Making the World in Its Own Image: On Home, Modernism, and Religion

Pruitt-Igoe_Myth_1-560x366There’s been a lot I haven’t enjoyed about being home in Northern Ireland for the first time in ten months. It mostly has to do with the felt need to constantly police myself, as I try and respond to feeling like I’m experiencing a conservative religious culture for the first time.

On the odd occasion an honest conversation feels possible and takes place, I also wind up inevitably realising the extent to which I’ve changed my thinking in relation to that which I was brought up with. Which is refreshing, when compared to the constant threat of regression into inane discussions about how, say, different churches think something marginally crazier than another and are therefore shit, or how some minority group is a threat to all life on the planet.

The honest conversations end up drawing out, for me, the underlying modernism of the — in some ways — better religious thinkers in the country. When someone ventures that there is no Truth, no Morality, no arche one is met with the accusation of “relativism”. Is saying that there is “no Truth” not a meta-principle? Is it not a new Truth? Is saying there is “no arche” not a new, albeit weird, turned around arche?

Well, no. What is happening is that the very terms of Modernism have been taken up in a bid to criticise what will be termed “postmodernism.” A modernist reading of postmodernism, if you will. “You are sceptical of arches? Well, that’s just a new arche!”

The very point of this “postmodernism” is to imagine the world if we don’t assume Modernism. This is an act that ultimately brackets certain sorts of thinking. Thinking that includes the “objectivity” afforded “Science” and “Reason” and the world they are mobilised to create. For when someone decides to follow the light of “Reason”, one may begin making claims about how “objectivity” can be extended to Law, Morality, and (chosen) People. If one rigorously follows these claims the question eventually arises, “Have we ever had one of these Truths?” And the answer is surely no.

For Modernism asserts an Outside—a position from which one might, speculatively, observe and understand all things. Modernism is greatly utopian in this sense. Sure no such position has been achieved yet, but it may one day. Not even our leading contemporary scientists think the physical system of the universe plays by the Modernist’s rules. Some even say the laws of (our part of) the universe haven’t always been the way they are.

Modernism is the great attempt to make all things in its image.

“Postmodernism” suggests that the question of an Outside is redundant. A category mistake—we’ve never had one of those, it observes. By extension questions of Truth and all the rest suffer the same redundancy. We can talk about the truths that emerge, the morals that emerge—that are fabricated and given force, that are constructed—but we haven’t ever found ones we discover to have existed a priori. We are always in the business of sounding out the differences, in the business of genealogy. For these all arise from the inside of the world, in comparison to the Modernist’s Outside, and only take on their capitalised form under a bastardisation of thought.

The Modernist’s problem is to super impose on another their assumed position. The person who thinks Truth to be redundant, who says, “There is no Truth” is imagined to be saying this from the Outside, when they are really speaking from inside. This claim is equivalent to saying, “There is no Outside”, which vastly changes the terrain of critique.

To take up the inside—with the addition that one cannot know where the inside ends—is to, in turn, change the parameters of what one admits to be possible. In eschewing the esotericism of an Outside one takes up a materialism. To see the networks in which one is embedded, to allow for the dynamism of contingency and difference is to reject a whole style of thinking.

To suggest that the “postmodernist” is simply a negative or reverse Modernist is to simultaneously miss the weight of the critique and the change of terrain that has occurred. It disguises a bid for homogeneity and oneness in a rhetoric of incoherence (“Under my terms your statement is invalid, regardless of the fact you are critiquing the grounds for my terms.”). If a dialectic of Truth/No Truth is established then we may ask for a negation of the negation, a double negation—which would be to say, “No, there really is no Truth.”

All of that to say, these religious people that I know (who are in some sense better than others) are afraid of the world.