Issue 26 / April - June 1999
Modernism and Postmodernism: A Contrast in Perspective and Attitude
Postmodernism can be viewed in several ways. Initially, postmodernism was a reaction to the modernist style of architecture developed after World War I. It then became a philosophy, which as a body of social theory, took the task of banishing all modernist paradigms to the deserted realm of philosophy. Postmodernism can also be seen as a question of language and representation, of relations between collective and individual unconsciousness. Yet others thought that the postmodernism view was about searching for universal and grand theories about modernism without taking into accounting time and place differentiation while discounting positions of theoreticians.
For the postmodernist, modernism masked itself in a world of rationality and objectivity, thereby, placing all other perspectives in the confines of irrationality and subjectivity. According to Warf (1995, p.186), most modernist approaches leave little room for human consciousness or historical contingency. Social theory, in turn, has helped to widen the space for the inclusion of these missing elements. Consequently, with the addition of human consciousness and a historical contingency perspective, a new variety of new philosophies came into being.
Over the last two decades postmodernism, as one of these new philosophies, has become, as Harvey (1989, p.39) states, a concept to be wrestled with such a battleground of conflicting and political forces that can not be ignored. The origins of the philosophy is usually attributed to Lyotard and Jameson, who championed the belief that all modernist meta-narratives are based on trans-historical, universal truths. However, Warf (1993, p.163) contends that the endeavor to offer one worldview should not be included in the postmodern perspective. Rather than thinking in terms of an absolute, and one clear and coherent â€ścenterâ€ť, postmodernism urges taking into account disorder, incoherence, and chaos when attempting to determine why certain events occur. Applicable to basic societal organizing principles, postmodernism urges a great sensitivity to the â€śdifferencesâ€ť that exist among phenomena in all sorts of ways both obvious and subtle (Cloke, Philo and Sadler, 1991, p.171). The main focus here is on attentiveness to the many differences that distinguish one phenomenon, event, or process from one another based on a request for not obliterating these vital differences in the force of theories (Cloke, Philo and Sadler, 1991, p. 171).
Warf (1990, p.588) takes stringent issue with postmodernistsâ€™ inability to articulate a viable substitute for modernism. In addition, Warf (1990, p.588) asserts that postmodernism is not a new â€śparadigmâ€ť; it is opposed to all paradigms. He believes postmodernism emphasizes differences, not similarities; uncertainty, not certainty; ephemerality, not permanence; the contradictions, substance rather than silent discourses. Furthermore, postmodernism offers novel perspectives on questions of social structure, meaning, epistemology, language and progress.
The postmodernism picture of reality is very different from that of modernism. Postmodernism rejects the concepts of a rationally structured universe of modernism, while supporting the idea that reality is much more complex than modernists would have individuals believe. Moreover, postmodernism claims that no language can describe the complexity of reality, and no theory can capture the complexities and messiness of societies (Warf, 1990, p.590). In Warfâ€™s (1990, p. 591) own words that infused with realist theories of science, postmodernism negates the positivist assumption (that so often reappears in Marxism) that explanation consists of showing specific events to be outcomes of wider processes. Generalized theories of places inevitably oversimplify the inherent complexity of particular areas, and mask their diversity and uniqueness in an attempt to force conformity to preexisting conceptual categories (Warf, 1990, p.590).
From this perspective, postmodernistâ€™s claim that positivist science (the paradigmatic expression of modernism) has traditionally been reductionist in nature, in that it attempts to explain complex systems. This reduction may be achieved either by constructing relatively simple analogous models, or by seeking comprehension of the properties of the smallest components of which the system is composed. However, this view erases variance and oversimplifies the complexity of society and social systems. Moreover, the modernistâ€™s claim of objectivity in the research process is a false one since knowledge is socially constructed and people view the world through personal life experiences. Thus, the real task of all researchers is to admit their subjectivity, incompleteness, and partialness of perspectives.
In conclusion, postmodernism is a new and energetic voice in philosophy that takes into account a multiplicity of voices and contradictory ideas. In forming narratives, postmodern theorists emphasize problems of language and representation, which can include among other things, narratives, texts, symbolic forms, hermeneutics, and the assumption of social and analysis (Barnes and Duncan, 1992). More importantly, at the root of postmodernism is the search for differences rather than similarities. Hence, the concept of the world having inherent order is summarily dismissed.
Barnes, T., and Duncan, J. 1992. In writing worlds: Discourse, text, and metaphor in the representation of landscape (pp. 1-12). New York: New York
Routledge, Cloke, P., Philo, C., and Sadler, D. 1991. The differences of postmodern geography. In Approaching human geography: An introduction to contemporary theoretical debates (pp. 170-201). New York: Guilford
Harvey, D. 1989. The condition of postmodernity. Chapter 3. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Warf, B. 1995. Separated at birth? Regional science and social theory. International Regional Science Review 18,2: 185-194.
Warf, B. 1992. Postmodernism and the localities debate: Ontological questions and epistemological implications. Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie 84:161-168.
Warf, B. 1990. Can the region survive postmodernism? Urban Geography 11:586-93.