What is Postmodernism and what is Modernity?

Postmodernism is a heterogeneous movement in literary theory, sociology, architecture and philosophy that emerged in the second half of the 20th century as a radical departure from the sensibilities of what was considered “modernity and modernism”.

Modernity loosely emerged from a set of 17th century European ideas that came to be known as The Enlightenment, which broke away from medieval ideas concerning the nature of state, government and freedom. It had its origins in the works of European thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Adam Smith and David Hume. These thinkers upheld social and political doctrines based on reason, and delimited the influence of religion on affairs of state (see for example, Social Contract). They promoted the ideas of liberty, democracy, citizen rights, rationality and the separation of religion and politics.

Western scientific revolution and industrialisation closely followed the Age of Enlightenment. The discovery of oceanic trade routes led to colonisation which was met with a conflict of values and interests with the native population of the new-found continents. True to the pragmatism of the merchant class, the colonisers conducted their trade in ways that suited their medieval instincts, which involved the marginalisation of the native population and destruction of their habitat.

Back home, many thinkers who preached the “enlightened values” to their population, rationalised the excesses of the colonisers by describing the colonised population as inferior to the Europeans with their Christian values. For instance, John Locke, whose views were cardinal to the development of ideas like citizen rights and the limits of State power, and who was the principal influence for the American Declaration of Independence, justified the subjugation of Native-Americans in the “New World” (Americas).

John Locke wrote,“God gave the World to Men in Common; but … it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the Industrious and Rational, not to the Fancy or Covetousness of the Quarrelsome and Contentious.”

Locke, in effect, justified the removal of Native Americans from their land, stating that they do not have the “rationality” to put those tracts of land to use. Locke’s justification of appropriating the land of Native Americans decidedly influenced the general justification of European colonisation throughout the world (see, the idea of “Manifest Destiny”).

“Among the categories of persons denied the benefits and rights that liberalism theoretically promised to all human beings were, variously, indigenous people, the enslaved, women, children, and the mentally disabled, those whom Locke called ‘mad Men’ and ‘Idiots’. The main criterion used to exclude such persons was their lack of rationality, and it has been argued that ‘[t]he American Indian is the example Locke uses to demonstrate a lack of reason’”(Armitage, 2012).

Thus, the ideas of rationality and liberty associated with modernity were also associated with European imperialism, colonialism and atrocities related to the subjugation of native population. The two world wars were the culmination of the European scramble for global domination and mutual competition. World War II, in many ways, was the climax of this “theatre of modernity”. It reached its orgasmic peak with two critical events: the postwar unraveling of the extent of Nazi atrocities, and the destruction that followed the atomic bomb holocaust in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I would date the definitive origin of postmodernism with these two catastrophic events. In both these situations, modernity, rationality, science and the instruments of power it created were clearly associated with the catastrophes witnessed. In subsequent years, the relationship between modernity and the wanton exercise of its instruments of power was closely interrogated. Postmodernism emerged as the product of a skeptical “revision” of the ideas of modernity. Many postmodern writers found deep fissures and violence in the very narrative of modernity in how it drew different standards for different people. The universalism of the ideas of modernity was questioned, and the dynamics of violence in its structure was examined.

Postmodernist thinkers tried to associate “rationality” and “science” with western imperialism and its devastating consequences. A breed of writers who started to think in the reverse direction started to emerge. Thus, there were thinkers who started to discuss various heterodox relationships: power and knowledge, power and gender, and power and social institutions.

However, in doing so, they seem to have divorced from the clarity of thought that many thinkers of the Enlightenment had. Whether this was a deliberate attempt, or a consequence of the flight of speculations these writers engaged in, is a debatable issue. My impression is that initially it was sort of a deliberate attempt ( eg. the style of writings of postmodern philosophers like Jacques Derrida, who introduced the literary technique of “deconstruction”), but subsequently the lingo led to many authors getting carried away by their own narrative style.

Concurrent to these developments in the humanities, but unrelated to the stream of thinking in humanities, was a development in the philosophy of science that apparently corroborated the standpoints of the postmodernists. This was a series of ideas that began with Thomas Kuhn, philosopher of science, that made evident the non-rational sociological influences in the way communities of scientists behave in different periods of the history of science. These ideas were in contrast to the “heroic” depictions of staunchly rational science as described by many of Kuhn’s predecessors like Karl Popper and the logical positivists.

Drawing extensively from the history of science, Kuhn demonstrated the vagaries of scientists in their endeavour to generate scientific knowledge, in his highly influential book, The Structure of Scientific Revolution. Although Kuhn did not refute the basic validity of science in his writings, his demonstration of its sociological issues led to the postmodern interpolation into the nature of science.

Paul Feyerabend picked up Kuhn’s strands of thought and described an anarchic view of the philosophy of science that refuted its differentiation from other belief systems like myths and religion. Prompts from these philosophers of science led to many postmodern authors arguing that science is just one among the numerous other viewpoints of the world, and that it does not command a special status vis-à-vis belief systems of various native communities. Beyond this, there were also authors who started to explore a relationship between phenomena described in quantum physics and eastern mysticism. These somewhat loose interpretations of the “facts” of science was made more opaque by language that many a time defied to provide any clarity of understanding. Language was used in an unintelligible manner and connections were made with disconnected and dissimilar entities.

I would argue that over a period of time, postmodernism developed a sociological milieu for itself, where “opacity and disconnection” was, as a matter of style, unjustifiably accepted by a whole community of authors and readers.

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