Postmodern Theory by Douglas Kellner and Steven Best, Chapter 1 ... Archaeology of the Postmodern
- An English painter, John Watkins Chapman, spoke of ‘postmodern painting’ around 1870 to designate painting that was allegedly more modern and avant-garde than French impressionist painting (Higgins 1978: p. 7).
- The term appeared in 1917 in a book by Rudolf Pannwitz, Die Krisis der europäischen Kultur, to describe the nihilism and collapse of values in contemporary European culture (cited in Welsch 1988: pp. 12-13). Following Nietzsche, Pannwitz described the development of new ‘postmodern men’ who would incarnate militarist, nationalistic, and elite values - a phenomenon soon to emerge with fascism which also called for a break with modern Western civilization.
- After World War II, the notion of a ‘postmodern’ break with the modern age appeared in a one-volume summation by D. C. Somervell of the first six volumes of British historian Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History (1947), and thereafter Toynbee himself adopted the term, taking up the notion of the postmodern age in Volumes VIII and IX of his A Study of History (1963a and 1963b; both orig. 1954). Somervell and Toynbee suggested the concept of a ‘post-Modern’ age, beginning in 1875, to delineate a fourth stage of Western history after the Dark Ages (675-1075), the Middle Ages (1075-1475), and the Modern (1475-1875) (Somervell 1947: p. 39).
- On this account, Western civilization had entered a new transitional period beginning around 1875 which Toynbee termed the ‘post-Modern age’. This period constituted a dramatic mutation and rupture from the previous modern age and was characterized by wars, social turmoil and revolution. Toynbee described the age as one of anarchy and total relativism. He characterized the previous modern period as a middle-class bourgeois era marked by social stability, rationalism, and progress - a typical bourgeois middle-class conception of an era marked by cycles of crisis, war, and revolution. The postmodern age, by contrast, is a ‘Time of Troubles’ marked by the collapse of rationalism and the ethos of the Enlightenment.
- Toynbee, however, did not develop a systematic theory of the new postmodern era and his universalistic philosophy of history with its notion of historical cycles of the rise and decline of civilizations, his philosophical idealism, and the religious overtones of his analysis would be totally foreign to those who took up the concept of postmodernity in the contemporary scene. Toynbee’s scenario is reminiscent in some ways of Nietzsche’s Will to Power and Spengler’s Decline of the West with their diagnosis of social and cultural nihilism in the present age. All projected a historical process of regression combined with different projects of cultural renewal. All saw the modern age rapidly approaching its end and interpreted this as a catastrophe for established traditional values, institutions, and forms of life.
Several historical-sociological notions of a new postmodern age appeared in the 1950s in the United States within a variety of disciplines. In his introduction to a popular anthology on Mass Culture, cultural historian Bernard Rosenberg used the term postmodern to describe the new conditions of life in mass society (Rosenberg and White 1957: pp. 4-5). Rosenberg claimed that certain fundamental changes were taking place in society and culture:
As Toynbee’s Great West Wind blows all over the world, which quickly gets urbanized and industrialized, as the birth rate declines and the population soars, a certain sameness develops everywhere.
- Clement Greenberg can meaningfully speak of a universal mass culture (surely something new under the sun) which unites a resident of Johannesburg with his neighbors in San Juan, Hong Kong, Moscow, Paris, Bogota, Sydney and New York. African aborigines, such as those recently described by Richard Wright, leap out of their primitive past - straight into the movie house where, it is feared, they may be mesmerized like the rest of us. First besieged with commodities, postmodern man himself becomes an interchangeable part in the whole cultural process. When he is momentarily freed from his own kitsch, the Soviet citizen seems to be as titillated as his American counterpart by Tin Pan Alley’s products. In our time, the basis for an international sodality of man at his lowest level, as some would say, appears to have been formed (1957: p. 4).
Rosenberg describes the ambiguity of the new postmodern world, its promising and threatening features, and concludes: ‘In short, the postmodern world offers man everything or nothing. Any rational consideration of the probabilities leads to a fear that he will be overtaken by the social furies that already beset him’ (1957: p. 5). The same year, economist Peter Drucker published The Landmarks of Tomorrow subtitled ‘A Report on the New Post-Modern World’ (1957). For Drucker, postmodern society was roughly equivalent to what would later be called ‘postindustrial society’ and Drucker indeed came to identify himself with this tendency. In his 1957 book, however, he argued that: ‘At some unmarked point during the last twenty years we imperceptibly moved out of the Modern Age and into a new, as yet nameless, era’ (Drucker 1957: p. ix). He describes a philosophical shift from the modern Cartesian world-view to a ‘new universe of pattern, purpose, and process’; to new technologies and power to dominate nature with their resulting responsibilities and dangers; and to transformations wrought by the extension of education and knowledge. In the optimistic mode of theorists of the ‘postindustrial society’, Drucker believed that the postmodern world would see the end of poverty and ignorance, the decline of the nation state, the end of ideology, and a worldwide process of modernization.
- A more negative notion of a new postmodern age emerges in C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination (1959). Mills claims that: ‘We are at the ending of what is called The Modern Age. Just as Antiquity was followed by several centuries of Oriental ascendancy, which Westerners provincially call The Dark Ages, so now The Modern Age is being succeeded by a post-modern period’ (1959: pp. 165-6). Mills believed that ‘our basic definitions of society and of self are being overtaken by new realities’ and that it is necessary to conceptualize the changes taking place in order to ‘grasp the outline of the new epoch we suppose ourselves to be entering’ (1959: p. 166). In conceptualizing transformations of the present situation, he claimed that many previous expectations and images, and standard categories of thought and of feeling, are no longer of use. In particular, he believed that Marxism and liberalism are no longer convincing because both take up the Enlightenment belief in the inner connection between reason and freedom, which holds that increased rationality would produce increased freedom. By contrast, Mills claims that in the present this can no longer be assumed.
- In an analysis close to that of the Frankfurt School, Mills points to some of the ways that increased societal rationalization is diminishing freedom and he paints the spectre of a society of ‘cheerful robots’ who might well desire, or happily submit to, increased servitude. Mills, however, like Toynbee and the other theorists cited, is very much a modernist, given to sweeping sociological generalization, totalizing surveys of sociology and history, and a belief in the power of the sociological imagination to illuminate social reality and to change society. Consequently, the early uses of the term postmodern in social and cultural theory had not made the conceptual shifts (described in the next section), which would come to characterize the postmodern turn in theory.
- In his 1961 essay, ‘The Revolution in Western Thought’, Huston Smith (1982), however, found that postmodern conceptual shifts had greatly affected contemporary science, philosophy, theology, and the arts. For Smith, the twentieth century has brought a mutation in Western thought that inaugurates the ‘post-modern mind’. He describes the transformation from the modern worldview that reality is ordered according to laws that the human intelligence can grasp, to the postmodern world-view that reality is unordered and ultimately unknowable. He suggests that postmodern scepticism and uncertainty is only a transition to yet another intellectual perspective, one that hopefully will be characterized by a more holistic and spiritual outlook.
- A more systematic and detailed notion of the postmodern age than is found in the works mentioned so far is present in British historian Geoffrey Barraclough’s An Introduction to Contemporary History (1964). Barraclough opens his explorations of the nature of contemporary history by claiming that the world in which we live today is ‘different, in almost all its basic preconditions, from the world in which Bismarck lived and died’ (1964: p. 9). He claims that analysis of the underlying structural changes between the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world’ requires ‘a new framework and new terms of reference’ (ibid.). Against theories which emphasize continuity in history, Barraclough argues: ‘What we should look out for as significant are the differences rather than the similarities, the elements of discontinuity rather than the elements of continuity. In short, contemporary history should be considered as a distinct period of time, with characteristics of its own which mark it off from the preceding period, in much the same way as what we call ‘medieval history’ is marked off ... from modern history’ (1964: p. 12). After discussing some of the contours of the new era, Barraclough rejects some previous attempts to characterize the current historical situation and then proposes the term postmodern to describe the period which follows modern history (1964: p. 23). He describes the new age as being constituted by revolutionary developments in science and technology, by a new imperialism meeting resistance in Third World revolutionary movements, by the transition from individualism to mass society, and by a new outlook on the world and new forms of culture.
- While the term postmodern was occasionally used in the 1940s and 1950s to describe new forms of architecture or poetry, it was not widely used in the field of cultural theory to describe artifacts that opposed and/or came after modernism until the 1960s and 1970s. During this period, many cultural and social theorists began discussing radical breaks with the culture of modernism and the emergence of new postmodern artistic forms. Irving Howe (1970; orig. 1959) and Harry Levin (1966; orig. 1960) were generally negative toward the new postmodern culture, which they interpreted in terms of the decline of Enlightenment rationalism, anti-intellectualism, and loss of the modernist hope that culture could advance social change. For Susan Sontag (1972), Leslie Fiedler (1971), and Ihab Hassan (1971), by contrast, postmodern culture is a positive development which opposes the oppressive aspects of modernism and modernity. Expressing her dissatisfaction with modernist fiction and modes of interpretation, Sontag’s influential essays from the mid-1960s celebrated the emergence of a ‘new sensibility’ (a term first used by Howe) in culture and the arts which challenges the rationalist need for content, meaning, and order. The new sensibility, by contrast, immerses itself in the pleasures of form and style, privileging an ‘erotics’ of art over a hermeneutics of meaning.
- The 1960s were the period of pop art, film culture, happenings, multi-media light shows and rock concerts, and other new cultural forms. For Sontag, Fiedler, and others, these developments transcended the limitations of previous forms like poetry or the novel. Artists in many fields began mixing media and incorporating kitsch and popular culture into their aesthetic. Consequently, the new sensibility was more pluralistic and less serious and moralistic than modernism.
- Even more than Sontag, Fiedler applauded the breakdown of the high-low art distinction and the appearance of pop art and mass cultural forms. In his essay ‘The New Mutants’ (1971: pp 379-400; orig. 1964), Fiedler described the emergent culture as a ‘post-’ culture that rejected traditional values of Protestantism, Victorianism, rationalism, and humanism. While in this essay he decries postmodern art and the new youth culture of nihilistic ‘post-modernists’, he later celebrated postmodernism and saw positive value in the breakdown of literary and cultural tradition. He proclaimed the death of the avant-garde and modern novel and the emergence of new postmodern artforms that effected a ‘closing of the gap’ between artist and audience, critic and layperson (Fiedler 1971: pp. 461-85; orig. 1970). Embracing mass culture and decrying modernist elitism, Fiedler called for a new post-modern criticism that abandons formalism, realism, and highbrow pretentiousness, in favour of analysis of the subjective response of the reader within a psychological, social, and historical context.
- But the most prolific celebration and popularization of literary postmodernism was carried through by Hassan, who published a series of discussions of postmodern literature and thought (1971, 1979, 1987) - although he has recently tried to distance himself from the term on the grounds that it is inadequate and that we are beyond even postmodernism (Hassan 1987: pp. xi-xvii). In a body of work which is itself often postmodern in its non-linear, playful, assemblage-like style that constructs a pastiche text comprised largely of quotations and name-dropping, Hassan characterizes postmodernism as a ‘decisive historical mutation’ from industrial capitalism and Western categories and values. He reads postmodern literature as symptomatic of the changes occurring throughout Western society. The new ‘anti-literature’ or ‘literature of silence’ is characterized by a ‘revulsion against the Western self (Hassan 1987: p. 5) and Western civilization in general.
- Postmodern forms in literature, poetry, painting, and architecture continued developing in the 1970s and 1980s and were accompanied by a proliferation of postmodern discourses in the arts. In architecture, there were strong reactions against the purity and formalism of the high modern style. The utopian dreams of architects like Le Corbusier to engineer a better world through architecture were belied in sterile skyscrapers and condemned urban housing projects. Charles Jencks’ influential book, The Language of Modern Architecture (1977), celebrated a new postmodern style based on eclecticism and populism, and helped to disseminate the concept of the postmodern.
- Against modernist values of seriousness, purity, and individuality, postmodern art exhibits a new insouciance, a new playfulness, and a new eclecticism. The elements of sociopolitical critique characteristic of the historical avant-garde (Burger 1984) and desire for radically new art forms are replaced by pastiche, quotation and play with past forms, irony, cynicism, commercialism, and in some cases downright nihilism. While the political avant-garde of the modernist movement celebrated negation and dissidence, and called for a revolution of art and life, most postmodernist art often took delight in the world as it is and happily coexisted in a pluralism of aesthetic styles and games. Other theorists and artists, however, such as Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Hans Haacke sought an oppositional current in postmodern art and produced interesting new forms of political art that challenge and subvert prevailing ideologies and codes of representation (see Foster 1983; Conner 1989; Hutcheon 1989).
- While Sontag, Fiedler, Hassan, and others valorize postmodern culture as a refreshing break with stale conventions and practices in the arts and life, cultural theorist George Steiner (1971), by contrast, attacked the new ‘post-culture’ which he claims has rejected and destroyed the foundational assumptions and values of Western society. For Steiner this involves: a loss of geographical and sociological centrality, where the Western world, and the United States in particular, could claim moral superiority and rights over ‘uncivilized’ peoples; an incredulous attitude toward progress as the trajectory and goal of history, accompanied by a dark pessimism toward the future and a decline of utopian values; and a scepticism toward the modernist belief in a direct correlation between liberal-humanist principles and moral conduct, a position made questionable in this century by the savagery of world wars and the harmonious coexistence of high culture and concentration camps. Thus, for Steiner post-(Enlightenment/humanist/modern) culture no longer blindly and unproblematically trusts in science, art, and reason as beneficent, humanizing forces, and, consequently, there has been a loss of ethical absolutes and certainties. As a cultural conservative, he attacks the political struggles of the 1960s, the countercultural movements, and radicalism within the academy. Steiner bemoans the loss of community, identity, and classical humanism, while deploring the rise of mass culture for eroding standards of classical literacy. He acknowledges, however, that society cannot turn back and must therefore move as best it can into the brave new world of science and technology.
- A similar sense that an old era is coming to an end and a new historical situation and choices now confront us is found in The Active Society by sociologist Amitai Etzioni (1968) who advances the notion of a postmodern society which he interprets more positively than Steiner. For Etzioni, World War II was a turning point in history; he argued that the postwar introduction of new modes of communication, information, and energy inaugurated a postmodern period. He hypothesized that relentless technological development would itself either destroy all previous values, or would make possible the use of technology to better human life and to solve all social problems. Etzioni championed an ‘active society’ in which normative values would guide technological developments and human beings would utilize and control technology for the benefit of humanity. This activist normative ideal was one of the few positive visions of a postmodern future, although Etzioni was also aware of the dangers.
- In the mid-1970s, more books appeared in the United States which used the term postmodern to designate a new era in history. Theologian Frederick Ferre’s Shaping the Future. Resources for the Post-Modern World (1976) projected an alternative set of values and institutions for a postmodern consciousness and new future. His emphasis was primarily positive and took the form of quasi-religious prophecy and advocacy of religious values to guide the new age. In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), sociologist Daniel Bell also took up the theme that the modern era was coming to an end and that humanity now faced fundamental choices for the future: ‘We are coming to a watershed in Western society: we are witnessing the end of the bourgeois idea - that view of human action and of social relations, particularly of economic exchange - which has molded the modern era for the last 200 years’ (1976: p. 7). He interprets the postmodern age much like Toynbee: it represents for him the unleashing of instinct, impulse and will, though, like Steiner, he tends to identify it with the 1960s counterculture (1976: pp. 51f.). For Bell, the postmodern age exhibits an extension of the rebellious, antibourgeois, antinomic and hedonistic impulses which he sees as the legacies of the modernist movements in the arts and their bohemian subcultures. He claims that cultural modernism perpetuates hedonism, the lack of social identification and obedience, narcissism, and the withdrawal from status and achievement competition. The postmodern age is thus a product of the application of modernist revolts to everyday life, the extension and living out of a rebellious, hyperindividualist, hedonist lifestyle.
- Bell sees contemporary postmodern culture as a radical assault on tradition which is fuelled by an aggressive narcissism that is in profound contradiction with the bureaucratic, technocratic, and organizational imperatives of the capitalist economy and democratic polity. This development, in Bell’s view, portends the end of the bourgeois world-view with its rationality, sobriety, and moral and religious values (1976: pp. 53f.). In response to the corrosive force of postmodernism on traditional values, Bell calls for a revivification of religious values.
- Yet as Habermas has argued (1981: p. 14),4 Bell tends to blame culture for the ills of the economy and polity, as when he refers to ‘cultural crises which beset bourgeois societies and which, in the longer run, devitalize a country, confuse the motivations of individuals, instil a sense of carpe diem, and undercut its civic will. The problems are less those of the adequacy of institutions than of the kinds of meanings that sustain a society’ (1976: p. 28). Yet in other passages, Bell notes the extent to which the development of the consumer society itself with its emphasis on consumption, instant gratification, easy credit, and hedonism is responsible for the undermining of traditional values and culture and the production of what he calls the ‘cultural contradictions of capitalism’. Thus while Mills’ (1959) early critique of a postmodern society of cheerful robots derived from a progressive concern with diminution of the ability to shape, control, and change the conditions of society and one’s life, Bell’s critique derived from fear of the collapse of the bourgeois world-view and its value system.
- Our archaeological inquiries have disclosed that there are two conflicting matrices of postmodern discourse in the period before it proliferated in the 1980s. One position - Drucker, Etzioni, Sontag, Hassan, Fiedler, Ferre, and others - gave the term a predominantly positive valence, while others produced negative discourses (e.g. Toynbee, Mills, Bell, Baudrillard). The positive perspective was itself divided into social and cultural wings. The affirmative social discourse (Drucker, Etzioni, Ferre, and theorists of the postindustrial society) reproduced 1950s optimism and the sense that technology and modernization were making possible the break with an obsolete past. These theories replicated the ideologies of the ‘affluent society’ (Galbraith), ‘the end of ideology’, and the ‘Great American celebration’ (Mills) that affirmed contemporary capitalist modernity in the 1950s and 1960s, believing that capitalism had overcome its crisis tendencies and was on the way to producing a ‘great society’. The positive culturalist wing (Sontag, Fiedler, Hassan) complemented this celebration by affirming the liberating features of new postmodern cultural forms, pop culture, avant-gardism, and the new postmodern sensibility.
- This positive culturalist discourse and the proliferation of postmodern cultural forms helped prepare the way for the reception of the discourse of the postmodern in the 1980s. In general, the cultural discourse had a much greater impact on later postmodern theory than the sociohistorical discourses, which were rarely noted or discussed. The cultural discourses also shared certain epistemological perspectives with later postmodern theoretical discourse which emphasized difference, otherness, pleasure, novelty, and attacked reason and hermeneutics. The affirmative social discourse of the postmodern, by contrast, continued the modern modes of thought (reason, totalizations, unification, and so on) which later postmodern theory would assault.
- The negative discourses of the postmodern reflected a pessimistic take on the trajectories of modern societies. Toynbee, Mills, Bell, Steiner, and others saw Western societies and culture in decline, threatened by change and instability, as well as by the new developments of mass society and culture. The negative discourse of the postmodern thus posits a crisis for Western civilization at the end of the modern world. This pessimistic and apocalyptic discourse would be reproduced in postmodern theorists like Baudrillard. The negative cultural discourse of Howe, Steiner, Bell and others would also prepare the way for the neo-conservative attacks on contemporary culture in the 1980s.
- Both the positive and negative theorists were responding to developments in contemporary capitalism - though rarely conceptualizing them as such - which was going through an expansionist cycle and producing new commodities, abundance, and a more affluent lifestyle. Its advertising, credit plans, media, and commodity spectacles were encouraging gratification, hedonism, and the adoption of new habits, cultural forms, and lifestyles which would later be termed postmodern. Some theorists were celebrating the new diversity and affluence, while others were criticizing the decay of traditional values or increased powers of social control. In a sense, then, the discourses of the postmodern are responses to socioeconomic developments which they sometimes name and sometimes obscure.
- Thus, by the 1980s, the postmodern discourses were split into cultural conservatives decrying the new developments and avant-gardists celebrating them. Postmodern discourses were proliferating through different academic fields and by the 1980s debates erupted concerning breaks with modernity, modernism, and modern theory. More extreme advocates of the postmodern were calling for ruptures with modern discourses and the development of new theories, politics, modes of writing, and values. While the discussions of postmodern cultural forms were primarily initiated in North America, it was in France that Baudrillard and Lyotard were developing notions of a new postmodern era that were much more comprehensive and extreme than those produced earlier in Britain and the United States. The developments in postmodern theory in France constituted a rupture with the French rationalist tradition founded by Descartes and further developed in the French Enlightenment. New French Theory can be read as one of a series of revolts against Cartesian rationalism ranging from the Enlightenment attack on theoretical reason in favour of promoting rational social change, through Comte and Durkheim’s revolt against philosophical rationalism in favour of social science, to Sartre and Merleau-Ponty’s attempts to make philosophy serve the needs of concrete human existence.
- As we shall see in the next section, French structuralism, poststructuralism, and postmodern theory constituted a series of attacks on rationalist and Enlightenment theory. Yet these critiques built on another French counter-Enlightenment tradition rooted in the critiques of reason by de Sade, Bataille, Artaud, and others whom Habermas (1987a) terms ‘the dark writers of the bourgeoisie’. A French ‘dandy’ and bohemian tradition stemming from Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and others also helped produce the aestheticized, ironic, and subversive ethos of French postmodern theory. In addition, the French reception of Nietzsche and Heidegger played a major role in turning French theory away from Hegel, Marx, phenomenology and existentialism and toward development of new theoretical formations that eventually produced postmodern theory.