In few areas is it more problematic to arrive at a clean definition than it is for postmodernism. Not the least of the problem is the resistance among postmodernists themselves to be defined, or, in many cases, to admit the authority or even the possibility of definition as an activity. Before attempting a definition, a series of useful distinctions can be drawn.
Postmodernity and Postmodernism
The first important distinction to be made is that between postmodernity and postmodernism. Post-modernity is a name given to a period of history, and postmodernism is the body of theory that has developed to explain that period. Opinions differ about when postmodernity is supposed to have begun, with dates varying between 1968 and 1973. All agree that conditions in the world have changed since then. In international politics, the sites of authority have fractured from the relatively straightforward conflict of the Cold War to the multi-polar, less predictable, and more confusing international situation of today. Other fundamental changes have been made to our styles of work, with entirely new industries, work hours and arrangements than was the case before. The assumption underlying the notion of post-modernity is that the world has seen not simply changes in style, but also a fundamental shift in the way the world operates, a shift which has been to the disadvantage of predictability, order, and rationality.
Those who argue for 1968 as a convenient date for the onset of postmodernity point to the student riots of that year, when the baby boomer generation, the best-fed, best-educated generation in world history, spurned the cultural conventions they grew up with, and demanded change. These revolts did not demand a specific set of political, social, and economic changes; they demanded change, as a general rejection of the old.
The impact of the baby boomer generation is very significant, but even it was swept along by the broader transformation occurring after the events of 1973. This was the year of permanent international economic change resulting from the oil shocks triggered by a newly radicalized Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The oil shocks were provoked by the oil-producing countries, most of which were from the Muslim world, wanting to express anger at the continued support by the West for Israel, which had been decisive in the recent Yom Kippur war. This marked a fundamental change in the balance of economic and political power marked by a dramatic shifting in priorities in global politics and economics. The widespread social changes that have occurred in the West are largely a product of these developments. Postmodernity can best be dated, therefore, from 1973.
It is important to note that “postmodernity,” as discussed here, is nothing more than a title given to a period by historians, like “Renaissance” or “Dark Ages.” Others have called this period Late Capitalism. Still others have rejected the idea that the events of 1973 mean we can no longer speak of “modernity.” This debate becomes a question about the periodizing of history, and the usefulness of such a procedure.
Postmodernism as a Series of Reactions to Postmodernity
We have seen, then, that postmodernity and postmodernism are not related. Postmodernism is, as the suffix implies, an “ism,” a series of reactions that have arisen to explain the times known to some as postmodernity. It is quite consistent to see value in post-modernity as a historical term while also rejecting the postmodernism that has arisen as a series of reactions to explain postmodernity.
Most introductory essays to postmodernism begin with the insistence that any attempt at a comprehensive delineation and understanding of postmodernism is inherently contradictory and bound to fail. To overcome this problem, most characterizations of postmodernism portray it as a less coherent body of doctrine as a general mood, or, as described in the previous paragraph, a series of reactions. The series of reactions are often expressed in negative terms.
Postmodernism is almost entirely confined to universities and literary circles. And within universities, some faculties are more likely to be favorable to postmodernism than others. Most branches of the sciences are hostile, whereas departments of English or French literature, architecture, visual arts, and occasionally anthropology and sociology are more likely to react favorably. Opposition to postmodernism in Philosophy departments, particularly in English-speaking countries, has grown since the mid-1990s.
As well as these divisions between faculties, there is also a division based on geography. We have already noted this division among philosophy departments at universities. There are two general strands to the postmodernist reactions to postmodernity. One strand of postmodernism is content to acknowledge the changes that have occurred since 1973 and to try to understand them. The other, more radical strand is more willing to celebrate those changes. Broadly speaking, this fissure divides postmodernists in the Anglo-American academic community from those from the Continental (mainly French) academic community.
This is made more complicated when we note that this division is by no means exclusively geographical. The two styles of postmodernism, while having a geographical dimension, are principally divided by a series of contrasting emphases with regard to some important questions. The first of these dividing points centers around attitudes toward philosophical analysis. Anglo-American postmodernists may be cautious about analysis as a tool, but still acknowledge its value. Postmodernists of the Continental variety, by contrast, are more inclined to view analysis as part of the problem they are looking to overcome, rather than as a useful tool to gather new and better understandings.
A second major area of divergence can be seen in the attitudes toward metanarratives. Most postmodernists, whether Anglo-American or Continental, see postmodernity as a time when traditional metanarratives dissolved. A metanarrative is a general intellectual framework through which we view history. For example, the communist metanarrative is of a progressive, and inevitable, succession from feudalism, through capitalism to socialism, and, in the future, on to communism. A Christian metanarrative, by contrast, proceeds from a primitive innocence in Eden, followed by the Fall and the condition of sin and death among humans, relieved by the redemption of Jesus Christ, and which will be brought to an end when Christ returns to reward the faithful and judge the damned. The most oft-quoted definition of postmodernism comes from the French thinker Jean-François Lyotard, who defined it in terms of incredulity toward metanarratives.
The differences lie in their contrasting attitudes to the end of metanarratives. As noted above, most post-modernists from the Continental tradition are likely to celebrate the end of metanarratives. They claim that not only are metanarratives no longer needed, they are no longer welcome. The end of metanarratives brings the end of the tyranny of history, and, more particularly, the end of the presumption of scholars to be chroniclers of historical fact. Instead, postmodernists argue, we have a mass of assertions and claims, which can all compete for our attention as best they may, with little difference in the outcome of one being chosen over another.
Underlying this hostility to metanarratives is the postmodernist hostility to what they see as the dominating and bullying nature of science and reason. The central claim of postmodernists of the Anglo-American strand is that rationality is a historically conditioned faculty, which means that different historical epochs will produce different notions of rationality. This is a point few opponents of rationality would dispute. Indeed, many of the people derided by postmodernists, such as Bertrand Russell, made these points long before postmodernism was an intellectual force.
Others, usually of the Continental strand of postmodernism, are more extreme, and seek to condemn what some call “legislative reason” as being inherently domineering and oppressive. In contrast to this, they regard postmodernism as a liberation from rationality because it is a liberation from all socially constructed bounds and norms. As one prominent postmodernist stated in 1992, postmodernism is about splitting the truth, the standards, and the ideal into what has been deconstructed and into what is about to be deconstructed, and denying in advance the right of any new doctrine, theory, or revelation to take the place of the discarded rules of the past. David Harvey, from an influential postmodernist work from 1991, enthused that postmodernism wallows in the fragmentary and chaotic currents of change as if that is all there is. In a similar vein, Gregory Bruce Smith identified postmodernism as fundamentally a sign of disintegration, transition, and waning faith in what he called the Enlightenment project.
In defining postmodernism, then, we need to take account of these two strands of interpretation. The more moderate version of postmodernism is the assertion that we cannot know anything, but can only interpret, and that any interpretation we make can only express our partial and narrow perspectives. The more radical version of postmodernism is the assertion that not only can we not know anything, but that also any claims to knowledge are bound to be hegemonic and impatient of dissent, which means that our ability only to interpret from our partial and narrow perspectives constitutes a liberation from that tendency toward hegemony, which is particularly evident in science and rationality.
Behind the differences of emphasis and geography, there is a common political heritage for much of postmodernism. This is because postmodernism is a phenomenon of the political left. The reason why postmodernists are anxious to write the obituary of metanarratives is because many of them were, earlier in their lives, proponents of variations of socialism and communism, which, as we have seen, have strong metanarrative components. This can be traced back to the disillusionment of German socialists after the failure of the Spartacist revolt in Berlin in 1919. Not only did the socialist revolution fail, but also the parties of the left were then seen to fail as well, as they showed themselves incapable of resisting the rise of Nazism. By their slavish following of the dictates of Moscow, the parties of the left had betrayed their purpose. The school of Marxist-inspired criticism, known as the Frankfurt School, traced the progressive failures of each institution that had once been a source of hope.
After the World War II, the Soviet Union joined the ranks of gods that failed. Between the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the promise of communism as a metanarrative of progressive liberation from alienation became ever more difficult to sustain. The choices of the left after 1968 were stark: acknowledge that capitalism and the metanarratives that sustain it had triumphed, or create a system of criticism that denied the legitimacy of any metanarratives at all. Postmodernism adopted the latter approach.
The differences of emphasis between the Continental and Anglo-American styles of postmodernism were most pronounced on the question of the degree to which Western culture could be salvaged. Critics like Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) were among the more pronounced cultural pessimists. In Dialectics of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer saw modernity as inherently self-destructive, carrying the germs of its own dissolution and decay. There was a straight line, they argued, from the Enlightenment to Nazism and Stalinism. Later heirs of this high level of pessimism included the Polish born sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (1925-), who argued that modernity is a long road to prison, and Michel Foucault (19261984), who saw all society as engaged in a war against people to impose on them a sterile understanding of what it is to be human.
The more moderate postmodernists in the Anglo-American schools, however, were not prepared to go this far. Their general argument was to see value in the humanist tradition of the Enlightenment, merely wanting to excise it of the faults and excesses they perceived it brought with it. Advocates of this approach include the English philosopher Michael Luntley and the New Zealand sociologist Barry Smart.
Postmodernists agree on their suspicion of metanarratives, diverging only on the degree of opposition they are prepared to express. Another area of general agreement is in their attitudes toward science. Anglo-American and Continental postmodernists agree that science involves a metanarrative, which they question. The metanarrative of science speaks of cumulative knowledge over time, leading to ever-clearer understandings of the universe. Just as importantly, postmodernists question the claim of science that it is grounded in objective truth. But the attitudes toward science reveal the greatest splits between the Anglo-American and the Continental styles of postmodernism. The Anglo-American attitudes are best articulated in the works of Richard Rorty (1931—) whose critique has been directed against foundationalism, the practice of claiming that one’s theories rest on objective foundations of truth.
The Continental branch of postmodernism, once again, has wandered much further afield on its attitudes to science. Indeed, it is in this area that it has provoked the strongest opposition. Working from an epistemic relativism, many Continental postmodernists have pressed the claims that science is a meta-narrative like any other, with no special claims to authority, and indeed, meriting extra levels of criticism precisely because of those claims of authority they perceive scientists making.
The Decline of Postmodernism
Postmodernism began to attract some significant critical attention after about 1994. Much of the criticism was led by scientists and by philosophers who take science seriously. Leading the way was a devastating critique by Norman Levitt and Paul Gross titled, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (1994). Other significant milestones included Derrida and Wittgenstein (1994) by Newton Garver and Seung-Chong Lee, The Poverty of Postmodernism (1995) by John O’Neill, and The Flight from Science and Reason (1996) edited by Paul Gross, Norman Levitt, and Martin W Lewis.
The decline of postmodernism was publicized by what has become known as the Sokal Hoax. In 1996 Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, submitted a paper to the postmodernist journal, Social Text. The paper, titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” supposedly demonstrated that the laws of science are nothing more than social constructs—one of the central points of Continental postmodernism. The Social Text editors made the mistake of not submitting the article to the usual process of peer review, and on the day the article appeared, Sokal announced in the journal Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax.
The hoax, and the controversy that followed, was a major embarrassment for the editors of Social Text, and for the wider claims of postmodernism to academic credibility. Sokal followed up his hoax with a scorching attack, coauthored with the Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont, on French postmodernism and published in the United States under the title Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (1998).
Alongside this counterattack, some of the more moderate Anglo-American thinkers who formerly expressed support for elements of postmodernism have since stepped back. In Britain, Christopher Norris, a prominent defender of the works of Jacques Derrida, has more recently launched important critiques against the relativism inherent in postmodernist thinking. And in the United States, Richard Rorty, without having changed his position, has expressed his regret at ever having used the term “postmodernist.” Most recently a newer movement known as critical realism has arisen as the successor to postmodernism. The intellectual initiative has clearly now passed to the critics of postmodernism.
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