16 May 2012

Modern and postmodern cultures, and individuality

Here's a half-baked thought that I recently posted on my church's Unauthorized Theology Pub (a Google Group).  I'm not sure how solid my reasoning is, but my friend Maria wanted to refer to it online, so I'm posting it here, too.  Enjoy, and feel free to push back.

I was thinking - and a lot of this thinking came (as good things so often do) out of a conversation with my friend Maranda - about "modern" vs. "postmodern" Western culture.  I'm using those terms in an extremely colloquial sense - not at all an a technical or academic sense - and not really in a sense that has direct relation to philosophy or literature.  More in the way that "emerging church" folks tend to casually toss the terms around as descriptors for the cultural shift that (a lot of us think) has really been gathering steam in the Western world in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  Just for the sake of argument, let's suppose that those terms are adequate to designate the "pre-shift" and "post-shift" flavors of Western culture.  If you haven't been in on this kind of "modern vs. postmodern" cultural conversation, then this is probably not going to make much sense to you.

So an interesting aspect of this particular cultural sparring match is that both "sides" seem to think that the other "side" is scandalously individualistic.  It's dogma among folks who consider themselves "postmodern" that individualism (at the expense of community) is one of the hallmarks of modernity, and that "modern" culture glorifies it in the forms of things like consumerism, self-sufficiency, suburban isolation, unlimited entertainment choice, judgmentalism, etc.  On the other hand, many "moderns" regard "postmoderns" as selfish brats who glorify their own personal pursuits and passions at the expense of any concern for the common good.

How can this be?  Are they both right?  Well, pretty much, IMHO.  I really don't think that the modern => postmodern shift has much to do, in itself, with a shift from individualism to communalism or vice-versa.  Rather, it's a difference in how community is conceived, and that difference is both one of scale, and one of direction.

Regarding scale (to vastly oversimplify), "modern" favors big fishes and big ponds.  It favors the successful individual in the large-scale, institutional setting (the nation, the corporation, the school board, the megachurch).  "Small fish" individualism is promoted as well, as long as it's a) within the well-worn channels (both network and cable) ;-) carved out and prescribed by the big fishes and the institutions, or b) the sort of minor "safety valve" protest that lets off steam without actually threatening the institutional systems (like when the Architect created the One to keep the Matrix in balance).

By contrast, "postmodern" favors small fishes and small ponds.  The most significant community is the immediate community - the circle of friends, the "tribe", the club, the house church, the meetup, the cohort, the class or workgroup.  Small communities claim the ability to set their own values and priorities, and individual "small fishes" are encouraged to explore their own individual journey and passions as long as it's in harmony with the values and needs of the community - and often with little regard for the standards of the larger, institutional systems.

Regarding "direction", I just mean that in "modern" cultures, "community" is defined through membership in top-down hierarchical institutions.  In "postmodern" cultures, "community" is more likely a flat organization of equals, horizontally networked with other similar groups.

As I write that stuff out, a lot of it sounds like gross oversimplification, among other forms of egregious BS.  But my whole point is:  I really don't feel like one type of culture is more individualistic or more community-oriented than the other.  It's just a matter of how "community" is defined, and therefore which "community's" standards the individual is expected to live in harmony with.  The nation, or the neighborhood?  The church denomination, or the neo-monastic group house?  The statewide school board, or the democratic classroom?  The Fortune 500 company, or the open-source development workgroup?  Etc.  In many ways, individual freedom can be much greater - and much more encouraged - in a "postmodern" paradigm.

So in many ways, we "postmodern" people really are selfish brats.


I think the image, from the seminal film Monty Python's Life of Brian, is copyright Sony Pictures, all rights reserved.  Go buy or rent their awesome movie.


Gary Glass said...

The early church was more postmodern in your sense I think.

I think this is a dynamic playing out in the culture at large beyond the church. Playing out in the sense of evolving toward a new synthesis. Globalization, the Internet, mass communications, etc., enable and support large scale institutions, but they also create new possibilities for small scale institutions.

It's a brave new world.

Anonymous said...

I suspect "small/near/exclusive" versus "big/wide/inclusive" is in constant interplay. If one must define a start, it is small. Then the network grows bigger and bigger to the maximum size the existing ecosystem supports. Then the ecosystem changes and that scale is no longer supportable and there's a crumbling transition where "big" tries to stay in existence against all odds and new (and old) versions of "small" begin to be viable. Naturally, it's in hindsight we can make those judgments for sure.

I think the change to the ecosystem in respect to the church was communication. As individuals are more able to circumvent the hierarchical communication network of the church (e.g. talk directly with someone over the Internet) then the flaws of that system (both the accidental "telephone-game" errors and deliberate grabs for power) become glaringly obvious. The hierarchical communication network cannot fix itself such that it is as good as the best of direct communication.

Case in point, the ideas you express in this blog post could never accurately spread through the church.

Steve Hayes said...

Modernity embraces both individualism and collectivism, both of which emerged in the modern era. Peter the Great wanted to modernise Russia, and the Bolsheviks tried to complete the job.

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