Humanism, Postmodernism and the Flight from Modernist Culture

N. J. Rengger

Bowerdean Briefings, London, 1996.

If you wish to plunge into the theoretical thicket of postmodernity, this book may be useful. It shouldn't take long to get through, either, with only 112 large-print pages, although at almost 10p per page you may prefer to read slowly.

Rengger discusses in turn high humanism, pluralism, modernism, postmodernism and anti-humanism. Armed with these categories, the reader can then contemplate the debates about multiculturalism, where high humanists might ally with modernists against pluralists, postmodernists and anti-humanists, and other controversies (e.g. in art and architecture) where humanists and postmodernists gang up against modernists.

Here's the state we seem to be in:

"Modernist architecture and Modernist 'contemporary music' are often said to be unpopular with occupiers and audiences and even with an increasing number of practitioners. Nonetheless, it is still the 'orthodoxy' and maintains a powerful grip on many of the groups that dominate contemporary culture in many separate fields. However, the alternatives to it appear to waver between a pluralist 'anything goes' attitude, which can result in some unlikely aesthetic pairings, including the effective collapse of the distinction, central to high humanism, between high and low culture, a postmodern aesthetic sensibility which is often hardly more popular than Modernism, or a return to a traditionalism in art and culture that merely puts us back in the context out of which Modernism grew in the first place and which risks killing the contemporary arts by mummifying them."

(This last sentence is probably worth about 4p by itself.)

Rengger suggests that the "crisis of European culture" depicted by both Modernism and the postmodernist response presuppose a notion of the centrality of humanism which is overstated. To this extent, they share the same narrow misreading of culture, and a fundamental attachment to humanism itself.

As for pluralism, it has a parasitic quality, in that it registers "difference" without being able to validate proposed accommodations of difference unless it collapses into some form of humanism, modernism or postmodernism. (I left out anti-humanism, but who cares?)

Rengger's view is that "Western culture is in a bad way, certainly, but it is not 'wrecked'".



Paul Taylor 2001