Human Potential Movement to Post-Modernism to Hypocrisy

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

I am quoting at length here from Pauline Marie Rosenau’s book Post-modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1992):

The post-modern individual is relaxed and flexible, oriented toward feelings and emotions, interiorization, and holding a “be-yourself” attitude. S/he is an active human being constituting his/her own social reality, pursuing a personal quest for meaning but making no truth claims for what results. S/he looks to fantasy, humor, the culture of desire, and immediate gratification. Preferring the temporary over the permanent, s/he is contented with a “live and let live” (in the present) attitude. More comfortable with the spontaneous than the planned, the post-modern individual is also fascinated with tradition, the antiquated (the past in general), the exotic, the sacred, the unusual, the place of the local rather than the general or the universal. Post-modern individuals are concerned with their own lives, their particular personal satisfaction, and self-promotion. Less concerned with old loyalties and modern affiliations such as marriage, family, church and nation, they are more oriented toward their own needs.

The post-modern individual, shying away from collective affiliation and communal responsibility in modern terms, considers them a hindrance to personal development and a threat to privacy (Bauman 1987). Modern community is said to be oppressive; it demands intimacy, giving, self-sacrifice, and mutual service. Inasmuch as it is “reasonable,” it also is “domineering and humiliating.” Post-modern community is possible, but it must be based in “community without unity” (Corlett 1989:6-7). Only in this condition can it be considered acceptable to the post-modern individual.

The post-modern individual is characterized by an absence of strong singular identity. This step-child of Freud, a subject characterized by fragmentation, lacks much self-awareness and makes no claim of self-consciousness. S/he is a floating individual with no distinct reference points or parameters (Lipovetsky 1983: 60, 80, 125). What the modern subject characterized as indifference, the post-modern individual calls tolerance. The modern subject may be politically conscious, but the post-modern individual is self-conscious. The post-modern individual favors dispersion over concentration, the unrehearsed rather than the carefully organized. S/he emphasizes choice, free expression, individual participation, private autonomy, personal liberation, without any need of universalistic claims or ideological consistency. The post-modern individual seeks freedom (from coercion by others) and liberation (from self-denial). S/he relinquishes all normative assumptions, any possibility that one value or moral norm can ever be demonstrated to be better than any other. The post-modern individual is wary of general rules, comprehensive norms, hegemonic systems of thought.

Post-modern individuals are comfortable with personalized politics. These views are characteristically free of totalizing global projects such as those of socialism. They are skeptical about the intentions and motivations of committed activists. Despite a general political disaffection, the post-modern individual may from time to time affirm struggles against the state and the system. S/he is open to participation and recruitment in diverse and contradictory causes and social movements with fleeting existences. This is not surprising because the post-modern individual is comfortable with multiple realities, without requiring coherence (Lipovetsky 1983). And this makes sense given the post-modern individual’s fluctuating, ever-changing personal identity. (pp. 53-54)

Set aside, just for a moment, that this sounds like a description of a product of the human potential movement, which arose in the wake of the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s, as participants felt unable to counter the most powerful military in the world and a political system which was more than willing to employ it against them. (And indeed Rosenau suggests in a footnote that “the post-modern individual emerged as a philosophical and intellectual construct in the 1960s,” albeit in France.)

Somewhere around the end of the second paragraph, where she talks about what is acceptable, it is clear that this is no longer a description but a prescription. And it is completely contradicted in the last sentences of third paragraph. I should also point out that she attributes this view to those she calls “skeptical” post-modernists, whom she distinguishes from “affirmative” post-modernists and that she says flatly that she is writing her analysis of post-modernism from a modernist perspective. In addition, post-modernists only introduced their “individual” when social scientists pushed back on their denial of the “subject.”

Rosenau’s analysis of post-modernism is amazing. She claims she writes this book neither to praise nor to condemn post-modernism, but what emerges, at least so far, is a devastating critique. And it would seem we have little choice but to rely on analyses such as this, because post-modernists themselves see no importance or even possibility of communicating clearly what they mean. But most incredibly of all, she reveals—perhaps without intention—how post-modernists who claim to avoid judgment are in fact extremely ideological, as is apparent in these paragraphs.

Post-modernism is hypocrisy. That’s all there is to it.