By Aziz Ali Dad
(A study of transitions, shifts, disruptions, eruptions, severing, splits and cataclysms provides us clues and cues about the nature or condition of an emerging worldview. Among different epochs of change in human history, modernity is unique because it created a sudden rupture in continuity and broke the cyclical nature of history and established a linear movement of history. Owing to this, modernity has erected the binary of primitive versus modern, modern versus traditional and rational versus irrational. Though the rationalistic élan, institutional structures and disenchanted outlook of modernity still inform the worldview of today. However, the core tenets of modernity were challenged by the postmodernity that emerged in the fin de siècle of the twentieth century. This essay attempts to trace the emergence of postmodernism in different spheres of life, its major postulates, consequences, and repercussions on the contemporary world. – Author)
The study of the history of ideas reveals that since time immemorial humankind has attempted to understand and interpret the manifestations of the universe and self through different worldviews. Some scholars tend to divide the complex journey of the human mind into clear cut stages of animism, magic, mythology, religion, philosophy, and science. In this taxonomy of mentalities/worldviews, science occupies a superior position because it is contemporary. Such an approach created ethnocentric and biased attitudes within modern knowledge.
For example, with the dominance of natural sciences on the firmament of knowledge during the last two hundred years, philosophers, especially with leanings towards logical positivism, in the early decades of the twentieth century declared the modern age scientific. They claimed that the scientific outlook would replace all the extant worldviews because it is the only authentic knowledge and worldview to resolve enigmas of the natural, social and subjective world. Under the fervour of the verifiability principle and scientific culture, a particular attitude was developed among social scientists to degrade other worldviews as primitive or uncivilised.
However, the studies of mentalities debunk this view as Eurocentric for there is no clear-cut departure from one mental structure to another, as happens in the case of paradigm shifts in natural sciences.
It is not necessary that every society may follow the same mental paths delineated and elaborated through a deterministic logic which follows the stagist conception of the human mind and history. The counterargument of anti-stagist theories claims that it is not a historical necessity that every society follows the same path of mentalities.
It is possible that two or three stages or mental structures synchronise in a given specific time and space. For example, in more developed societies like North America and Australia, we fi Native Americans and Aborigines following the worldview of animism and magic. This shows that societies do not follow the chronological order defined
by rational epistemes, rather they leave some stages and jump into the domains that are dubbed advanced, developed, or modern mentalities or worldviews by the proponents of modernity. Sometimes the mentalities come into direct conflict with each other. The famous event of the inquisition of Galileo provides us with a clear example of the clash between two different paradigms or mental structures.
The theological worldview of that period was based on the geocentric view, while Galileo was a representative of the heliocentric view. When society evolves in isolation, it develops its own social, political, cultural, economic, and moral structures.
By combining different domains of life within an overarching structure, it forms its own view of the world – weltanschauung. Such a society abandons some of its cultural practices to accommodate new experiences within its worldview when it interacts with other or more “developed” societies. By doing so, society keeps broadening the horizons of its view of the world. Seen in this way, in the interaction between “savages” and “civilised” societies, it is the savage societies that kept broadening their horizons while the men with the burden of civilisation were less accommodative of views of the primitive mind, for in the schema of modern knowledge it is categorised as primitive.
The aforementioned discussion clearly shows that at every stage mankind evolved a worldview (weltanschauung), which helped humans to understand themself in relation to society and the world. The man expressed his ideas about the universe through this mental picture of the world. It is important to note that a worldview is not exclusively scientific or mythical.
A worldview combines all mythical elements along with scientific. Otherwise, it would not have been possible to perform practical tasks or evolve social, moral, and political systems.
With the passage of time, minor shifts in worldview occur. An increase in the shifts paves the way for a new outlook on life and the world. When the intensity in minor shifts increases the change within the structure or form of worldview becomes clearly discernible. The moment change reaches its zenith of intensity, there occurs confusion in the worldview, as the old makes no sense and the contours of the new are not yet clear.
This phase can be called the transitional period. So far, the history of ideas focused on immutable patterns of thought. In reality, change emanates from the chaos of transition. As Aristophanes said, “At the beginning, there was only Chaos,”1 so is the order of things that emerge from the womb of chaos nourished by the fluidity of yet to be established mental structures.
A study of the transitional period poses many challenges as the object of study remains in flux without any coherent pattern. The moment we start to deal with the ever-changing manifestation of noumena in phenomena, we enter into the terrain where there is rapid sand shifting.
Despite these challenges, a study of transitions, shifts, disruptions, eruptions, severing, splits and cataclysms provides us clues and cues about the nature or condition of an emerging worldview. Among different epochs of change in human history, modernity is unique because it created a sudden rupture in continuity and broke the cyclical nature of history and established a linear movement of history. Owing to this, modernity has erected the binary of primitive versus modern, modern versus traditional and rational versus irrational.
Though the rationalistic élan, institutional structures and disenchanted outlook of modernity still inform the worldview of today. However, the core tenets of modernity were challenged by the postmodernity that emerged in the fi de siècle of the twentieth century. This essay attempts to trace the emergence of postmodernism in different spheres of life, its major postulates, consequences, and repercussions on the contemporary world.
The difficulty with postmodernism is that it does not have a palpable rupture with the past or dominating worldview like modernity, rather it emerged on the surface after navigating the subterranean terrain of modernity. Initially, its conceptual ideas started to take root in different domains of life before challenging the ideals and structures of modernity and inaugurating its arrival on the intellectual scene.
The term postmodernism entered into the philosophical debate during the last decades of the twentieth century. Although postmodernism initially emerged in a non-philosophical domain of architecture, it has quickly made inroads into art, literature, literary theory, cultural studies, and philosophy. In its formative phase, postmodernism appeared as different streams of trends that gradually merged into the mainstream. Today postmodernism is the most contested concept in philosophy.
The meaning of ‘Post’, as the ‘post-’of postmodernism, has the sense of simple succession, a diachronic sequence of periods in which each one is clearly identifiable. The ‘post’ indicates something like a conversion: a new direction from the previous one.2
The idea of modernity is the outcome of the enlightenment movement in Europe and its main feature is its emphasis on reason. It was an intellectual, social, and political phenomenon that brought into being the modern world.
“Modernism is a cultural movement that occurred in the west at the end of the nineteenth century and, to complicate matters further, was in some respects a critical reaction against modernity.”3
It is Immanuel Kant who brought about the Copernican revolution in philosophical modernity with his magisterial book Critique of Pure Reason. Likewise, Jean-François Lyotard inaugurated the age of philosophical postmodernism with his magnum opus The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.4 Post-modernism is also characterised by change and rejection of the ideals of modernity or, in the words of Lyotard, it is “incredulity towards ‘metanarratives’.”5
The postmodern movement came into being after the end of modernity. It is characterised by the emergence of the post-industrial information economy and cybernetic revolutions, which has transformed the economy and society. At an epistemic level, it has challenged the dominant epistemes and explicated emerging contours of knowledge produced and disseminated by digital means and processes. Also, unlike modernity where mechanical metaphors were dominant, the postmodern age is defined by cybernetic ones.
The problem arises with the term ‘modernism’ in ‘post-modernism’. Modernism has cultural connotations and the use of it with ‘post’ creates confusion about whether it is simply a cultural reaction against modernism or something else. It also excludes the social and political aspects of modernity. Dr Nasir Abbas Nayyar makes a nuanced distinction between ‘postmodernity’ and ‘postmodernism’. He is of the view that postmodernity is a condition produced by development in mass communication and information technology, whereas postmodernism is an aesthetic, literary and social philosophy that consciously responds to postmodern conditions.6
Post-modernism is a “term for defining the overall direction of experimental tendencies in Western arts, Architecture, media, etc., since the 1950s, particularly recent developments associated with post-industrial society and cultural globalisation”.7
Study and analysis of changing trends in these different spheres of life help us to understand postmodernism. By studying and analysing postmodernism in the context of contemporary and historical changes in different spheres of life, it can be possible to place postmodernism in the history of ideas. Since this research deals with aesthetic, literary and philosophical domains, it will use postmodernism throughout the paper unless otherwise postmodernity is mentioned in its specific context.
Among the different fields of life, architecture claims to have a precise date for the inauguration of postmodernism. Some postmodernist theorists, like Charles Jencks, try to find the initial theoretical basis in architecture. After World War II, cities in Europe witnessed high-rise building schemes, which were criticized for their elitism and indifference to the neighbourhood and community.
According to Charles Jencks, modern architecture died when a prize-winning housing complex named Pruit-Igoe in St. Louis, Missouri, was demolished with dynamite, calling it uninhabitable. With it, solid modernity was reduced to a heap of rubble. Postmodern architecture is a revolt against authoritarian and elitist modern architecture.
It claims itself as architecture that emerged out of the necessities of a postmodern society. The distinctive feature of postmodern architecture is its eclectic and pluralist approach, which caters to the different tastes and aesthetics of the heterogeneous population of the metropolitan and megapolitan cities in the world. That is why it incorporates local culture and celebrates pluralism. This feature has infiltrated into other fields, and it has left its marks on the ideology of postmodernism.
Charles Jencks has propounded his concept of postmodernity under the influence of development in architecture. Writing about postmodernism in The Post-Modern Reader he writes, “The post-modern movement was then and remains today, a wider social protest against modernisation, against the destruction of local culture by the combined forces of rationalisation, bureaucracy, large-scale development, and, it is true, the modern international style.”8
In the field of literature, George Orwell and Cyril Connolly pronounced the demise of modernity during World War II. Literature and art of the post-1945 period witnessed radical experimentations in different genres of art and literature. It not only brought significant changes in the technique of representations but also shocked the aesthetic sensibility of modernism. A comparison between the nature of postmodernist literature and art with modernists’ works gives the impression that the creation of postmodernism’s outlook/worldview rests on the opposition to the norms and forms of modernism.
In other words, postmodernism appears to be a movement that not only opposes modernism but also destroys the cannons, practices and concepts associated with the genres of art and literature of modernism. For example, the main characteristics of modernist art and literature are representation, narrative, system, and harmony, while postmodernist literature and art present diametrically opposite ways of seeing, dealing, and representing things.
It is a voice of decentred culture. For a postmodern artist, the order of things of modernity seems disorderly as it brooks no patience for diversity. Contrary to modernism, postmodern art is characterised by anti- representation, quotation, uncertainty, metafiction, unreliable narration, self-reflexivity, intertextuality, collage, disorder, and disharmony. In theatre, French dramatist Samuel Beckett depicts the existential condition of alienation of man in a meaningless world in his plays.
He shows the absurdity of his characters through action/inaction, incoherent dialogue and the absurdity of their condition in a chaotic world. Beckett shows this absurdity in the very structure of the plot and narrative of his plays. Postmodernists claim that modernism gives hope/false hope to mankind, whereas postmodernism does not give such optimism. This kind of thinking is discernible in Beckett’s plays.
Prominent among them is Waiting for Godot9 where he depicts two absurd characters who wait for a person named ‘Godot’. The whole play, till the end, does not provide any clear clue or cue about the character they are waiting for. That character was Godot. In the play, it is not clear whether he is a God or a messiah. It also raises a question: who would deliver mankind from the suffering of the world? One of the absurdities of the play is that the persons who wait for the arrival of ‘Godot’ even do not know why they are waiting? Where is their rendezvous? And who is Godot? Even Beckett could not save himself from the absurdity.
He himself showed the absence of hope and uncertainty in his text and in his personality. When asked about the identity of ‘Godot’, Beckett replied that he does not know who Godot is, and he does not even know if Godot exists. By completely eliminating his personality from the book and saying, “What does it matter, who speaks”, he paved the ground for the conceptualisation of the ‘Death of Author’ thesis propounded by French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes who derived the wedge between writing and the writer. Hence, we can say writing writes not the writer.
In the genre of the novel, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, William Gaddis, Mikhail Bulgakov, Thomas Pynchon, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie are considered to be the representative figures of the postmodern novel. They have developed different styles and techniques, namely cut-up novel, self-reflexive novel, cybernetic novel, and the magic realist novel. Among different kinds of novels, the magical realist novel got prominence and wide acceptance.
These novels blend fact and fiction, history and fantasy, past and present and postcolonialism and postmodernism. Postmodern literature prefers matter over mind, machine over man, writing over speech, form over substance, surface over depth feminine, kitsch over fine art, and localism over universalism. These features give a magical aura to the novels written in the genre of magical realism. Through this technique, some of the writers challenged established grand narratives and established authorities in the domain of secular and profane.
Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov is in the league of that generation of novelists whose experimentation opened up new possibilities for exploration and style of novel writing. In his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita,10 Bulgakov skilfully blends magical and realistic elements, grotesque situations, and major ethical concerns. This work of Bulgakov was written when two grand narratives – capitalism and communism – of modernity held sway over most of the planet.
Though capitalist and socialist societies were struggling to establish the dominance of their respective ideologies across the world, they were still working within the worldview formed by the framework of modernity. In the ideological wrangling between communism and liberalism, there was no third option. Charles Jencks dubbed the third option as ‘The Third Force – Post-modernism’.
Bulgakov wrote and published his novel, The Master and Margarita, during the reign of Stalin. Commenting on his novel, Richard Pevear writes, “Written during the darkest period of Stalin’s repressive reign, it is a devastating satire of Soviet life and combines two distinct yet interwoven parts, one set in contemporary Moscow, the other in ancient Jerusalem, each brimming with incident and with historical, imaginary, frightful and wonderful characters.”11
The significance of this novel lies in the fact that Bulgakov does not confine himself to one period. He encompasses entirely different times and spaces that stand in the opposition to each other – the Soviet Union and Jerusalem. The communist Soviet Union rejected religion, and Jerusalem holds high religious relevance for the three monotheistic religions of the world. Through this technique, Bulgakov weaved two different times and diametrically opposite poles into a single narrative in the pages of the book. By doing so, he showed the eclectic nature of his writing.
It enabled him to revisit the past, and lodge a wider social protest against the social life which was established by the apathetic bureaucratic authority overseeing the planning machinery. Postmodernism also claims itself as a protest against the authoritarianism begotten by modernity. Bulgakov exhibits all these traits in his novel without becoming a part of the postmodernist movement.
The art of postmodernism came into being as a revolt against modern art. Postmodern art finds solutions to the problem faced by the art of modernism in its act of defiance to the theory of art and practice of art itself.
Postmodernist art is an art that is working for its own annihilation. The main tendencies in the art of postmodernism are abstract expressionism and conceptual art. Together with these, the novel experimentations in postmodern art make it anti-aesthetic and anti-art. As such, these trends and tendencies show a clear departure from the canons and practices of modernism to malpractice and deformations.
Experiments and variations in art succeeded the one before in a consecutive series of postmodernism. Conceptual art shocked the aesthetic sensibilities of modern man and turned aesthetics into anaesthetics. So, it can be said that aesthetics is replaced by the anaesthetic. It threw out the aesthetic process altogether. “Art itself was refuted as contaminated by elitism and crass marketing of the art world. Piero Manzoni typified the movement (literary) when he canned his own shit and sold it, labelled 100% pure Artist’s shit.”12
Postmodern art presents the radical refutation not only of the traditional sense and sensibilities, and notions of the art of modernism, but it also goes to the extent of refuting the very entity of art itself. Thus, despite opposition to modernism, it reveals an inherent characteristic of modern that anything can become modern in postmodernism only by refuting, rejecting, and acting against the norms, structures and practices of the previous age. Sometimes, modernism and postmodernism seem to be an effort to escape from the spectre of the presence of what was before.
The movement of postmodernism covers a variety of contradictory tendencies and thoughts. Although the connections between tendencies in different domains and variants are too convoluted to untangle, a careful study of it does reveal different strands, traits, and characteristics, which connect the heterogeneous and opposite strands in an overarching conceptual schema of postmodernism.
At the philosophical and political level deconstruction, structuralism, feminism, ecology, etc. have provided the substance for the philosophical conceptualisation of postmodernism. Debates in these domains helped in weaving the scattered strands into a coherent whole of postmodernism. Deconstruction is associated with Jacques Derrida, who in 1967 inaugurated the poststructural movement. The essence of deconstruction is that it is “a form of textual analysis, usually combined with theoretical revision. Its aim is to unmask and overcome the hidden (conceptual and theoretical) privilege.”13 The practice of deconstruction is applied to text, but the meaning of the text is broader than the normal meaning of the written word. It seeks to destabilise the fixed meaning of the text.14
Derrida’s definition of the text applies to different domains of humanities, especially in literary theory and cultural studies. The task of deconstruction is to search for contradictions and try to tease out silences which are created by the text by enunciating a coherent narrative.15
Because of its potential for exploring the multiplicity of meanings in the texts related to representation, deconstruction proved effective in analysing cinema, literary theory and criticism, drama, culture, painting, life, social media, information, sports, music, religious text, etc. Deconstruction shifts its gaze in search of meaning from author to text.
The general strategy of deconstruction is to reverse the violent hierarchy in which a few terms dominate other terms. Hence, deconstruction can be called a strategy within philosophy to deal with philosophy, for the practice of deconstruction “aspires to be both rigorous arguments within philosophy and displacement of philosophical categories or philosophical attempts at mastery.”16
In simple words, deconstruction can be described as an idea that gives importance to the meaning created in the mind of a reader rather than the author of the text. By destabilising the single locus of meaning, it opens the field of text for a variety of interpretations and free plays.
The philosophical implication of Derridean deconstruction appears in the ‘death’ of meaning in text or literary creation. By doing so he contributed to the discourse of ‘death’ started by Nietzsche, whom Herbermas considers an entry to postmodernity. This discourse of ‘death’ and ‘end’ has become one of the salient features of postmodernism.
Neil Smith, in a humorous tone, encapsulates the leitmotiv of the dead in these words, “The Enlightenment is dead, Marxism is dead, the working-class movement is dead … and the author does not feel very well either.”17 Deconstruction of meaning also destroyed certainty, authority, and authorial intention or, in other words, destroyed the author. Postmodernism is accused of being an unsystematic ideology with myriad manifestations not amenable to the definition and difficult to identify.
Such an accusation stems from the philosophical tradition influenced by thinking that generates systems. Plato, Hegel and Karl Marx can be termed as system thinkers because they constructed grand systems, which in their turn gave birth to grand narratives. On the contrary, postmodernists are influenced by antisystem thinking à la Soren Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Both are the precursors of anti-system thinking that prefer subjectivity and radical individuality over the system.
One of the repercussions of the anti-system approach in postmodernism is the question of prevailing systems in other domains of life under the categorical imperatives of meta-narrative in the domains of the secular and profane. When other spheres of life have become the target of postmodernism critique, religion cannot remain immune from it. Islamicate societies are also faced with the critique for capitulating to the dictates of grand narratives of Islam.
Some Muslims see such questioning acts as export of post-modern scepticism — a supply of doubt against Islam’s certainty, secularism against sacredness, sabotage against the Quran’s revelation and a deconstruction of the prophetic truth as one more relative notion. While others have welcomed the postmodern espousal of local narratives as it allowed indigenous expressions of Islam in art, literature, rituals, and architecture.
These local varieties of Islam faced dangers, not because of non-Islamic forces but of the new version of Islam that assumed a uniform form because of its habitation with modernity. The postmodern condition allows any person to express his opinion because it favours pluralism and local narrative rather than grand narratives, though these (religious metanarratives) are not products of modernity.
Religion favours authority, while the post-modern condition opposes authoritarianism of any sort. By unhinging local Islam from modern and universal authorities, postmodernism opens up new vistas for Islam to bloom in umpteen local shapes.
However, the negotiation of religion with postmodernity is fraught with challenges as well. The problem for religion is that if it allows doubt to enter into its rank and file, this will erode the “foundational” principles and ultimately cause the edifice of religion to collapse. Some religious scholars are trying to make religious views harmonious with postmodernity by engaging with the philosophical discourse of postmodernity. In the context of Islamicate societies, Akbar S.
Ahmad18 has been striving to explicate and to converge Islam with postmodernity. In Christianity, Matthew Fox continuously translates the unlikely discoveries of post-modern science into striking propositions; he thematises cosmology from a Christian perspective and thus goes back to the basic impulse behind the Bible.19
His concept of “Creation Spiritually” is an example of such reconciliatory attempts on the part of religion to reconciliate itself with changing circumstances. In 1993, six thousand representatives of different religions congregated in Chicago to combine all ethical values, which are enjoined by religions to enable different groups and races to live peacefully in a world that has become a global village. Here we can clearly see that religion is trying to contribute to the formative contours of eclecticism emerging in the postmodern condition.
The world has entered into the cybernetic civilisation. Today the presence of cybernetic technology and digital communication is ubiquitous by its presence in our daily private and public lives. The cybernetic civilization is produced by developments in information, communication, and digital technology. Hence, we are informed by the images surrounding our being. This phenomenon is expounded by Jean Baudrillard in his theory of simulacrum and hyperreality.
Today, we inhabit an age replete with images. That is why Jean Baudrillard calls it “the divine irreference of images.”20 The interface between images begets simulacrum, which is a condition when the distinction or border between representation and reality or between representation and the real world vanishes. According to Baudrillard, simulacrum “bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum.”21
Whatever we are witnessing today in media is a mediated representation. The notion of truth is typical of the practice of representation in modernity. It is important to differentiate between representation and simulacrum. Baudrillard thinks that simulation as opposed to representation.
He writes, “Representation starts from the principle that the sign and the real are equivalent (even if this equivalence is Utopian, it is a fundamental axiom). Conversely, simulation starts from the Utopia of this principle of equivalence, from the radical negation of the sign as value, from the sign as reversion and death sentence of every reference.
Whereas representation tries to absorb simulation by interpreting it as false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum.”22 Imaginal facts are truths without origin. Hyperreality abolishes the difference between signs and reality or things that signs refer to. So, there is no origin, only intra image references. Signs replace reality, and they become reality unto themselves. Reality becomes redundant when it reaches hyperreality in which images breed incestuously with each other without reference to objective reality. The state of hyperreality means the dissolution of objective reality.
The impact of the dissolution of man from text and reality from hyperreality does not remain confined to the object only, it has entered into the domain of the human subject – the individual ego. Michel Foucault extended the scope of his genealogical methods and analysis to the discourse of human knowledge. He showed how a particular social, political and economic structure in society forms its epistemes through which it allows, rejects, and accepts certain practices and knowledge as good or bad and authentic, respectively. Thereby, it forms the discourse. The discourse is controlled by authorities. This whole institutional arrangement and values is what Foucault calls a ‘regime of truth.’
According to Michel Foucault, “Each society has its own regime of truth, its ‘general politics of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctified; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.”23
Foucault extended the absence of the subject into text. His work shows how the mechanism of power colludes with the forms of knowledge to produce and control the subject. Michel Foucault was the person who rose against the subject and announced the death of the author and thus contributed to the discourse of deaths— the death of metanarratives, death of ideology, etc. This was a reaction against the modern concept of man as an autonomous and rational actor in the world.
“Foucault thinks that the ‘Man’ is a hero of the Faustian or Prometheus narratives of modernity of Descartes and Bacon.”24 Foucault follows the unfinished project of Nietzsche who revolted against the prevailing values and conception of man in modern civilisation. Instead, he wanted to create a Dionysian figure in the shape of the Übermensch – overman. It implies that postmodernism strives to create a new man who stems from the womb of failure of previous men to create a new being unhinged from the confining ideologies and ideals of universal theories.
The realm of politics in the contemporary world presents an interesting situation as both the proponents of modernity and postmodernism assert the validity of their worldviews. Modernists proclaim that the fall of communism means the victory of the liberal capitalist system over communism. Francis Fukuyama, in his paper “The End of History”,25 proclaims that the end of the cold war was not merely the end of a clash between two ideologies.
In the Hegelian thesis, history has moved forward because of the clash of ideas provided fuel to the engine of history by trapping it in historical dialectics. Now liberalism has triumphed over the grand narrative of communism. In its stead, there is no alternative ideology. Therefore, Fukuyama declares the post-cold war period as the end of history. Now, with the end of ideology, history has ended.
Now liberalism is the only viable option available for the world. In the state of liberal eudaimonia, there is no need for even aesthetics and philosophy. The only purpose ahead of us is the museum of history and our duty in the future will be ‘the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history’.26 Fukuyama’s theory paints a picture of blissful liberal Eudaimonia achieved through liberal teleology.
Refuting claims of liberal modernity, postmodernists assert that the fall and failure of communism in the USSR shows the final crisis and culmination of the grand narratives of modernity. Any overarching, all-encompassing, universal, teleological and purposeful theory has not filled the gap produced by the demise of communism. The world is devoid of grand narratives and the candle of hope which grand narratives kept aglow has disappeared. In postmodernism local narratives are superseding the grand narratives of modernity.
The world is heading towards an ambiguous future. Political teleology and zeitgeist are grand stories to keep the ideological edifice intact. Now history will move forward without a teleology purpose and zeitgeist. This is an age without meaning, centre and author.
It is an age that is witnessing the demise of purpose in history. Postmodernism has seized upon the opportunity to fill the gap produced by the fall or failure of the ideal of communism in the USSR. They deem the fall of communism as the last nail in the coffin in grand narratives of modernity.
Every epoch is known by its zeitgeist. A zeitgeist provides power, creativity and dynamism and outlook to make sense of society and the world in a particular time and space. Greeks had a philosophical inquiry, scholasticism was the zeitgeist of medieval ages, the renaissance had the rebirth of learning, and enlightenment emphasised reason.
But postmodernism is a movement which is bereft of a zeitgeist. Does the absence of a zeitgeist also signify the death of sacred, author, history, and grand narratives? It seems that postmodernism, instead of bemoaning the absence of a zeitgeist, celebrates its absence as a single zeitgeist and reduces multifarious ideas into a uniform ideology.
So, it can be said that the lesser the grip of ideology, the more the ideas. Its espousal of pluralism makes postmodernism richer than grand societies based on grand narratives. Pointing toward this condition, Jim Collins writes, “Zeitgeist, must be replaced by histories that emphasise synchronic tensions, the fragmentation of mass consciousness, and the possibility of more than one zeitgeist per culture.”27 Thus, postmodernism is following its eclectic view even in the matter of zeitgeist.
In postmodernism, there is too much talk about deaths of nature, author, meaning, ideology, history and subject. Postmodernism situates itself at the end of history or a point, which somehow puts it in a transcendental position. These claims and the very movement of postmodernism have emerged from the historical context of the West. Andreas Huyssen, a post-modern ideologist, commenting on modernism, says that the culture of modernity is essentially internationalist. He shows the movement of modernism from Paris to America and according to him, this movement is related to the idea of teleology.28 While doing so, he shows Paris as a starting point and America as the last point, where Fukuyama announced the end of history. Despite his pluralist attitude, he does not mention non-western countries like Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. It seems that Andreas also indirectly favours the opinion that the west has reached to the point of perfection from where chances of innovation and creativity are impossible. Hence, it is useless for developing societies to create new structure and innovation. The only choice for them is to follow the linear path of history travelled by the developed West.
The non-western world looks at the ideological and institutional changes in the fin de siècle of the of twentieth century with a pinch of salt. They consider these events and developments as the problems that emerged in the historical context and inner contradictions of western society. It is not necessary that every society in a non-Western setting follows the suit of the West.
The difference of context can give birth to different outcomes, which do not necessarily follow the linear path defined by modernity or post modernity. Linda Hutcheon considers the changes of postmodernism, as those of late capitalist society. In her article, ‘Theorising the Postmodern’ commenting on postmodernism as a western phenomenon Huctheon writes, “It (postmodernism) does not describe an international cultural phenomenon, for it is primary European and American.”29
Because of its Eurocentric or rootedness in the west, non-western societies oppose the ideas related to modernity and postmodernism. When the world was celebrating the start of the new millennium, some cultures did not follow the concept behind the millennium and did not celebrate 2000 as the end of the second millennium.
For example, Egyptians and Chinese celebrated it as the completion of 4500 and 5000 years of their civilisations, respectively. The Indian government faced scathing criticism from the fundamentalist Hindu leader Bal Thakeray for celebrating the Christian millennium in a Hindu majority country. The opposition to western society is producing fundamentalism, nationalism, anti-globalization movements, racism, antimigration sentiments, etc. in parts of the world.
Also, dissatisfaction with grand narratives has given birth to the resurgence of nationalism and reignited old conflicts. Postmodernism can easily accommodate different viewpoints under the rubric of its basic tenets of local narratives, but its uncritical espousal of localism and absence of viable political ideology have provided a fertile ground for the emergence of far-right forces in the world spanning from USA, Great Britain, Brazil, India to Muslim societies.
It can be argued that these forces are the product of modernity as they were able to emerge after suppressing local and indigenous identities. However, this cannot absolve postmodernism from the accusation of begetting monsters from the void political view in its conceptual framework. Negotiating global diversity is still a challenge for postmodernism.
Although postmodernism is critical of the binary logic in the discourse of modernity, it itself feeds upon the existence of modernity as postmodernism is sometimes reduced to a set of opposites of what modernity is. For this reason, postmodernism is sometimes termed as parasitic as it needs its opposite for its raison d’etre.
This poses a problem for postmodernism in societies that are struggling to negotiate modernity in their idiom. In other words, in societies where modernity has not taken root, the concerns of postmodernism sometimes seem alien to local people. Without the base of modernity, postmodernism will influence a society at a cultural level and then trickle into the base or different domains.
This will be change without revolution. At the same time, it inverses the base and superstructure model of Marxism. The inversion and multiplicity of outcomes is due to hybrid forms of modernity in different socio-cultural settings. This fact gives credence to the claim of Jurgen Habermas that modernity is still an unfinished project. In many societies and countries, modernity is still an ideal to achieve. Edward W. Said, in his book Culture and Imperialism, writes, “To it (postmodernism) are affiliated other ideas like post-Marxism and post-structuralism, varieties of what the Italian philosopher Gianni Vatimo describes as ‘the weak thought’ of ‘the end of modernity’.
Yet, in the Arab and Islamic world many artists and intellectuals like Adonis, Elias Khoury, Kamal Abu Deeb, Muhammad Arkoun, and Jamal Ben Sheikh are still concerned with modernity itself, still far from exhausted, still a major challenge in a culture dominated by turath (heritage) and orthodoxy.”30 This situation also applies to the countries in Africa, Latin American, and Asia. There is an emerging trend in non-western societies to modernize their societies by taking into consideration the local requirements and address them through the indigenous medium of modernity. Postmodernism calls this trend ‘local narrative’. The local narrative enables societies at the Margins to contribute to pastiche called postmodernism. This idea is gaining ground as the idea of ‘multiple modernities’ because the unidimensional and universal imperatives of modernity have failed to explain “Others”, and the success of postmodernism is to reflect local hues in its kaleidoscopic tapestry.
It is difficult to separate capitalism from postmodernism as the very condition of postmodernity emerged from capitalism. Capitalism has a quality to expand beyond the borders of nation states to achieve its purpose and perpetuate itself. For the continuation of production, the capital must not only reproduce itself completely, but also expand the fundamental conditions of its mode of production.
Changes in different fields helps it to transcend the limits posed by traditional modern state. In the case of capitalism, postmodernism does not pose any obstacle. The conditions of postmodernity are congruous for the expansion of capital. The postmodern condition is a condition created by capitalism where capitalism reproduces not only new need for a post consumerist society but also expands the fundamental conditions of its modes of production.
Marxists see postmodernism as the cultural face of capitalism in its more developed stages because it has not broken the basis of the capitalist economy and society. Instead, postmodernism proved conducive to expand the influence of capitalism over the world in the guise of ‘Post’. This aspect has compelled some thinkers to equate ‘post’ in postmodernism to the ‘post’ in postcolonialism.
Hebermas criticises postmodernists for escaping from reality. He is of the opinion that it is not proper time to abandon the project of modernity because the project of modernity has not achieved its goals. He calls the project of “modernity an unfinished project.”31
Habermas expresses the possibility of the alliance between premodern or neoconservatives and postmodernist against modernism. He is of the view that such a marriage between premodern and postmodern minds creates the space in the continuity of human thought, and it helps to create a theory that will have inherent contradictions and loopholes. Jurgen Habermas’s arguments are cogent and powerful.
His arguments lend credence to the justifications for the existence of modernity as he identifies the inherent contradictions and loopholes in the idea of postmodernism. Frederic Jameson tends to reject postmodernism as an alternate social order. He claims that “Postmodernism is not the cultural dominate of a wholly new social order…. but only the reflex and the concomitant of yet another systemic modification of capitalism itself.”32
Study of postmodernism reveals various facets of postmodernism. In its initial phases postmodernism/postmodernity was, in the words of Lyotard, “Struggling to born, to throw off the incubus of the past.”33
It means that it has started to develop its conceptual shape after incubating in the domain of culture during the last four decades in the twentieth century. Also, it points towards certain contradictions of the project of modernity and explains the nature of the radical changes in the world since World War II.
Even Marxist critics of postmodernism accept changes in the age of late modernity that we inhabit. The fact that the world has seen the emergence of a myriad of ideas and movements after World War II, particularly in the last few decades of the twentieth century.
Postmodernism mentions these changes and tries to explain and respond to the requirements of changing conditions. It is a movement that deals with a transitional period. The world is witnessing drastic changes and transformation under the influence of information and communication technology and biogenetics. Unlike the stable base of rationality of modernity, postmodernism is trying to navigate through marshy ground and shifting sands.
It is an undisputed fact that the last decades of the twentieth century saw drastic changes at scientific, political, global, and cultural levels. Cultural aspects of life were greatly affected by technological developments and innovations, especially under the influence of digital media and cyber-tech. These innovations have changed outlook, tastes, lifestyles, needs, aesthetics, human interaction, and requirements of societies that remained immune from the pervasive influence of modernity.
Now the world has witnessed a compression of space and time. As a result, a global village came into being. This is creating new mis/understandings and outlooks. In this situation local cultures are facing big cultures and undergoing ‘cultural shock’.
In the process of cultural shock, weak cultures are compelled to give up some of the genuine parts of their culture. This is happening because of different conditions under which societies are operating. Difference of context yields different results in societies.
This difference is in terms of the hard manifestations of modernity and a soft diffusion of postmodernity. The visible signs of modernity are factories, assembly lines, attendance, snail mail, railways, functional buildings, markets, chimneys, shops, hard currency, hard copies, cashiers, offices, and the written word.
Whereas post-modernity manifests in a diffused and soft form. Butter copies, emails, work from home, ettendance, software, online business, apps, debit cards, passwords, ATMs, etc. are characteristics of the postmodern era. When the very entities and things we interact with change, then it’s impossible to define ourselves as an unchanging essence. In fact, postmodern self is a self sans essence. The homo sapiens of today are internally different from the ones in 1921 because of the soft revolution within, under the influence of postmodernity. In a nutshell, modernity changed our outside by changing the objective world, but postmodernity is changing us from inside, and thus bringing about a change in our ways of seeing reality outside.
Indeed, in the world of today many opposing notions and ideas exist simultaneously. Contemporary societies in the world today are pluralist and eclectic because globalisation compressed heterogenous cultures and mentalities into single space. For a postmodern intellectual it is a Sisyphean task to create bonhomie among diverse people just by raising a slogan of fragments and diversity.
The task is how to create harmonious and orderly modus vivendi for numerous opposite ideologies and often clashing mentalities? If we take the task lightly and leave everything on eclecticism, pluralism and postmodernism along with its anti, de, dis, end, death of everything to survive, we will germinate nihilistic mental structures and ultimately disorder and anarchy will engulf the world. Consequently, a new disorder will rule over the world. This is evident from the events during the fi two decades of this century.
Although the ideas propounded by postmodernism sound like infantile noises for the mind of fixed worldviews, they still provide an innocent gaze of a child to see the world imaginatively. It is close to the Nietzschean view that the ultimate destiny of mankind is not to become powerful like a lion, nor to be a camel with the burden of the past, but to wonder at the world like an innocent a child.
“The child”, Nietzsche says, “is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a sport, a self- propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes. Yes, a sacred Yes is needed, my brothers, for the sport of creation: the spirit now wills its own will, the spirit sundered from the world now wins its own world.”34
The disillusionment of big stories/metanarratives is leading the world towards a second innocence, and postmodernism’s musings of different spheres of life and the world has the quality of a fluid mind of a child and not the established convictions of a rigid mind of a mature person.
It is a trend within an epoch of philosophy and trying to establish an epoch with its apposition to previous epochs, while accepting them. One of the ways to look at postmodern period is to treat it as loci wherein all epochs are converging. Hence, the celebration of plurality over singularity and fragments over the whole.
That is why we have started the third millennium with great tumults and foments. This proves that postmodernism has neither superseded modern structures nor has it been able to create an epoch within the philosophical or scientific mental structure. Like the proverbial biblical word, it is still in the stage of words at a discursive level.
The words are with the philosopher, but it is yet to take flesh and bone in the shape of institutions and their practices. According to the Bible, the Word was with God at the beginning, and “through him all the things came to be; no single thing was created without him.”35 Postmodernism is a philosophy that emerged in a period when humans lost the capacity to weave grand stories and the words that create meaning in life and make sense of the world.
In the absence of a cosmic view, meta-stories and big pictures, and increased uprooting, the only refuge is the womb of local narrative. The different strands of postmodernism are voices suppressed by mega voices and meta narratives of modernity.
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Lyotard J-F. The postmodern explained to children. London: Turnaround. 1992. p 72.
Kumar, From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society. UK: Blackwell. 2000. p 67.
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press, 1984.
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Quoted by David Harvey in The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge & Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers. 1992. p 325.
For details see Ahmed, Akbar S. Postmodernism and Islam. Predicament and Promise. London: Routledge: London. 1992; Ahmed, Akbar S., & Donnan Hastings. Islam, Globalization and Postmodernity. London; New York: Routledge. 1994.
Jencks, Charles. The Post- Modern Reader. London: Academy Editions.1992. p 35.
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Baudrillard, Selected Writings, p 170.
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Kumar, K. From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society. UK. Blackwell. 2000. p 126.
Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, The National interest, 16. Summer 1989. pp 3-18
Fukuyama, The End of History. p 18.
Collins, Jim. Uncommon Cultures: Popular Culture and Postmodernism. New York: Routledge. 1989. p 115.
Huyssen, Andreas. “Mapping the Postmodern” in New German Critique, No. 33, Modernity and Postmodernity (Autumn, 1984), pp. 5-52.
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Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. UK: Vintage.1994. p 399.
Habermas, Jurgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press. 1987.
Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 1992. p 260.
Cited in Kumar, Krishan. From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society. UK: Blackwell. 2000. p 158.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. trans. R. J. Hollingdale. London: Penguin Books. 2003. p 126.
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