Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 11. Nr. Dezember 2001

From Postmodernism to Postcolonialism

On the Interrelation of the Discourses

Paul Michael Lützeler (St. Louis)

Adherents of modernism and traditionalists alike have characterized the postmodern discourse as "arbitrary," superficial," "cynical," "pointless," and "hostile to history." The time has come to revise this bias, to note the merits of the postmodern knowledge that strengthened the perceptions of democratic pluralism, to examine how it expanded the scope of freedom, and to discern how much other emancipatory cultural discourses such as multiculturalism and postcolonialism owe to it.

One of the most consistent clichés encountered in the polemics against postmodernism is that "anything goes," that all areas of life and art are subject to a postmodern "arbitrariness." Postmodern thinking owes important impulses to Paul Feyerabend's study "Against Method." Feyerabend examines the development of theories and hypotheses in the sciences and he is strongly opposed to "fixed methods" and "fixed theories." He feels that in science methods, theories, and hypotheses must be questioned and revised continuously. He suggests a "pluralistic methodology" that excludes no new viewpoints and instead propounds the thesis that "anything goes." This anti-dogmatic premise cannot be dismissed in scientific theory; however, at no time does Feyerabend mention ethics or social behavior, art or literature. It is therefore difficult to understand how his motto - "anything goes" - could have become a cornerstone in the polemics against postcolonialism. It is self-evident that a Feyerabend-inspired theory of history would not fear criticizing Hegel's dialectics or neo-Marxist interpretations of history. Postmodern thinking is more informed by the dialogic of Michail Bachtin, in which competing dualities do not need to eventuate in syntheses.

At its beginning in the 1960s, postmodern theory was concerned mainly with aesthetic phenomena, as evidenced in the early essays of Leslie Fiedler, Susan Sontag, and Ihab Hassan. In the 70s, however, it was further developed by architects such as Robert Venturi, Robert Stern, and Charles Jencks; by philosophers and cultural critics like Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson, and Richard Rorty; by feminists such as Linda Hutcheon, Nancy Fraser, and Linda Nicholson; and by sociologists like Amitai Etzioni, Zygmunt Bauman, Scott Lash, Ernesto Laclau, and Chantal Mouffe. From the beginning, postmodernism had a dual meaning: on the one hand, a critical stance toward the petrification, dogmatization, and self-imposed limitations of modernism, and on the other hand, a comcept of an era, an attempt to grasp the cultural configuration of the present that has continued since the 60s.

Like modernism, postmodernism is a Western phenomenon and as such is connected to the democratizing processes of the Western world. I share this opinion with postmodern theoreticians and historians such as Ronald Inglehart, Wolfgang Welsch, Hans Bertens, John Keane, and John McGowen. From early on, postmodernism was understood as a stage of modernism in its self-criticism and self-reflection. When postmodern theoreticians like Lyotard did not validate the unquestioning acceptance of the Enlightenment's metanarratives, such as those concerning the progress of freedom, it did not mean that they shunned Enlightenment ideals. Here we find the basis of Habermas's misunderstanding of postmodernism. Lyotard's skepticism was aimed at the untouchable historical and philosophical tenets of the Enlightenment, not at its professed goal to continue democratization with regard to tolerance, equality, and personal freedom or to fight for human rights. To the contrary, these political and legal ideals play an important role in postmodern theory, as is demonstrated by the works of Lyotard, Wolfgang Welsch, and Hans Bertens.

Postmodernism's democratic bend is also noticeable in other discourses that must be considered part of the postmodern condition: feminism, multiculturalism, and postcolonialism. While these discourses have their own history, their own specific roots and goals, they have influenced and supported each other in the era of postmodernism since the 60s. They were able to develop within the democratic climate of postmodernism, directed as it is at the emancipation of women, minorities, and the disadvantaged. It is no secret that the intellectuals involved in these discourses at times distanced themselves from postmodernism and, in the pursuit of their own ideas, emphasized the differences rather than the commonalities. Postmodern thinking has often been chided for its lack of social goals, which were indeed implicit rather than explicit. In retrospect, however, the interrelationships between postmodernism and the above-mentioned discourses cannot be ignored.

The philosophies and ideologies of modernism are replete with metanarratives that focus on a common denominator of a whole era. Modernism had already stated that these metanarratives were no longer able to carry out the tasks accorded them, but it had done so with an expression of regret and melancholy. One of the most impressive intellectual literary formulations of this regret is the essay collection "The Disintegration of Values" in the last volume of Hermann Broch's Sleepwalkers trilogy of 1932. Lyotard's preference for smaller, more limited narratives was a further expression of the radical pluralism of postmodernism and served as an additional impetus to the variety of discourses in multiculturalism and postcolonialism. In contrast to modernism, postmodernism does not register the increasing variety of life styles and world views as a loss, but rather counts it as a gain; it is understood as a possibility to maximize freedom and as an expression of the valuation of what is heterogeneous and different in democratically organized societies. The general characterization of postmodernism can be supported by mentioning the contributions of several theoreticians.

In the 1960s, Leslie Fiedler and Susan Sontag contributed in the field of literary and art criticism to the revaluation of the popular - a constant irritation to Clement Greenberg. Fiedler and Sontag opposed dogmatized views of modern art and literature, especially with respect to their autonomy and their remoteness from the everyday world. Both deserve credit for having taken the popular art movements seriously and for having bridged the gap between elite and mass culture. Their texts emphasize what from then on exemplified contributions to the topic of postmodernism: the fundamental pluralism of artistic and intellectual processes and paradigms. The insistence on a radical pluralism is the expressly democratic component or postmodern knowledge. The age of postmodernism is the era of pluralism, and it was in this climate that new emancipatory discourses could blossom. Those initial texts on postmodernism by Fiedler and Sontag described the establishment of the paradigm of plurality and of the construction of a bridge to the feminist and multicultural discourses. Subsequently, during the 70s and 80s, the revision of the canon was heavily debated internationally under the auspices of postmodernism and multiculturalism, feminism and postcolonialism. The revaluation of popular art and the examination, revision, and expansion of the canon resulted in new scholarly methods, and with the consideration accorded to everyday history and culture, openend up new areas in the humanities and social sciences. In the course of pluralization and Euro-centric self-criticism, new scholarly fields have evolved such as gender, minority, and ethnic studies. Charles Jencks applied to architecture the thesis of the dual and multi-level codification of literature that Ihab Hassan had propounded. Dual codification is also one of the characteristics of Cindy Sherman's postmodern photography.

Robert Venturi insisted on the hybridity of postmodern architectural concepts, and art critic Rosalind Krauss demonstrated that hybridity is also a characteristic of postmodern sculpture. This preference for the hybrid quality is echoed in postcolonial theory, as conceived by Homi Bhabha, for example. Irony, parody, and mimicry, according to Umberto Ecco and Linda Hutcheon, determine the relationship of postmodern to modern literature. Homi Bhabha sees the relationship between postcolonial and colonial literature in a similar way. The interrelatedness and mutual influence of postmodern and postcolonial tendencies stimulate the valuation of cultural hybridity and the acceptance of the value of pluralism: postmodernism pleads for the tolerance of a maximum of so-called small narratives in contrast to modern attempts at totality, and postcolonial theory occupies itself with the increasingly large number of overlapping and crossing civilizations, which result in new cultural formations.

Ulrich Beck stressed the aspects of self-reflection, ecology, and risk taking in postmodern society. He coined the expressions of the "other" or "second modernity," the "zweite Moderne." However, since what he has described is essentially synonymous with what we understand as the postmodern condition, this alternative formulation is simply an accentuation of the modern in the postmodern. The term "postmodern" signals a greater willingness, as far as revision is concerned, and a more critical distance than does the term "second modernity."

Linda Hutcheon underlined postmodernism's renewed interest in history when she called postmodern literature "historiographic metafiction." Historiographic metafiction is self-reflective; it questions modern fundamental concepts of subject, identity, gender, continuity, and originality. Yet, these ideas of the modern are not simply replaced by others but are instead reviewed and brought into perspective during a process of historicization. According to Hutcheon, postmodernism is neither a purely revolutionary nor a merely affirmative phenomenon; it is characterized, in her opinion, by both adaptation and objection. Hutcheon reviews the concepts of modernity from a feminist, multicultural, and postcolonial perspective.

In stark contrast to Hutcheon, Fredric Jameson feels that in the postmodern, historical thinking has been replaced by nostalgia. He defines postmodernism as the logic of late capitalism. In the consumer society of late capitalism, according to Jameson, reality is turned into "images," and history is reduced to a patchwork of scenes. Jameson shares this estimation of postmodernity with other neo-Marxist critics such as Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton. Zygmunt Bauman, whose position toward modernity is a much more critical one, also expresses his reservations vis-à-vis the postmodern condition and points to such aspects as consumer ideology and market seduction, impoverization of the middle class, problems of criminality, as well as the growing unemployment rate. Richard Sennett has a similarly critical view of the relationship of postmodernity to the new economic policy and the so-called new world order. These authors owe much to Jean Baudrillard and his criticism of today's consumer society, which Baudrillard had already voiced in 1970 in his book La Société de consommation, in which he combined linguistic sign theory and economic analysis. This other, darker side of the postmodern condition must by no means be overlooked. If its most imposing problem, that of persistent unemployment, cannot be overcome, its multicultural and democratic achievements will be endangered as well. Postmodernity must produce a new social solidarity that can function without the totalitarian utopias of modernity. Richard Rorty, whose roots lie in the pragmatism of John Dewey, is an American representative of the philosophical postmodern. Rorty has always insisted on the connection between postmodernity and solidarity. The category "human solidarity" was at the center of his work Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Here he recalled the human catastrophes like the Holocaust that occur when solidarity is absent. His book Achieving our Country" relates to the pragmatic nature of the American democratic intellectual tradition. Here, too, Rorty insists on solidarity and demonstrates its meaning under the changed conditions of 1989. He declares that one of the foremost topics of American postmodernism today is the criticism of the increasingly drastic social inequality. The emancipation of women has achieved immeasurable success, and minorities have been able to defend, demonstrate, and maintain their cultural differences. In the future we will have to occupy ourselves more intensively with social topics.

Postmodernism is associated much more strongly than modernism with the discourses of feminism, multiculturalism, and postcolonialism. Postcolonialism created a climate in which these discourses were able to unfold. Feminism, multiculturalism, and postcolonialism, in return, aided in the understanding of postmodernity, as can be seen in the works of Jean-François Lyotard, for example, to whom both the postmodern and the multiculturalism discourses owe a great deal. How strongly postmodern thinking influenced the multicultural discourse is especially evident in Charles Taylor's study Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition." From Fiedler to Hassan and from Jencks and Lyotard to Rorty, postmodern discourse has always involved insistence on cultural diversity, the recognition of minorities' forms of thought, language, and lifestyle. This acknowledgment of cultural difference is at the center of Charles Taylor's contemplations on multiculturalism and its politics. The unencumbered life of minorities is not possible without recognition. Taylor states that laws in Western democracies, while seemingly the same for all citizens, are directed at the needs of majorities, not minorities. Thus nations, purportedly blind to cultural difference, can evolve as societies that propound a particularism that easily turns into discrimination. Lyotard followed his book on postmodernity with the study Le Différend." In essence, this book serves to provide the bridge between the postmodernism and the multiculturalism discourse. According to Lyotard, the différend comes about when - as in legal proceedings - the negotiators speak two radically different languages. In order to avoid a situation in which the language of one negotiator overcomes that of the other, one cannot rely on either one of the legal languages but must develop a new legal language that can be understood by both. In order to accomplish this, one must look for commonalities in both languages. According to Lyotard, in postmodern societies one must discern what is not yet codified instead of simply reiterating what has already been stated in one of the languages.

The theory of multiculturalism has essentially been developed in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, the so-called settler colonies. The diversity of this theory is exemplified by the divergent studies of, for example, the Americans Avery Gordon and Christopher Newfield, the Canadian Charles Taylor, and the Australian Stephen Castle. What these theories share is that they replace the older cultural identity paradigms such as specific national identity or the so-called "melting pot" with models that propagate the acceptance of the diversity and hybridity of varying, even contrasting cultures.

Feminism and multiculturalism are emancipation discourses typical of the West. The theory and practice of postcolonialism, however, has its roots in the so-called Third World, that is to say, in the former colonies as well as in South Africa. In a modified way, postcolonialism continues the anticolonial discourse of earlier decades; one must mention here the works of Frantz Fanon. It is significant for the postmodern concept of Western countries that the postcolonial theory was developed above all by academics from colonial countries who are teaching today at leading universities of the West, particularly North America, like Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Homi Bhabha. It is no coincidence that the discourses of multiculturalism and postcolonialism overlap and strengthen each other, as is especially the case with Homi Bhabha.

During the study of the works on the postcolonial discourse, two prominent aspects emerge: a descriptive concept of postcolonialism and a programmatic concept. The descriptive aspect deals with the examination of the relationships between the formerly or presently colonizing and colonized countries; the programmatic concept, however, marks the political goals, goals that have to do with the overcoming of old and new colonial structures, racial bias and cultural prejudice, as well as overcoming the imbalance of power between the "First" and "Third World" or "North" and "South." Both the analytical and the operative aspects are essential for the postcolonial theory, and they are rarely strictly separated: the analytical interest generally goes back to the operatively directed intent. The theory of postcolonialism is focused on working out the intellectual means by which one can descriptively enable the understanding of early as well as recent colonial dependencies and programmatically deconstruct these inequalities in the sense of decolonization. The operative aspect, whose foremost proponent is Radhakrishanan, intends to achieve that state which is marked by the prefix "post," that is, it is lastly a matter of presenting the future relationship of the so-called "Third World" to the so-called "First World" on a new basis, in the true sense of the word post-colonial. The postcolonial view is thus at once detached and visionary: it wishes to recognize factual colonial conditions in order to change them through decolonization.

Since the 60s, the postmodern concept has been expanded continuously; it has attracted an increasing number of disciplinary discourses and has thus been able to develop into a cultural periodization concept. In contrast, the postcolonial view continues to be confined essentially to its usage in the humanities. The theoreticians and historians of this discourse are largely professors of literature or philosophy. In the meantime, the discourse has achieved international acclaim within literary scholarship, and there is hardly a country in the "First" or the "Third World" where academics of the most diverse backgrounds have not contributed their share to the theory and practice, method and goal of the postcolonial discourse. An internet search in the "World Catalog" for bibliographical material yields under the term postcolonial a list of several hundred book publications for the English-language sector alone. A look at the abbreviated comments quickly reveals that the contributions are in general of a literary nature, dealing with aspects of literature from all continents. Since literary scholarship has tendentiously developed into an interdisciplinary cultural field during the past few decades, there are a number of studies that touch strongly on historical, sociological, anthropological, psychological, and ecological areas but are rarely written by representatives of these very fields. Since it is impossible to gain a complete overview of what has been written on postcolonialism, one is thankful for collections and readers that provide at least an impression of the variety and internationality of the literature dealing with postcolonial aspects. The discussion initially centered on works of authors from former colonial countries of countries of the so-called "Third World." They counted among their existential experiences living between civilizations and dealing with cultural hybridity. The application of postcolonial theory has since been expanded considerably. First, those authors from the past who thematized colonialism are examined from a postcolonial viewpoint, and second, contemporary literary documents written in the vein of the postcolonial project are analyzed. More recently there are also tendencies to read the literature of minorities and foreigners in a postcolonial light, which at times brings forth interesting fusions of the multicultural and the postcolonial discourse. The focal point of the postcolonially oriented literary research, however, continues to be, on the one hand, the confrontation with the literature of the colonial era and, on the other hand, the discussion of the European and non-European literature that deals with the neo-colonial or post-colonial relationships between the "Third "World" and the "First."

Although it seems impossible to work through all the contributions on postcolonialism, the books of Edward Said deserve to be mentioned, as they are cited in many contributions. With his book Orientalism (1978), Said set postcolonial literary research in motion. He stressed that this work as well as his book Culture and Imperialism were intended to provide comparative literature with new impulses, new tasks, and new fields of interest. With the counterpoint method Said wishes to confront the literature and history of the colonizing states with the culture of the formerly colonized countries, thus raising the level of awareness for the spectrum of interrelationships between the two worlds. Like Homi Bhabha, he is interested in the hybrid marginal areas in which North and South, First and Third World meet and overlap. In this process he is concerned with the profiling of two rival perspectives, two irreconcilable historical approaches, two discrepant experiences: those of the European metropolis and those of the so-called colonial periphery. He calls to mind that monolithic-autonomous cultures existed neither in the colonies nor in Europe, but that the civilizations of the colonists and of the colonized have for centuries influenced each other. Said compares the interplay of the divergent perspectives to the counterpoint method of classical European music, in which different themes are played out against each other and where each theme is accorded a period of its own. At this time of increasing globalization, it is difficult to imagine a more appropriate kind of literary analysis.

In a manner similar to the American theory of New Historicism influenced by Foucault, Said is interested in the power aspects of related discourses, in his case the discourses of colonialism and imperialism. He demonstrates how the literary, historical, social, and ideological variants of these discourses rely on each other, thus determining cultural production. For example, when Said interprets Jane Austen's Mansfield Park in his work Culture and Imperialism, he is able to document how the novel's passing mention of British Antigua signaled the dependence of the English upper middle class on the colonies: the world of the Bertrams in Austen's book is founded on their overseas plantations, which are worked by slaves. However, Said is interested not only in the colonialist and imperialist literature from Defoe to Kipling, but also in the literature of opposition that was written during the waves of emancipation in the colonized nations during the 20th century. The deconstruction of the Western image of the non-Western world is taken up in the works of Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Walter Rodney, Wole Soyinka, and Salman Rushdie. Thus, Said does not limit himself to interpretations of literature of the Western canon from Jane Austen to Joseph Conrad and Albert Camus. In the latter part of Culture and Imperialism he addresses not the imperialism of the past but rather the neo-colonialism of the present and the discussion of the North-South relationship. Like other representatives of postcolonialism, he is not only a historian, but also a critic of the times. Here the discussion of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses within the context of Islamic fundamentalism and the American Gulf War plays a role. Said acknowledges his exile existence and sees in it the fact that one may live in the West - he teaches in New York -while at the same time belonging to the "other side." The advantage that comes with living between cultures is being able to point to what connects the cultures and to recognize their potential collisions. Like Homi Bhabha, he stresses the non-monolithic condition of the cultures, their flowing into each other, their hybrid nature. In so doing, he manages to avoid or to overcome the sort of thinking in opposites that is representative of Huntington's book about the Clash of Civilizations. The contrast between the Islamic and the Christian worlds is at the center of his interest. While Huntington proceeds from fixed, collective identities, Bhabha and Said point to the cultural mixtures and stress the continuously changing hybrid cultural pluralism. Said takes a stand expressis verbis against intellectuals, such as Allan Bloom, who wish to perpetuate the fantasy of a "purely" Western culture and who miss no opportunity to emphasize their superiority over other cultures. In his literary and cultural analysis it is not Said's intention to contribute to the politics of confrontation, to enmity and accusation, but to bring about mediation and understanding. Consequently, he ends his book on the note that it is more worthy to think about others than to think only about "us," but he also says that this entails giving up the constant need to repeat that "our" culture or "our" land is number one.

After the postmodern criticism of the totalitarian comcepts of modernism, the urge must be suppressed to construct a "spirit of postmodernity," a sort of master key that would explain all historical and cultural phenomena of the postmodern decades at the end of the 20th century. Instead, an attempt should be made to enumerate a few outstanding characteristics of the postmodern constellation, characteristics that distinguish postmodernity from the dominant tendencies of modernity in the first half of the 20th century. This can only be done in an additive and descriptive manner, keeping in mind that this list is certainly incomplete. The following comparisons are not concerned with the establishment of binary opposites but with a description of the changes in direction, each with different degrees of radicality. These tendentious changes make clear that one can speak less of a break between modernity and postmodernity than of a postmodern self-criticism of modernity, a kind of reworking and understanding of modernism in the postmodern constellation.

With regard to political and social issues, postmodernism is concerned with the change from radical either/or ideologies to an attitude of compromise; from thinking in strict left/right schemes or progress and reaction alternatives to the acceptance of blending and transformation; from a friend-or-foe mentality to a differentiated perspective that moves global interdependencies into the foreground; from favoring monistic solutions to pluralistic considerations; from the priority of technical progress to greater respect for the environment and recognition of its fragility; from relying on constant economic growth to post-material values with their acknowledgment of the limitations and exhaustibility of resources; from a mentality searching for security to a more flexible attitude toward risk-taking; from a male-dominated society to a social structure characterized by the equality of women; from a Western or Euro-centric view to a multicultural and postcolonial identity in which understanding of minorities and their cultures plays an increasing role; from national market and information societies to continental and global economic exchange processes and communicative networks.

In philosophy and world outlook, it is a matter of focusing on the particular versus the general, the contextualized versus the abstract, the contingent versus the necessary, the specific versus the universal, the individual versus the total; it is, furthermore, a matter of the movement from monistic declarations to a multitude of interpretative attempts; from a tendency toward singularity to thought processes willing to consider plurality and heterogeneity; from traditionally rooted identities and life styles to hybridity and flexibility; from universalist metanarratives to a diversity of shorter narratives; from an attitude that expects consent to one that can accept dissent; from a Euro-centric and male-oriented subject position to a broad spectrum of ethnic, regional, and gender-neutral subject positions; from an insistence on ordered concepts to an acceptance of entropy; from a fixation on historical continuities to a belief in the discontinuity of historical processes; from a focus on the universal to an acknowledgment of the historical; from a largely utopian viewpoint to a dialog with history.

Finally, in art, architecture, and literature, it is a matter of the movement away from merely functional beauty toward a pluralism of style, a rediscovery of the ornament and the consideration of the historical architectonic surroundings; from a dogged seriousness to an acceptance of the playful, which brings with it a preference for pastiche techniques; from a favoritism toward elitist art and "pure" styles to a preference for popular forms and eclectic and hybrid styles; from aristocratic and exclusionary aesthetic forms to a more public-oriented and reader-friendly literature; from a search for constant innovation requiring originality to the recollection of older or the discovery of foreign styles; from a preference for monologic discourses to dialogic interaction; from definitive categorization to multi-coding; from ambivalence to polyvalence; from an avant-garde anti-historicism to an occupation with the past.

The question arises whether postmodernity is already a closed period or whether one can still describe this turn-of-the-century millennial period with the postmodern characteristics that have been mentioned. The postmodern discourse had its highpoint in the Western world during the 70s and 80s. The empirical study Modernization and Postmodernization by the American social scientist Ronald Ingelhart proves the song of the demise of postmodernity wrong, a song sung by most contributors to the special "stock-taking" postmodernism issue of Merkur in 1998. Inglehart's book is a thorough, factual, and comprehensive sociological study. According to him, there is no reason to leave the postmodern paradigm behind. His thesis states that postmodernity, with its post-material values of self-realization and political participation, has displaced modernity with its motto of political expansion and economic growth. But is this really the case? Is it not rather true that a new wave of material value orientation with a fixation on economic growth has swept away the attitude of post-material values? At any rate, a similarly dominant discourse that would - like that of postmodernism - span continents and be enriched by contributions from a variety of scholarly disciplines has not yet surfaced. There is the possibility that the globalization discourse could develop into a comparably integrative discourse. The globalization discourse could possibly encompass the postmodern, multicultural, and postcolonial discourses, but it could also develop into an ideology of modernist political and neocolonial expansion and economic growth, an ideology of a second modernity.

It was not my intention here to affirm the continuance of postmodernism ad infinitum but rather to examine its influence on other current discourses. In retrospect, we may consider the three decades from approximately 1965 to 1995 as the era of postmodernism. Altogether, it was not a bad time, considering the 1989 changes in Europe; there certainly have been worse periods in 20th-century history. But it is too early for nostalgic retrospectives. I can well imagine that a postmodern, pluralistic, and multicultural discourse on continentalism will evolve as more important than the globalist discourse.

© Paul Michael Lützeler (St. Louis)

TRANSINST        table of contents: No.11


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