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Philosophy of Culture

Postmodernity as the Climax of Modernity: Horizons of the Cultural Future

Boris Goubman
Tver State University

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ABSTRACT: Given that any society is endowed not only with a set of institutions but also with the particular pattern of self-reflection and self-description, postmodernity should be viewed as an epoch representing the climax of modernity and its self-refutation. Parting with traditional society, modernity represents the triumph of power-knowledge, the divorce between spheres of culture, the global social relations, the new institutions, the change in the understanding of space-time relations, the cult of the new, and the modernization process. While preserving the institutional set of modernity, the postmodern period casts into doubt the basic thought foundations of classical modernity. The horizons of the emerging cultural future should be viewed in the light of a positive synthesis of the postmodern reflexive pattern with the legacy of modernity.

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The final of the 20-th century became an epoch of the radical reconsideration of the legacy of modernity. Beginning from the fifties, the new postclassical period of development of Western culture and society appeared as a specific reality that was more radically coined by the end of sixties-beginning of seventies when, with the growth of the feeling of a radical break with the past, a pattern of postmodernist cultural reflection obtained its definite popularity. Philosophers and historians of culture are intensively debating the question whether the coming of this period marked the end of modernity or its climax opening the horizons of the completely unknown future . In any event, the change of the pattern of cultural reflection looks very important and deserves special attention for it evidently reveals the coming of the new period in history. The understanding of specific features of postmodern situation and the pattern of cultural reflection belonging to it should contribute to the comprehension of the contemporary stage of history and future cultural prospects of mankind.

To understand the contemporary cultural situation means to penetrate in the spectrum of similarities and differences arising from its comparison with the classical stage of modernity. The new age started with a radical break with the traditional society and its cultural stereotypes. Reverence before the past and tradition, accepted symbols and the established order of things sanctioned by myth and religion constitutes the image of traditional society. On the contrary, critical reflection becomes the main force of development of modernity: all forms of social practice are reconsidered in the light of reason that should give a definite evaluation of their effectiveness / Habermas 1989: 27/. The triumph of formal rationality and calculative approach to the universe desacralizes the world and leads to the disappearance of naive symbolism . As a result, science allied with technology is considered as the main tool of comrehension and conquest of the world. In contrast to medieval period, modernity generates a total divorce of the spheres of Truth, Beauty , and Good. Philosophers of this period proposed different versions of their relations in the epoch when scientific images of the world pretended to be accepted as universal thus revealing their power function.

Relying on the ideas of M. Weber, F. Nietzsche, and the school of Frankfurt theorists, M. Foucault revealed the mechanism of the disciplinary society in the new age European history. He gave a description of the tools of power-knowledge rationalizing all the cells of European society: penitentiary system, social control, medical care, education , demography, politics etc. The enforcement of power-knowledge in different segments of society, according to Foucault, is the destiny of Western culture. The idea of pastoral power was the first step in this direction, and then state power gradually established itself as the main factor of political control. Totalization was acompanied by individualization in modernity period / Foucault 1995: 85 /. The police state used all the resourses of power-knowledge on all levels of human life actively forming the social body. Science was a true ally of power, an active tool of the conquest of the world. However , reglamentation of social life did not abolish the rights and liberties of an individual : on the contrary, they increased together with the expansion of rational control.

Modernity brought with itself the global dimension of social relations. This was the natural outcome of the development of capitalist society. Such changes produced considerable impact on the human understanding of time and space. Prior to the new age, time was perceived as rigidly related to space. With the invention of a mechanical watch, time became divorced from space, and the standards of its perception were universally accepted as conditions of measurement of all social events. The space dimension also obtained the quality of universality. Thus, time and space lost their concreteness and became "pure" forms of the world perception.

These changes in space-time perception could be explained in terms of their liberation from the local context due to the global social relations on the basis of commodity-monetary exchange. The money became the universal symbolic tool of exchange of qualitatively different commodities and services produced and offered in different societies and cultures. In the works of K. Marx and G. Simmel, the symbolic function of money was portrayed as specific for the universal exchange process born in the period of modernity. Simultaneously, the liberation of social relations from the local context resulted in the confirmation of the authority of expert systems instead of the institutions of the traditional society / Giddens 1995: 27 /. Trust in the impersonal expert systems and monetary symbols is one of the characteristic features of modernity.

Such important institutions as the national state, the use of the industry for the sake of the conquest of nature, the capitalist economy, and the military power based on the new technology constitute the core of Modernity. Undermining the foundations of the traditional society and its culture, the Western world gave birth to the wave of modernization, spread rational and value standards born within its boundaries over the planet. The Western civilization organized on the national state basis produced new forms of universalism implanting them in the context of other cultures.

The culture of modernity was inspired by the spirit of innovation, the permanent desire to create the previously unknown results in all possible areas from science to artistic activity. This search for the new demands a particular type of cultural reflection as a basis for the self-identity of the Western civilization in the period of modernity.

Ideas of humanism, rationalism, and substantialist pictures of historical progress crowned by the global utopias of the future constituted the basis of the pattern of self-identity that prevailed in the Western civilization of modernity period. Modernity was nourished by the Renaissance ideal of the value of a human person capable to choose his or her own destiny. At the same time, reason aspired to understand the structure of the universe, its substantialist basis necessary for the creation of the rational social order. The society, based on the individual autonomy and strict rational regulation of every segment of the social whole, inspired by the horizon of constant self-renovation, needed the image of a progressive development of mankind led by the victorious reason. No wonder that such historical theories are related to universal utopias potraying a certain ideal society.

The epoch of the radical separation with the basic foundations of modernity is often called "postmodern" or considered as a climax of the previous period of the new age history. A. Giddens gives its interpretation as a mere radicalization of modernity leading to the stage where its potential has a chance to become reality. "Post-modernism, if it means anything, is best kept to refer to styles or movements within literature, painting, the plastic arts, and architecture. It concerns aspects of aesthetic reflection upon the nature of modernity " / Giddens 1995: 45 /. Giddens is willing to acknowledge the emergence of the new pattern of reflection, but his point is that this is not an argument in favor of the definition of contemporary epoch as "postmodern" and radically opposite to modernity. He believes that the change of the cultural consciousness is much less essential than the preservation of the institutions of modernity, despite their possible transformation. The contemporary situation was born on the basis of the radicalization of modernity: " Its most conspicuous features - the dissolution of evolutionism, the disappearance of historical teleology, the recognition of thoroughgoing , constitutive reflexivity, together with the evaporating of the privileged position of the West - move us into a new and disturbing universe of experience " / Giddens: 52-53 / . Giddens is rightly pointing out that the contemporary epoch stems from the modernization process with its global effect making all cultures related to the destiny of the Western world.

On the opposite pole, theorists interpreting contemporary situation in the postmodern key emphasize the signs of its break with the foundations of classical modernity. G. Vattimo expresses this point of view in the following way: " The "post-" in the term "postmodern" indicates in fact a taking leave of modernity. In its search to free itself from the logic of development inherent in modernity - namely the idea of critical "overcoming" directed toward a new foundation- post-modernity seeks exactly what Nietzsche and Heidegger seek in their own peculiar "critical" relationship with Western thought " / Vattimo: 80 /. Emphasizing the point of similarity of his own approach with the logic of Nietzsche and Heidegger, the Italian philosopher proposes to look at modernity from a certain distance. He is for the radical break with the legacy of modernity. J.-F. Lyotard is far more reserved in this respect than his Italian colleague: the prefix "post-", in his opinion, leads rather to the critical reconsideration of the classical stage of the culture of modernity, to the first step in this direction. "You can see that when it is understood in this way, the "post-" of "postmodern" does not signify a movement of comeback, flashback, or feedback, that is, not a movement of repetition but a procedure in "ana-" : a procedure of analysis, anamnesis, anagogy, and anamorphosis that elaborates an "initial forgetting" / Lyotard 1992: 80 /. Obviously, this initial "forgetting" in the key of Lyotard's work is the first step from the border line between the classical stage and its opposite, which is inconceivable without preserving the heritage of the past and its refutation. In this version, even the most radical break is accompanied by a moment of memory about the object to be overcome.

Representatives of the postmodern trend of thought clearly understand that in the process of separation with modernity it is impossible to break in a radical way with the new age institutions. For Lyotard, "the question of postmodernity is also, or first of all, a question of expression of thought: in art, literature, philosophy, politics" / Lyotard 1992: 79 /. Thus, he speaks primarily about the transformation in thought patterns capable to change the image of the world community and even to provide the appearance of the new institutions in the global perspective. Both Lyotard and Giddens are in complete agreement regarding the importance of the emerging new pattern of reflection, but the French theorist considers it a sufficient ground to speak about the new epoch, while his British colleague understands this period as high modernity.

The postmodern situation in culture is the outcome of the reflexive understanding of the new age history, and in this sense it is simultaneously a phenomenon of high modernity and its critical self-refutation. Given that any society with its specific culture is endowed with the particular pattern of self-reflection and self-description, one could rightly come to the conclusion that postmodernity should be viewed as an epoch representing the climax of modernity and its self-refutation. The impulse of modernization is far from being totally exhausted, and it is a kind of paradox that the postmodern condition born in the highly developed Western world is a fruit of this very process having a certain catalyzing effect for its future destiny. Since modernity still exhibits its creative potential, one could rightly expect a certain synthesis of its legacy with the thought paradigm born in the postmodern period.

With the coming of postmodernity, the new pattern of reflection established itself as an efficient tool of criticism of the foundations of the classical rationalist thought. Its affinity with the Romantic type of reflection is beyond any doubt. R. Rorty, a leading theorist of postmodernism, acknowledges the impact of Romantic reflection on this trend of thought: "The important philosophers of our own century are those who have tried to follow through on the Romantic poets by breaking with Plato and seeing freedom as the recognition of contingency" / Rorty 1992: 25-26 /. The revival of Romantic ironic reflection, according to Rorty, looks as a symptom of the general crisis of metaphysical thought. The new postmetaphysical epoch means the final of the old pattern of philosophizing, the transition to the free ironic game with historical realities and life problems.

The change of time-space perception is also in the focus of attention of the theorists of postmodernity. Time, according to F. Jameson, appears today as bound together with the perception of speed. In the final of our century, time is given through the description of the objects found in the world. This very kind of time perception revealed in the works of M. Proust becomes prevailing today. Jameson comes to the conclusion that in the postmodern period " time has become space anyhow" / Jameson 1994: 21 /. Thus. space dimension suppresses temporality, the stream of time. This is a homogeneous space of progressive urban expansion and consumer society /Jameson 1994: 21 /. Unlike the traditional society, the events happening today are not anchored to a certain place and determined by the rhythms of nature. If time is strictly related to speed, then one should acknowledge its relations with global and cultural space. The subjective time perception is expressed in spatial images that are different not only from the traditional society, but also from the liberal capitalism.

The postmodern ironist subjects to doubts the basic thought patterns of the classical modernity: he is totally possessed by the spirit of aesthetic game with tradition. The postmodern epoch is a period of self-negation of classical humanistic consciousness and its transition to another form. Although the followers of postmodernism are not speaking about the value of a person, the imperative of ironic reflection constantly reminds us about its persistent presence as a shadow of their arguments. The ironic oblivion of the rationalist platform goes hand in hand with the attack on all metanarrative theories attempting to create global views of reality / Lyotard 1993: 18 /. Such an approach logically produces the refutation of substantialist theories of historical progress together with the global utopias of the future.

As a pattern of cultural reflection, postmodernism is obviously a fruit of the Western world. In their negation of the foundations of modernity paradigm of thought, those who follow the postmodern line of argument are not able to proclaim their own views to be the symbol of the real downfall of modernity standards: in this case , they could be accused of the restoration of the metanarrative discourse crowned by the eschatological final. Besides, such a picture would be a too simple vision of history unable to take into account contemporary modernization changes still nourished by the impulse going from the West. The utopia of the end of history, of the final triumph of the liberal program of social development is alien to the foundations of the postmodernist consciousness. Appealing to the example of the postcommunist stage of development in Eastern Europe, J. Baudrillard expresses his deep suspicions about the coming "end of history". " Now that the triumphal illusion of the West annexing the East - for the greater glory of democracy, of course - has faded, we can sense that it might be the other way about: the East gobbling up the West by blackmailing it with poverty and human rights. The East's great weapon is no longer H-bomb, but Chernobyl" / Baudrillard 1994: 39 /. But if the end of history is illusory, one has no reason to speak about the fading away of the tide of economic, scientific, technological, and political modernization, about the transition of mankind to the postmodern type of development due to the spreading influence of the reflexive pattern created by the Western elitist intellectuals by the end of our century. The postmodernist reflexive activity reveals new facets of the modernization consciousness showing that its conceptual basis should be reconsidered anew in the perspective offered by the contemporary West.

Ruining many stereotypes of modernity consciousness, the postmodernist reflection, contrary to its dominant orientation, is stimulating the search for a positive perspective. Ironic reflection, damaging all metanarrative constructions and global utopias of the future, indirectly puts a question concerning the competence of reason that should provide conditions for a dialogue between different cultures, strategies of discourse in different civilizations. Given the crisis of the classical linear views of historical progress, the dialogue of different civilizations in space and time becomes a very serious theoretical problem. Finally, in the light of the coming new millennium, there remains a question of the universal values significant for different cultures.

The follower of the postmodernist pattern of reflection should not avoid the question of the competence of reason creating a wide spectrum of world interpretations. Therefore, he should be particularly interested in the relations between language and rational structure of thought, sense and emotional human relations to the world. It is possible to go along the path of ironic negation of any type of a metanarrative reconciliation of radically opposed nonidentical poles, their assimilation in the monologue, but anyway one should be attentive to the voice of the other, his rational strategy or type of critical reflection. In this case, the problem of the rational structure of the dialogical thought becomes of primary importance. The negation inherent in the style of thought of postmodern epoch , R. Bernstein rightly points out, should bear in itself the opportunity of a positive assertion. "We must recognize that there cannot be any critique without some sort of affirmation, that we cannot avoid asking the question , " the critique in the name of what?" / Bernstein 1995 : 318 /. Contemporary philosophical critique necessarily develops itself in the space of reconciliation-rupture.

Unlike the classical linear progressive vision of history, its contemporary interpretations are based on the idea of the variety of civilizations engaged in an active dialogue in diachronic and synchronic perspectives. One-sided view focused on Europe as the center of historical universe makes the way for a more balanced vision that appeared not only under the influence of discoveries in ethnology and cultural anthropology, but also due to the inner problems of the Western world that resulted in multi-culturalism, growth of ecological and feminist movements etc. History is no longer portrayed as a straight highway, but should be viewed as a tree with multiple boughs stretching in different directions.

Since the modernization process still has as its well the old center of the Western world, there arises a question regarding the applicability of the universals, values, and life patterns formed within its boundaries to the context of other cultures. From the point of view of a follower of postmodernist philosophy, it is a false problem due to the incompatibility of different cultures. However, it is a really important task to find a way of mutual understanding and agreement for various cultures in order to solve urgent contemporary problems. The values of nature, life, human gender, personality and its freedom, justice, democracy, culture with its universal dimensions of Truth, Beauty, and Good still constitute the eternal field of contemporary discussions. Their different visions and interpretations correlative to various life worlds stimulate debates having often political significance and impact on the course of historical events. The issue of justice, for example, attracts the attention of scholars trying to define its universal aspects and at the same time to find a way for contextualizing of this concept in the multiplicity of cultures. Stimulating attentive attitude to the otherness, the postmodernist reflection leads to the contextualization of firmly established universals in the process of cultural dialogue. These universals, however, do not loose their intersubjective significance / White 1992: 147 /.

The situation of the final of the century clearly reveals the need of the positive solution of high modernity problems in the light of the postmodernist reflexive pattern created by the intellectuals of the developed Western countries. New , previously unknown fruits could be expected as the result of such positive synthesis: pasting together seemingly heterogeneous "critical ontologies" may contribute to the creation of the new visions of culture and history, to the reconsideration on this basis of the universals of Western consciousness having direct influence on social and political life, to the birth of synthetic forms of culture, social institutions that accompany modernization process. Conservative and postmodernist reaction will still accompany modernization in the nearest future. The consequences of modernity are definitely revealed by postmodernist consciousness catalyzing modernization, giving it a qualitatively new dimension.

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Baudrillard, Jean. The Illusion of the End. Cambridge: Polity Press,1994. Bernstein, Richard. The New Constellation. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995.

Foucault, Michel. Politics. Philosophy. Culture. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Giddens, Anthony. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press,1995.

Habermas, Jurgen. Der philosophische Diskurs der Moderne. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag,1989.

Jameson, Fredric. The Seeds of Time. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Explained. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1993.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Vattimo, Gianni. The End of Modernity. Oxford: Polity Press, 1991.

White, Stephen. Political Theory and Postmodernism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

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