Postmodernism: Introductory Notes (Part 3)

(Continued from Part 2)

By the 1970s, psotmodernism had become a widely sued term in the US. It was Ihab Hassan, who became one of its chief exponents and “connected literary, philosophical, and social trends under the term” (9). As stated earlier, it was in the field of American Architecture that the postmodern had the most wide-ranging impact, and Charles Jenks “applied it to architecture in 1975” (9).

Three Major Books:

  • Jenks, Charles. The Language of Postmodern Architecture, (1977).
  • Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. [English version], (1979).
  • Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. (1979).

Out of the three books mentioned above, all influential in their own right, the most influential in the American philosophical context was that by Richard Rorty. For it was “partly through Rorty’s influence that in the 1980s postmodernism came to have a meaning for most American philosophers” (9).

Other Factors in the Rise of Postmodernism

  • The editor lists the following events, ideas, and material conditions that contributed to the rise of postmodernism as a viable philosophy and movement:
  • A reaction to modernity and a desire to return to earlier and traditional cultural forms.
  • The decline of Marxism and the death of the idea of socialist utopia after Stalin. (Publicized in detail through the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in 1973).

With this brief history of the postmodern, the editor then turns to providing a brief discussion of the modern or the modernity itself. As so much of what postmodern is about cannot be really understood without a good grasp of modernity, the modern, or modernism itself.

What is Modern?

Treating the modern and modernity as two distinct, though connected, concepts, the editor provides some of the following insights about the modern, modernity, and modernism. Modern, “derived from the Latin modo” means “of today” or “what is current” (11). As expected it has always been used to differentiate the contemporary from the past. Modernity, however, is quite a different bag of worms. “It has a relatively fixed reference in contemporary intellectual discussion” (11). It refers to:

the new civilization developed in Europe and North America over the last several centuries and fully evident by the early twentieth century. “Modernity” implies that this civilization is modern in strong sense that it is unique in human history. (11)

What makes this civilization unique? A general consensus does exits and points to the following unique characteristics: “powerful technique for the study of nature [Science] . . . new machine technologies . . . and [new] modes of industrial production that [lead] to an unprecedented rise in material living standards” (11). The scholars also list certain other common characteristics of modernity:

  • Capitalism
  • Secularism
  • Liberal democracy
  • Individualism
  • Rationalism
  • Humanism

As is obvious, this is a highly technologized definition of modernity and does not offer much in terms of what kind of human is the subject of this modernity. As Peter Burger asks: “Are we simply ancient Egyptians in airplanes?” (11). So, the question that needs answered is as to what kind of human is the modern human? And it is this question, of the human and human societies, that makes modernity a controversial subject of study because of the intangible nature of the question itself.

The Positive Self-Image of Modern West and Modernity: Here is how the West has presented a positive self-image of western modernity over time:

A civilization founded on scientific knowledge of the world and rational knowledge of value, which places the highest premium on individual human life and freedom and believes that such freedom and rationality will lead social progress through virtuous, self-controlled work, creating a better material, political, and intellectual life for all. (12)

Of course, this positive self-presentation has been challenged by many. Some call it “ethnic and class domination,” “European Imperialism,” “anthropocentrism, the destruction of nature, the dissolution of community and tradition” and the “death of individuality in bureaucracy” (12).

Thus, it becomes evident that modernity is quite a graspable concept  when posited in the realm of tangible material progress, but becomes a highly contested concept if one were to focus on the nature of the human and the impact of Western modernity on nature and Europe’s others. The postmodern, in a way, responds to this problem of modernity.

What is Postmodernism?

Toward the end of the introductory chapter, the editor attempts to provide a “meaning” of postmodernism. I, however, consider the question of meaning as un-postmodern and would, therefore, provide a summary of the editor’s concluding remarks without invoking the word “meaning.” The editor provides the details about the postmodern under three possible registers:

  • The most famous postmodern themes and ideas that appear in postmodern works.
  • The different claims made by the postmodernists.
  • Some of the issues that divide postmodernists. (14)

The Themes: The editor recognizes five possible themes, four of which are “objects of” Postmodrenism’s “criticism” and one “constitutes its method. Postmodernism typically criticizes:

  • Presence or Presentation (versus representation and construction) (14).
  • Origin (versus phenomenon) (14).
  • Unity (versus plurality) (14)
  • Transcendence (versus . . . immanence) (14)

Presence: Postmodernism denies that “anything is ‘immediately present’, hence independent of signs, language, interpretation,disagreement” (14). In some cases, the postmodernists argue that “presentation actually presupposes representation” (14). This leads to the discussion of representation of things rather than the discussion of “the thing” (14) itself. “There is nothing outside the Text” (14).

Origin: “is the notion of the source of whatever is under consideration, a return to which is often considered the aim of rational inquiry” (14). Postmodernism denies any such possibility of return to an origin an d is thus “intentionally superficial . . . by regarding the surface of things, the phenomena, as not requiring a reference to anything deeper or more fundamental” (15). E. g. No need to decipher the authorial intention in deciphering a text.

Unity: In postmodernism, all unities are plural and are constructed through exclusions. (15)

Transcendence: The denial of transcendence is crucial to postmodernism (15). Nothing is unmotivated or pure; everything is affected by the immanent domain of politics, culture, and language.

Characteristic Strategy of Postmodernism–Constitutive Otherness

All normative systems are constituted through an “active process of exclusions, opposition,and hierarchization” (16). Thus, to normalize one point of view another must be represented as outside, as other, of the normative and official view. Thus, what is at the margins of a text, for the postmodernist, constitutes and stabilizes the text. Thus, the idea of finding the very navel of the text, where the text undermines its own logic (Derrida). “Every text is built on some kind of exclusion or repression, hence it belies itself and, when read carefully, undermine sits own message” (17). The “privileged theme” often depends on what the “marginalized element” of the text” (17).

Types of Postmodernism

Historical Postmodernism: Postmodernism as an historical claim as modernity is at an end. (17)

Methodological Postmodernism: Rejects the possibility of establishing the foundations (17). Is purely negative: challenges everything without offering an alternative vision.

Positive Postmodernism: it offers an alternative, but there are problems with offering an alternative especially since postmodernism is also supposed to be antifoundational.

On the whole, while it may be hard to grasp this concept, it is important to, at least, familiarize ourselves with Postmodernism.


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