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Postmodernism

Postlethwayt, Malachy. 1758. In Honour to the Administration: tic,” for the “truth” can only defend itself by repressive
The Importance of the African Expedition Considered. London: “exclusion.”
printed by C. Say.
Postmodernism represents both a sensibility in regard
Rodrigues, Lúcia Lima, and Russell Craig. 2004. Mercantilist to social science research and a normative critique of
and English Influences on the Portuguese School of
modernity. According to postmodernism, the Enlighten-
Commerce, 1759–1844. Atlantic Economic Journal 32 (4):
329–345. ment’s search for rational understanding that could amelio-
rate the human condition engendered ideological or false
“grand narratives” of history, which are based on “essential-
Lúcia Lima Rodrigues ist,” “universal,” and “fixed” conceptions of human nature.
Russell Craig Drawing upon Jean-Francois Lyotard’s analysis in The
Postmodern Condition (1984), postmodernists reject the
Enlightenment’s search for “totalizing” theories that offer
“universal” narratives of human motivation and experience.
Building on the work of Michel Foucault, postmodern the-
POSTMODERNISM ory claims that these “grand narratives” underpinned the
Ever since its ideas first took hold in the 1980s, postmod- Enlightenment’s efforts to “normalize” human beings
ern theory has had a significant influence on the social sci- through the bureaucratic and repressive institutions of
ences. At the time, social theory imported certain “governance” (e.g., both state and nonstate organizations,
theoretical concepts from literary criticism, including such as the asylum and the hospital) that “categorize”
deconstruction and other discourse-based theories of tex- human beings.
tual interpretation. It is best, however, to refer to a post-
modern “turn” within contemporary social science,
POSTMODERNISM AND
because many academics influenced by these intellectual
DECONSTRUCTION
trends abjure the term postmodernism. Nevertheless, many
contemporary social scientists acknowledge a debt to According to postmodernists, social theories that claim to
deconstructive methods of textual interpretation and to “represent” reality fail to comprehend that humans have
deconstruction’s (or poststructuralism’s) rejection of teleo- no unmediated access to “reality.” Human conceptions of
logical theories (or “grand narratives”) and the concept of reality are, unavoidably, a product of subjective interpre-
a coherent, fixed human subject. tation. Modern media and technology deny people the
ability to discern the original author or to distinguish the
Judith Butler’s writings on the unstable and “con- original from the imitation. In 1936 Walter Benjamin
structed” nature of both sex and gender identities played argued that in an age of “mechanical reproduction” it is
a crucial role in transmitting postmodern concepts into nearly impossible to distinguish the original from a copy.
social theory and the social sciences. Yet Butler herself Following this lead, postmodern theorists such as Jean
rejects the term postmodernist, claiming only to deploy Baudrillard have contended that reality itself is a simu-
deconstructive techniques to better discern the “discursive lacrum (a copy of a copy). In a world of corporate image
construction” of identity. Postmodern conceptions of the production and virtual realities, one cannot determine
“hybrid,” “plural,” and “inconstant” nature of “identity” what is authentic or inauthentic, real or fake. When com-
have had their greatest influence in the areas of cultural, puters allow people to “live” in cyberspace, the very con-
gender, and postcolonial studies, though they have also cepts of reality, time, and space are contestable and
influenced anthropology (e.g., James Clifford) and inter- destabilized. Thus attempts to interpret the “essence” or
national relations theory (e.g., James Der Derrian). true nature of social phenomena deny the reality that the
Many people working in these areas reject behavioral, world is a constantly shifting image.
structural, and hermeneutic interpretations of the rela- Postmodern social theory draws heavily upon Jacques
tionship between individuals, groups, and social structure, Derrida’s and deconstruction’s critique of structuralism.
favoring instead analyses of the “decentered,” “local,” and Claude Levi-Strauss’s structural anthropology and Louis
“fragmented” nature of social phenomena. Postmodern Althusser’s structural Marxism (which investigated the
social theory rejects traditional social science’s goal of dis- structural role that class played within capitalist econom-
cerning causal relationships among social phenomena. It ics and ideology) dominated French intellectual life in the
also rejects social science aspirations to discern superior or 1960s. Both of these theorists drew upon the early twen-
“parsimonious” interpretations of human behavior. In the tieth-century structural linguistics of Ferdinand Saussure.
postmodern conception, no “readerly” interpretation of a Saussure held that the meaning of a particular speech or
“text” can be more “truthful” than another. In fact some language (la parole) is structured by the underlying struc-
postmodernists refer to the concept of “truth” as “terroris- ture of grammar (la langue, the structured relationship

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Postmodernism

between signifier and signified that yields the meaning of drew from the workers’ structural position in production
a sign). But Derrida in Marges de la philosophie (1972) of the teleological necessity of a “revolutionary conscious-
held that the relationship between signifier and signified is ness,” Laclau and Mouffe asserted the “discursive”—and
inherently unstable. For Derrida, “meaning” includes open—nature of social consciousness. In the determinist
both identity (what is) and différance (what is not). Thus Marxist view, both social democracy and authoritarian
postmodernists argue that any attempt to “fix” meaning communism believed that capitalism’s interdependent
will yield repressive attempts to eliminate the ineluctable division of labor would inevitably yield (whether through
“other” of human reality. gradual self-organization or via a revolutionary external
To avoid eliminating the play of différance, postmod- agent) a self-emancipating working-class movement for
ern-influenced social science rejects the “binary opposi- democratic control of the interdependent capitalist mode
tions” that allegedly ground Western philosophy: of production. In contrast to the Marxist tradition, Laclau
subject-object, man-woman, reality-appearance, reason- and Mouffe held that one cannot—and should not—
emotion, and speech-writing. In this view, the very effort mechanistically determine a subject’s “objective, true con-
of representation and causal analysis excludes and devalues sciousness” from the subject’s alleged “structural” position
the “inferior” part of the binary term that is traditionally in society. Rather, consciousness itself is discursively pro-
denigrated as being irrational or emotional. This rejection duced and represents a contested arena for politics.
of binary oppositions as repressive and “norming” has had In this view, much of the emancipatory impulse for
a profound influence on contemporary feminist and crit- democracy has come from the “new” social movements of
ical race theory, which warn against “essentializing” iden- racial, gender, and sexual identity. The consciousness of
tities of gender and race. These studies of identity focus these identity-based groups cannot be deduced from their
upon the “socially constructed,” hybrid, and ever-shifting “objective” social role in society. Thus social theorists had
nature of individual and group identity. to abandon privileging the “old” movement of the work-
Given the absence of a stable referential relation ing class and construct a new, plural, and democratic the-
between subject and object, postmodernists argue that ory that would unite (without homogenizing) the
social theory should focus upon the way subjects are “con- liberatory discourses of the new social movements. Laclau
structed” by discourse itself. The postmodern conception and Mouffe’s work has had a great influence on both
of how the subject is a product of language and thought social movement theory and postcolonial studies.
draws heavily upon philosophical traditions deriving from
Friedrich Nietzsche. In addition, Martin Heidegger’s cri- POSTMODERNISM AND ITS
tique of Western philosophy’s ineluctable search for a CRITICS: THE SEARCH FOR NORMS
fixed conception of “Being,” and of its attempt to domi- The postmodern turn in social science has generated con-
nate nature in the name of the “human,” informs post- siderable controversy, some of it finding its way into the
modern analysis. Postmodern social science frequently mass media. Most visible has been the neoconservative cri-
draws upon Foucault’s conception of power-knowledge tique that postmodernist analysis dominates the humani-
discourses to examine how subjects are “produced” by dis- ties and social sciences, imparting to students a dangerous,
course. While Foucault’s earlier “archaeological” work on nihilist critique of American democracy. Ironically, this
how epistemes (or systems of thought) “norm” and critique conflates postmodernism with Marxism, despite
“exclude” has influenced postmodern analysis, it is his postmodernism’s hostility to macrostructural and teleo-
later genealogical analysis of power as “productive” and logical forms of social analysis, including Marxism. Some
“enabling” (rather than as primarily coercive) that has left-leaning social theorists concur with the postmodern
most influenced postmodernism’s critique of “agency.” As analysis that the marketing of images and lifestyles partly
Butler holds, the conception of a coherent, rational, supplants the production and sale of physical goods in late
human individual who exercises conscious agency ignores capitalism. But these analysts of late capitalism (such as
the reality that human identities are continually being the geographer David Harvey and the cultural theorist
reconfigured through performative “self-inscriptions” of Frederic Jameson), in contrast to postmodernists, offer
dominant norms and discourses. macrostructural and analytic explanations for the emer-
gence of these phenomena. They locate the production of
LACLAU AND MOUFFE AND “NEW images-as-commodities within the global corporate con-
SOCIAL MOVEMENTS” glomerates of the “infotainment,” media, and publishing
Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and industries.
Socialist Strategy (1985) represents a highly influential The postmodern rejection of the realist conception
poststructuralist critique of the use of “grand narrative” in that economic and social institutions constrain the
the social sciences. Rejecting a “determinist” Marxism that choices of individuals has occurred at a time of rapidly

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increasing global violence and economic and material Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the
inequality, and some critics have pointed out the ironic ele- Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
ment in the timing of this development. Postmodernists Clifford, James. 1988. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-
often explain their critique of fixed, “linear” conceptions of Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.
time and space by metaphorical references to chaos theory’s
rejection of periodicity and to the finding of quantum Der Derian, James, and Michael J. Shapiro. 1989.
International/Intertextual Relations: Postmodern Readings of
mechanics that mass, force, and acceleration cannot be
World Politics. Lexington, MA: Lexington.
independently determined. This postmodernist rejection
Derrida, Jacques. 1976. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri
of even an “unrepresentative” realist conception of an Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins
external reality independent of theoretical interpretation University Press.
helped engender the “Sokal affair.” Alan Sokal, a physicist Foucault, Michel. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews
(and materialist Marxist) at New York University, submit- and Other Writings, 1972–1977. New York: Pantheon.
ted a paper to the postmodern journal Social Text in 1996. Laclau, Ernseto, and Chantal Mouffe. 1985. Hegemony and
The article cleverly deployed postmodern concepts while Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics.
making alleged scientific references that any physics under- London: Verso.
graduate could readily deem to be ludicrous. After the Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1984. The Postmodern Condition. Trans.
essay was published, Sokal revealed that it was a hoax Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis:
aimed at revealing postmodernism’s ignorance of both sci- University of Minnesota Press.
ence and the nature of material reality. The story made the Rosenau, Pauline Marie. 1992. Post-Modernism and the Social
front page of the New York Times. Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press.
Some leftist theorists note that the postmodern turn
arose at the very moment that conservative political dom-
inance decreased the prestige of leftist theory and practice. Joseph M. Schwartz
A crude “sociology of knowledge” of the postmodern turn
might contend that, absent mass social movements con-
tending for state power, left-wing academics retreat into
the realm of pure theory. The rejoinder to this might be POSTNATIONALISM
that postmodernism’s insistence on the relevance of the The term postnationalism refers to the critique of the con-
particular, local, and hybrid has had a salutary effect on cept of the nation as the central organizing principle of
limiting the imperial claims of “grand narratives.” Either modern political identity and government. According to
way, analytic attempts of macrostructural and historically postnationalism, the category of the nation is no longer
oriented social theorists to discern the interaction between sufficient to describe the fundamentals of political iden-
social agency and social structure are likely to remain a tity or state government. In a postnational context it
major theme within social science. And the postmodern becomes necessary to move beyond the idea that a homo-
concern with the fate of marginalized groups would seem geneous national identity is the natural integrating factor
to push the discussion ethically beyond postmodernism’s of modern political community. Further, postnationalism
emphasis on the local and particular. The quasi-universal questions the idea that the sovereign nation-state is indis-
concepts of citizenship and global human rights may not pensable to the order of international affairs and the func-
have an irrefutable, a priori basis in a fixed human nature, tioning of the domestic rule of law.
but if human beings cannot develop shared understand-
ings and values that bridge their differences, it is unlikely
that the emancipatory, democratic project embraced by THE CRITIQUE OF NATIONALISM
many postmodern theorists will ever be realized. Postnationalism arose out of the critique of nationalism. It
was only at the end of the eighteenth century that citizen-
SEE ALSO Critical Theory; Enlightenment; Ethics; ship and national identity came together, in the figure of
Foucault, Michel; Hegemony; Knowledge; Modernism; nationalism, for the functional purpose of providing a
Multiculturalism; Paradigm; Positivism; Power; principle of integration that could serve to mobilize the
Relativism; Social Constructs; Universalism transition from royal sovereignty to popular sovereignty.
Nationalism provided the solution to the twin problems
BIBLIOGRAPHY of secular legitimation and complex integration in the
Best, Steven, and Douglass Kellner. 1991. Postmodern Theory: wake of religious schism and republican revolution.
Critical Interrogations. New York: Guilford. While citizenship describes a purely legal relation
Brown, Wendy. 1995. States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late within a political community, in modern times the ten-
Modernity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. dency has been to tie it to an identity that points beyond

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