Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Postmodern Conditions

Last week we had a long and stimulating discussion over at OrgTheory about the relevance of postmodernism to sociological theory. One underlying issue seems to be the question of what postmodernism even is. So I've decided to spend four (maybe five) posts clarifying what I take it to be.

I take the word "postmodernism" to mark an epochal shift in thinking in a wide variety of fields, both in the humanities and the social sciences. The shift takes place at different times in different fields, many making the move decisively around or after 1968 as part of a much more general shift in Western culture. Some fields, especially as practiced in North America, have a period when postmodernism was taken very seriously for a time and even came to dominate (in our discussion, the years 1980-1995 were suggested in sociology) but where it has since gone out of fashion. Other fields and subfields—especially, I would argue, in organization studies—are just beginning to learn what postmodernism is.

It is useful to go back to Lyotard's very influential "report on knowledge", The Postmodern Condition. This is where the idea that postmodernism means the end of "grand narratives" (or "metanarratives") comes from. I won't be making very much out of that; or rather, I think my sense of postmodernism has to do with the consequences of this decline of overarching systems of thought. I will leave on the side the obvious concern that postmodernism itself employs the grand narrative device of a "waning" or "decline" of something. It can be argued that only "modernists" (including some who call themselves "postmodernists") would inscribe postmodernism in a "rise and fall" narrative, even if that be the rise and fall of modernism.

To my mind, postmodernism consists of at least four distinct concerns. First, there is the crisis of representation; second, there is the de-centering of the subject; third, a cultivation of the problem ("problematization"); and fourth, there is the theme of difference. The contrasting characteristics of "modernism" are a confidence about representation, the centrality of the subject, the search for solutions, and the theme of identity. And here I should say that "modernism" means something different on its own; it has a particular sense as the implicit "pre-" of post-modernism. I should also say that my take on postmodernism grants a central place to Gilles Deleuze's Difference and Repetition (1968), as will be clear to anyone familiar with that book. The two obvious competitors to the title of the "philosopher of postmodernism" are, of course, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.

What I have just done is to sketch out my task over the next few posts, which I will spread out through the rest of January. In February, I will get back to more practical concerns.

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