Saturday, February 28, 2004

the postmodern contest

One of the questions my PhD examiners asked me was to reflect on the contested nature of postmodernity. They liked my answer so much they suggested it be inserted into the thesis. So here is a first draft.

There is a huge amount of literature that describes a movement from modern to postmodern. At base this reflects some rejection of the past; often in relation to triumphal and over-arching words, symbols and systems.

I would group critiques of postmodernity into five camps.

the hypen and the hyper – a labeling critique. Different people have named the cultural shift in different ways. Some have called it hyper or ultra modern (Thomas Oden), some have called it liquid modernity (Bauman). Some have hyphenated or spaced or capitalised it; Post modern … postmodern … post-modern. All of this reflects questions about the relationship between modern and the postmodern, and whether one emphasises continuity or discontinuity.

the ism and the ity – a lens critique. Words like postmodernism and postmodernity describe different lens through which people look at the cultural shift. Do you look at culture through changes in technology and global capital (ism) or to do you reflect on the ideas of deconstruction etc (ity)?

the paradigm critique. Some people base their view of cultural shift on Kuhn’s notion of paradigm’s, and argue for a convenient pre-modern, modern and post-modern view of 2000 years of history. Questions have been raised over the simplicity of such a view.

the colonising critique. Ziaddhin Sardar’s book, Postmodernism and the Other, is a superb dissection of the postmodernity’s dismissal of the way modernity elevates reason at the expense of other ways of knowing and being, especially as seen in ethnic cultures. Sardar then argues however, that postmodernity is in fact an oppressive metanarrative itself, that is sucking cultural diversity once again into a Western way of seeing the world. Postmodernity becomes an unjust exploitation of non-Western cultures.

the good old days critique. This represents a yearning for what was. It argues against cultural shift by calling for a return to previous ways of being.

I concluded by noting that none of the above in anyway suggest that culture has not changed. I have never read anyone who thinks culture is the same now as it was 50 years ago. What is contested is how to accurately name the changes, and the impact of these changes about people.

Posted by steve at 11:25 AM


  1. Good brief analysis Steve. Thinking about the “colonising” critique you can see that in how the West (e.g. Pakeha) appropriates elements of other cultures (e.g. Maori) into their own worlds, creating a “new, better fusion”. However, the streams they draw upon are not “allowed” to do the same – instead they need to remain the pure resource to be drawn upon – their “product” needs to be “clean, green” and “untainted” by other cultures to be of value to the West. Inclusivism becomes oppresive when, in REM’s words, “minority means you”.

    Comment by Stephen — February 28, 2004 @ 12:19 pm

  2. Interesting.

    A tiny quibble with the last commenter: Isn’t “minority means you” a quote from the Proclaimers? Sunshine on Leith, song’s called “Democracy” or something. Maybe REM used that lyric too?

    Comment by Matt Powell — February 29, 2004 @ 5:02 am

  3. matt
    you’re not DJing in a sample from popular culture are you?
    grinning, steve

    Comment by steve — February 29, 2004 @ 4:02 pm

  4. haha…. touche.

    In but not of, baby. In but not of. What the balance is, I guess we all have to work that out ourselves. I’ve got the new Maroon 5 disc spinning right now, and Tricky’s in the car stereo. So I’m not exactly living in a cave or anything.

    Comment by Matt Powell — February 29, 2004 @ 4:11 pm

  5. Entirely possible that I made a mistake with the quotes. I was in a flat in the late 80′s where one of my flatmates alternated between REM and the Proclaimers. So it’s possible it just sunk into my brain as background noise.

    Comment by Stephen — February 29, 2004 @ 7:46 pm

  6. For the record, Matt had it right. The lyrics comes from “What Do You Do?” off The Proclaimers’ 1988 album “Sunshine on Leith”.

    Comment by Stephen — March 1, 2004 @ 10:14 am

  7. Five Camps of Postmodernity

    Down at the Emergent Kiwi’s blog

    Comment by — March 3, 2004 @ 4:39 pm

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