Postmodern Perl

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NOTE: This is a heavily abridged (think "excerpts") version of Larry Wall's speech at Linuxworld in 1999. For the full version, visit My comments are interspersed. If you would like to add your own thoughts, please log in and use the "discussion" tab at the top of this page to comment.

Nowadays people are actually somewhat jaded by the term "postmodern". Well, perhaps jaded is an understatement. Nauseated might be more like it. But, anyway, I still distinctly remember the first time I heard it back in the '70s. I think my jaw fell and bounced off the floor several times. To me it was utterly inconceivable that anything could follow modern. Isn't the very idea of "modern" always associated with the ideas "new" and "now"?

The idea was so inconceivable to me that it took me at least ten seconds to figure it out. Or to think I'd figured it out. As a musician, the pat answer occurred to me almost immediately. I was familiar with the periods of music: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern. Obviously, if there were to be a period of music following the Modern, it would have to be called something other than Modern. And postmodern is as good a name as any, especially since it's a bit of a joke on the ordinary meaning of modern. Obviously the Modern period was misnamed.

But, as I said, that was the pat answer. The Modern period was not misnamed. True, the ordinary word "modern" is associated with "new" and "now", but the historical period we call Modern chose to associate itself with the "new" and the "now" in such a deep way that we actually see the breakdown of the whole notion of periods. The Modern period is the period that refuses to die. The world is now an odd mix of the Modern and the postmodern. Oddly, it's not just because the Modern refuses to die, but also because the postmodern refuses to kill the Modern. But then, the postmodern refuses to kill anything completely.

This understanding ties modernism and postmodernism together -- which in turn
challenges us to live continually in shared space, rather than ignoring, debunking, 
and attacking one another, or alternatively, abandoning or waiting for one another
to "die off."
I also like the image here of postmodernism refusing to kill modernism.  It hearkens 
to notions of non-violence, passive resistance, and vulnerability -- all things 
befitting a Christ-like demeanor, and in contrast to the modernist drives toward 
conquest, control, and killing off anything that deviates from the established path.

For example, it's been several decades now since a certain set of Bible translations came out, and you'll notice a pattern: the New English Bible, the New American Standard Bible, and the New International Version, to name a few. It's really funny. I suspect we'll still be calling them "new this" and "new that" a hundred years from now. Much like New College at Oxford. Do you know when New College was founded. Any guesses? New College was new in 1379.

I think that what's going on here is that our culture has undergone a basic shift, one that is actually healthy. It used to be that we evaluated everything and everyone based on reputation or position. And the basic underlying assumption was that we all had to agree whether something (or someone) was good or bad. Most of us actually used to believe in monoculturalism. Although even back then, we didn't really practice it. And in fact, you could argue that the whole point of Modernism was to break our cultural assumptions. We could argue all day long about whether postmodernism came about because Modernism succeeded or because it failed. As a postmodern myself, I take both sides. To some extent.

This would bother a Modernist, because a Modernist has to decide whether this is true OR that is true. The Modernist believes in OR more than AND. Postmodernists believe in AND more than OR. In the very postmodern Stephen Sondheim musical, _Into the Woods_, one of the heroines laments, "Is it always or, and never and?" Of course, at the time, she was trying to rationalize an adulterous relationship, so perhaps we'd better drop that example. Well, hey. At least we can use Perl as an example. In Perl, AND has higher precedence than OR does. There you have it. That proves Perl is a postmodern language.

Wow.  This plays out hugely in church -- Exclusivity (OR) vs. Inclusivity (AND), for 
example.  Also in scripture debates:  Multiple possible interpretations (AND) vs. 
"one true interpretation" (OR).  Actually, even the word "debate" is an "OR" kind of
concept, where "conversation" seems to imply "AND." Is this why modernists are so
bent on the idea of "only one way to God" (OR) vs. postmodern popularity of the "many
paths" idea?
Perhaps this is also why Evangelicals keep pressing those in the Emerging Church to 
clearly define where they stand on issues (one has to believe EITHER this OR that).

But back to the monoculturism of Modernism, or rather the assumption of monoculturalism. Nowadays we've managed to liberate ourselves from that assumption, by and large (where by and large doesn't yet include parts of the Midwest). This has had the result that we're actually free to evaluate things (and people) on the basis of what's actually good and what's actually bad, rather than having to take someone's word for it.

Sadly, it's not just the Midwest.  It's also the "bubble" culture we create for 
ourselves in Western Christendom, with our Christian bookstores, one-stop-shop
mega-churches, and general Christian isolationism.
Also, the idea of people being free to evaluate things as "good" or "bad" without 
taking someone's word for it is reminiscent of the Reformation -- people became free 
to read and evaluate the Bible and theological systems for themselves, rather than 
relying solely on the professional clergy of the Roman Catholic Church.  The internet, 
then, is doing the same in our generation, but on a larger scale.

More than that, we're required to make individual choices, the assumption being that not everyone is going to agree, and that not everyone should be required to agree. However, in trade for losing our monoculturalism, we are now required to discuss things. We're not required to agree about everything, but we are required to at least agree to disagree. Since we're required to discuss things, this has the effect that we tend to "deconstruct" the things we evaluate.

Hooray for conversation! This means we will have to be more vigorous in our study
of scripture and theology -- emerging generations will no longer simply accept
the faith of their fathers because "we said so" or because they're told that it's
"true" or "right" or "the only way."  

I do not view deconstructionism as a form of postmodernism so much as I view deconstructionism as the bridge between Modernism and postmodernism. Modernism, as a form of Classicalism, was always striving for simplicity, and was therefore essentially reductionistic. That is, it tended to take things to pieces. That actually hasn't changed much. It's just that Modernism tended to take one of the pieces in isolation and glorify it, while postmodernism tries to show you all the pieces at once, and how they relate to each other.

Yes!  One might say that the whole "Emerging" church thing is simply another form 
of deconstructionism, whose ultimate purpose will have been to build a bridge
between modern churches and post-modern ones.  
Beautiful comparison/contrast.  The reductionism of modernistic churches: emphasis 
on "core values," "fundamentals," and "non-negotiables" -- even the three reformed 
"solas" come to mind). Postmodernist churches often try to emphasize the "mosaic" 
approach, emphasizing holistic integration of beliefs, practices, and living instead 
of simply focusing "right belief."  I realize that some modern churches are good at
integration, too, just as some post-modern churches have "core values."  Still, it's
a matter of perceived emphasis.  

For instance, this talk. If this were a Modern talk, I'd try to have one major point, and drive it into the ground with many arguments, all coherently arranged. Instead, however, I let you see that there's a progression in my own thought process as I'm writing. I would pause in my talk at the same point that I paused in my thought process. If I were a journalist, I'd spend as much time talking about my angst in covering the story as I'd spend covering the actual story. And if I were building a building instead of writing a talk, I'd let the girders and ductwork show. These are all forms of deconstructionism.

This has ramifications for preaching, too.  The one point (thesis) and three supporting 
arguments style of preaching has perhaps run its course.  Might inviting the entire 
congregation to collaborate on a sermon be a form of deconstruction (not just showing
the ductwork, but allowing others to tinker with it)?

You've all heard the saying: If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. That's actually a Modernistic saying. The postmodern version is: If all you have is duct tape, everything starts to look like a duct. Right. When's the last time you used duct tape on a duct?

In fact, at many different levels, Modernism brought us various kinds of dysfunction. Every cultural institution took a beating. Government took a beating. Schools took a beating. Certainly the family took a beating. Everyone took a beating, because Modernism was about attacking problems. Modernism was the hammer. .... Modernism oversimplifies. Modernism puts the focus squarely on the hammer and the nail.

And now, belatedly, is the modern church taking a beating?  (i.e. plummeting total 
attendance and participation rates in the USA and UK?) And what are we trying to do
about it?  Fix it, of course.  Solve the problem.  Hammer the nail. "Just read this
book about church growth (or copy this megachurch) and all your problems will be solved.

In contrast, postmodernism puts the focus back onto the carpenter. You'll note that carpenters are allowed to choose whether or not to use hammers. They can use saws and tape measures if they choose, too. They have some amount of free will in the matter. They're allowed to be creative.

Perhaps another way to put this might be, "don't try to fix the church.  Just try to
BE the church."  And creativity seems to be a hallmark of emerging churches (and sadly,
something that seems to be actually discouraged in many traditional churches).

So, to drag the subject back to computers, one of the characteristics of a postmodern computer language is that it puts the focus not so much onto the problem to be solved, but rather onto the person trying to solve the problem. I claim that Perl does that, and I also claim that, on some level or other, it was the first computer language to do that. I'd also like to claim that, in many ways, it's still the only language to do that.

If the burden of decision making is on the programmer, then it's possible for the programmer to make a mess of things. It's possible for Perl programmers to write messy programs. (In case you hadn't noticed.) It's also possible for Perl programmers to write extremely clean, concise, and beautiful programs.

And that's precisely the fear that many have of the emerging church:  What if they write 
messy theology?  But perhaps this is the risk we must allow in order for "clean, concise
and beautiful" theology and ecclesiology to eventually "emerge."

Let me state my beliefs about this in the strongest possible way. The very fact that it's possible to write messy programs in Perl is also what makes it possible to write programs that are cleaner in Perl than they could ever be in a language that attempts to enforce cleanliness. The potential for greater good goes right along with the potential for greater evil. A little baby has little potential for good or evil, at least in the short term. A President of the United States has tremendous potential for both good and evil.

I do not believe it is wrong to aspire to greatness, if greatness is properly defined. Greatness does not imply goodness. The President is not intrisically "gooder" than a baby. He merely has more options for exercising creativity, for good or for ill.

Amen.  Attempts to "enforce orthodoxy" in the church seem to turn people off, causing them 
to shun Christianity altogether, where perhaps if we were allowed to "mess things up" we 
might be more inclined to work and struggle and wrestle with issues from within the church.
But Wall's point about the potential for greater evil is noted, as well.  However, this is
true of all the "freedoms" we cherish, including democracy and capitalism.

True greatness is measured by how much freedom you give to others, not by how much you can coerce others to do what you want. I remember praying a prayer when I was very young, not much more than a baby myself. "God is great. God is good. Let us thank him for our food. Amen." Well, I'm here to say amen to that. God's greatness and goodness are measured by the fact that he gives us choices. He doesn't require us to thank him for our food. (In case you hadn't noticed.) God is not a Modernist. He doesn't view us as nails. God expects us to behave like carpenters. Indeed, he gave us a carpenter as an example.

Of course, I might use Wall's own words against him here:  perhaps God is both a modernist 
AND a postmodernist (or possibly neither, of course).  Still, it's exciting (and too rare) 
to hear a postmodern geek-hero talking in positive terms about God and Jesus.  

Anyway, back to Modernism. Postmodernism does draw some inspiration from Modernism. And, in fact, postmodernism could not have come about without Modernism before it, because deconstructionism is simultaneously Modern and postmodern, being both reductionistic and holistic. Be that as it may, Postmodernism has deconstructed Modernism and determined that large parts of it suck. In religious terms, Modernism can be viewed as a series of cults. And postmodernism is defined as an escape from those cults. A kind of deprogramming, if you will. Perhaps the title of this talk should have been, "Perl, the first postmodern DEprogramming language".

Ah.  This is the hard part.  Nobody likes being told that "large parts" of what you
believe "suck."  And postmoderns (and emergents) could be more gentle about this.
After all, we're smart enough to deconstruct ourselves and determine that we suck 
too.  Don't cry, little Emo kid.

Anyway, back to cults. First of all, we have the Cult of Spareness. [Consider]...the example of Modern Art. It was minimalistic. It was almost an artless Art. Certainly the emotion it was trying to instill was something akin to hammering. We felt like nails.

I could go on about simplicity, but let's move on to the next cult. Modernism is also a Cult of Originality. It didn't matter if the sculpture was hideous, as long as it was original. It didn't matter if there was no music in the music. Plagiarism was the greatest sin. To have your work labeled ``pastiche was the worst insult.

And that's why we have the clash of the RIAA vs. Napster and copyright wars.  Modernists
value originality, and have set up laws to "prove" and protect originality.  Postmoderns
just don't get this:  why can't I remix this, mash it, change it, add to it?  Enter
Wikipedia, Open Source Software, and a resurgence in Folk Music.  

The next cult on the hit parade is the Cult of Seriousness. Postmodernism is not afraid to laugh at itself. It's not afraid of cute, and it's not afraid of funky, and it's not afraid of what a Modernist would call kitsch. You know, it's actually kind of liberating to be going down the road, and be able to yell, "New buggie! Pea soup green." Postmoderns aren't afraid to be nostalgic about old slug bugs, either. Sentimentality is cool, if you're into that sort of thing. Retro rules. Unless it rocks. I don't know if sentimentality rules or rocks, but's it's definitely cool.

Whoa.  Don't even need to go into this one.  Suffice it to say that the dominant perception
of church today is a place to be serious.  A place that takes itself WAY too seriously.

The Cult of Objectivity. You know, Modernism tried. It tried real hard. It really, really tried. It tried to get rid of conventions. It thought it got rid of conventions. But all it really did was make its conventions invisible. At least to itself.

Reductionists often feel like they're being objective. But the problem with reductionism is that, once you've split your universe into enough pieces, you can't keep track of them any more. Psychologists tell us that the human mind can only keep track of about about seven objects, plus or minus two. That's for short-term memory. It gets both worse and better for long-term memory, but the principle still stands. If you lose track of something, it's because you thought it was less important, and didn't think about it often enough to remind yourself. This is what happened to Modernists in literature. They've forgotten what's important about literature.

I would like to say one thing here about objectivity, however. While I despise the Modern Cult of Objectivity, I also despise the quasi-postmodern Cult of Subjectivity. I call it absolute cultural relativism. It's the notion that everything is as good as everything else, because goodness is only a matter of opinion. It's like claiming that the only thing you can know absolutely is that you can't know anything absolutely. I think this is really just another form of Modernism, a kind of existentialism really, though unfortunately it's come to be associated with postmodernism. But I think it sucks.

The funny thing is, it's almost right. It's very close to what I do, in fact, believe. I'd go so far as to call myself a strong postmodernist. Strong postmodernism says that all truth is created. But this really isn't a problem for anyone who believes in a Creator. All truths are created relative, but some are more relative than others. A universal truth only has to be true about our particular universe, so to speak. It doesn't much matter whether the universe itself is true or false, just as long as it makes a good story. And I think our universe does make a good story. I happen to like the Author.

And this, more than anything else, is what the church needs to hear.  This is the crux 
of where we can BE Christian AND postmodern.  Like Wall, there may be things about 
postmodernism that we decide suck.  We are not bound to postmodern culture any more than 
we were bound to modern culture, but we have the freedom in Christ to shape culture (and 
our understanding of it) according to our faith.  We live in an AND world, where we don't 
have to choose between Christ OR Culture.  

I think the open source movement is, actually, a postmodern movement .... In short, think about what it takes to put together an open source project such as Linux or Perl. You need a lot of people who think programming is serious fun. You need a culture of sharing, which is just the flip side of a culture in which you can borrow things without shame. You need people who have been hammered into dysfunctionality long enough that they're looking for new ways to form communities. You need people who are willing to be partisan on behalf of their chosen culture, while remaining sufficiently non-partisan to keep in touch with the rest of the world. It's no fun to create a new culture and then cut it off from the rest of humanity. No, the fun thing is to try to persuade others to share your opinions about what rules and what sucks. Nothing is more fun than evangelism.

Aren't these the same things needed to put together any community -- including the church?

There are two kinds of joiners in the world. Think of it in terms of anthropology. There are the kinds of people who join a tribe, and kind of get sucked in, like a black hole. That's the last you hear from them, unless you happen to be in the black hole with them. And we need people like this in our tribes, if only to be cheerleaders.

Kind of like the bubble-Christians I mentioned earlier.  We're really good at this part.

But the open source movement is energized by the other sort of joiner. This sort of person joins many tribes. These are the people who inhabit the intersections of the Venn diagrams. They believe in ANDs rather than ORs. They're a member of more than one subset, more than one tribe. The reason these people are important is, just like merchants who go between real tribes, they carry ideas from one intellectual tribe to another. I call these people "glue people", because they not only join themselves to a tribe, they join tribes together. Twenty years ago, you couldn't easily be a glue person, because our culture was not yet sufficiently accepting of diversity. It was also not accepting of information sharing. If you got sucked in by Bell Labs, you might get out to the occasional Usenix, but that was about it. If you got sucked in by the NSA, nobody ever heard from you again. Come to think of it, that's still true.

And this is where the church needs to go as well.  This is where the emerging church
has so much to offer -- not as another "separate" movement or denomination, but as 
a movement within each the various flavors of the church.  This is where we have the
opportunity to be part of bringing the body of Christ back together.  This is why I 
am not just "emergent" but "Presbymergent."  This is why I am committing myself to 
a denomination I don't always agree with.  PLEASE, let us be an AND -- don't force us
to be one OR the other.  Oh, and this is also why I consider myself part of the open-
source tribe, too.  

Still and all, things have improved greatly, and the bridges across the gaps have gotten sturdier. Now people can send their memes across a wider chasms without getting crucified on one end of the bridge or the other. And as we started sending these memes across the chasms, what we discovered was that we didn't have a bunch of separate open source movements, but rather a single big open source movement. To be sure, it's a fuzzy, postmodern sort of movement, with lots of diversity, and a certain amount of turmoil, but it's about as good as any movement gets these days. We all suck at slightly different things, but we're in basic agreement that the old way of business sucked a lot worse that whatever it is we're doing now. We've agreed to agree. Except when we don't.

Think of Perl culture as a dysfunctional family. Or think of the various communities that arise on the net. Think of our Gen X group at church and their obviously postmodern tastes: night club decor mixed with candles. But it's really about being together. Nowadays, family is where you find it. Family is where you create it.

Sounds kind of like when Jesus talks about the Kindgom (or family) of God.  And am I
misreading it ("night club decor mixed with candles"), or does it sound like Larry 
Wall's church had an "emergent" group way back in 1999?  Hmmm....