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Critical Discussions WHAT'S POSTMODERN, ANYWAY? by Peter Münz We have known ever since Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectics of the Enlightenment (1944) that the Enlightenment was not the smooth ride into modernity it had been cracked up to be. Bacon's New Atlantis, far from being full of impersonally accumulated, universally valid knowledge, mechanically acted upon to promote happiness and dignity, turned out to be Weber's "iron cage," inhabited by Riesman's "lonely crowd," which, sensibilities dissociated (T S. Eliot), is suffering from Fromm's "fear of freedom," for originality, though welcomed as never before, has become a mass phenomenon (Saul Bellow). Something had to give and postmodernity had to come. The question is whether postmodernity has come with a rational or an irrational face. The poststructuralism of this book is the dominant idiom of the irrational side ofpostmodernity. Let me then briefly begin by explaining the nature of postmodernity and the reasons for the ascendancy of the poststructuralist idiom. Postmodernity began long before the end of modernity. Its first manifestation may well have been the remark by de Maistre that there is no such thing as "mankind," but only Lithuanians, An essay on Poststructuralism and the Question of History, edited by Derek Attridge, Geoff Bennington, and Robert Young; viii & 292 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, $17.95 paper. Philosophy and Literature, © 1992, 16: 333-353 334Philosophy and Literature Prussians, Piedmontese, Frenchmen, etc. Thus he inaugurated the postmodern frame of mind by insisting that all people are different, cannot communicate with one another, and that there can be no overarching metanarrative to explain these differences. The last great manifestation of modernity came a hundred years later in the anthropology of LéviStrauss who explained that no matter what myths tell and no matter how they tell it, they always tell it in the same rational manner by opposing two unreconcilable positions and by repeating these oppositions as redundant messages. He affirmed that no matter how great the differences, there is an underlying rational pattern (a metanarrative) which is common to the most primitive and the most "advanced" thinking . It may seem odd that the postmodern should have preceded the modern by a century; and it will even seem more odd when I add that the seminal idea which is the foundation of the postmodern was hatched by Friedrich Nietzsche after and not before the beginning of the postmodern age. The weirdness of this sequence is itself a typical example of good postmodern perception—according to which, though stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, the parts do not necessarily come in this order. Whatever the sequence, the insight which stands at the heart as well as at the beginning of postmodernity was first clearly put forward by Nietzsche when he discovered that language is not just a simple description of the world, but that different languages and different forms of rhetoric actually construct different worlds, rather than describe one and the same world in different ways. With this insight he not only dealt a fatal blow to smug Victorian modernism's hitherto tacit assumption that words are merely obedient means or instruments and that their usefulness can be ascertained by comparing them to the world they are supposed to describe, but also unhinged the typically modern position, dominant since Bacon and Locke, that knowledge ofthe world is something enjoyed by people who are watching from a transcendental watch-tower. For it had been assumed not only that language is a totally transparent description of all the facts, but also that the human nervous system which mediates knowledge does nothing but mediate. Nietzsche showed, in brief, that the assumption that we have a transparent language which simply tells the truth is a dream.1 Nietzsche has been credited with or blamed for all manner of insights. But if I were asked to pinpoint the center of his thought, I would say that it was the demolition of this modern dream. Nietzsche's most telling work on this subject was published in 1882 under the title Diefröhliche Wissenschaft, infelicitously known in English Peter Münz335 as The Gay Science. Nietzsche's intention was to defy the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 333-353
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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