Interdisciplinary Report

To conduct a thorough and compelling paternity test for postmodernity is beyond the scope of the present chapter. Some account of its relation to modernity, however incomplete, is clearly necessary. However, like the French Revolution perhaps, there is no single causal explanation of what I am calling the postmodern condition. The modernity-postmodernity relation looks different when viewed in terms of the humanities, the social sciences, and the theoretical discourse of philosophy respectively. With this qualification in mind, we now turn to examine the onset and then the character of the postmodern condition.

The "postmodern turns"

The term "postmodern" signals some kind of relation to modernity, containing as it does the very word. Which part of the term is most significant: post or modern? This remains a point on which there is no little dispute. The other disputed point, of course, concerns the nature of "modernity" itself. Is modernity a material or an ideological condition? On this latter question, my own view is that it is both-and: neither simply a material nor simply an ideological condition, but both together. In other words, modernity and postmodernity are conditions that have both material and ideological aspects. It follows, then, that the work of sociologists and cultural historians, on the one hand, and philosophers, on the other, contribute something to an account of the transformation I am calling the postmodern turn.4

The "arts and humanities" turn

One of the earliest sightings of the term postmodern was in the field of architecture. "Modernist" architecture turned its back on traditional styles and concentrated on forms that served a structure's function, thus applying modernity's concern with instrumental reason to the shaping of physical space. The modernist building does not "mean" anything but simply serves its purpose. The postmodern turn in architecture consisted in the rejection of this ideal of universal form that expresses the "essence" of a given building. Charles Jencks, for example, argued that buildings, like texts, have both contexts and predecessors, and a building's style should be in dialogue as it

4 Typically, introductions to postmodernity written by theologians tend to focus on changes in literary theory and epistemology. Insofar as theology concerns the interpretation of biblical texts and the knowledge of God, this is understandable. However, such reductionistic accounts are also more liable to underestimate the postmodern situation, which affects not only the intellectual in the academy, but the values and practices of everyday life as well (so Best and Kellner, Postmodern Turn, p. xi).

were with both.5 Postmodern architects resist the illusion of "the universal perspective," preferring to allude to past styles, through a playful eclecticism, without being dominated by any one of them.

There was a similar reaction to the "modernist century" (approximately the 1850s to the 1950s) in the arts. One key feature of modernism is its belief in the autonomy of art; the artist was free to pursue purely aesthetic goals without having to worry about morality, religion, and politics. This belief in art for art's sake gradually led to a concern with the purely formal features of the work of art, which, in turn, led modern art to be highly self-conscious and self-referential, preoccupied with itself, accessible only to an elite. This was as true of Picasso's abstract expressionism as it was of Eliot's poetry and Schoenberg's serial music. Postmodern artists and writers renounce the belief in the autonomy of art and resist the modernist tendency toward abstraction and elitism. Postmodern artists and writers also tend to "quote" the historical tradition, to acknowledge their "concreteness" (viz., their location in history and culture), and to blur the boundary between "high" and "low" art.

The "culture and society" turn

From a different vantage point, the postmodern turn may be seen as a transformation of modern modes of social organization. "Modernity" in this context refers to social forces and institutional forms - secularization, industrialization, bureaucratization - that embody the Enlightenment ideals of rationality, individual autonomy, and progress. As a cultural and social phenomenon, modernity was "a secular movement that sought the démystification and desacralization of knowledge and social organization in order to liberate human beings from their chains."6 Modern society is a tri-umphalistic exercise of instrumental rationality in the domain of the social. Once again, postmoderns reject the idea that there is one universal rational form.

The aim of "work" in modernity was to produce materials necessary for modern life: food, clothes, homes, cars. In modernity, there was a sharp dichotomy between the puritan work ethic and the hedonistic "leisure ethic" of self-expression and self-improvement which only a very few could afford to pursue. Society reaches a postmodern condition when "work" turns into art, that is, when more and more areas of life are assimilated into the logic of the marketplace, when the economy is increasingly geared to providing entertainment, and when the business of America is leisure. In a postindus-trialist postmodern economy, goods are produced not to supply préexistent

5 See Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modem Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1977).

6 David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 13.

needs, but to supply needs that are themselves created by advertizing and marketing strategies. What gets marketed is not an object so much as an image or a lifestyle.

The "philosophical and theoretical" turn

Modern thought was characterized by a drive for certitude, universality, and perhaps, above all, mastery.7 In this respect, it is only fitting that the modern university rewards graduate students who have acquired specialized knowledge with a "Master's" degree. Newton showed that reason could master the mechanics of the natural world. Modernity, or the "Enlightenment Project," may be understood broadly as the attempt to bring critical rationality and scientific method to bear not only on the natural world but on humanity more generally conceived (for example, ethics, politics), and even "divinity" (for example, biblical criticism, philosophical theology).

Postmodern philosophers, many of them French intellectuals disillusioned after the Parisian university protests of May 1968, rebelled against the so-called "Enlightenment project" that sought universal human emancipation through the light of universal human reason, deployed through the powers of modern technology, science, and democracy. Postmodern thinkers rejected the idea that "reason" names a neutral and disinterested perspective from which to pursue truth and justice. Specifically, postmodern theory rejects the following modern postulates: (1) that reason is absolute and universal (2) that individuals are autonomous, able to transcend their place in history, class, and culture (3) that universal principles and procedures are objective whereas preferences are subjective.

There is continuing debate as to whether postmodernity represents a passage beyond or an intensification of modernity, taken either as a socioeconomic or an intellectual condition. Is the postmodern a turn away from modernity or a turning in of modernity upon itself? To some extent, this question is inevitable, because postmodernity and modernity are joined at the hip,.or at least as host and parasite, for the very meaning of postmodern depends on its difference from modernity. Nevertheless, some construe the postmodern as "most-modern," as the imploding of modernity, as the implicit paradox of modernity made explicit. On this view, postmodernity is simply modernity in its death-throes. Others see postmodernity as the emergence of new forms of experience, thought, and social organization.

7 Cf. Gavin Hyman, who defines the modern as "the desire for an all-encompassing mastery of reality by rational and/or scientific means" (The Predicament of Postmodern Theology: Radical Orthodoxy or Nihilist Textualism? [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001], p. 11).

I cannot settle these debates in this short space.8 What does appear beyond dispute is that the latter half of the twentieth century has witnessed a series of cultural and intellectual developments that have unsettled a number of modern convictions. But those convictions have not been entirely dislodged. In that respect, postmodernity is not so much a clearly definable chronological period as it is a condition of history; it is not a specifiable moment on the timetable of history but a mood. Twenty-first-century Westerners now live "in parentheses" between the modern and the postmodern "in an interregnum period in which the competing regimes are engaged in an intense struggle for dominance."9

A report on knowledge and belief

One of the first and most important attempts to articulate the postmodern condition was François Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.10 Lyotard's report begins with an account of modern scientific knowledge. How do we account for its prestige? "Modern" designates "any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse... making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative,"11 for example, the Einsteinian or Darwinian paradigms. There are three conditions for modern knowledge:

(1) the appeal to metanarratives as a foundationalist criterion of legitimacy,

(2) the outgrowth of strategies of legitimation and exclusion, and (3) a desire for criteria of legitimacy in the moral as well as the epistemological domain. The key factor in Lyotard's analysis is the role of "metanarrative," a "master story" that serves as a comprehensive explanatory framework for everything else, "narratives which subordinate, organize and account for other narratives."12 Modern discourses like science appeal to metanarratives that legitimate it by, for example, telling a story of how Enlightenment thinkers overcame ignorance and superstition thanks to critical methods, or how modern science has resulted in greater health and wealth for humanity.

Lyotard defines postmodernity in terms of a loss of faith in such grand narratives: the postmodern condition is one of "incredulity toward metanarratives." In Lyotard's words: "The grand narrative has lost its credibility... regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of

8 For further discussion, see Paul Lakeland, Postmodernity: Christian Identity in a Fragmented Age {Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), pp. 12-13.

9 Best and Kellner, Postmodern Turn, p. 32.

10 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984 and Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984}. Lyotard's work was commissioned by the government of Quebec, which had requested a report on the state of "contemporary knowledge."

emancipation."13 For example, postmoderns no longer accept the story that science tells to legitimate itself, namely, that it contributes to human freedom and well-being. Postmodernity, in short, cuts metanarratives down to size and sees them for what they are: mere narratives. Western science loses considerable prestige when viewed in terms of "the story white Europeans tell about the natural world." The mark of the postmodern condition of knowledge, then, is a move away from the authority of universal science toward narratives of local knowledge.

Eating from the postmodern tree of knowledge occasions a new "fall" and loss of innocence. No longer can we aspire to the knowledge of angels, much less a God's-eye point of view. How, then, are we to make judgments as to true and false, right and wrong? Lyotard acknowledges that the central issue of postmodernity is the possibility of ethics, that is, right action. Lyotard, for his part, is content to live with "little narratives." Yet there are many narratives, and this plurality is what makes the postmodern condition one of legitimation crisis: whose story, whose interpretation, whose authority, whose criteria counts, and why?14

Toward which metanarratives in particular are postmoderns incredulous?


Postmodernists reject the epistemological foundationalism that proclaims "come let us reason together" (on the basis of shared experience and shared logical categories). It is not that postmoderns are irrational. They do not reject "reason" but "Reason." They deny the notion of universal rationality; reason is rather a contextual and relative affair. What counts as rational is relative to the prevailing narrative in a society or institution. Postmodern rationality, we may say, is narration-based. Stated somewhat differently: reason is always situated within particular narratives, traditions, institutions, and practices. This situatedness conditions what people deem rational.

Postmoderns point out two other problems with modern epistemology: first, its referential view of language, where words unproblematically represent extralinguistic things and unproblematically express feelings and

13 Ibid., p. 37; Best and Kellner criticize Lyotard for his tendency to identify modernity with Enlightenment thought. Stated somewhat differently: Lyotard offers a "docetic" interpretation of modernity that fails to engage with social and material reality (Postmodern Turn, p. 165).

14 Perceptive readers, and analytic philosophers, will be quick to point out an apparent inconsistency: Lyotard dismisses metanarratives, but does he not present his own account in metanarrative terms, that is, as the "true" story of knowledge? We here encounter a common phenomenon in postmodern theorizing, namely, the appearance of performative self-contradiction.

values. Language is not a neutral tool but a social construction. Second, postmoderns resist the atomism and reductionism presupposed by science's working hypothesis that the real world of nature is physicalist and can be explained in terms of systems of causal laws, perhaps even by a single system, an all-encompassing explanatory framework or "unifying theory."


The above rejections combine to form a grand refusal of modernity's metaphysical project, namely, the project of mastering natural reality in a comprehensive conceptual scheme. "Postmodernists reject unifying, totalizing, and universal schemes in favor of new emphases on difference, plurality, fragmentation, and complexity."15 Postmoderns are suspicious of truth claims, of "getting it right." Upon hearing the assertion that "that's the way things are," postmoderns are likely to respond, "that's the way things are for you." Truth on this view is a compelling story told by persons in positions of power in order to perpetuate their way of seeing and organizing the natural and social world. According to Michel Foucault, behind every discourse on truth there lurks rhetorical posturing: knowledge claims are violent impositions by powerful institutions; universal truth claims are simply masks for ideology and the will to power.


Postmoderns are also incredulous toward narratives that purport to recount universal history. Modern thinkers like nothing better than to tell stories about "universal history." From Kant to Hegel to Marx, modern thinkers have attempted to tell the story of humanity, usually in terms of the progress of the race. Postmodern historians reject the premise that history moves according to a unified linear logic. Discontinuity rather than continuity is the postmodern watchword. Furthermore, postmoderns are suspicious of claims to have got even local or partial histories correct. There is no more "one true story" of the past than there is of the present. Instead, histories -like philosophies - reveal more about the people who made them than they do about the way things actually are/were.


It follows from the above that there is no one true way of recounting one's own history and thus no one true way of narrating one's own identity. But the self is decentered in other ways as well. Postmoderns reject the notion that the person is an autonomous individual with a rational

15 Best and Kellner, Postmodern Turn, p. 255.

consciousness that transcends one's particular place in culture, language, history, and a gendered body. Contra Descartes, the self cannot even know its own mind. According to Paul Ricoeur, consciousness is not a given but a task, for we find ourselves always-already immersed in an embodied situation. Postmoderns do not believe in the metanarrative of the knowing subject. The postmodern self is not master of but subject to the material and social and linguistic conditions of a historical situation that precedes her.

Postmodern incredulity thus undoes H. Richard Niebuhr's three-stranded cord: "To be a self is to have a God, to have a God is to have a history, that is, events connected in a meaningful pattern; to have one God is to have one history."16 In this respect, postmoderns agree with Nietzsche that "God" - which is to say, the supreme being of classical theism - has become unbelievable, as have the autonomous self and the meaning of history.

A report on language and life

The postmodern turn from metanarrative to narrative may also be viewed as a turn from subjectivity to language. Whereas Heidegger chided modernity for forgetting the question of being, postmodern thinkers contend that what has actually been forgotten is language. The knowing subject of modernity assumed that reason was universal, impervious to differences of culture and language. For moderns, language was a transparent medium that enabled consciousness to grasp reality. Postmoderns find this picture of the mind-world relation incredible. Not only do we not have nonlinguistic access to the way things are, but the way we speak and think is conditioned by the particular language in which we dwell. It is simply not the case that reality informs thought and that thought informs language.

"Language" refers not simply to English, French, Swahili, and so forth, but more specifically to the system of differences - the pattern of distinctions and connections - that a given vocabulary imposes on the flux of human experience. For example, a psychoanalyst uses a different set of categories to talk about dreams than does the neurologist, just as the sociologist uses a different set of categories to talk about the church than does the theologian.

Jacques Derrida has famously commented that "There is nothing outside the text."17 This is not a comment about what there is in the world so much as a claim that what we know about things is linguistically, which is to say culturally and socially, constructed. Derrida elsewhere paraphrases his

16 H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New York: Macmillan, 1967), p. 59.

57 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 158.

point by adding, "there is nothing outside context."18 By this Derrida means that it makes no sense to inquire into the meaning or truth of a sentence or text outside of a specific context. Moreover, every linguistic and conceptual structure is deconstructible (able to be disassembled, undone) because, for Derrida (and for structuralists and post-structuralists in general) language is a set of arbitrary distinctions. No one language carves up the world at its joints. Once one sees that languages are social constructions, it is difficult to continue believing in their universal reliability. The postmodern condition thus pertains to one's awareness of the deconstructibility of all systems of meaning and truth.

"Language" thus stands for the socially constructed order within which we think and move and have our being. Our speech and action are always-already situated, and hence conditioned, by one vocabulary or another. Postmodernity is thus a linguistic or textual condition in which human beings "suffer" language. This linguistic condition of postmodernity is at the same time a political condition because the differences inscribed in language privilege certain forms of social organization rather than others. Those who get to make the distinctions control the social imagination and thus hold the reins of social power. It is partially thanks to such insights that feminism may be deemed postmodern.

Given the centrality of narrative and language in accounts of the postmodern condition, it will come as no surprise to learn that some of the most important contributions to postmodern thinking have come from the domain of literary theory. Indeed, according to several French postmodern thinkers, literary theory has come virtually to displace philosophy, or, rather, philosophy has come to be seen as a species of rhetoric and literature. It was Nietzsche who denied facts in order to make room for interpretations. Indeed, for him, it is interpretation "all the way down." To the extent that the postmodern condition is linguistic and textual, those who inhabit it are sentenced to interpretation. Just as the meaning of a word does not come to rest in the thing to which it refers, so the meaning of a text lacks fixity due to the changing contexts in which it is read. The postmodern condition is therefore one of undecidable and unfinalizable interpretation.


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