-isms in the Real World


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Nic McPhee.

As we stare the student loan monster dead in its looming eyes and try not to look away, perhaps lessons from our four-year educations will come sailing back to us. Out of the recesses of memory, buried beneath a thick haze of booze, smoke, and blurry-eyed all-nighters, a smattering of textbook words tumble out of the confusion.

Post structuralism, modernism, reductionism, ethnocentrism, Darwinism, classicism…

With an unintentional salute to Charlie Brown, the many professors’ voices bleed into one unanimous hum. The theoretical terms melt together into an indigestible stew. Whether you were dissecting Plato’s Republic, studying modern art, or reading up on formalism in architecture, the question undoubtedly remains the same:

Why the hell did I learn all of these abstract “isms,” and do they even exist outside the classroom?

These concepts feel so archaic because the reality of our day-to-day living seems incomparable to the cobwebbed tomes from which they spring. They’re hierarchical, dated, and presumptuous. They need dismantling.

So let’s unpack them. Below is a list of some of the most prominent “isms” you might’ve heard again and again in college, along with their boiled down definitions and what they mean to us now outside the walls of academia.


A late 20th century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism that states there are no truths, only interpretations.

THEN: A stuffy-headed reaction to modernism, where a bunch of artists and free thinkers got pissed off about their work having to mean something–because that’s clearly too much to ask of an artist. The ramblings of Heidegger and Derrida might have once melted your ears with boredom on the topic.

NOW: Look no farther than what’s right in front of you: the internet. The World Wide Web become post-modernism’s biggest playground. All information can coalesce together, and anybody can assert their version of “the truth.”

Nothing is original. Sources of authority can crumble with a single keystroke, and the mighty Wikipedia is nothing more than a remote-controlled chameleon for intellectuals and pranksters.

Take that Foucault!


The practice of investing ideas, objects, or occurrences with a representative value that goes beyond what appears at the surface.

THEN: “Now students, I want you to think hard about what F. Scott Fitzgerald was trying to symbolize in The Great Gatsby when we wrote about the eyes painted on a billboard.”

NOW: Looking to fiction, television, and film over the past 10 years, this trope hardly seems as important as our English professors once tried to hammer into our heads. There’s hardly ever a “right” or “wrong” answer when it comes to creativity.

In fact, most writers we’ve assumed over the years to have packed their classics with hidden symbols and meanings were really just over-analyzed.

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Maybe Freud isn’t so outdated after all.


A preoccupation with material objects that places them above intangible phenomenon (spirituality, cultural values, thought) as constituting the universe and even the mind.

THEN: We might remember (painfully) the heady, brain-twisting arguments against the existence of this perspective, told by the feverishly abstract conjectures of philosophers like Descartes and Kant.

NOW: I think we can agree it’s a lot more real than these old guys would’ve liked to admit, especially given the explosion of consumerism and all the forms of tangible matter we have at our disposal. When you’re constantly badgered everyday to buy, Buy, BUY! you can’t help but think our society does revolve around meaningless physical “necessities.”

Need I say more?


A rejection of all principles, often believing that life is meaningless.

THEN: Brings to mind a bunch of cranky bearded philosophers who clearly gave up on all of the joys that life has to offer.

NOW: We overwhelm ourselves with information at such a constant rate that it becomes virtually impossible to make sense of everything. We’re swimming up to our eyeballs in advertising, news outlets, tweets, hashtags, mass-media… and we wonder why people work their way through the week just to get mindlessly drunk on the weekends. To experience and forget. And so we embrace monikers like YOLO (you only live once).

So long as we don’t become pessimistic caricatures of the void, I still have hope.