a flying cat, for all it matters), but that doesn’t mean the number is arbitrary.
The mathematical rules for addition and subtraction are not concocted by humans – they are objective and inescapable. Instead of creating mathematical rules, our minds simply recognize them for what they are.
It’s like shining a flashlight inside a dark cave. In order to see, you must use the flashlight. But that doesn’t mean the flashlight creates your surroundings – it simply illuminates them. If you start creating shadow puppets on the wall, however, the flashlight would indeed start creating forms where there weren’t any before.
This is precisely the function of the human mind. The mind sees structure where it is and creates structure where it isn’t. It can recognize order, distinguish it from chaos, and – critically – it can create order out of chaos.
The human mind gives us access to objectivity, and it allows us to recognize subjectivity.
The mind allows artists to look at a blank canvas and create something out of nothing – to take little specks of paint and arrange them in a particular, sensible way. It’s the reason humans can meaningfully arrange syllables – sound waves – in such a way where their utterance can be comprehended. It’s the reason the squiggles you’re looking at – these letters – are precisely ordered and make sense to you.
My mind has deliberately encoded information in these words and structured them in such a way so your mind can decode them. It’s extraordinary, really.
But that’s only the creative, communicative part of the mind. The human mind is also the ultimate judge of objective truth. It has the capacity to know absolute truth from absolute falsehood. I’m going to write extensively about this in the future, but here’s a small example.
Take the proposition, “It is impossible to create meaningful sentences.” This is a self-evident falsehood, as it’s a meaningful sentence itself. It’s like writing, “I cannot write words,” or “I cannot attempt communication.” These propositions, on their face, can be known to be false. This means the sentence, “It is false that nobody attempts communication” can be known to be true. There are a huge amount of propositions we can know to be true, and recognizing this is an essential part of philosophy, but it’s not the point of this article.
The point is: the mind can recognize objective truth; it can create order from chaos, and it intentionally structures information to make it sensible. Thus, my conclusion is that postmodernism is, quite literally, anti-mind. It rejects the structures and purpose of the mind.
And suddenly Yoko’s art makes sense (or perhaps more precisely, it makes sense that Yoko’s art doesn’t make sense). Again, this isn’t criticism, and to be honest, I think postmodernism gives a fantastic contrast to sensible works of the mind. Derrida makes me appreciate logic and sensibility that much more deeply. Jackson Pollock’s paintings look pretty cool – I like the visuals of abstract absurdism, and Yoko – well, Yoko just hurts my ears.
But let’s not mistake nonsense for sense. Reading the absurd stories of Lewis Carroll should be enjoyed and laughed at, not taken as a serious representation of reality. The universe is not chaotic, and an endless amount of sensible information exists within it.
The harmonies of Mozart are not random – they are intentionally chosen to sound pleasant, as their frequencies have an objective mathematical relationship with each other (of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean every mind will find it appealing). The words in this sentence are not meaningless – if I’ve done my job, my mind has communicated with yours through an intentional arrangement of text. To me, this is all incredible, and it makes me appreciate gibberish that much more.
I’ll finish by noting another amusing, beautiful fact: it takes a mind to intentionally represent chaos on a canvas. Yoko’s choice to scream into the microphone was the result of her mental choices. Derrida didn’t understand that his analysis of the subjectivity of logic presupposed the objectivity of logic. This entire philosophy is like somebody writing, in all seriousness, “Words can never be written.” Surely, you can’t help but smile and admire such an idea.