Post-modernism Today

A Brief Introduction



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Post-modernism/Post-Structuralism, A New Fad

Anthony Giddens uses terms like "radical", "high", or "late" modernity to describe modernity in order to indicate that the present modernity is continuous with the early stage.[Antony Giddens, Modernity and Self Identity: Self and society in the Late Modern Age, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1991] Jurgen Habermas sees modernity as an "unfinished project", conceding the continuation of the modern world. [Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1987] By now "the new fad (Post-modernism) disappeared into the whirl of cultural fashion."[Douglas Kellner, Introduction, In Douglas Kellner(ed), Post-modernism, Jameson, Critique, Washington, D.C., pp. 1-2] Kellener also states that it is the hottest game in town. Smart has differentiated among extreme post-modernism represented by Jean Baudrillard and Arthur Kroker; the post-modernist position taken by Fredric Jamson, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe having some sort of inclination to Marxism consider Post-modernism as growing out of and continuous with modernism, and finally the position as adopted by Smart himself views Post-modernism not as a separte epoch but continually pointing out the limitations of modernism. [Barry Smart, Post-modernity, Routledge, London, 1993]

Derrida opposed structuralism and reduced language to "writing". While in his theory of deconstruction there remained a focus on language, writing was not supposed to be a structure. In Derrida’s hands the stability and order of the language system turns into disorderly and unstable. Secondly, the underlying laws of language as was found by Saussure were gone in Derrida’s technique. Derrida’s objective is to strongly oppose logocentrism (the search for a universal system of thought expressing truth, beautiful, etc.). Derrida believes that logocentrism, since Plato, has caused closure, repression which needs to be deconstructed by freeing writing from things that enslave it. Derrida brings in the notion of the traditional theological stage present for centuries governed by authors and directors. However, the alternative stage in the Derridean scheme, with ‘free’ actors or writers with no role of ‘dictators’ appears to be a vague and anarchic. Here also comes the post structuralist/ Post-modernist argument of ‘decentering’ allowing actors a sort of freedom of play, open ended position. Actually speaking, in the words of George Ritzer, "Having debunked authority, in the end Derrida leaves us without an answer; in fact, there is no single answer…"[George Ritzer, Sociological Theory, The Mc Graw Hill Companies, INC, Singapore, 1996, p.598.]

In his effort at attacking the ‘metaphysics of presence’ Derrida takes recourse to what Martin Jay calls ‘carnivalesque play of language’. "This play of Deconstruction constitutive of signification necessarily involves both the disruption of presence, which is always part of a chain of substitution which transcend it, and the reference to presence, but a presence which can never fully be achieved but is constantly deferred. Difference is thus ‘the obliterated origin of absence and presence’. Difference can only be conceptualized by means of a language which necessarily, by virtue of the nature of difference, itself, involves the metaphysics of presence: since it is ontologically prior to both presence and absence, is therefore unknowable. From this contradictions springs the practice of deconstruction which involves contesting the metaphysics of presence on its own terrain – a terrain from which there is (in) any case no escape…" [Alex Callinicos, Against Post-modernism, A Marxist Critique, Polity Press, Cambridge, U.K., 1996, p.75] This is a critique from a Marxist and it strikes at the very root of the Deconstruction theory. Actually speaking Derrida’s focus on differentiation implies either nostalgia for a lost unity or conversely a utopian hope for a future one. This utopian hope induces him groping for a "pure" word, the original word, from which supposedly emanated all the words. It sounds like the word or original word in Hindu mythology ‘Om’ — word as pure as God. Such flight to the so-called first principle is nothing but a romantic nostalgic exercise. It is what some critics found a search for "transcendental consciousness". Many writers have found in Derrida’s argument strong affinity with the German idealist tradition. It appears that with post-modernists/post-structuralists the Derridian concept of difference is found more attractive than differentiation. With the abandonment of any hope for a new totalization in the dialectical sense, they fall for such an untotalized network with the Derridian supplementary differences positing as the superior alternative to the Marxist notion of totality. But while doing so ultimately, they deny the subject and furnish a counter holistic concept. We learn from Alex Callinicos the critique of Derrida by Dews who argue that Derrida offers us ‘a philosophy of difference as the absolute’ — an absolute which like Schelling’s is unknowable by the procedures characteristic of modern scientific rationality.’ Callinicos adds that the idealist Schelling believed that the absolute could be grasped intuitively; Derrida, by contrast, relies on the endless play of signifiers to provide us with an intimation of difference, though no more than that, because of the necessarily metaphysical nature of language. [Alex Callinicos, Ibid, p.76]

Under the extreme form of Post-modernism, Baudrillard criticised Marx for being infected by the "virus of bourgeois thought". He announced the alternative of "symbolic exchange" against the Marxian analysis of capitalism. Baudrillard was critical of the working class and appears to accept the role of the new left, of hippies, etc. For him modern society was no longer dominated by production, but rather by the "media, cybernetic models and steering systems, computers, information processing, entertainment and knowledge industries and so forth". From all such features, Baurillard found a veritable explosion of signs with the objective shifting from exploitation and profit to domination by the signs and the systems that produce them. Such post-modernist theoreticians preached that with the new epoch taking centre stage, the masses become increasingly passive, instead of increasingly rebellious as the Marxists believe. This Baurillard, after his visit to the USA, came to the conclusion that there is no revolutionary hope, nor is there the possibility of reforming society.[Jean Baudrilland, America, Verso, London, 1989]

Foucault received an assignment to cover the Islamic Revolution in Iran from which power was captured by the forces of Khomeini. Foucault thoroughly endorsed this Iranian Islamism for its being completely different from the "Western episteme". Foucault supported it as because in Iran the so-called Islamic Revolution was free from the modern elements like "class struggle or of social confrontations" or "the presence of a vanguard, class, party, or political ideology" [Lawrence D. Kritzman (ed.), Michel Foucault: Politics, Philosophy, Culture — Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984, Routledge, London, 1988 pp. 212-13] Foucault’s extreme bitterness against Enlightenment Reason leads him to court obscurantism of Iranian Islamic leaders. He posits the Iranian case against Reason in the following way.

"They don’t have the same regime of truth as ours, which , it has to be said, is very special, even it has become almost universal..... The Arabs of Maghreb have another, and in Iran it is largely modelled on a religion that has an exotic form and an esoteric content .......So not only is saying one thing that means another not a condemnable ambiguity, it is on the contrary, a necessary and highly prized additional level of meaning. It is often the case that people say something that, at the factual level, isn’t true, but refers to another, deeper meaning, which cannot be assimilated, in terms of precision and observation."[Ibid p.223]

While class, party, social confrontation, etc. are rejected as outcomes of Western Reason, Foucault glorifies not only Iranian religion but also the curious notion of Truth there. Thus Foucault obscures all the glaring line between truth and hideous falsehood. Armed with such a view, the Foucaultian scheme can not offer any justifiable or consistent explanation for imperialism or any genuine struggle to come out of the feudal socio-economic and cultural systems. The general Post-modern view as expressed by Foucault to posit non-western un-reason against all Western Reason. This way of glorifying all religious rituals and practices as embodiment of tradition is to push the world back into the morass of orthodox tradition. Foucault’s avoidance of presenting a narrative of colonialism, imperialism, political economy of capitalism actually blunts the cutting edge of his otherwise brilliant exposition of the birth of psychiatry or power based knowledge. It should not be forgotten that Foucault visualised a massive project for ‘The Modern Age’ and the ‘Western episteme’. Foucault launched his crusade against liberation or to refer to the power, the immense power of modern imperialism in this period. Such silence is deafening.

Leotard defined the modern in the following words:

"I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a meta-discourse........ Making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectic of spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth ..... This is the Enlightenment narrative, in which the hero of knowledge works toward a good ethico-political end — universal peace." [Jean-Francois Leotard, The Post-modern ConditionA Report on Knowledge, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, Introduction]

Thus the Post-modern condition what Leotard considered as modern is just an altogether rejection of what he considered as "modern". It is a rejection of Hegel and his view on "the dialectics of spirit", Kant’s view on the emancipation of the rational or working subject and Marxism for its dialectical-materialist position rejecting all unreason and the irrationalities of the capitalist market. Leotard like all Post-modernists do not like to speak of ‘humanity’ or ‘mankind’ which is supposed to be a part of Enlightenment universalism leading towards a totalising meta-narrative. When the notion of globalization, global economy, etc. takes the centre stage with the third world countries increasingly falling under the deadly impact of globalization, one wonders how could the post-modernists work out a theory to face those problems.

Leotard and other Post-modernists not only stand against the metanarrative of reason and emancipation, they posit "little narratives" of ethnic minorities, local communities, traditional beliefs, etc. against the former. Leotard’s dangerously sectarian and orthodox approach to culture is found in the following sentences quoted by Aijaz Ahmad.

"The consensus that permits such knowledge to be circumscribed and makes it possible to distinguish one who knows from one who doesn’t (the foreigner, the child) is what constitutes the culture of a people.

..............Anthropological studies and literature that take rapidly developing societies as their object can attest to the survival of this type of knowledge within them, at least in some of their sectors. The very idea of development presupposes a horizon of non-development where, it is assumed, the various areas of competence remained enveloped in the unity of tradition and are not differentiated according to a separate qualifications subject to specific innovations, debates and inquiries ...... It is even compatible with the (apparently contrary) premise of the superiority of customary knowledge over the contemporary dispersion of competence."[Jean-Francois Leotard, The Post-modern Condition .... Ibid.p-19]

Post-modernism, while rejecting rationality, often tends to find in the pre-modern condition the sufficient answer to the solutions for the problems of modernity. Leotard’s approach to the understanding of ‘culture’ is fraught with the dangerously orthodox proposition distinguishing ‘foreigners’ and ‘natives’. In cultural anthropology such a proposition was smuggled in the 1960s with the emphasis that ‘outsiders’ can not faithfully study a traditional society. In European philosophy also such conception of culture as a form of intuitive knowledge available to the insider dates back to at least Fichte and Herder.. It was very common with German Romanticism and European racism. When human potential ‘to act as rational and moral agents’ is denounced by the post-modernists, it is natural for them to worship traditional illusory and overtly barbaric practices. In India during the hey-day of religious nationalism under the British Raj, orthodox Hindus were the dogmatic protagonists for the preservation of Indian tradition rooted in grotesque practices. The RSS activists must draw inspiration from Leotard’s propositions by rejecting non-Hindus any potential and scope to study Hindu practices to which they are the supposed foreigners. Leotard’s definition of culture as primordial belonging and intuitive knowledge actually leads him to draw the unscientific and irrational contrast between development with the modern elements emanated from Enlightenment and non-development based on ‘the superiority of customary knowledge’. The positing of clear binary opposition between development and tradition virtually fits well with American modernization theories.

Hindu revivalists bear a romantic longing for the spirit of the past as a dominant principle against "individualistic, critical, rationalistic and materialistic trends of modern Western civilization. Hindu revivalism believes in a traditional, organic and associative outlook." [V.P. Varma, Modern Indian Political Thought, Agra, 1980, pp372-373] Like all the Hindu revivalists, the founders of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh which is now the BJP, announced the superiority of Hindu culture and was deeply convinced of the moral and rational efficacy of its values [ibid p.396]

Habermas found neo-conservatism in Post-modernism. Actually speaking Habermas liked the early modernism of the Enlightenment period. On the other hand Leotard wanted to remove all enlightenment based modernism. Habermas opposed Post-modernism for its total condemnation of Reason and Enlightenment. He found that in the late 60s the youth were increasingly being overwhelmed by unreason, anarchism and frustration. He thought the crisis lay in the present economic system itself.

Post-structuralists, however, apparently differed themselves with modernism by emphasizing ‘text’, not history or society. Derrida, Barthes et al believed that there is nothing without language. Such faith in language is in actual sense a sort of revolving within modernism. The language and discourse are closely related in the view of the post structuralists.

It should be emphatically stated that both modernism and post-modernism are related to European or American society. Our country like most of the 3rd world countries has not yet witnessed ‘modernism’ in the western sense. A backward economic structure, steeped in tradition or religion, like ours has yet to get "modernised". So the debate is irrelevant in the mostly pre-modern system and structure in countries of the 3rd world.

If all categories are rejected, if certain things like measurement through the conceptual tools like theoretical mathematics are condemned, it will ultimately take us nowhere, in a chaotic condition. Foucault in his Post-modernist writings rejected all sorts of power. Post-modernists also advocate total rejection of certain tools essential to find certain results like cause and effect and thus force us to go in for total chaos. Post-modernists/Post-structuralists do not provide any solution, only raise questions and ultimately end up in absurdities. It takes us to a world without basis, without the need for change of the present system and in the end rejects common sense and the prospect of progress to a new society. They reject the power of a writer or the metaphysical basis of language but unwillingly or consciously develop power of their own to convince, behind a veil of neutrality and ultimately enter the cage of an anti-realist philosophy of language. Most important of all that the big guns of Post-modernism and their trusted disciples keep themselves out of the pale of simple protest like against the US aggression in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere. It is worth mentioning that academicians and intellectuals of the 20th century, both liberal unorthodox and Marxist in inclinations, made their voice heard around the world on questions of war, imperialist aggression, fascism, etc. In contrast the Post-modernist/ Post-structuralists leaders’ voice is hardly heard when imperialism is unleashing its unbridled offensive against the people and even against some states asserting their rights of sovereignty.


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