Post-modernism Today

A Brief Introduction



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Critique of Post-modernism/Post-structuralism


What is called a modern society is the new society that emerged from the womb of feudalism. The disintegration of feudalism was made possible by the rise in trade and commerce on a massive scale with the emergence of the merchant bourgeois class. The Italian Renaissance, to be sure, marked the beginning of the modern age. The Renaissance heralded a new age with its emphasis on rationalism, this — worldliness, scientific attitude and secularism. It opened up the new spirit of discovery and scientific and technological inventions. Against feudal tyranny, a sort of humanistic spirit also made its presence felt in that new age. Keplar, Galileo and then Newton laid the basis of modern science. The Renaissance also brought to the fore the concept of sovereign political entity or the nation state. Modern capitalism emerged with the disintegration of the feudal system. The advance in science, technology, communication system, rational thinking, etc. paved the way for the advance of the capitalist system.

Modernisation and its essential features are:-

* Industrialisation

* Unbanisation with new mode of production

* Increasing world population

* Growth of working class

* New type of economic relations

* Architecture, engineering

* Modern science with electricity, steam engine, power loom, machine, electronics, international network of communication, massive inventions in the medical field

* Press and possibility of putting into print ideas and opinions.

* A new relation of production

* Modernity assumes that local ties and parochial perspectives should give way to cosmopolitan attitudes and universal commitments; that the truths of utility, calculation, and science take precedence over those of the sacred, emotion, the non-rational; associations in which people live and work should be based on choice not on birth; people should not submit to fatalism; accountability of the rulers and participation of people in the control and removal of tyrannical rule, etc.

* A distinct rise in the attitude towards this-worldliness and a division between this-worldliness and other worldliness.

Modernism was a cultural outlook, a mood and movement. It held dominance for over a century. And this modernism also, for a long time, put under pressure bourgeois social organisation. Irving found in modernism a rebellions attitude against traditional forms. Modernism provided meanings: i) it tried to remove distance, the distance may be mental, social and aesthetic with its stress on the present and experimentation. ii) Subjectively it brought humanism and unhindered creativity as found in the 19th century. It attacked religious beliefs in the auspicious, supernaturalism and faith in heaven and hell. It also brought motion and speed through revolutionization of the productive forces. The middle age was controlled by mystery and death. The rise of Reason opened up the path towards immense possibilities in human beings. Self-consciousness became the matter of intense deliberation. The very important contribution of modernism, coming through Reformation and the Renaissance, was that even knowing the inevitability of death, man disobeyed it by going into conscious creative activities. Thus it overcame the limits or boundaries breaking with tradition.

Heidegger and Nietzsche, the fathers of the Post-modernist/post-structuralists believed that the world is full of disorder and that the world has not any aim and objective. The Post-modernist/post-structuralists worship the prophets of doom. They reject any discipline in society.

In the whole of the middle ages the debate was between Reason and non-Reason. This Reason became the enemy of the post-modernist. Modernism stressed on the present, not the past. In fact modernism came as an alternative to religion with a degree of humanism. Modernism wanted to establish life aesthetically what Post-modernist/post-structuralists oppose. The latter stress the instinctive elements, what modernism criticised.

The positive and negative aspects of modernization in the post-Enlightenment period are to be judged in respect of fulfillment of the basic needs of the common people — economic, political, cultural, medical etc. It is necessary to take into account the questions of economic inequality, employment opportunities, colonial or neo-colonial exploitation, maintenance of balance with nature and so on. The massive development in the production of food and tools, the unbelievable development in technology and science, the great break-throughs in the medical field, the extraordinary widening of the horizon of knowledge in innumerable spheres, the changes in the traditional societies marked by the predominance of astricriptive, particularistic and diffused patterns, by limited, special and occupational mobility, and reduced faith in ghosts, spirits and quackery and so on are the fruits of the post Enlightenment Age. Modernization had been identified by one writer (who, however, now preaches a dangerous view) as a revolutionary process; its technological and cultural consequences are as significant as those of the Neolithic Revolution which turned food gathering and hunting nomads into settled agriculturists.[Samuel P. Huntington, "The Change to Change: Modernization, Development, and Politics", Comparative Politics, Vol.3, April, 1971, pp.283-322]

When post-modernist/post-structuralists launch crusades against the whole process of post-feudal developments and benefits, it is better to visualise societies sans all those changes beneficial to mankind. No post-modernist/post-structuralistss could presumably weave out their theories in the then state of affairs. They want the world to really hark back to the morass of a superstitions backward state without the aforesaid benefits of science and technology.

This, however, does not imply that capitalism and still later the gigantic imperialist power springing from capitalism in the most-modern societies are benedictions for the world people and nature. The large body of Marxist literature is the embodiment of a rational, scientific dissection of the capitalist system as well as a farsighted programme of a socialist society free from the ills of capitalism. Marxism is not merely a theory but also a guide to action. Marxists do admit that the very technology that has produced more and more deadly armaments has also produced a more and more wasteful civilisation in the very centres of the West. The imperialist system’s increasing inequality and exploitation and wars are also the results of this capitalist system. There is also a theory in support of modernization which declares the high-sounding lofty view that when differences between national societies are narrowed off it will lead to "a point at which the various societies are so homogenized as to be able capable of forming a world state."[Cyril E. Black (ed.), Comparative Modernization: A Reader, New York, Free Press, 1976, p.174] This homogenisation view practically mediated by force to erase pluralities, nationalities, cultures, etc. is befittingly challenged by nationally, cultural and other just movements. Marxists support such just movements and even preach the right to self-determination of nationalities from a state under dominant nationalities. It was Lenin who allowed Finland to get separated after the October Revolution and the Soviet Constitution enshrined a clause for the intending nationalities to secede. Post-modernist/post-structuralists thinkers quite justifiably raised their voice in their writings against the homogenisation process, but no known Post-modernist/post-structuralists theoretician are found to pluck enough courage to come to the streets in order to oppose repression on nationalities, ethnic groups, etc. fighting for their rights.

It is true that the roots of opposition between modernity and tradition go back to at least as far back as the period of the Enlightenment. It is also true that some protagonists of modernism posed it as diametrically opposite to tradition in all respects. A proper dialectical approach rests on rejecting the feudal and even pre-feudal obnoxious elements in order to usher in a society free from all the evils of the past. This does not mean rejecting or brushing aside all the elements of the past. We have to carry forward the precious experiences and contributions of our ancestors embodied in culture, in thoughts, in the vast field of indigenous medicines and so on. In Marx’s writings, in Mao’s experience in China, etc. references are galore to prove that the best elements of the past, conducive to human progress, were not only appreciated but also were made the best use of in the interest of mankind.

Some American sociologists posit Marx against tradition.[Lloyd I. Rudolph, Susame Hoeber Rudolph, The Modernity of Tradition, Political Development in India, Orient Longman, p. 3] In an oft-quoted passage in the Grundrisse (Introduction) Marx observed that Greek art, although it is bound up with specific forms of social development, it nevertheless remains for us, in certain respect, "a norm and an unattainable ideal" and exercises an "eternal charm". Marxists value and project the egalitarian nature of the early societies, which extends to relations between the sexes: both women’s productive role and their personal autonomy. There might have been some mistaken understanding even among some Marxists regarding traditional culture and practices but a familiarly with the wealth of Marx’s or Mao’s writings will dispel such confusion.

The eternal respect for tradition among the post-modernist against science and reason actually leads to a romantic love even for the ossified and stagnating social formations and their elements. In the name of tradition then we have to leave untouched the repellant culturo-anthropological factors dividing the exploited people at the bottom of Indian society, we have to abandon our fight against the practice of untouchability, we have to withdraw our concerted battle against primordial loyalties, against sacrifices of human beings and animals to win favours of gods and goddesses, we have to allow the people at a very low technological level to die at the hands of Gunins, Ojhas, sorcerers, exorcists, etc. for even simple diseases without making them conscious to undergo treatments provided by modern medical science, and so on and so forth. The Post-modernists will shout out aloud that any intervention to that end by us will amount to imposing ‘our’ power-based science on those people. The question can be shot as to what measures our Post-modernist/post-structuralists actually follow in their real-life situation. Do they abhor modern treatments or the affordable technological and scientific facilities while preaching tender love for the tradition? Obviously not.

Marxism is never a closed system. Even Derrida had commented that "....... Marxism presents itself, has presented itself from the beginning with Marx, as an open theory which was continually to transform itself and not become fixed in dogma, in stereotypes ..........."[Quoted from an interview with Derrida in Literary Review, No.14 (April/May 1980 in Dr. Pradip Basu, "Post-modernism — an Enemy of Marxism?" In Cultural Theory and Cinema, An Introductory Reader, A Journal of Cine Society, Mosabani, Vol. 16, 1999, p.43] Marxism is a historical product. It has its internal strength to cope with the emerging problems and it is also enriched by the developments in science, technology and the experiences of the people’s struggle for socialism and its progress in an adverse situation. The debate with post-modernist/post-structuralists thinkers will undoubtedly enrich the cutting edge of Marxism. It is clear that Marxism will enrich itself through a critical study of those trends.

In Post-modernism any attempt to know the world as a whole, being open to rational comprehension, let alone the will to change it, has to be dismissed as a contemptible attempt to construct ‘grand narratives’ and ‘totalizing’ knowledge. In the discourse analysis only power is universal and immutable, reducing resistance only to the local level. Actually a typical American kind of pluralism is propagated. In the Foucaultian propositions for whatever claims to facts are nothing but truth-effect produced by a ruse of discourse. Secondly that, whatever attempts are made to resist Power, is already constituted as Power. Then there really is nothing for theory to do except to wander aimlessly through the effects – counting them, consuming them, producing them — and in the process submitting to the continuous whisperings of Discourse, both as Origin and Fate.

The Derridean kind of Post-Modernism moves to the direction of a "self-reflexive celebration" (one is free to choose any and all subject positions – beyond all structures and all systems), Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism with the Foucaultian concept of history, having no subjects or collective projects in any case, and the political implications of Foucault’s philosophical position and narrative structure tend not only to reinforce the impossibility of stable belonging and subject position but also to bestow upon the world a never-ending cages for the Discourses of power, and all this leads human beings to nowhere without any scope of emancipation. The Discourses of power present history without systemic, origin, human subjects or collective sites. However, it is a history of all-encompassing Power, which is wielded by none and cannot be resisted because there remains nothing outside the fabrications of Power. History in this sense is not open to change, only to narrativization having occasional micro-level and individual scope of resistance.

Marxism also rejects the notion of ‘limited’ or what the conservative theoretician in the Post-modernist/post-structuralists trends declared as "The End of History" with the downfall of the Soviet Union and capitalist restoration in China. But Marxism can never subscribe to such Post-modernist notion of blind worship of tradition and the ludicrous rejection of any measurable progress in social, economic, scientific and other fields in course of a long historical process. There may, however, be some points of agreement with some Post-modernist thinkers in respect of marginalisation of some people or arbitrary use of the tag of backwardness on some deprived people by the power controlling the state. Yet Marxism rejects any such view which pretends to be oblivious of or which tries to skip the question of progress or regress in terms of meeting the basic needs of human beings, knowledge and possession of superior or inferior technology, knowledge of the laws of nature, cultural elements, man-nature relationship, human relationship, level of consciousness of the people in regard to nature, socio-economic problems, etc. etc. However, all the variegated aspects might not be focused in all cases or in all contexts. Secondly, certain features like imperialist exploitation or extreme consumerism or the like may crucially overshadow many of the positive elements referred, but this does not require to jettison the whole idea of advancement history has recorded since time immemorial. The concept of time and space as presented by Post-modernism contains the unconcealed idea of no progress in historical time in respect of developments in the fields of economy, cultural refinements, medicine, physics, etc.

Marx in his early essay "On The Jewish Question" wrote that men have freed themselves from the incubus of religion by relegating it to the personal sphere, cut off from the public hurly burly of competition. In such separation he saw an index of the alienation of man from man, making it impossible for the individual to be a full human being. Still, it was a necessary step forward, and the Reformation which inaugurated it was a revolutionary advance (Introduction, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’).

The fundamental laws of dialectical materialism are: (1) the law of the transformation of quantity into quality, according to which gradual quantitative changes lead to qualitative changes. (2) the law of the unity of opposites, which holds that the unity of concrete reality is a unity of opposites or contradictions; (3) the law of the negation of the negation, which claims that in the clash of opposites one opposite negates another and is in its turn negated by a higher level of historical development that preserves something of both negated terms (thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis).

It is true that dialectical materialism has been sometimes wrongly placed in terms of historical materialism as something like economism. The economic determinist view asserts that, as the material base of society, only the economy, and even perhaps only its ‘most material’ aspect, productive technology, has real causal efficacy, the political and theoretical superstructure being epiphenomenal., Engels, Lenin and Mao strongly contested such view.

If dialectical progress is negated, only the prophets of doom or anarchy, with no prospect for progress, would result in an absurd world with nothing to measure for studying human history, past or present. The role of common sense, the reasoning power of judgment and any study or praxis should be given a go-by.

Marxists would not generally reject Foucault’s thesis that all knowledge is produced within certain structures of power. But they must raise the fundamental question as to whose power and how to change the existing structures of power. Marxists will identify capital, and capitalist relations and their overall structure remaining as the fundamental locus of power in a capitalist state. Secondly, those who are economically and politically dominant will, as a rule, control the structures producing and disseminating knowledge. Against this view Foucault will argue that Power is everywhere, in every social relation, but dispersed, diffused, impersonal, multiple, wielded by no one, with no identifiable origin or defined purpose. He made it categorical that the history of Power cannot be narrated from the twin sites of political economy and the state. Thus, it is implied that resistance to Power can also not be organised as some project to change the nature of the state or politico-economic system. Foucault also opined that since Power is everywhere there is really no place where resistance can be distinguished from Power itself, what is resistance is in reality another kind of Power.

Foucault had written his highly thought-provoking books like The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences (1966), The Archeology of Knowledge (1969), The Birth of Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception (1963); Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison (1975) and the incomplete six-volumes of History of Sexuality (1976). His main preoccupation was with epistemology and history of modern sciences concentrating on the central point that all systems of thought stand in relation to Power.

Marxists do admit that modern economic thought arises along with the capitalist production, or modern political thought springs from the time of emergence of the bourgeois state. However, to Foucault there are no particular boundaries between ideology and science, or between true and false knowledge. His main concern is that the relationship between those truth claims of human sciences and the structures of power legitimising them. The question remains whether one can draw a distinction between the claim to truth and the claim to power in every case. Most important is that Foucault denied any objectivity of knowledge that was not an effect of power.

Foucault formulated his arguments along two axes: the epistemological claims and discursive formation of the various sciences, and a historical account of particular discourses as specific Power/knowledge complexes. His main concern was to discover the real properties of what he called the Western episteme, the basic system of all European knowledge as they have been constituted since the Age of Reason from the period of Descartes and others, and were then stabilized in the Modern Age when various human sciences came into being. This period has been identified between 1790-1950.

Foucault did not find any system in the historical process. There is no meaning, moving stream, no gradual step-by-step or dialectical process of progress. In Foucault’s opinion what is found is one type of disjoined, fragmented thoughts emerging at the end of one type of civilization. Such thoughts have been called by Foucault part-knowledge or ‘episteme’. At one stage in the course of time old epistemes yield place to the new epistemes. A Discourse is thus an epistemic construction. And Foucault speaks of full-fledged discourse emerging only after the 16th century because what he called ‘discourse’ presumes, as coextensive corollary, a rationalism of the post-medieval kind, alongside the increasing elaborations of modern state forms, modern institutional grids, objectified economic productions and modern forms of rationalized planning.

In his detailed studies of particular ‘discourses’ like health and medicine, incarceration, punishment, social reforms, etc., Foucault sought to establish a certain binding link between knowledge and Power, humanism and terror, reform and domination, throughout the history of Modernity, Reason playing the role of perfecting all forms of domination. Secondly, Foucault was categorical that there was no one source of power like the state or political economy but discrete practices of power through regulation of sex, imprisonment, sending to lunatic asylums, etc., which could only be studied only in their respective autonomous spaces; there was no History as a Pursuit of Liberty, but only histories of Power, productivity and subjugation. So there cannot be any just struggle for freedom since that is also going to help emerge another Power of subjugation. Foucault also sought to establish that the real problem was not the exploitation of labour but what he called technologies of the body: the religion, moral, judicial, medical, sexual, penal and more or less violent means of inculcating in the human body what was supposedly ‘normal’. The very puzzling question that Foucault laid stress on was that power was dispersed in innumerable discourses and practices but there was no person, no institution or network of institutions and interests to whom the exercise of power is traceable; no point of origin where, the wielding of power starts from; no point of pressure at which resistance could be organized; each discourse of power produced its own points of tension and conflict, and resistance could only be multiple, local and transitory. With the omnipresent ghost of power, or in other words, the presentation of an all-pervading power from which man can not wriggle out and perpetually fail to identify the sources or remain blind-folded to the monstrous modern state and main exploiting classes. An oppressed and exploited person, in Foucaultian scheme, is only left with small-scale, local and temporary resistance. This is the dangerous proposition for the exploited and repressed people of the world.


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