Post-modernism Today

A Brief Introduction



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What Post-modernists/Post-structuralists claim


This new fashionable trend challenges the Enlightenment’s belief in the existence of underlying essences and unified entities. With this distancing from the Enlightenment it focused on the local and the particular. They argue that there is no such thing as intrinsic nature, an objective reality or an accurate representation of the world as it is in itself. Just as there are no universal laws of history operating independently of particular agents, similarly, there is no truth out there, existing independently of the human mind, waiting to be ‘discovered.’ [R.Rorty, The Contingency of Language, London Review of Books, April 17, 1986] All claims about the nature of the world are embodied in language and mediated through our theoretical paradigm. Hence, we never know the world in itself; what we see and know is the world as it appears to us through the lens of our paradigm. Thus our descriptions of the world are human constructs, devised, used and judged by their capacity to perform certain tasks. This idealist view thus rejects the objective basis of knowledge, the empiricist conception of science and the Enlightenment’s quest for philosophic or scientific certitude. The materialist view that some truth can be discovered by scientific observation and philosophic reason is rejected by this new petty bourgeois philosophy. The advocates of post-structuralism/post-modernism in their criticism argue that such ideas stemmed from the fundamental belief that there are non-linguistic things called ‘meanings’ and ‘essence’ and the task of language is to express these meanings and represent their essences. Most of all, post-modernists/post-structrualists reject this conception of language itself. What is devastating is their argument that we must drop the idea that language is a system of representation.

Such assertion led the post-structuralists/post-modernists to draw several conclusions like: (1) all languages are human constructs and it is never appropriate to speak of a language as being an adequate or inadequate representation of the world or self. (2) The choice between one language game and another can neither be explained in rational terms nor grounded in "algorithmic certainty."[E.Laclau, New Reflections on the Revolution of our Time, Verso, London, 1990, pp. 188-90] (3) Truth is a property of linguistic entities and it does not refer to an accurate representation or a mirror image of the world (4) There are no absolute referents in the form of ‘intrinsic nature’ or ‘pure essence’; meaning is therefore an object of self-creation: it is to be made, not discovered. [R.Rorty, The Contingency of Language, Ibid] (5) For Derrida, the signifier is characterized by a ‘surplus’, i.e. it supplements the thing itself. Since the sign or signifier does not actually represent the signified, it cannot be reduced to a single identifiable object or meaning. All we can say about the sign, as a text, is that it resonates with several meanings. Its meaning is not exhausted by the author’s intentions or the particularity of the historical context.[J.Derrida, Of Grammatology, Maryland, Baltimore, 1976, pp. 317-18] Thus it is said that the reader/analyst has to approach the text with an essential awareness of the ‘arbitrariness’ of the sign and the indeterminacy of meaning. Such a view implies that the search for a unified meaning within a text must be given up. Instead the focus should be on the inconsistencies and the contradictions of meaning within a text. Thus the Derridian deconstruction asks the reader not to go in for one meaning but to question, reverse the existing "oppositions or hierarchies". In the words of Derrida, a reading of absences and the insertion of new meanings are the twin strategies and they are employed not for "tracking down" or "discovering" truth. It is instead the fields of "free play …. a field of infinite substitutions in the closure of a finite ensemble." [Derrida, Of Grammatology, Ibid, p.51] Thus it boils down to a field of infinite substitution of words or in other words the acceptance of otherness – a residual content against the supposed conceptual closure "imposed by the metaphysics of presence". (6) The post-modern/post-structural theorists reveal, at the epistemological plane, through their limitless celebration of difference and otherness, the actual impossibility of reading and knowledge. They express doubts about the human ability to shape the present and the future, conceding the powerlessness, disintegration and contingency as human predicaments. (7) With the absence of philosophical justifications, solidarity among members cannot be assumed. Since there are bound to be differences among members of a society on any issue, only "civil association" allowing for differences, can be imagined.[R.Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1980, p.318] On other occasions they justify the struggles of women, gays, environmentalists, etc. in the context of Euro centric logos of Enlightenment rationality, these theorists celebrate the ethnic and the oriental. For them Ethnos becomes an authentic and primary category in social analysis and an expression of their pluralistic stance. Such preference for the ethnic and the cultural is manifested in the writings of this trend.

Post-modernism is the outcome or result of the ideological and objective crises in the period when the prospect of revolution receded to the background and the militant working class movement in Europe was largely assimilated by the states. The Soviet and Chinese degeneration had a great enervating influence on the general mass. At this juncture emerged the discourse of post-modernism, the momentarism of pluralism — at once a radical departure from the past, with concepts, minus a foundation in history, philosophy and all disciplines. It was the robust opposition to the enlightenment ideas, reason, cause and effect, and so on.

In the crisis of the western world, Post-modernism is not a mere negative response, it is also a sort of distorted protest. It reflects the cynicism and frustration of the 1970s and 1980s and so it is easily accepted in the west. In Derrida’s thought, ‘power’ tends to be corrupt. He says that ‘power’ tries to unify everything by force and thus rejects differences. So reject power. The basic fact is, they say, that the tortured remains tortured because the entire system invariably generates the tortured. Whatever political system it may be, the final result is absence of freedom and presence of frustration. Such views gained further credibility due to the rise of bureaucratic revisionist regimes in Russia, East Europe and then China, after capitalist restoration. These views are easily accepted in the western world mired in chronic crisis. For freedom Derrida gave the call for Deconstruction.

Secondly Post-modernism raises questions of Reason, which, it thinks, gave birth to the present science, democracy and the notion of progress as well as imperialism and neo-colonialism. Foucault showed that the present form of power and knowledge have created a new form of hegemony.

To summarise the views of Post-modernists in the words of a key post-modernist that wants to blend post-modernism with Marxism, Fredric Jameson, we find the following: First, post-modernity is a depthless, superficial world; it is a world of simulation (for example, a jungle cruise at Disneyland rather than the real thing). Second, it is a world that is lacking in affection and emotion. Third, there is a loss of a sense of one’s place in history; it is hard to distinguish past, present, and future. Fourth, it is now the world of the explosive, expanding, productive technologies of modernity (as television).[Fredric Jameson, Post-modernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham, Duke University Press, 1991] In the words of Rosenau, the post-modern mode of thought is largely characteristics of the modern way of thinking, in terms of its method of opposition. Instead of grand narratives, it prefers more limited explanations or no explanations at all. It also rejects the boundaries between various disciplines. Post-modernists are more often startle the readers, than engage in careful, reasoned academic discourse. And most important is that, instead of looking for the core of society (like rationality, or capitalist exploitation), post-modernism is more inclined to focus on more of the peripheral aspects of society.[Pauline Marie Rosenau, Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, inroads, and intrusions, Princeton University Press, 1992]

Romanticism in the 19th century also came out against rationalism of the Enlightenment. It saw the motive force of cognition, the experience of the contradiction between the finite and the infinite, the aspiration for the infinite, the frustration born out of the unattained ability of the infinite, an ironical attitude towards oneself and one’s creation. Romanticists idealised the feudal Catholic past; some of them even turned to Catholicism and became ideologists of the Restoration. Their criticism of capitalism was one-sided, looking at only the dark side of it and preaching for the medieval past. However, a section of them, despite utopian conclusion at the end, made a critique of capitalism and the feudal past in Europe.

Not only romanticism, some other schools of thought like Historicism, Hermeneutics, Critical Theory and post-empiricist theories of science criticised modernism. However, post-modernists/post-structuralists stand on a different plane from them, on some vital questions. Some German Historians and philosophers attributed to the Enlightenment reason for the problems in industrial societies. Herder and some other historians questioned the Enlightenment’s reading of history, dismissing all previous ways of life. However, neither historicism nor romanticism questioned the existence of the universal. They did not abandon the search for an objective truth though they questioned the view of a single reality and truth. In certain respects they anticipated the current idealist trend: they considered social reality to be a human construct, its distinctive cultural voice or historical spirit could be recovered. In one sense, the search historical spirit could be recovered. In one sense the search for the objective truth was not totally abandoned. Hermeneutic philosophy gave up the notion of an essential and universal truth, and argued for different types of rationality stressing on history. Empiricist philosophies of science had also some proximity with the current idealist trend like the view that there is no way in which we can know the world in itself. All knowledge, even that of the natural sciences, is mediated through conceptual schemes and subject of interpretation by the members of the scientific community. [N.R.Hansen, ‘Observation as Theory Laden’ In S.Brown, J.Fauvel and G.C.Spivak, The John Hopkins University Press, Macmillan, London 1981]

The post-modernist/post-structuralists dismiss the hermeneutic faith in the recovery of a single, historically and culturally specific meaning with the twin ideas of indeterminacy of meaning and absence of closure. They also reject the views of those critics of Enlightenment/Reason, by challenging the very quest for foundations and essences, overemphasizing the absolute contingency of the self, language and community. Simultaneously, any reading should try to focus on the ambiguity and incoherence present in the text, expecting the reader to loosen the text by allowing other meanings to seep into the text.

Post-modernism derives many of its basic elements from structuralism and post-structuralism, the latter being its main building blocks. Many of the post-modernist thinkers lived in both the trends. For an understanding of this prominent trend this discussion at first touches upon structuralism to move on to post-structuralism with its additional features exhibited in post-modernism. In many cases post-modernism and post-structuralism appear to be similar in approach. Before going into a critical study of this trend it is made expressly clear that this is neither a comprehensive study by trained philosophers or linguists nor an exercise in futile weaving of arguments detached from the practice of demolishing the bases of capitalism, imperialism as well as feudalism; the former ones breeding distorted reason and perverted man-nature relationship, the latter tenaciously trying, in countries like India, to move backward to the world of unreason and superstition.


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