Transition to postmodernity

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We might be forgiven for assuming that in some respects the Enlightenment's hostility to the figurative representation of truth is no longer our problem. The pendulum has swung: the Enlightenment is suspect along with its own suspicion of the figurative, the imprecise, the mystical and the mysterious. In our postmodern age there is plenty of scope for mystery in the form of the occult and the New Age openness to the non-rational. Along with this goes a new receptivity to images, symbols and myths. Combined with consumer-led capitalism, this generates a market-place of images where metaphors, symbols and myths are freely and arbitrarily created, traded, syncretised and dissolved— especially in the mass media, advertising and information technology. As Richard Kearney has commented in his history of the imagination, 'one of the greatest paradoxes of contemporary culture is that at a time when the image reigns supreme the very notion of a creative human imagination seems under mounting threat' (Kearney, 1988, p.3).

This is not the place to discuss the general nature of postmodernity and its relation to modernity—the vexed question of whether it represents a reaction against or an intensification of modernity (for this see Avis, Mission After Modernity, forthcoming). What concerns us here is to note that postmodernity adopts the same dichotomy between rational discourse and imagistic thinking as the modernity that stems from the Enlightenment, but it reverses modernity's valuation. Postmodernity privileges image over discourse, eidos over logos. It has lost faith in any order inherent in things and is suspicious of all attempts to impose it. The image—or rather the plurality of images—is all. Experience is a passing show of discrete, disconnected images, lacking in coherence, depth and substance. Culture reflects and intensifies experience: it is inchoate, fragmentary and ephemeral. We have the power to produce such a succession of images, but not to elicit them from a real world that is intrinsically ordered, by the operation of a mind that reflects that order. Kearney (1988) distinguishes between the 'mimetic' imagination which belongs to the biblical and classical worlds, the 'productive' imagination which is characteristic of humanist, Romanticist and capitalist culture, and the 'parodic' imagination which is typical of postmodernity or late capitalism. While the imagination which we see at work in Homer or the Old Testament achieves an imitation or copy of the truth of existence, and the imagination of the Romantic poets and artists rises above this to enhance and intensify the truth of existence, the best that the postmodern imagination can do is merely to parody, to play games with, to subvert the truth of existence—because at heart it does not believe that there is such a truth.

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