Thursday, December 11, 2008



PM is a reaction against modernity

developed through a long process of critical engagement with modernity and its consequences

got prominence since the 1970s, ruled the world three decades since then

dominant in the advanced Western world

Ideologues criticised and attacked the philosophy, culture and politics which modernity had generated


process of modernity began in the European countries around the time of Renaissance.

Its centre lay in the origins and growth of modern sciences which established a quest for certainty, truth, exactitude, general principles and universal laws.

Descartes, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, Kant & Hegel provided ultimate philosophical justification

Modernity was said to herald the end of the Middle Ages or Feudalism in Europe, and usher in an era where Reason reigned supreme.

The philosophers of modernity from Descartes to the post-Enlightenment thinkers to Marx and Weber denounced the medieval values, faiths and beliefs.

Though some of them, like Marx, were critical of modernity, they upheld most of its values and norms

social sciences, including history, were integrally related to the making of this modernity.

Great thinkers like Hobbes, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Hume, Adam Smith, Bacon were both products and producers of this modernity.

Their theories were used for legitimising and maintaining centralised, bureaucratic states, creating new institutions, and moulding society and economy in new ways.

Modernity consists of various values and beliefs:-

faith in the usefulness and correctness of modern science and technology;

belief in Enlightenment principles that the society should follow the path of Reason and that myth and religion should have no role in shaping social values;

belief in a linear, progressive and transparent course of human history;

more reliance on universal principles in comparison to particularity;

faith in the autonomous, self-conscious individual who is master of his destiny;

belief that modern science and Reason would conquer nature and give rise to affluence, freedom and a life free from fear of mortality

Modernity generated powerful material forces which gave rise to modern industries, capitalism, and an entirely new set of social relations in Europe by the nineteenth century.

This new industrial society was marked by urbanisation, bureaucratisation, individualism, commodification, rationalisation and secularisation.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the process of modernity had almost completely eliminated the economy, society and polity of the Middle Ages in Western Europe and North America.

Instead, it had given rise to a completely new economic, social and political order.

Modernity created enormous sufferings.

The peasantry, workers and artisans were all forced to go through terrible misery in the process of being modernised.

In colonial territories of Asia, Africa, Latin America and Australia the colonising Europeans eliminated the local people, occupied their lands and drained the economy for their own benefits.

This imperialist drive led to the death of millions in colonial territories, enormous distortion in their cultures and traditions, and terrible burden on their resources.


Postmodernism and postmodernity are sometimes used interchangeably-but both terms denote different, though related meanings

Postmodernity –used to characterise the economic and social conditions of existence in contemporary developed societies

postmodernism denotes the philosophy which has now arisen after and in opposition to the philosophy of modernity


postmodernists believe that we have passed beyond modernity and the age we are now living in is a postmodern one

several thinkers argue emergence of a new society has led to a change in our knowledge-system.

the term postmodernity, the emphasis is basically on the social and the economic.

It implies the exhaustion of modernity and stresses the rise of new information and communication technologies leading to globalisation and the enormous growth of consumerism.

Main Concepts

there is no unified theory of postmodernism. Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Guattari, White, and Rorty are the major ideologues whose works constitute the corpus from which postmodernism is formulated. Their works posed a major challenge to the narratives of modernity and their theories attacked the basic foundations of knowledge created by modernity with Reason at its centre. The targets of their criticism have been capitalism, historicism, humanism, scientism, and rationalism which constituted the modern world.

Ø questiones the claims of the Enlightenment for universal knowledge & criticised the search for foundations of knowledge.

Ø rejects and attacks the Modernity’s grand narratives(overarching theories purporting to explain each and everything within its compass)

Ø debunks the claims of the science to achieve truth. it takes nothing as absolute and leans towards relativism.

Ø rejects the claims of human and social sciences for representing the facts and the world.

Ø there is no truth which is beyond or prior to linguistic intervention.

Ø it is language which constructs the reality and the world for the humans., therefore the search for truth beyond language is futile.

Ø Language is conditioned by the individual and local cultures.

Ø attacks the modernist organisation of world and knowledge in binaries.– science vs. rhetoric, science vs. literature, science vs. narrative in which science was the core common element- here science represented the true knowledge while the other side of the binary belonged to imagination and false consciousness.

Ø other sets of binaries. Fact vs. fiction, truth vs. imagination, science vs. magic, masculine vs. feminine, etc. are the binary oppositions conventionalised by the theorists of modernity. In these binaries, the second term almost always occupies an inferior position.

Ø instead PM emphasises on multiplicities, varieties and differences.


Critics of modernity:-

Ø Romantics

· stood against Enlightenment’s emphasis on rationalism, scientism, universalism and totality. Instead, they defended the archaic, the traditional, the natural, the individual and the exotic. Their rebellion against modernity led the Romantics like Herder, the Grimm brothers, and many others to search for traditional folk cultures.

Ø Friedrich Nietzsche

· the single most important thinker who almost anticipated postmodernity.

· though Nietzsche agreed with the Romantics in their critique of modernity, the Romantic search for peace in nature, tradition and religion did not appeal to him

· made a severe attack on principles of modernity – Reason, scientism, truth, meaning and universality.

· severely criticised the tradition of western rationalism beginning with Plato and its claim to truth. In his opinion, this entire claim to possess truth is nothing but a desire for power and domination.

· believed that human history is not, and should not be, meaningful, purposeful and predictable.

· asserted that uncertainty was the hallmark of human condition.

· also proclaimed the ‘death of God’ and demise of religion and said that morality and truth were impossible to achieve.

Ø Martin Heidegger

an anti-historicist and denied the conception of history as science

rejected modernity’s view of progress.

hostile to reason, science and technology.

held that modern technology has reduced the humans to absolute slavery

Ø Friedrich Nietzsche & Martin Heidegger radically question the modernist tradition prepared the ground for philosophical postmodernism


Ø Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

· famous for his critiques of various social institutions produced by European modernity (psychiatry, medicine and prisons)

· renowned for his theories concerning power and the relation between power and knowledge & ideas concerning ‘discourse’ in relation to the history of Western thought

Ø Imp works

· Madness and Civilization (1961),

· The Birth of the Clinic (1963),

· The Order of Things (1966)

· The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969)

· Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison (1975)

· The History of Sexuality (1976-1986).

* he discourages the notion of totality and continuity in history. Instead promotes the idea of discontinuity

* he rejects the Enlightenment idea that the rule of Reason can be equated with emancipation and progress

* the history or the society is not unifocal but is decentred

* the discourses constitute the subject; the subject is not the originator of discourses. The discourses instead originate from institutional practices.

* knowledge is not neutral or emancipatory but is intricately connected with modes of power and domination.

Ø Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

· Crucial to the development of the postmodern theory, particularly the ‘linguistic turn’

· theory of deconstruction is his basic contribution to the development of the poststructuralist and postmodernist theories

· It views all written texts as product of complex cultural processes.

· these texts can only be defined in relation to other texts and conventions of writing.

· the human knowledge is limited to texts

· there is nothing outside the texts.

· Reality is constituted by language.

· It is language which constitutes our world

· language precedes reality.

· The knowledge of reality is not beyond language and its rules of existence.

· the idea of difference is another point related to deconstruction

· It states that the meaning of anything is ascertained only through difference from other things.

· any text is conceivable only in relation of difference to other texts

· Deconstruction emphasises on the instability and multiplicity of meanings. There is no fixed meaning of anything and no single reading of a text.

Ø Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924-1998):

· made the word postmodern famous through his book, “The Postmodern Condition”

· He defines “postmodern as incredulity towards ‘metanarratives’”.

· theories and discourses of all kinds are ‘concealed narratives’, that is, near-fictional accounts, despite their claims for universal validity

· criticises the modernist theories which tend to totalise and universalise ideas which are basically modern European products

· rejects the foundationalism which bases all knowledge on secure theoretical foundations

· attacks the metatheories, articulated through the masculinist metalanguage which support the domination of various sorts – of one class over another, of men over women, of majority over minority

· Instead, he advocates the ideas of difference and plurality, of radical uncertainty, and possibility of alternatives.

Ø Jean Baudrillard (b. 1929)

· His ideas have been highly influential in the world of media and arts

· distinguishes between modernity and postmodernity on several counts :

i) modern society was based on production while postmodern society is based on consumption.

ii) modern society was marked by exchange of commodities, whereas symbolic exchange is the hallmark of the postmodern society.

iii) in modern society representation was primary where ideas represent reality and truth, but in postmodern society, the simulation takes precedence where there is no reality and where the meanings dissolve.

· three phenomena that create the postmodern condition -simulation, hyper-reality and implosion

· In the new era of information and communication technologies, the media images replace the real things.

· thus the real and the unreal are eliminated.

Ø Hayden White (b.1928)

· American historian, is considered an important postmodern thinker, particularly in the field of history.

· His book, Metahistory : The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, published in 1973, has been hailed by many as signifying a break in the philosophy of history

· It herald a ‘linguistic turn’ in the writing of history-‘how does history resemble fiction?

· past is presented to us merely in the form of various disjointed chronicles.

· It is the historian who creates out of it a meaningful story. It is not possible to find in the historical events a coherent narrative.

· At the most, they offer elements of a story.

· It is now the historian who prepares a coherent narrative out of the available set of records by suppressing certain events, while highlighting some others.

· This process becomes manifest by the fact that the same set of events may be construed as tragic, ironic or comic depending upon the political or other predilections of the historians.

· It, therefore, becomes clear, that history is not a scientific exercise, but a literary one and the historical narratives are not scientific treatise but ‘verbal fictions’.

· in writing of history all the techniques of novel-writing are employed

· Selection of events, characterisation, change of tone and point of view are the techniques common to both the writing of novels and history.

· In history-writing, as in the creation of novels, imagination plays a great role.

· It is only through imagination that the historian makes sense of the past events and weaves some of them into a credible story.

Ø F.R.Ankersmit

philosopher of history in the Netherlands


Narrative Logic : A Semantic Analysis of

the Historian’s Language (1983),

The Reality Effect in the Writing of History (1990),

History and Tropology : The Rise and Fall of Mataphor (1994)

He denies the possibility of any generalisation in history.

the generalisations about the past do not refer to anything real, but are concepts constructed by historians for the purpose of writing history.

For instance terms like “Renaissance”, “Enlightenment”, “early modern European capitalism” or the “decline of the Church” are in fact names given to the “images” or “pictures” of the past proposed by historians attempting to come to grips with the past.’

generalizations do not express any truths on the nature of (socio-historical) reality; they only reflect regularities in how we have actually decided to conceptualize reality’.

the historian’s language creates an opacity which makes the knowledge of the past even more difficult

The historical narrative is a complex linguistic structure specially built for the purpose of showing part of the past. In other words, the historian’s language is not a transparent, passive medium through which we can see the past as we do perceive what is written in a letter through the glass paperweight lying on top of it…. We do not see past through the historian’s language, but from the vantage point suggested by it.’

Thus historical writing should be considered as representational painting, which is distinct from the thing it represents.


* PM offers a fundamental critique of the conventional mode of history-writing. It almost becomes anti-history

* The main ingredient of history-writing, such as facts, sources, documents, archival records, etc., all come under severe scrutiny under the microscope of postmodernist vision.

* The certainty and continuity attached to historical writing are thoroughly debunked,

* the inner working of historiography is put under scanner and its proclaimed nearness to ‘truth’ is attacked

* history-writing itself is historicised, and its rootedness in the western culture is highlighted by the postmodern thinkers

* Postmodernism rejects the ‘objectivist’ tradition of history writing starting with Ranke which strove to recover the past ‘as it actually was’.

* It challenges the proclaimed objectivity and neutrality of the historians and claims that the process of interpretation transforms the past in radically different ways.

* PM questions the very basis of conventional historiography by locating its origins in the modern Europe’s encounter with the other. It began with the European Renaissance which prompted the Europeans to ‘discover’ other lands and people. In this quest the ‘history’ served as a tool for posing the modern western self in opposition to the other whose history was supposed to be just beginning as a result of its encounter with Europe. Thus the practice of history was employed not just to study the past but to fashion it in terms of the criteria set by modern Europe. History, therefore, evolved a western quest for power over the colonised territories and its desire to appropriate their pasts.

* There are basically two types of history in conventional sense:-

* One is the grand narrative of history which visualises that the human society is moving in a certain direction, towards an ultimate goal – global capitalist society or a global communist one.

* The second one, more modest version of history which claims to rely only on facts and to eschew any ideological orientation. It claims neutrality and objectivity for itself and is the most accepted version of history writing. This is also known as the ‘lower case history’ which is ‘realist, objectivist, documentarist and liberal-pluralist’.

* At the centre of professional history writing is the notion of objectivity, of facts, of being able to represent reality, to recover the past. Historical facts are seen to exist independent of and prior to interpretation. Historian’s job is thus said to be able to discover the truth, to be neutral and dispassionate.

* Postmodernism rejects all these notions. It not only attacks the attribution of any essence to the past, but also criticises the attempts to study the past for ‘its own sake’.

* Both versions of history writing are considered as ideological and situated in particular cultural formation. Both kinds of history is said to be ‘just theories about the past’, without any claim to represent the truth. Both are the products of western modernity and represent the ways in which it ‘conceptualized the past’.

* According to postmodernism, there is no historical truth but what the historians make it out to be, no facts except what the historians interpret, no representable past except what the historians construct.

* In postmodernist view, the history can be accepted as genuine knowledge only if it sheds its claims to truth and hence to power, and accepts its fragmentary character.

* The only history possible is microhistory. The ambiguities and gaps in historical narration are inherent and essential to it and should be retained.

* All quests for continuity, coherence and consistency should be dropped.

* It should be accepted that all documents and facts are nothing but texts and are ideologically constructed.

* There are even more extreme views within postmodernism with regard to historiography.

* Keith Jenkins, therefore, declares that ‘we are now at a postmodern moment when we can forget history completely.

* his earlier position where he felt the need for anti-modernist ‘reflexive histories’

* Now-the history we know is entirely a modern western product which never earlier existed anywhere in the world

* This extreme position questions the very existence of any kind of professional history writing


postmodernist critique of modernity ranges from total rejection to partial acceptance

The critiques have pointed out that in some extreme form of postmodern relativism

However, such a stance may justify the status quo where ‘everything stays’.

Total relativism and nihilism denies the transformative praxis and does nothing to change the repressive socio-economic and political order

By segmenting the knowledge and by demarcating the socio-cultural boundaries to extreme micro levels, it makes it impossible to create a broad solidarity of the oppressed.

the postmodern analysis of society and culture is lop-sided because it emphasises the tendencies towards fragmentation while completely ignoring the equally important movements towards synthesisation and broader organisation

by conceptualising power as distributed into countless small and big systems, practices and organisations at various levels of society, postmodernism obscures the selective concentration of power, the basic relations of domination and subordination, of repression and resistance.

It also tends to ignore the roles of state and capital as much more potent tools of domination and repression.

Some critics also charge postmodernism with being historicist as it accepts the inevitability of the present and its supposedly postmodernist character.

If the world is now postmodern, it is our fate to be living in it. But such postmodernity which the western world has created now is no more positive than the earlier social formation it is supposed to have superseded.

Moreover, it is not very sure that whether the modernity has actually come to an end. In fact, large parts of the world in the erstwhile colonial and semi-colonial societies and East European countries are now busy modernising themselves. Even in the west, the chief characteristics of modernity are still there – industrial economy, political parties and factions, markets, unions, state regulations, discipline-based knowledge, etc.

The concept of postmodernity, therefore, remains mostly at an academic and intellectual level.

Critics also argue that many postmodernists, deriving from poststructuralism, deny the possibility of knowing facts and reality. As a result, no event can be given any weightage over another. All happenings in the past are of the same value. Thus, theoretically, the

Holocaust or any brutality of a similar nature can be equated with any other event, whether tragic or comic, because, in postmodernist view, it is the language which creates events and histories for us.