ARH 220H, feminism

Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Self

Let’s start off with the basics- what even are modernism and postmodernism? provides a definition for modernism below:

“Modernism, in the arts, a radical break with the past and the concurrent search for new forms of expression. Modernism fostered a period of experimentation in the arts from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, particularly in the years following World War I.
In an era characterized by industrialization, rapid social change, and advances in science and the social sciences (e.g., Freudian theory), Modernists felt a growing alienation incompatible with Victorian morality, optimism, and convention. New ideas in psychology, philosophy, and political theory kindled a search for new modes of expression.”

Modernism is a trust in Truth, Reality, Reason, and Logic. All of these concepts are objective, and can be studied to reveal more about them. Progress is trusted and celebrated, as are the Sciences. Meanwhile, postmodernism is described by as such:

“Postmodernism as a philosophical movement is largely a reaction against the philosophical assumptions and values of the modern period of Western (specifically European) history … many of the doctrines characteristically associated with postmodernism can fairly be described as the straightforward denial of general philosophical viewpoints that were taken for granted during the 18th-century Enlightenment…”

There are several major viewpoints of postmodernism listed as well, which have been shortened for legibility and clear communication:

  • Reality is a social construct, and there is no objective Truth.
  • Reason and logic are only valid within their contextual cultural traditions in intellect.
  • Science and technology are viewed skeptically, as they led to the advancements that caused so much unnecessary death and oppression before, during, and since World War II.
  • All aspects of human psychology are socially determined.
  • Language is not objective either – all words’ meanings are construed through relative meaning in comparison to other words.

Overall, postmodernism is not a continuation of modernism, but rather a skeptical response to it. Meta-narratives such as Religion, History, Science, etc. were rejected, as a “universal truth” seemed impossible. Instead, culturally relative and ever-changing ideals were more likely to the postmodernist philosophy.

So how do these ideologies relate to the concept of the “self”? What even is the “self”?

1. a person or thing referred to with respect to complete individuality.
2. a person’s nature, character, etc.
3. personal interest.
4. In terms of Philosophy:

  1. the ego; that which knows, remembers, desires, suffers, etc., as contrasted withthat known, remembered, etc.
  2. the uniting principle, as a soul, underlying all subjective experience.

Obtained from

In the modernist view, there is a singular self, unchanging, unwavering, constant, and needs only to be found or discovered. However, in the postmodernist view, the self is formed through social interactions, fluid, dynamic, much like how Pocahontas describes the river in her titular Disney film: “You can’t step in the same river twice; The water’s always changing, always flowing”.

The modernist view of the self is very much an enlightenment ideal; even in today’s culture we tell others that we can truly be happy once we “find ourselves”. This process is never really fully explained, as there is no singular way to find oneself in today’s culture, as we are constantly bombarded with ideas of who we should be and how we should be them. Experimentation, however, is typically a common thread among all techniques. If you try out many different things, such as hairstyles, clothing styles, bedroom color schemes, areas of study in school, etc., you’ll eventually find one that “fits” you. Once you do this for all aspects of yourself, you’ll have a pretty clear view on who you are as a person. One issue with this is that it relies on a trial-and-error process. Trying to find a perfect fit for any and every aspect of your life and personality can be extremely taxing, especially time-wise.

So what about the postmodernist view? With the idea of the postmodernist self, there’s no singular true self nor a need to set out to “find” that true self. Instead, it’s more of an acceptance that your personality, beliefs, likes and dislikes, desires, etc. are constantly in flux due to influences by the cultures and societies surrounding you. Growing up, the way you were raised by your parents would influence who you are, rather than it shaving down the persona around you until you got to the core of your being. Seeing advertisements for products and beauty trends would influence how you see yourself and how you want to look, rather than it being an innate part of who you are and how you would best express that. The issue with this is that it’s a bit saddening and demotivating. What’s the point of trying to change your look to feel better, if you’ll just end up being influenced to change your mind by society anyway?

In today’s society and culture, I’ve come to believe in a mix of the two, rather than strictly one or the other. I believe that there is, in some amount, a singular true self for each person. Otherwise, since we all have a very similar exposure to advertisements and cultures, how have we not all become the same person with the same personality? Yet, at the same time, that singular self within me today is not the same one as when I was younger. I had a very limited view on the world, and so my idea of my true self was much more limited than it is today. I had no idea that gender and sex were separate concepts, or that any sexuality other than heterosexuality even existed. I hadn’t even ever experienced snow. So how would I really know who I was in the truest way possible if I hadn’t experienced more of the world around me first?

And so, I believe that there is a true self, and that we can all come to find it, but it can be affected and revealed to be different based on your experiences and knowledge of the world and cultures around you.

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