It’s an open secret that postmodernism is dead. Most people say “dying,” out of respect for the old king. But the position is vacant.
I’m seeing changes, big changes, and lots of them. Changes in technology, art, the economy, and what people want in life. No single one of them is anything new; they’ve all been talked about before. But taken together they establish a new zeitgeist. More than that, a new paradigm.
Chances are, if you’ve found your way to MIPitR, you’re living this new paradigm. I call it expostmodernism.
This is a new word, and I’m going to put some new spin on it. That’s because there are two big problems with the new paradigm: it hasn’t been well defined, and it’s never had a good name. I’ve heard the label post-postmodernism, but one of the coiners of that term, Tom Turner, advised to “embrace post-Postmodernism—and pray for a better name.” Post-postmodernism implies a linear trajectory, as if the newest developments are simply an outgrowth of the old. But they’re not; they’re in solid defiance of what came before. The 23rd century will be divorced from the modernisms, and today is the breakup.
In the Oughts, another vision of this paradigm was put forward under the label “digimodernism,” named with the idea that digital technology is the driving force behind it. The word itself sounds funny (all those soft consonants), but it’s also an oversimplification. Digital technology is one important factor in the new era, but powerful political and economic forces also shape the worldwide change.
Understanding these forces is vital because they’re shaping our world. I was born in 1981, the final year of Generation X. I’ve often wished I could have been born either 10 years earlier, so I could’ve been an 80s punk, or 10 years later, so I could’ve been a digital native.
But the truth is, I straddle two eras, and the view is amazing. ExPoMod is not just an academic concept, it’s a description of the key elements of the movements changing our lives. Understanding ExPoMod is understanding what those movements and trends have in common, which makes it possible to predict what strategies will be successful in the coming decades.
The purpose of this article is to lay bare the essential elements of ExPoMod and aid in that understanding. I’ll look at the historic context that has created expostmodernism, define exactly what expostmodernism is, and give examples of it at work across different spheres of culture. Finally, in true MIPitR style, I’ll close with some open questions for all of you to chew on—and take to the forums to discuss.
To understand expostmodernism means looking back at the earlier modern paradigms: the Enlightenment, modernism, and postmodernism. Each of these shifts in thinking was caused by (and led to) important changes in the way humans view their existence, and the strategies they use to cope with it.
The Enlightenment was the start of the modern age. As philosophers were faced with new and intriguing data from around the globe, they turned to an empirical method of investigation. The scientific method was born and the budding sciences gave tremendous new tools to humanity, launching new economies with all the luxuries and miseries that came with them. At the same time, increasing contact between remote cultures, often with widely different worldviews, catalyzed a new questioning of traditional ideas and explanations. Theology, theories of government, and even ethics all came under scrutiny. Ideas born in this time period rule the world to the present day.
The Enlightenment also birthed new sources of authority. Democratic government was viewed as more legitimate than monarchy, free capitalism promised an equal opportunity for every man, and science laid claim to objective certainty. These authorities drove humanity squarely toward modernism.
Modernism can be described as the mechanization of human hope. Steam engines, global shipping and communication, factories, education for all gave society a new shape. Economies reached scales never before contemplated. With these advances it was expected that the human condition would improve. With more wealth total, and more opportunities for individuals to earn some of it, a better standard of living was guaranteed. Right?
The promise of modernism was partially true. New medicines, utilities, and luxuries undeniably changed the standard of living. But two great blind spots undermined this shift:
- The impact of these advances is only as good as the social programs in place to ensure equal access, and
- The structures needed to create these advances have a standard-of-living cost of their own, which may outweigh their benefits.
Thus, millions of individuals labored without improving their overall happiness. In some cases, the social cost of modernism was high: the pursuit of employment led people to move far away from their families, accept horrible living conditions, and lose access to sources of nourishment such as nature, cultural traditions, and supportive family structures.
The underbelly of modernism was a contagious sense of alienation, and it is that alienation that prepared the way for postmodernism. But alienation had been humanity’s constant companion throughout the Gilded Age and had never been enough on its own. It was not until the moment after World War II that conditions were set.
These conditions varied from country to country. In North America, a burgeoning middle class confronted the fact that alienation was still a part of their lives. Money, security and luxury had not solved it.
In much of Europe, the wreckage of modernism was undeniable. The promises of the Modern Age had not been fulfilled. Neither money, nor security, nor luxury had been delivered.
Postmodernism reigned from the 50s through the 80s. Although the modern standards of democracy, wealth, and science never ostensibly went away, all were now viewed with deep distrust. Each would be deconstructed over and over. Each would turn out to be built on unprovable assumptions rather than objective truth. Thus, postmodernism declared that truth was relative. And since no culture or way of life could be the right one, the idea of pluralism rose to prominence by its side.
And then there was cynicism. For more than 40 years the threat of nuclear apocalypse hung over the earth. As a constant possibility, beyond the control of the ordinary citizen, it colored art, dialogue, and attitude. This threat, along with distrust of authority and certainty, made cynicism the trademark of postmodernism.
But now all that has changed.
WHAT IS EXPOMOD
The attitudes at the core of postmodernism have slipped, and expostmodernism has arrived. Like those before it, this paradigm is built partly on defiance of the failings of its predecessor, and partly on tremendous forces of change in technology and culture.
The force most people want to talk about is social media and wireless devices, and they are often treated as the only causes of the culture shift happening right now. But that’s a very narrow view. I see a number of major factors driving ExPoMod, including:
- A new boogieman. The Cold War ended in the 90s. Nuclear attacks still pose a risk, but are unlikely to wipe out entire continents. Terror attacks are the new spook, and while devastating, they tend to be localized. When the world is not in danger of ending, there is less motivation for cynicism and apathy.
- The maturing of the internet. In the early 90s, the savviest internet users were teens. The internet was a place of dubious information and anonymity. In the Oughts those users grew up and harnessed the internet professionally. Now people use their real names and information is as accurate (or more accurate) as offline sources.
- The depreciation of privacy. Throughout the postmodern period there was a concern for privacy of personal information. Only government and corporations had the resources to collect and use repositories of personal information, and they weren’t trusted. Since the late 90s there has been increasing value to putting one’s personal information online, and increasing difficulty in keeping it private. With real advantages to sharing personal information, privacy has become a polarized issue and more people are comfortable giving it up.
- A new type of war. The wars of the last 20 years tend to kill thousands or tens of thousands of people, a sharp contrast to the millions of dead in the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam. Nationalism is less polarized, and discussion of war is more openly couched in economic terms.
- Economic shift. As the housing market fails, people find less security in staying in one location. More people take advantage of the ease of travel and communication, and they spend money differently. Sectors that delivery creativity, information, technology, and experiences are seeing growth.
- Change in education. As the price of college soars and more jobs require Master’s degrees, people increasingly seek ways to self-employ or work creatively. Many people prefer focused training through workshops, conferences and online materials to be preferable to formal institutions of higher learning. With the breadth and depth of information available online, this strategy has become a viable alternative to college for launching a successful career.
Together these factors shape a multi-generational move toward new beliefs, views and lifestyles. The single most notable shift is the decline of alienation. Alienation, the banner trait of postmodernism, occurs when an individual feels their existence has no point—either because their work provides no satisfaction, or because they don’t feel like they fit in with their community.
For much of the modern/postmodern period, there was no easy solution for alienation. Only so many jobs were available, and moving or traveling was difficult without wealth. The average person could not pick up and change their situation without taking extreme personal risk.
In popular narrative this led to an iconic lifestyle arc: the youth who is rebellious and individualistic, but eventually settles down, gets a job, and does what society expects.
The new narrative is a radically different arc: the individual who was settled, had a job, and realizes they can leave it behind to follow their passion—successfully.
Now, when someone feels unsatisfied in life, they have more options than just dressing in black and acting out. (Joining a tiny group of outsiders is so last decade.) That’s because we all have access to a bigger pool—if people in your own community don’t share your views or interests, you can have meaningful contact with people all around the world who do. Finding them, collaborating with them, and forming groups is easier than ever before.
Beyond social satisfaction, career satisfaction has gone worldwide as well. With relatively little training or investment, almost any individual can physically move (either to a single new location, or for a series of travels) and maintain a comfortable standard of living.
The individual is no longer reliant on large systems like colleges and corporations to attain success. Or rather, the individual can choose to rely on a different large system, the cloud. Since the cloud is as close to an endless, free resource as humanity has ever seen, that is a sustainable switch for the foreseeable future.
The lifting of alienation is the single defining factor of expostmodernism. The creative individual is no longer engaged in a lone romantic struggle against the weight of society: they have become the leading edge of society.
This change affects the whole machine. A renewed sense of hope pervades avant-garde dialogue. Spiritual pursuits are back on the menu of what’s acceptable, albeit as highly individualized journeys without the old structures. Pluralism has given way to tribalism. Cynicism is out, and irony is in.
This is the zeitgeist of the expostmodern, and it shows no signs of quitting. And what it means? What it means is this: we live in the most exciting moment in 60 years. What if you had been on the New York art scene in the final days of World War II, when Jackson Pollock changed the definition of art? Or if you were a university student in 1637, when René Descartes invented the scientific method? These moments lit fires around the world.
Right now it’s happening again. If you are reading this, you are on the scene. You are a digital citizen in 2011, and a new era is mid-launch before you.
- Long-tail marketing, which makes niche markets profitable by leveraging online sales.
- The movement to work on a self-employed or consultant basis, rather than for a company, or to develop a passive income stream and not work at all.
- Increased emphasis on creativity and individuality in business, making personal branding as important than product branding.
- A shift to artists not starving (or trying to “hit it big”) but successfully marketing and selling their own art.
- The authorpreneurism movement, leveraging digital media to make self-publishing more viable than publishing houses.
- The 1,000 true fans model, which applies long-tail marketing techniques to individual musicians and artists making a living.
- I’m developing expostmodern spirituality at Rogue Priest, based on bravery and living adventurously.
- Secular Humanism is increasingly developing to serve expostmodern spiritual needs.
- Neopaganism led the way in refusing both dogmatic doctrine and postmodern cynicism, and developing pro-individualistic religious practices.
- TED talks provide free access to speakers more influential than most universities can boast.
- Online resources like The Personal MBA provide the same knowledge presented in college courses at much lower cost.
- Peter Thiel is paying students to quit college and start businesses.
- Leading edge schools are focusing on creativity and collaboration in the classroom.
- Minimalism is the original expostmodern lifestyle, forsaking consumerism for personal freedom.
- Location independence is a cornerstone of expostmodernism, relying on technology to work and live anywhere.
- Socializing frequently means forming a collective or “tribe” of like-minded individuals from around the world, often via Twitter.
SOME OPEN QUESTIONS TO MOST INTERESTING PERSONS
To me, the collaborative and social nature of expostmodernism is one of its greatest traits. It was a gradual but eye-opening discovery as I realized that diverse parts of my life, online and offline, are all part of a single shift in how the world thinks. But I’m interested in learning how it looks from other points of view—and I think these questions will get the conversation started.
- Is my description of expostmodernism accurate, or is there something vital I’ve left out? Am I misconstruing the current cultural climate?
- The historical context I’ve given, and the description of ExPoMod itself, are largely rooted in the American experience. Do things look vastly different from other countries’ points of view? How about from other first-world nations? Are other cultures developing in a different direction?
- There are other theories about the successor to postmodernism than just mine. To save space I didn’t discuss each of them here—but does a different philosopher capture it better than I have?
- Am I making too much of this? Or are we indeed watching the dawn of a new paradigm?
If there’s enough interest, I would like to draft a white paper on ExPoMod and expand the dialogue further.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Drew Jacob is a priest of many gods, a student of human nature, and an adventurer. He writes about bravery, spiritual discovery and the pursuit of the Heroic Life at Rogue Priest. You can contact him on the MIPitR Forum, here.