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Posts Tagged ‘post-modernism’

Bruno Forte, Archbishop of Chieti-Vasto in Italy, gave a talk to the clergy of Westminster Diocese last week about the New Evangelisation. He gave a nice explanation of the meaning of beauty, which is whatever allows us ‘to see the whole in fragments’; it may not be original, but I hadn’t heard it before.

He put this in the context of post-modern culture, where there is such a suspicion of grand narratives, ideologies, and large claims about truth; so the only possibility of helping people to glimpse and then grasp the truth is through fragments – but fragments that eventually allow one to take hold of a greater truth. ‘Witness’ would be another important notion here: we can’t always convince others by argument, but we can still witness to something bigger than ourselves, to a more luminous beauty hidden within the ordinariness of this particular encounter. This is true for all truth, not just religious truth.

Here are a few paragraphs from his talk, which you can read in full here.

The “post-modern” side of this crisis turns into a denial of any ideological standpoint as totalitarian and violent. Typically, ideologies forces the post-modern man to live on fragments: as a period of contamination (everything is contaminated, nothing is worthy) and fruition (it is better to live intensely, enjoying pleasures), the post-modern era turns out to be an era of frustration, a long good-bye to any sense of security (Gianni Vattimo).

Religion is also compared with ideologies, and, therefore, is rejected because of its prejudices. It becomes necessary, then, to clarify the character of the God of Christian faith as totally unlike the totalitarian violence of ideological reason: a God who decided to choose the abandonment of the Cross to show the world the depth of his endless love. Moreover, the denial of the possibility of universal outlook pushes many post-modern people to withdraw into themselves. A return to this kind of produces in fact a “crowd of loners”. The force of Christian charity must be commended as a remedy for loneliness and as a way of creating points of contact and solidarity with others.

Christianity sees the whole in fragments as when the Son who had been abandoned on the Cross is then resurrected to new life. Seeing “the whole in a fragment” can be considered another name for “beauty”. It is important, therefore, in the post-modern era that Christianity show itself as the disclosure of a humble, yet saving beauty—in the most beautiful realisation of our humanity, in the resurrection of the Crucified.

The cultural movements referred to produce ethical consequences. The scattered islands created by the post-modern fragmentation turns others into “moral strangers” whom we must be wary of. This defines the so-called “liquid modernity”, which has been often described by the British sociologist and philosopher of Jewish-Polish origins, Zygmunt Bauman. Nowadays, there are no “given” nor “axiomatic” models and patterns: there are simply too many conflicting instances so that all of them end by losing their force authority. Since there are no absolute points of reference, everything can be justified in terms of the current fashion. Ethical standards, given to the Western World through the Bible, now appear weakened, concealed and hardly evident.

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Charles Guignon has written a lovely book called On Being Authentic. He draws on a number of philosophers and historians, and on examples from contemporary culture, to tell the story of where our modern notions of ‘being authentic’ and ‘being true to oneself’ really come from.

Broadly speaking, according to Guignon, we have seen three types of ‘self’ in the West. In pre-modern times, in the classical and medieval worlds, we had ‘the extended self’. Here, what makes me ‘me’ is that I belong to something bigger than me, something that comes before me, and extends beyond me. I don’t choose or define this larger whole – it defines me. As Guignon writes:

My identity is tied into the wider context of the world, with the specific gods and spirits that inhabit that world, with my tribe, kinship system and family, and with those who have come before and those who are yet to come. Such an experience of the self carries with it a strong sense of belongingness, a feeling that one is part of a larger whole [p18].

It reflects the interwovenness of all reality. I am part of an overarching whole, a cosmic scheme. The meaning of my life is very clear, and it is not at all up to me. There is lots of identity and belonging; but very little freedom.

In modern times, over the last four or five centuries, the idea of individuality and subjectivity has become more prominent. I am a subject with my own experiences, feelings, desires and opinions. I relate to the outside world of course, but that relationship is partly determined by my own decisions about how to construe that relationship.

The key term here is ‘autonomy’, so that the modern self is not so much ‘extended’ as ‘nuclear’ or ‘punctiliar’ – meaning I am the centre, the nucleus, of my own world, and not just the periphery of a socially constructed world. I still have an identity, but it’s one that I have helped to create through my personal choices.

In a post-modern culture, according to Guignon’s summary, the very notion of the stable self or subject has been called into question. Human identity is fluid and contextual. We now have different selves and limited powers of choice. There is no stable centre to the self but multiple centres with different perspectives. We have different masks, different roles, different potentialities. Some we are responsible for and in control of, some not. We absorb the values and visions of others without acknowledging the process.

The nuclear or punctiliar self of modernity gives rise to the fragmented or decentred self of post-modernity.  There is at once a radical freedom, even to go beyond who you are and recreate yourself; and a radical impotence, because you never have the secure foundation of a self from which to move or make a decision.

This is all very familiar to philosophers, but Guignon is a good teacher, and he writes with great insight and wit. And what I find so interesting about today’s Western culture, at least in Britain, is that it is one huge pile up of conflicting notions of the self. It’s not actually post-modern. It’s pre-modern and modern and post-modern all at the same time (and maybe some people would say that this a very definition of post-modernism!). We are longing to belong, and to be true to our inner selves, and to set off in radically new directions – all at the same time. No wonder we are confused!

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I’m in a crisis of self-doubt. After writing about Tate Modern’s ‘How to work better‘ poster yesterday, displayed in the staff entrance to the gallery, Fr Martin Boland wrote: “Are you sure it wasn’t a piece of verbal art?”

Have I been duped? Am I naive? I took this at face value, as a kindly encouragement to common courtesy, or as a not-too-subtle warning from management to put the customer first. Either way, I enjoyed its practical wisdom and aphoristic concision. But perhaps it is a piece of irony or satire? A work of art that seeks to deconstruct or simply mock the shallow, complacent yearnings of the self-help books I love so much? A source of mirth rather than enlightenment?

Help! I need someone from the staff at Tate Modern to post an answer in the comments below and put me out of my misery or condemn me to further introspection.

 

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