This is another entry in my series titled The Postmodern Druid, in which I work to contextualize this crazy religion we’re so fond of within postmodernity — something its practitioners often resist. Today I want to talk about postmodernity itself, the condition of the world we live in. Druids and other neo-pagans often sneer at postmodernity, claiming they’re trying to get to a world, or at least a wordview, preceding it. But the thing is, without postmodernity our alternative religions wouldn’t exist!
First, we should talk about what, exactly, postmodernity is, because when neo-pagans talk about it, they don’t seem to be using the word appropriately. In fact, it sounds disturbingly like the alt-right dogwhistle version.
So, here’s the basic idea: the postmodern world is one in which the metanarrative is gone.
That’s it. There’s nothing inherent in the postmodern condition that says scientific materialism is the only way to view the world, or that technology can solve all our problems, or that we shouldn’t protect the environment. There’s nothing that says capitalism is good, or that religion is bad. The only fundamental in postmodernity is that there is no longer a metanarrative.
However, now we need to know what exactly the metanarrative is. Really simply, it’s the monolithic narrative that an entire culture follows. So, for instance, if you live in France in the 1400s, not only is your life pretty closely circumscribed, so is everybody’s. There’s a story that the entire culture produces, and it both determines most people’s roles and propagates itself forward in time. Things change, but things tend to stay the same, too. So people might invent the printing press (or, you know, import it), but they will print the same sorts of books. Basically, change functions through an enormous Overton window.*
You can see this sort of thing in cultural micronarratives — genres of art, specific religions, political groups, they all tend to be similar to their historical antecedents and change happens by grafting things onto what’s already been there and slowly pruning things away. It’s very rare that anything is just replaced or removed.
So, postmodernity is just living in a culture that no longer has a single dominant metanarrative that encapsulates everything. For instance, even if most people in your country are Christian, it is culturally possible to be Wiccan. Neo-paganism is a pure, uncut product of postmodernity. It couldn’t exist in any of our previous cultural systems.
This gets to one of the “tricks” in studying postmodernity. It’s not necessarily that “modern.” We tend to think of the postmodern period as having begun in the early 20th century, basically as modernism ended. But that breaks down very quickly. For example, “modern” art is the analogous visual thing to “postmodern” literature. And when you identify what makes something postmodern, you can find examples of that from centuries in the past: Don Quixote is a premiere example of the postmodern novel, and it was written in the 1600s! Shakespeare breaks the fourth wall all the time (to be fair, the conceit in drama hadn’t been invented yet).
There’s a kind of dangerous linguistic slippage here. “Modern” and “postmodern” mean too many things. They both point to specific cultural and artistic periods. But “modern” also means “now” and “progressive,” while “postmodern” also means “metatextual” and “after modernism.”
This explains how Wicca can be a postmodern religion even though it was invented by Gardner before most people would say the postmodern period started. It’s also true that one can usually find “seeds” of things in previous eras — so Wicca was sort of a ticking postmodern religion bomb, waiting for culture to kind of dig it up so it could explode.
Druidry itself is postmodern in a wicked way. Iolo Morganyg is our spiritual grandfather, whether we’re comfortable with it or not, and he forged as much as he researched. But since it all works, it all goes in the pot. That’s one of the things about the utility of understanding postmodernity and postmodernism: we can discern historical fact from fakery while recognizing the utility of symbols that are new or newly-coded.
That’s the other prong of the “postmodernism is good, actually” argument I’m making here. Since postmodernism recognizes that everything in our experience is symbolic (hold on a minute), postmodernism loops back to a weird kind of post-structural animism.
OK. First, “everything is a symbol.” In our relative, personal experience, yes. You don’t have actual, literal trees in your head. You have symbol clusters in there that represent trees, with emotional and intellectual symbols hanging off them, like “comfort” and “filters CO2.” Second, if everything is a symbol, then the effects of magic on the world function through a kind of semiotic blurring of those symbols. ** These are huge oversimplifications, you understand. But, basically, we use symbols all the time. We draw strength from them. You know that. And postmodern scholars also know that. It’s their jam.
Finally, you might be interested to know that postmodernity’s philosophical core is not as grim and atheistic as it’s made out to be. As best I can tell, everyone in the culture at large thinks that postmodern work is based on the existentialists. But it’s really based on the work of Derrida. And Derrida was basically a Jewish mystic who translated his mysticism into deconstruction. Derrida’s deconstruction of symbols is incredibly similar to the destruction and reconstruction of the vessels in Isaac Luria’s Kabbalistic teachings.*** So the most important method in the intellectual sphere that we use to function within the postmodern is actually a mystical method, backed up with semiotics and linguistic theory.
*If you want to know more about this, please read Lyotard’s book The Postmodern Condition. It’s where I get all this from.
**Oh man, you mean my academic research all the time? For a magician’s point of view, try reading Patrick Dunn‘s Magic, Power, Language, Symbol. For a really quick rundown of the semiotic side of things in the academic side of things, check out the “Magic” entry in Wilfred Nöth’s Handbook of Semiotics.
***One more. Sanford Drob’s Kabbalah and Postmodernism handles this extremely well. Get all these books from your library. Use the inter-library loan system.