Postmortem of Postmodernism

Updated: Jun 18, 2020

The term Postmodernism is not understood commonly by many people, and this is an effort to make it understand widely by philosophers and a common man. Originally the term was coined in 1950 in post-world war – II period in France, and it got its popularity in the 1970s. The leading philosophers of Postmodernism were socialist writers such as Jean Francois Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida from France and Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger from Germany (Fischer & Graham 2014). In understanding the term ‘Postmodernism’, it was considered as an attack on rationality (Turnbull 2010) and a critical reaction to modernism which was observed as the complete opposite of rationality, age of reason, metanarrative, absolute truth, authority and science. Also, Postmodernism attracted cynicism and bitterness in its deconstruction agenda in every aspect of modernism instead of taking it softly and humorously. Therefore, Postmodernism is still not taught in universities outside of art history, philosophy, humanities and cultural theory classes, but it has an impact on understanding the society we live in. However, other ‘post’ terms such as postcolonialism, postethnic, poststructuralist, postproduction and even postblack have become common in the classrooms (Fischer & Graham 2014). In this essay, we will discuss philosophers who are proponents of Postmodernism and their contribution to the discourse.

First, we will consider Jean Lyotard, a French philosopher with his contribution in the form of his book ‘The Postmodern Condition: a report on knowledge’ wrote in 1979. Lyotard was primarily critical to metanarratives of the enlightenment project which was a proponent of totalitarian government, genocide, racism, sexism, the inadequacy of science to explain quantum physics or chaos theory, subjugation and slavery of people, also raucous of cultures. However, according to Jean Lyotard, Postmodernism is sceptical towards metanarrative not always rejecting them but questioning their true nature. Instead, he believed in the small localised narrative that takes events in their local context. It emphasises the diversity of human experience and fragmented, complex nature of humans, leading to a plurality of meaning and truths, all valid. However, practically, there is only one truth, and plurality is just an explanation of the absolute truth or different ways of looking at the absolute truth. For instance, the earth is round, and it is revolving around the sun is an absolute truth. However, when we are on earth, we observe that the sun and stars are rotating around the earth. In this illustrative example, the fact does not change, and the later is just a way of looking at the absolute truth.

Second, Michel Foucault’s ideas about language shape our understanding of the postmodern world. For him, life should be treated as a work of art that can have many meanings and can be judged in its own terms. According to him, it is chronic to looking at life that relies on scientific categories but philosophical commandments that set-in-stone. Foucault’s genealogy of subjectivity says we think that we are free, but we are products of history. After studying the history of Foucault’s life and his works such as ‘Madness in Civilisation’, ‘Discipline and punishment’, we observe that he is ok with the dark side of life being exposed in the society that we live in so that people will be more sympathetic and accepting towards such people rather than being critical and harsh. However, from a structuralist point of view, one is sceptical about being critical and harsh on anti-social people and thus, being responsible and civilised to secure social order and discipline, unless there are valid claims.

Third, the central theme of Jean Baudrillard was about the concept of simulacra or simulation and hyperreality, which is without a substance or decent quality of things, that amounts to collective solipsism. The example of simulacra is the television advertisement showing a family scene which is not the real but just an imitation of the real, with actors playing different roles. In the context of power, it has a sustained critical tradition since the enlightenment project with its last great revolutionary spasm in the sixties has left a legacy of confusion and ambivalence. Here the intellectual positions such as liberalism and Marxism were treated alike with working-class remains an object of piety on the left side of the political spectrum. The working class started capitalising on their weaknesses, projecting themselves as victims. Thus, they became autonomous and the beneficiary of the revolt against culture, and were cast as the enemy.

Fourth, Jacque Derrida argues that language is subjective, and its meaning differs from reader to reader, so there cannot be a sheer truth that we can access. Thus, he deconstructed the meaning of the words by attacking logocentrism of the enlightenment period. According to him, there is no difference between signifier and signified, and writing is more important than speech. His attack on logocentrism, kind of dislocated the enlightenment project which had the constructive background of faith in a particular belief system. Instead, he embraced pluralism and had a nihilist approach towards the world systems and institutions and rejected all kinds of authority. For an opportunist, his work was impressive in observing how he deconstructs the very foundation of the enlightenment project and how we can locate the rational or loopholes of the various institutions and believes that we cherish as a social organisation. This phenomenon is described by Edmund Husserl in his philosophical position within the discourse.

Fifth, Edmund Husserl in his concept of phenomenological reduction, one subjective perception is examined and analysed in its purity, which leads back to the source of the meaning of the experienced world which may mean different to different people. In other words, phenomenology is an attempt to describe what is given to us in an experience without obscuring preconceptions or hypothetical speculations or reflecting upon our immediate or lived experiences. For example, Indian food for westerners is hot and spicy, which is not so for native Indians. Thus, according to him the set norms and objective knowledge is limited, and the personal experiences evolved out of our consciousness gives essential insights to the observer and is, in fact, the true knowledge which is plural in nature.

Sixth, Martin Heidegger’s philosophy was speculative metaphysical and Irrational epistemological. He believes that conflicts and contradiction are the most profound truths of reality, which means truth is subjective and means different to different people. Logical contradiction, according to him, was not considered as failure and was not of much significance. For example, an individual may have dyslexia but may be excellent in painting or sculpture, and so it is unfair to judge an individual likewise. Heidegger puts feelings before reason and considered it to be a source of any action. For example, an individual felt like cycling in the evening, or an individual is cycling in the evening for his health reasons. Both have different notions of truth and starting points. The former is based on feelings and later on reason.

Finally, in conclusion, we have done an in-depth analysis of all the relevant postmodern thinkers from France and Germany and found different insights into the postmodern philosophy. We also went through different live examples to understand their meaning. Each philosopher has pointed out different interpretations of the same ideology and proved their point, posing themselves as a different pole to modern philosophy. Postmodern philosophy is precisely opposite of the modern philosophy and a critical reaction to it. This is very well described here in this essay with Lyotard’s critic of metanarrative, Foucault’s poststructuralism in his work discipline and punishment, Baudrillard’s concept of simulacra or simulation, Derrida’s deconstruction, Husserl in his concept of phenomenological reduction and Heidegger with his notion of feelings before reason. The contribution of all these philosophers helps in identifying our position in the discourse, which can be modern or postmodern, or maybe new Post Postmodernism which is sincere, creative, constructive and anti-rebellion movement.


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