Modernity and Postmodernity: Knowledge, Power and the Self


Gerard Delanty

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    Our age is, in especial degree, the age of criticism, and to criticism everything must submit. Religion through its sanctity, and law-giving through its majesty, may seek to exempt themselves from it. But they then awaken just suspicion, and cannot claim the sincere respect which reason accords only to that which has been able to sustain the test of free and open examination.

    Immanuel Kant, Preface to the Critique of Pure Reason (1929 [1781], p. 9)

    Besides it is not difficult to see that our time is a birth-time and a period of transition to a new era. Spirit has broken with the world it has hitherto inhabited and imagined, and is of a mind to submerge it in the past, and in the labour of its own transformation. Spirit is indeed never at rest but always engaged in moving forward. But just as the first breath drawn by a child after its long, quiet nourishment breaks the gradualness of merely quantitative growth – there is a qualitative leap and the child is born – so likewise with the Spirit in its formation matures slowly and quietly into its new shape, dissolving bit by bit the structure of its previous world, whose tottering state is only hinted at by isolated symptoms. The frivolity and boredom which unsettle the established order, the vague foreboding of something unknown, these are the heralds of approaching change. The gradual crumbling that left unaltered the face of the whole is cut by a sunburst which, in one flash, illuminates the features of the new world.

    G.W.F. Hegel, Preface to the Phenomenology of Mind (1977 [1807], pp. 6–7)

    Science today is a ‘vocation’ organized in special disciplines in the service of self-clarification and knowledge of related facts. It is not the gift of seers and prophets dispensing sacred values and revelations, not does it partake of the contemplation of sages and philosophers about the meaning of the universe. This, to be sure, is the inescapable condition of our historical situation.

    Max Weber, ‘Science as a Vocation’ (1948a [1917], pp. 152–3)

    The contemporary philosopher meets Freud on the same ground as Nietzsche and Marx. All three rise before him as protagonists of suspicion who rip away masks and pose the novel problem of the lie of consciousness and unconsciouness.

    Paul Ricoeur, The Conflict of Interpretations (1974 [1969], p. 99)

    No one has ever been modern. Modernity has never begun. There has never been a modern world. The use of the present perfect tense is important here, for it is a matter of a retrospective sentiment, of a reading of our history. I am not saying we are entering a new era; on the contrary we no longer have to continue the headlong flight of the post-post-modernists; we are no longer obliged to cling to the avant-garde of the avant-garde; we no longer seek to be cleverer, even more critical, even deeper into the era ‘era of suspicion’. No, instead we discover that we have never begun to enter the modern era. Hence the hint of the ludicrous that always accompanies postmodern thinkers, they claim to come after a time that has not even started!

    Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (1993 [1991], p. 47)

    On double truth and the right distance. How to avoid seeming complicitous with the object analyzed (notably in the eyes of those who are foreign to it) or, conversely, reductive and hostile (especially to those who are caught up in the object and who are inclined to refuse the very principle of objectivation)? How to reconcile the objectivation of belief (religious, literary, artistic, scientific, etc.) and of its social conditions of production, and the sensible and faithful evocation of the experience of belief that is inherent to being inserted and involved in a social game? Only at the cost of a very long and very difficult work – and one that is the more invisible the more successful it is – to put oneself at a distance from the object and then to surmount this very distance, a work that bears inseparably on the object and on the relationship to the object, thus on the subject of the scientific work.

    Pierre Bourdieu, ‘Scattered Remarks’ (1999, p. 334)

    Preface and Acknowledgements

    This book can be read as a response to two kinds of transition in modern society. The first concerns cultural changes in the worldview of society, that is, changes on the level of the prevailing model of knowledge and, more broadly, changes in the cultural self-image of the age, the models by which a society interprets itself. The second kind of transition concerns changes in the social, economic and political structures of modern society. The issues that these questions raise directly relate to the debate on modernity and postmodernity, which has been one of the central controversies in social and political theory for almost two decades. It is a striking feature of social and political thought over the last two decades that these two dimensions of transition coincide in certain respects. On the one side, the older and Marxist-influenced debate on the transition from feudalism, and somewhat later from mercantilism, to capitalism from the sixteenth century onward has now been seen to be part of the more general transition from tradition to modernity, whereby the transition could also be theorized in terms of a conflict between capitalism and democracy, or, as more recent formulations would put it, as a struggle between an instrumental rationality of domination and a cultural critique animated by a communicative rationality deriving from civil society. In this debate, the idea of modernity suggests more than merely capitalism – or, in other formulations, industrialism – and therefore the direction in which the transition may be leading is at best an open agenda, since the struggle between power and culture, capitalism and democracy, cannot be so easily concluded. Indeed, the normative critique of capitalism can no longer be conducted from the vantage point of democracy. It is not surprising, then, that one of the conclusions to this debate has been a recognition, at some level, that the idea of a cultural and societal transition must be theorized as an opening within modernity itself of alternative logics of development, ranging from hidden histories, civil society, social movements, to Soviet statism. Thus with the shift to modernity as a frame of reference the idea of a further transition from capitalism to socialism becomes just one developmental logic. Whether it was because this debate congealed in the seemingly permanent structures of the Cold War or because no movement emerged dominant or because of an institutional compromise between capitalism and democracy, a credible, though contested, conclusion that could be drawn from this was Habermas's notion of the incomplete project of modernity – incomplete because modernity's work could not be concluded for a variety of factors which were best summed up in his later announcement of the ‘new obscurity’ into which the late modern age had entered. The implicit theme now is that time might have run out for a project inaugurated at the beginning of the modern age.

    The second debate concerns the question that it is modernity itself that may be defeated, not by a victorious capitalism – though some are decidedly ambiguously about this – but by the transition to a new age, the postmodern era, which has allegedly arrived, at least according to some of the more programmatic formulations of this way of thinking. If this is so, then one of the first casualties of the fall of modernity is the tension between democracy and capitalism, and all the developmental logics that this tension opened up. This, of course, does not mean that capitalism has disappeared, but it does mean that the tension between capitalism and democracy has weakened, and in this there can be no doubt as to who is the winner. More importantly, however, when put in the context of the fall of communism and the ending of the Cold War from the early 1990s, we are faced with an entirely new kind of a transition, and one that was considerably aided by the survival, even under the conditions of totalitarianism, of democracy, albeit a democracy confined to the margins of civil society. I am referring to the transition from communism to capitalism. The uniqueness of this transition was that several developmental logics unfolded more or less simultaneously: capitalism, democracy, nationalism. What is particularly notable in this is that this second transition – which could be seen as delayed modernization – has been accompanied by a wider mood of a transition from modernity to postmodernity, culturally, politically and socially, for the fall of communism occurred at a time when postmodernization was particularly pronounced in the West (for instance, the questions of globalization in cultural production, communications and finance, the rise of the information society, European integration, transnational communities, new discourses of human rights, ecology and the politics of nature). Many theorists, such as Alain Touraine, who are critical of postmodern arguments have argued that the older struggle of democracy and capitalism may be overtaken today by a new conflict between the forces of rationality and an authoritarian neo-communitarian politics of identity. As a result of the apparent supersession of the social question with the challenge of culture, which is no longer contained within the relatively stable paramenters of the national state, one of the greatest and most urgent tasks facing democracy, and for which it is ill equipped, is to deal with conflicts relating to cultural identity, not to mention issues relating to ecology and nature (which is part of the new cultural self-image). This framework suggests that modernity – which was dominated by the political question concerning democracy and the social question relating to capitalism – may now be refracted through the prism of culture and in this reconfiguration of the modern worldview there has been a turn to issues of identity and community, a movement that could be seen as the extension of the aesthetic into everyday life.

    Clearly there are two ways of looking at this situation. Either one could say the transition from communism to capitalism in the former Soviet Bloc has been the last phase of a modernity organized along the lines of instrumental reason, differing only from the West in that the forces of domination have been concentrated more in the state than in the mode of production – the position I more or less take – or one could argue that this event has been part of a more wider transition to the postmodern era, a transition that is related to the current debate on globalization. In my view, postmodernism had its roots in the late modern West – having emerged in Europe, it became an American cultural product in the 1970s – but has reached its fullest expression in cultural forces far beyond the West, for it is in parts of the non-western world, Japan and much of the Islamic world, for instance, that post-modernization in the domain of culture has been able to give expression to the creative integration of tradition and modernity that would be impossible in the West, but even more impossible in the former Soviet Bloc, whose modernity was constructed on the basis of the destruction of tradition in the name of an ostensibly victorious modernity framed not just in the image of the Enlightenment but by totalitarianism. Thus one logic of modernity – the struggle between capitalism and democracy in the West – led to a movement from organized modernity to a post-modernity that was still within the confines of modernity, and another, carried forward by the state, which had suppressed both democracy and capitalism, led to totalitarianism, which must be seen as the other face of modernity. In the former, cultural modernity preseved some pre-bourgeois and Christian traditions; in the latter the destruction of all tradition, premodern as well as modern, was near complete. Only in parts of the non-western world, particularly those parts such as Japan, which were untouched by westernization, or where colonialism was incomplete, as in much of the Islamic world, did tradition adapt itself to varieties of modernity, thus easing the transition to postmodernity. Here a different logic of development has prevailed; rather than one of a struggle of democracy and capitalism or one led by statism, it was one animated by community.

    Whatever position one takes, it is clear that the alternatives to capitalism do not lie in modernity's other face, state socialism. This leaves three available options, of which two have been widely discussed and are the subject of this book: either a position is sought within modernity – the promise of a democracy to come – or one abandons European modernity altogether in favour of postmodernity. The latter position has been complicated, even confused, because the postmodern position, which originally arose in certain developments in poststructuralist thinking in France in the 1960s and early 1970s, became tied to quite independent developments in the arts and architecture in North America in the 1970s to become a powerful intellectual movement in the 1980s, when it privileged cultural issues precisely at a time when neo-liberalism was in the ascendancy in politics and economics, a time when the left's main intellectual response was rational choice theory. By this time postmodernism had used up its original political ambitions, either because it had achieved some of its goals or because it had become absorbed into the relativism of an age that has rendered materialism culturally soft. The debate on postmodernity became further complicated by a deepening in the sense of a global transition. Globalization, which is only another word for accelerated change, gave credence to much of the postmodern stance, whereby ‘positions’ which had already become ‘postures’ could now be reproduced in timeless space and in non-verbal modes of communication. Clearly this was an expression of an intellectual milieu which had witnessed the disappearance of alternatives and could only find a virtue in mobility. Beyond the West, however, post-modernity and globalization became linked to a growing consciousness of a postcolonial world emerging.

    I mentioned a third option that the final collapse of modernization has opened up. For those who want to turn neither to modernity nor to postmodernity, the cosmopolitan idea offers a way of linking the idea of modernity, divested of the Enlightenment, with postmodernity, divested of globalization and relativism. For this position is reducible neither to modernity nor to postmodernity and it may be the only means of linking the idea of universalistic morality with cultural pluralism. Epistemo-logically, in this book I have linked this perspective to new debates on constructivism.

    This book is a study of the background to these issues. It is written with a view to making some of the main classical debates on modernity and postmodernity available to the general reader and the advanced student in social science. It is also intended to provide the scholar with an argument to address. My own position on these debates is expressed in the Introduction and in the final chapter, though the main strands of it run throughout the chapters of the book. The essence of this position is the thesis that instead of seeing modernity and postmodernity as opposed positions, or as stages in modern society, that they be seen as more continuous. In short this is a book which offers a thesis of continuity between modernity and postmodernity, though one conceived of in terms of the idea of a developmental logic. This developmental logic is one of a movement from a concern with scepticism (in the domain of knowledge) in the premodern era, to one of discursivity (in the domain of power) in the modern period, to a preoccupation with reflexivity (in the domain of the self) in the postmodern era. Thus postmodernity can be seen as an augmented consciousness of a problematic that preceded the advent of modernity. By reducing the identification of modernity with the Enlightenment, effectively projecting it backwards into history, I hope to have also underpinned the postmodernist alleged rupture with modernity. The thesis of the book can be summed by saying, with Bruno Latour: we are not postmodern because we have never been modern.

    I wrote most of this book in Toronto when I was a Visiting Professor in Sociology at York University in 1998. I am grateful to Professors Jos Lennards and John O'Neill of York University for their generosity during this time. Thanks are also due to Professors Gordon Darroch and Des Ellis. Acknowledgements are due to the graduate students who attended my course and to many members of the Department of Sociology and The Programme in Social and Political Thought. I am grateful to Piet Strydom, Tony King and Patrick O'Mahony for reading and commenting on an earlier draft. Finally, I would like to thank Chris Rojek and the anonymous referees for Sage as well as the copy editor, Justin Dyer.

    Toronto and Liverpool, 2000
  • Notes

    1. According to Latour, modernity is a discourse of purification which cuts across discourses of translation, or hybridization. We are not modern because these have always been present in premodern times.

    2. On the history of scepticism, see Hookway (1990).

    1. On the crisis of organized modernity, see Wagner (1994). On the concept of organized modernity, see also Law (1994).

    2. Other works include Perrault's Parallele des anciens et des modernes, published in 1688–96, and Fontenelle's Les anciens et les modernes, published in 1688. See Jones (1961).

    3. See also Walter Benjamin's famous study on the origin of German tragic drama, Benjamin (1977). See also Buci-Glucksmann (1994) and Chapter 8 of this book.

    4. On the origins of modernity in Kant, Hegel and Marx, see Rundell (1987).

    5. On Marx and modernism, see also Love (1988).

    6. A third strand can also be mentioned, namely the conservative or ‘anti-moderrnist’ critique of modernity, with which the names of Löwith and Gehlen can be associated. Since much of this will be the subject of the next chapter, I will not consider it here.

    7. For a discussion on the status of Nietzsche and Heidegger as modern or postmodern thinkers, see Smith (1996). On the impact of Nietzsche in Germany, see Ashheim (1992). See also Allison (1985) and Antonio (1995).

    8. On Ortega y Gasset as a theorist of modernity, see Gray (1989).

    9. In Nietzsche, it should be noted that the strong create their own values, for which they are resisted by the weak.

    10. On Weber and Nietzsche, see Stauth (1992).

    11. On maturity and modernity, see Owen (1994).

    12. See the invaluable collection of Simmel's essays on culture, Frisby and Featherstone (1997).

    13. I have concentrated here on Simmel but mention must be made of Veblen's work (1970) and Siegfried Kracauer's Weimar writings, for instance his The Mass Ornament (Kracauer, 1995).

    1. See, for instance, the volume Detraditionalization (Hellas et al., 1996).

    2. This has been observed by Kieran Flanagan in a new Preface to his study on theology and culture, Flanagan (1999).

    3. Telos, 113, Fall 1998.

    4. See the article by the translator, Robert Wallace, on the background to the debate (Wallace, 1981).

    5. This sense of secularization – the rationalization of belief systems – can be compared to the two other dominant uses of the term: secularization as the institutional separation of Church and state, and secularization as the decline in religious beliefs.

    6. The main difference is that for Weber the transformation of salvation is to be understood as part of the universal process of disenchantment. He tends to use the term ‘secularization’ in the sense of modernization, meaning the decline of religious belief. That is, secularization for Weber comes in the wake of religious rationalization, for once the disenchantment of religion is complete, the process of modernization begins.

    7. This notion of secularization has more recently been taken up by Marcel Gauchet (1997), who sees the Judeo-Christian tradition as a self-negation of religion. His thesis is that the modern struggle for liberation was first articulated in religion and that, ultimately, there is no difference between monotheism and modernity. The fundamental ‘paradox of religion’ is that the more powerful God became, the more he withdrew from the temporal world, leaving humans to their own fate (Gauchet, 1997, p. 30). See also Kalyvas (1999) and Larmore (1996, pp. 42–3).

    8. This latter position is frequently referred to as essentialism.

    9. See, for instance, Eisenstadt (1973) and Gusfield (1966) for a similar perspective.

    10. For a discussion of this, see Delanty (2000a).

    11. See Taylor (1989) for a fuller account of his philosophical position.

    12. See also Tiryakian's (1992) essay on enchantment in modernity.

    13. See also his earlier work, Botwinick (1993).

    14. For a critical review see Vatter (1999), Pickstock (1998) and see also on religion and deconstruction Berry and Wernick (1993) and Taylor (1984).

    15. In this context mention might be made of the negative theology of Michael Theunissen, who offers a different view on negativity. See Thornhill (1998).

    1. On the implications of the Holocaust for social theory, see Fine and Turner (2000). See also Cheyette and Marcus (1998) for views on different interpretations of the significance of modernity for Jews.

    2. This will be discussed with reference to the idea of community in Chapter 7. On nostalgia and modernity and postmodernity, see Turner (1990).

    3. It may be remarked that he is closer to Benjamin (1973b), whose philosophy of history was based on the redemption of memory.

    4. Strauss will be discussed in detail in Chapter 4.

    5. See the symposium on Bourdieu's work on Pascal in the European Journal of Social Theory, 2, 3, 1999.

    6. On Voeglin see McNight (1978).

    7. In her hierachy of orders, labour has a lesser worth than work, for it involves less self-conscious activity.

    8. It is presumably for this reason that she never entirely rejected Heidegger after his own political inclinations became apparent. See Fine (2000).

    9. See Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, in particular the essay ‘The Unity of European Culture’ (Eliot, 1948).

    10. See the chapter ‘Hannah Arendt and the Political’ in Lefort (1988).

    1. Perry Anderson (1992, p. 326) points out that Gehlen derived the term from Pareto.

    2. The best example of this thesis is Daniel Bell's The End of Ideology (1962).

    3. For a discussion see Niethammer (1993) and Habermas (1987b, pp. 5–6).

    4. See Anderson's (1992) history of this debate.

    5. For a wide-ranging account of notions of the end of history, see Bull (1995).

    6. This is suggested by Heller and Feher (1988, pp. 3–4).

    7. See his correspondence on modernity with Karl Löwith in the 1940s (Strauss, 1983).

    8. For a Nietzschean interpretation of Strauss, see Drury (1981). See also Pippin (1997, pp. 209–32) and the special issue of The Review of Politics, 53, 1, 1991, on Leo Strauss.

    9. On Strauss's relationship to postmodernism, see Smith (1994).

    10. See Larmore (1996, Chap. 3) for a discussion on Strauss's political philosophy.

    11. On modernity and the idea of unattainability, see Friese and Wagner (1999a).

    12. For a contemporary interpretation of Luhmann see the special issue of New German Critique, 61, 1994; in particular the essays of Müller (1994) and Arato (1994), as well as Luhmann's essay ‘The Modernity of Science’ (Luhmann, 1994a).

    13. This theory is outlined in Luhmann (1995). See also Luhmann (1982) and (1990b).

    14. See Luhmann's engagement with Lyotard's (1988) concept of the ‘differend’, Luhmann (1994b). See also Knodt (1994) and Rasch (1994).

    1. Originally a lecture in 1980 on receiving the Adorno Prize.

    2. See the essays in Habermas (1989b).

    3. It may be remarked, however, that the German term, Öffenlichkeit, does not carry the same spatial connotations as the English or French. For a comprehensive overview of the literature on Öffenlichkeit, see Strum (1994).

    4. See Piet Strydom's papers on triple contingency, Strydom (1999a, 1999d).

    5. I have examined this and the question of the Occidental prejudice in Delanty (1997a).

    6. See also a recent article on human rights, Habermas (1998b).

    7. For a debate on this, see Bohman (1998).

    8. See in particular, Chapter 11.

    9. See Heller (1993) for an attempt to resolve some of the earlier problems in light of her more recent work on modernity.

    10. This has also been pointed out by Grumley (1994) commenting on Heller's essay ‘Modernity's Pendulum’ (1992).

    11. See Leledakis's reflections, Leledakis (1999).

    12. For a fuller discussion on his social theory see Chapter 5 of my Social Theory in a Changing World, Delanty (1999a). See also Knöbl (1999).

    13. I have commented on this in Delanty (2000b).

    14. For another communications theoretic view on the contemporary situation, see Ferry (1994).

    1. This chapter originally appeared in Communitarianism and Citizenship, edited by Emilios Christodoulidis (Avebury: Ashgate, 1998). I am grateful to the Editor for permission to reproduce this chapter, which I have revised for this book.

    2. It must be pointed out that there are limits to the compatibility of Anderson's notion of ‘imagined community’ with postmodern perspectives, since his conception tends to be one of a relatively fixed and domesticated imaginary. This might be contrasted with Castoriadis's notion of the radical imaginary, where the stress is more on the transformative capacity of the imaginary.

    3. The term has of course now been changed to EU, European Union. Nevertheless the appeal to political community is still present.

    1. For a survey of some of the current trends, see de la Fuente (2000).

    2. For useful histories and commentaries see Anderson (1998), Bertens (1995), Best and Kellner (1991), Lemert (1997), Rose (1991), Smart (1992).

    3. On modernism and the avant-garde, see Bradbury and McFarlane (1991), Bürger (1984), Calinescu (1977).

    4. See also Hassan (1987) on early postmodern developments.

    5. On postmodern architecture see the famous works by Charles Jencks (1991) and Robert Venturi (1977). See also Kolb (1990) and Lillyman et al. (1994).

    6. I have discussed this in Delanty (1999a, Chap. 4).

    7. The term ‘postmodernization’ is used by Crook et al. (1992) to describe social change in contemporary society.

    8. This has been commented by Dennis Wrong (1998, p. 90).

    9. This was based on an essay originally published in the New Left Review in 1984.

    10. Jameson's position has been expanded in works such as The Seeds of Time (1994).

    11. For an overview of Baudrillard's work, see Baudrillard (1994a) and Kellner (1989).

    12. For a good critical assesment of the politics of hyperreality, see King (1998).

    13. A notable exception to this latter group is Eagleton (1996).

    14. See also Silverman (1999) for an interpretation of postmodernism in terms of cultural fragmentation.

    15. However, as Kurasawa (1999) has argued, this sense of an alternative to modernity was largely identified with non-western forces, such as Islam, which suggested to him the possibility of an alternative spiritual subjectivity.

    16. For an overview of this debate, see Kelly (1994) and Ashenden and Owen (1999). See also Passerin d'Entreves and Benhabib (1996) and Flyvbjerg (1998).

    17. On the Rorty–Foucault debate, see Norris (1993, Chap. 2).

    18. See Rorty's critique of Lyotard, where he puts forward a position not too far removed from Habermas's (Rorty, 1992).

    19. See Rorty (1985) on the Habermas–Lyotard debate.

    20. On Lyotard's politics, see Fern Haber (1994), Lyotard (1993b) and Rojek and Turner (1998). On his aesthetic theory more broadly, see Lyotard (1993a).

    21. This shift in the constitution of the self was anticipated by David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd (1950). Riesman argued that a shift was occurring from an ‘inner-directed’ character type to an ‘outer-directed’ type.

    22. On postmodernity and responsibility, see Tester (1993). See also Delanty (1999c).

    23. For a similar position see Yeatman (1994) or the work of Laclau and Mouffe.

    24. For some further discussion on the self and modernity, see Seidler (1994).

    25. A good example of this is Lash (1999).

    26. We should be talking here in terms of contested modernities, see Lapidus (1987).

    1. See also her later work, La Folie du voir (Buci-Glucksmann, 1986).

    2. For further accounts of Benjamin and the culture of the eye, see Caygill (1998) and Gilloch (1996).

    3. For a recent discussion of reflexivity, see May (1999, 2000).

    4. See the Postscript to The Rules of Art (Bourdieu, 1996b). See also Bourdieu and Haacke (1995).

    5. For a good overview of Bourdieu and one that places the idea of culture at the centre of his work, see Swartz (1997).

    6. This view has also penetrated into the natural sciences. See Fuller (1997) and Wallerstein et al. (1996).

    7. In The Myth of Social Action Colin Campbell (1996) has partly disagnosed this when the criticizes the social contextualism of social theory since the 1980s, but in my view he has mistaken social contextualism for culturalism.

    8. On the concept of culture, see Munch and Smelser (1992).

    9. These developments can be understood in terms of the knowledge society (Stehr, 1992). On culture and knowledge, see McCarthy (1996)


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