Between modernism and postmodernism Enlightenment and Romance
(Seminar question: Does Gilroy successfully steer a middle way between modernism and postmodernism?)
The term “postmodern” has become a popular label for something about the life and thought of recent decades in the most developed societies. It both refers to phenomena in the real world, and to an intellectual movement. Representatives of the postmodern movement not only express conflicting views, but are interested in barely overlapping subject matters such as art, history, economics, politics, methodology and literature. What the term “Postmodernism” actually means, has been the subject of a lengthy debate ever since its emergence.
For some critics, postmodernism connotes the final escape from the stultifying legacy of modern European theology, authoritarianism, colonialism, patriarchy, racism and domination. Others simply see it as an attempt by left-wing intellectuals to destroy Western civilization.
The fact that this movement has caused such a wide-spread debate and the term has been so widely used only goes to show that “postmodern” has been attached to so many different kinds of intellectual, social and artistic phenomena that it can be subjected to easy ridicule as hopelessly ambiguous or empty. Which in return only shows that it is a mistake to seek a single, essential meaning applicable to all the term’s instances.(Cahoone.2003:1)
When philosophers use the term “postmodernism” they usually refer to a movement that developed in France in the 1960s, which could more precisely be called “post-structuralism”, along with subsequent and related developments. They have in mind that this movement denies the possibility of “realist” knowledge, objective knowledge. They regard it as rejecting most of the fundamental intellectual pillars of modern Western civilization. They may further associate this rejection with political movements like multiculturalism, feminism, and the critique of Eurocentrism, which regard the rejected notions as the ideology of a privileged sexual, ethnic, cultural, economic group, and aim to subvert their privilege in favour of the disenfranchised. However, it is important to mention, that not all the representatives who engage in the postmodern movement can be politically characterised and certainly not all the feminists or multiculturalists accept postmodernism (Cahoone.2003:1et seq.).
As far as any definition of the term “postmodernism” is at all possible, one could say that it implies something about recent society since the 1960s which reveals a discontinuity with earlier phases of the modern period, hence with the socio-cultural forms or ideas and methods that are characteristic of the modern Western culture. However, postmodernism did not develop in times of crisis, rather the contrary: it was the relative stability and unprecedented prosperity of the era that became the background for the Western tradition`s deepest self-criticism. The discontinuity may, for some, signal the end of the modern but it might also merely indicate a novel phase within the modern.
Therefore Gilroy might not so much steer a middle way between modernism and postmodernism but rather suggest a new and modified approach of modernism. This will be discussed later on.
According to this, postmodernism is the latest wave in the critique of the Enlightenment, the criticism of the principles characteristic of modern Western society that trace their legacy to the 18th century but it is important to add that postmodernism does not exhaust the criticism of modern thought!
In order to understand the postmodern criticism of modernism, it is essential to examine what exactly is meant by the terms “modernism”, “modernity” and “modern”.
“Modernity” has a fixed reference in contemporary intellectual discourse. It refers to the new civilisation that developed in Europe and North America over the last centuries and has become fully evident in the early 20th century. “Modernity” implies that this civilisation is modern in the non-relative sense that it is unique in human history. Not even the harshest critics of modernity deny its achievements of new technologies and modes of industrial production that have led to an unprecedented rise in material living standard. What makes modernity a controversy though is the question of the inner nature, the probable destiny and the validity of this new way of life. The positive self-image that modern Western culture has often given to itself is a picture born in the Enlightenment. It is a picture of a civilisation founded on scientific knowledge of the world and rational knowledge of value, which places the highest premium on individual human life and freedom, and believes that such freedom and rationality will lead to social progress through virtuous, self-controlled work, creating a better material, political and intellectual life for all.
Some critics see modernity instead as a movement of ethnic and class domination, European imperialism, anthropocentrism, the destruction of nature, the dissolution of community and tradition, the rise of alienation and the death of individuality in bureaucracy.
Despite the divergence among the usage of the term “postmodern” there is a commonality centering on a recognition of pluralism and a new focus on representation. Postmodernists sought a return to the true, authentic, free and integrated human self as the centre of lived experience. They did not mean to abandon or reject the achievements of modernism such as industrialisation, advanced technology and secularisation of states. Their idea was a reconstruction of society, of moral culture and of openness towards the alteration and change of our own authentic experience. However, it has almost always embedded a critique of Western imperialism and racism and, from a feminist point of view, the male domination.