Brunner and Postmodernism

Presentation to the ICBI
March 2004
By Barrett Pashak

Just as Brunner explains Christ by contextualizing him, it is important to understand Brunner's own time and place in order to arrive at a full understanding of his importance. To this end, I recently read Modris Eksteins' book Rites of Spring: the great war and the birth of the modern age. The book describes the spirit of the age during which Brunner was writing. Eksteins does not really add anything to Brunner's own analysis of the period. The value of Eksteins' work lies rather in its argument for the period's special place in human history.

Of course one can argue, and with good reason, that Brunner was well aware of the unique importance of the times in which he lived. The point is that historical analysis leads us to the same conclusions now that he reached then. In a word, history confirms Brunner's assessment of his own times.

Bearing out Brunner's fundamental insight is Eksteins' central thesis that the twentieth century can be understood as a crisis of elite and mass. Now, Eksteins' own understanding of the dynamic between mass and elite is shallow and confused when compared with that of Brunner. Nevertheless, he has hit on the right theme. Eksteins argues that prior to the First World War modernism was the province of a small elite that was in conflict with the traditionalist masses, but that the war began the process of turning the masses into modernists. This is a compelling hypothesis. In fact, understood from a Brunnerian perspective, it provides a wealth of insight.

One could say that, in this light, Brunner represents the prewar modernist elite. As such, he perceived the dangerous instability of the traditionalist mass culture. He saw the attempt of the traditionalist leadership to keep control over the increasingly disaffected masses. He also understood that the crisis of this culture would result in the masses breaking definitively with traditionalism. The end of traditionalism would not lead, however, to a golden age, but merely to attempts to control the masses through means other than appeals to tradition. The accompanying schema is an attempt to represent these developments.

Of particular interest is the postmodernist pseudo-elite. This group currently dominates cultural discourse. It attempts to control the masses through means other than appeals to tradition. Ultimately, it resolves itself into a system of cultural control based on opposition not only to tradition, but to any foundational claims. This anti-foundationalism thus also distinguishes itself from the modernist elite, who argue for a refoundationalism, and from the contemporary masses, who abide in a state of non-foundationalism.

How this plays itself out remains to be seen, but it is significant that the pseudo-elite is now effectively distinct from the masses. Therein lies the importance of the crisis of the twentieth century, of which Brunner surely shall remain the prophet.