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Modernism and Postmodernism or Early and Late Capitalism?

Amongst theologians and churchmen today talk of “postmodernism” is legion.  Everywhere people are trying to figure out what it is and how to deal with it from a Christian perspective.  This is particularly seen amongst evangelical Christians who certainly spill more ink on the cultural and philosophical issues of modernism and postmodernism than Christians from other traditions (perhaps due to Protestantism’s inherently more pliable nature as a tradition vis á vis the wider culture). 

However, one of the largest problems with how such issues are approached theologically has to do with the way in which theologians often assume that “modernism” and “postmodernism” stand for philosophical ideologies and their attending effects on culture.  In other words, when people talk about “the culture of modernity” or the “postmodern culture” most of them are talking predominately about ideas and their impact on culture.  What is assumed in discussions that take up the grammar of modernism versus postmodernism is that the perceived shifts in cultural and philosophy are predominately intellectual shifts that trickle down as it were into the culture.  Perhaps we can call this way of narrating contemporary culture and thought as philosophical Reaganomics (or Thatcherism, if your a Brit).

The point of all this is that the notion that contemporary cultural shifts (such as those that the emerging church movement seeks to engage) are brought on by the trickling down of “postmodern” ideas in contrast to the old ideas of “modernism” is naive and, well, simply wrong.  The idea that the constellation of philosophers and philosophical trends commonly called postmodern are somehow actually “beyond” the modern is simply silly.  Derrida, Foulcaut, Lyotard and company are nothing if not the progeny of modernity.  Only if “modernism” is clumsily equated with a radically Cartesian philosophy could we ever imagine that “postmodernism” takes us beyond it.

It seems to me that a more fruitful way to think about the cultural and philosophical shifts that have been taking place since the later 20th century is to view them under the rubric of (as suggested above), economics.  What are commonly identified as modernism and postmodernism are better understood as early and late capitalism.  In early capitalism, emerging as it does with the breakdown of Christendom and the rise of the Enlightenment self we have the beginnings of the creation of the capitalist subject: the isolated individual who produces and consumes.  The notion of the self that is informed by the political philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau is precisely the nascent self of capitalism.  This is the birth self-contained individual whose goal is to secure happiness, flourishing, and safety through production and acquisition of capital, making social arrangements by means of a social contract.

What is commonly called the postmodern, then is better understood simply as the flowering of the capitalist self.  The transition from stable, self-defined individuals to the ever-illusive, hypermobile self of postmodernity is simply one of maturation, not rupture.  The self-contained individual of the Enlightenment must inevitably come home to roost as the infinitely constructable self of contemporary western culture.  And this is nothing new.  In evaluating modernity, one should never forget that romanticism, just as much as rationalism is a thoroughly modern philosophical mood, both of which are birthed in the waters of capitalism.

The hipster who lives in a loft appartment (paid for by his parents) doing art and doing his best to be “authentic” and a “non-conformist” is but the current incarnation of the decadent romantic self.  Such cultural realities are not indications of a postmodern culture that is displacing the old, modern culture.  Rather they are just further examples of the way in which capitalism produces and sublimates its own antibodies.  The hipster artist who drinks organic espresso and local microbrews and carries a copy of Of Grammatology in his backpack is precisely the product of capitalist discipline.  The erratic identities and social fragmentation of contemporary youth culture in the west has nothing to do with a shift from modernism to postmodernism.  They are simply the products of global capitalist hegemony bearing themselves out. 

For the Christian theologian then, the order of the day is for us to stop yammering about “postmodernism” and start talking seriously about the demonic nature of the social relations engendered by the global capitalist order and how the church must manifest a different form of sociality from that of the world around us.  However, until we are able to talk openly about the fundamentally economic nature of how culture is constructed we will simply be spinning tales that serve no purpose other than to satiate our furtiveness about “kids today”.  Of course it is easier just to rabble-rouse about how these young punks are destroying our traditional values than to look seriously at how such cultural realities are constructed in the undulations of global capitalism.  Because if we do that then we may actually have to change the shape of our lives.  And that’s just far too self-implicating, isn’t it?


  1. Hill wrote:

    Well said, Halden.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  2. Global capitalism seems more and more like a quiet reversal of ancient Christianity – as you’ve said here: it even has its own apokatastasis!

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 1:47 pm | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    Halden, have you read Christ and Nothing, an article in First Things by David Hart? It’s quite good, and touches on some of the ideas you’ve brought up recently, and in a particularly accessible and compelling way (for Hart, at least).

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 2:25 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Yes, it’s a splendid article indeed.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  5. Additionally, those of us who relish making these sorts of observations are doubly in danger of casting ourselves (and being cast) in the mold of the “sharp-minded, non-conformist, outsider” who has a brilliant and supposedly objective viewpoint from which to evaluate the culture at large. This, too, has a fair bit of (post)modern cache. In making these very necessary sorts of observations and evaluations, we can take our place within the sea of non-conformists.

    Your call for a different mode of sociality is, perhaps, precisely what is needed. I hope for communities in which trust and openness outstrip the need to be hipper than the next hipster. Corporate confession and prayer are not bad places to start—just the sort of humbling practices that undermine the “mystique” we all try to build around ourselves.

    Thanks for your thoughts, as always.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 2:51 pm | Permalink
  6. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    I like this line the most: “The hipster artist who drinks organic espresso and local microbrews and carries a copy of Of Grammatology in his backpack is precisely the product of capitalist discipline.” Don’t forget the sushi!

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 3:37 pm | Permalink
  7. dan wrote:

    Jameson has been saying this for a long time. He’s also particularly dependent on Mandel’s understanding of capitalism’s development, so you may want to check of both of these fellows, if you haven’t already.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I have Jameson in the back of my mind here. Though I need to really tackle his book. It’s on my agenda.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  9. Eric Lee wrote:

    Hi Halden,

    Good post. If you’re interested, I’ve posted a kind of response over on the Church and Postmodern Culture blog here:

    Thought or Economics?



    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 4:43 pm | Permalink
  10. Matt Wiebe wrote:

    Just to be a bit contrarian, both this analysis and your Grammatology-toting-hipster (a bit of a straw man, at that) too easily conflate postmodern thought and this current culture which shall continue to elude naming but is also often called postmodern. Insofar as the former helps to unmask and falsify the modern/capitalistic idea of the autonomous individual, I think that postmodern theory can be helpful in critiquing late capitalism. But yes, there’s often a pretty low signal-to-noise ratio…

    Still, I think that you miss a key point when it comes to evangelicals yammering about postmodernism: they’ve tied their epistemological commitments (*cough* Chicago Statement *cough*) to the sunken ship of modernist foundationalism and have only just realized (as they’ve emerged from their self-imposed separation from the rest of society) that their ship is going down.

    But I too hope that we can get past that type of yammering and produce some fruitful critique of late capitalism and more seriously engage in the praxis of justice.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 6:17 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Matt, I wouldn’t say that Derrida is in some sense “the same” as the hipster who totes his Of Grammatology around. Indeed, Derrida and other so-called postmoderns can be put to a great deal of theological use. However, I question whether they can really be called “postmodern” in any meaningful sense (Derrida’s about as Kantian as they come if you ask me).

    That’s why I find the whole grammar of modern/postmodern unhelpful. It implies a sequence where none exists. We do better to look at the cultural formation of modernity as a whole through the lens of the rise and maturation of capitalism, finding helpful critics wherever we can.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 6:46 pm | Permalink
  12. Hill wrote:

    I think Matt brings up an important distinction which is very often glossed over in these discussions (at least amidst the yammering) which is that what Evangelicals call “postmodernism” usually refers to “all of that bad amoral stuff that’s happening these days.” This is, of course, very different from that line of philosophical inquiry beginning vaguely with Nietzsche and continuing on through Derrida, Foucault, etc. I think the former conception is the fruit of philosophical dilettantes getting in over their heads, but unfortunately the definition has stuck, particularly in the context of “evangelical cultural engagement.” It remains that many postmodern (rightly understood) thinkers actually account for the “hypermodernity” of the present state of the world. Historically, however, these thinkers have been atheists. The persistent force of much postmodern thought, when decoupled from the arbitrary presumptions of atheism which have accompanied it, can be seen in the thought of people like Milbank and Hart. This doesn’t bear directly on your post, but it makes me cringe to see people lamenting “postmodernism” when in fact, the thought of people like Nietzsche and Foucault is actually extremely helpful in understanding where we find ourselves and how to move forward. I’ve always thought of the atheist postmoderns, when they are at their best, as kind of the Aristotle’s of the modern world, with modern theology (at its best) hoping to recapitulate the work of St. Thomas.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 6:50 pm | Permalink
  13. Hill wrote:

    To add to what Halden just wrote, I think the terminology of modern/postmodernism can be helpful insofar as it refers “modernism” becoming aware of its groundlessness. I think too much is made of the terms, as you’ve suggested, but there is a difference between Descartes and Derrida, and it is precisely in this regard, a kind of consciousness of the futility of the Western philosophical project, which is the establishment of a free-standing, philosophically self-justifying secular space.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 6:54 pm | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:

    Indeed there is a “consciousness of the futility of the Western philosophical project” embodied in the works of many recent thinkers. However, I think such a consciousness was really present all along, it’s just coming home to roost on a more broad existential level after all the hell that went down in the 20th century. To my mind a chastened modernism is different from something that is truly post-modern.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 7:01 pm | Permalink
  15. Drew wrote:

    “I think the terminology of modern/postmodernism can be helpful insofar as it refers “modernism” becoming aware of its groundlessness.”

    And this is why I would argue that critical theory is far more useful as a philosophical too, if you will, on these grounds. The angst for me and the emergents is they assume we all know what they are talking about when they use the terms postmodern as some kind of cultural descriptor. I don’t even think emergents have a clue as far as I can tell from what I have heard and read from Jones or McLaren. In fact I see a lot of book sales and slavish obedience to capitalistic values and that’s about it! If it’s Baudrillard who is self-consciously and intentionally postmodern (now where he was more Marxist in his early days before all of that “Imploded!” for him), it is not helpful at all. Derrida was not the biggest fan of the postmodern label as far as I can tell. Lyotard wrote on the postmodern condition, but would not call himself a postmodernist. Yet Donna Haraway would. Emergents seem to cherry pick a line or two from a text here and there in order to be philosophically “hip”, but it sounds pretty empty to me. It’s sooo 10 years ago.

    I agree with Peter McLaren (not related to the “other” one) that postmodernism is about as anemic as a philosophical base can get for reconstructing much of anything or offering a pragmatic cultural critique. Habermas and Schrag among others simply offer much more that we can implement to change the conditions of the worlds in which we live. Combined with the neo-Marxist leanings of a Jameson or a McLaren the reconstruction of modern capitalism is far more palpable and pragmatically rooted.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 7:40 pm | Permalink
  16. Danny wrote:

    I was thinking the very same thing of this trendy post as the hipster you caricature. I do not think you would deny this, but this post can only be seen as a product of the same capitalist discourse that produces the hipster artist who drinks organic espresso and local microbrews and carries a copy of Of Grammatology in his backpack.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 9:54 pm | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    Well, I certainly wouldn’t deny that we are all embedded in capitalist discourse. That should be obvious. However, I’m not sure what your point is. Is there something different I should have said?

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 10:47 pm | Permalink
  18. Danny wrote:

    The point is quite simple I think. There seems to be a a self-referential problematic here between what appears to be the capitalistic holism in which the hipster is caught up and seemingly away out of this for you the asser of the hipster. What is this way?

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 11:21 pm | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    Noting I’ve written here should be taken to imply that I think I’m somehow not part of the capitalist problematic. Indeed the only reason I reflect on the subject is precisely because I see myself as part of the problem. I fail to see how that precludes trying to investigate and/or critique the phenomenon, though.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 11:27 pm | Permalink
  20. Danny wrote:

    Neither did I suggest that such a line of inquiry should be precluded. I want to believe and hope there is away out of the mire.

    Tuesday, February 26, 2008 at 12:14 am | Permalink
  21. vassilip wrote:

    though i’m fully with you about capitalism as the core problem of our time (i prefer to speak about bourgeois society as the antichrist), we cannot avoid the critique on post-modernism since a lot of inluential theologians of our time are inspired by post-modern ideas (in my theological realm–that of eastern orthodoxy–a great example is that of Zizioulas)

    Tuesday, February 26, 2008 at 2:00 am | Permalink
  22. Matt Wiebe wrote:

    To throw in a mildly tangential thought, I know that Jack Caputo says that he only bothers with the term “postmodern” when he wants to make some money. ;)

    I’m sure this isn’t happening at all with Emergent…

    Tuesday, February 26, 2008 at 7:28 am | Permalink
  23. adamsteward wrote:

    Danny, I think the point of pointing out here that capitalism engenders and assimilates it’s objections is that we cannot create a way out from the intellectual resources on hand. Those resources are always tainted by the current order. If there is a way out, it has to be an apocalyptic one, which comes to us as a gift from outside ourselves.

    Tuesday, February 26, 2008 at 12:51 pm | Permalink
  24. Danny wrote:

    This last sentence of Adam’s post simply needs unpacking. What does it mean? Of course, he is referring to particular interluctors that he does not mention, assuming that those familiar with such interluctors will simply get the gist of the gift that is outside of ourselves. When I read such one-liners I get the impression that those who speak them do not really know what they are talking about. Of course, I could be wrong, but such a statement sounds like someone is giving an impression of themselves more than anything. That they are reading certain things that the only the initiated will get. Why else, then, such an arcane and unexplained remark? It would be like me saying something like “legitimation crisis” with no explanation.

    I take Halden’s post as suggesting tacitly an alternative to the captialistic system that produces the hipster; otherwise how can we define critique? This does not imply by any means that his suggestions are somehow outside of or not a product of such a system. However, being inside suggest and outside otherwise there would be no inside. What I am interested in, then, is the conception of alterity that underlines this inquiry which is inherent to social change. I do not take capitalism to be something like Heidegger’s conception of being which always already precedes action. There is away out and I simply am interested in the substantive alternative (put some meat on the gift).

    Tuesday, February 26, 2008 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  25. Halden wrote:

    Well, Danny I’m intrigued. What substantive alternative do you think there is?

    This may not sell well, but I’m not convinced that there is an alternative to capitalism that we could effect. Like Adam, I think the only hope we have is an apocalyptic one, or more concretely, a hope in the Kingdom of God which is a transcendent reality, coming to us from outside ourselves. When he makes that claim he’s saying something distinctly eschatological.

    Tuesday, February 26, 2008 at 1:33 pm | Permalink
  26. Danny wrote:

    I think an apocalyptic one is right as well. Also I like the Kingdom of God idea. The question turns on how the Kingdom of God is brought about and here we get into a mess of alternatives.

    When John Milbank makes a claim that now only Christianity can provide a real social movement I take this to imply actions, practices, and a certain view of what can be accomplished here and now. When you say you are a pacifist this means to me much more than finding violence morally wrong (for instance, I would argue that you should not pay taxes that go to support the US war in Iraq).

    I suppose I am interested in theological action, how this takes shape, how it is to come about, etc. Why not get like minded people together, attempt to form a plan of action and move on it?

    Tuesday, February 26, 2008 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  27. adamsteward wrote:


    What are blogs good for if you have to unpack everything even in the comments, Danny? I really don’t think I’m stretching to assume that anybody who would be interested in reading a theology blog would know what I’m talking about when I say gift or apocalyptic. It’s more like saying “legitmation crisis” in the Reed cafeteria.

    Seriously, if we couldn’t use jargon, reading would be absurdly laborious, and no one would do it.

    Tuesday, February 26, 2008 at 2:02 pm | Permalink
  28. Danny wrote:

    Apocalyptic is a given (that is why I did not mention it), but the gift as you use it in connection with such an event is not. The point is not so much the use of jargon, but the reference point of the jargon. So when you use the term gift in connection with social change (since this is what you were responding to in my post) it does not at all seem generally apparent to me that even folks who read this blog would know what you are getting at.

    For instance, when Dallas Willard use the word intention in The Divine Conspiracy as a motif for his contemplative understanding of the spiritual disciplines, would Edmund Husserl notion of intentionality come to the mind of most theologians? I would venture to say most likely not, even though Willard is specifically using it in a Husserlian manner. So when you use the word gift plenty of theologians (consider the Dallas Seminary trained type) would not think Derrida even, though, it is his initial conversation regarding the gift (via Milbank) that underlies your association of it with apocalypse. Do you think someone in the M.A. in philosophy at Talbot seminary would know what your talking about? I would not be surprised if the vast majority did not.

    Regardless, the point is that such language is an unnecessary distraction unless explained (you grant Reed kids to much, keep in mind most of the students are 18 or 19 and I would venture to say many could go four years here without every hearing such a term or not knowing what it means unless they take a class in which it is explained).

    Tuesday, February 26, 2008 at 3:01 pm | Permalink
  29. adamsteward wrote:

    Danny, all I mean to say is that we don’t get past capitalism by criticizing it. We get past it by being the church. The church exists as a gift. We did not create it. It creates us. God created it. Too many people talk about that for there to be any need for name-dropping.

    Tuesday, February 26, 2008 at 3:16 pm | Permalink
  30. Jon Stock wrote:


    I’m late to the game, but nice post. I suspect (with you) that Jameson is an essential part of the conversation. Allow me to also suggest Chales Jenks little book on postmodernism, where – if I remember – correctly he makes the argument that much of what we call post-modern is actually late-modern (he is primarily using the lense of architecture).
    I also wonder if “technology” should be a part of the conversation. What are the relationships between the technological and the economic – how does this affect “thought.” (What comes first the printing press or the reformation? The internet or postmodern evangelicalism? What is it that drove these technological developments).
    Regarding concrete ecclesial practices that are inherently critical of capitalism, one might say baptism and eucharist – but that would need some unpacking wouldn’t it. In a less ethereal sense, the practices of generosity and hospitality can be wonderfully subversive.

    Wednesday, February 27, 2008 at 10:15 am | Permalink
  31. Halden wrote:

    Yes, I think technology certainly belongs in this discussion. Ellul is helpful here as well, I think. And ecclesial practices are certainly where such discussions must land if they are to be more than just words.

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Wednesday, February 27, 2008 at 12:06 pm | Permalink
  32. theseus09 wrote:

    The premise that Capitalism fuels the various fractious diaspora of identity is not in of itself a problem. That the hipster is a product of Capitalism ignores that the free exploration of religion is also a product of Capitalism. Christianity has been a controversial religion since its inception, and remains to be so. It is then no surprise that Christianity thrives in countries that adopt a market economy. Such economies generally tend to be accepting of a plurality of ideas, philosophies and people. It is the ability that converts are free to seek out the good on their own free will (ignoring existentialist arguments against free will) that affords Christianity its resilience to endure. And it is only in liberal countries that Christianity is allowed to fully explore the implications of the faith. In any other political system, the post-modernist can couch their philosophy as a rejection of the state or the church. It is in Capitalism that the hipsters, charlatans, hedonists, and nihilists must bear the cost of their philosophies, and confront implication of their spiritual bankruptcy. When philosophies, ideas, moral codes are competing for the layperson’s ears, the truth emerges as a cohesive and practicable philosophy, that has value for its practitioners. Time and again Christianity has proven itself to provide meaning to the struggles of the layperson. It is in Capitalism that Christianity finds harbor, albeit alongside mocha drinking hipsters.

    Sunday, February 8, 2009 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

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