- Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences
On display in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibit of postmodernist drawing is a piece by Stephen Prima: 67 framed sheets, of various shapes and sizes, broad brushed, light tan ink wash on rag barrier paper, with the suggestive tag “No Title/(‘The History of Modern Painting, to label it with a phrase, has been the struggle against the catalog....’ Barnett Newman).” Pauline Rosenau’s book is a thoroughgoing repudiation of that (post)modernist preoccupation. To analyze postmodernism, in Rosenau’s mind, is to catalog it. In the process, her “postmodernists” mix and blend, as indistinguishable, but for her frames, as Prima’s paintings. Postmodernism plays on the ambiguity, contradiction, and confusion of the text. Rosenau falls victim to it. She mixes description and prescription, observer and observed, thinker, thought and thought-about in an eclectic and often bewildering catalog of postmodern opinion.
Running through the book is a distinction between two broad categories of postmodernists. The “skeptical post-modernists”
argue that the post-modern age is one of fragmentation, disintegration, malaise, meaninglessness, a vagueness or even absence of moral parameters and societal chaos. . . . In this period no social or political ‘project’ is worthy of commitment. Ahead lies overpopulation, genocide, atomic destruction, the apocalypse, environmental devastation, the explosion of the sun and the end of the solar system in 4.5 billion years, the death of the universe through entropy.(15)
Given such powerful and alarming claims, it may seem surprising that the skeptics also maintain “that there is no truth” and that “all that is left is play, the play of words and meaning” (15).
The “affirmatives” are a still more nebulous category: More indigenous to Anglo-North American culture than to the Continent, the generally optimistic affirmatives are oriented toward process. They are either open to positive political action (struggle and resistance) or content with the recognition of visionary, celebratory personal nondogmatic projects that range from New Age religion to New Wave life-styles and include a whole spectrum of post-modern social movements.(15–16)
Who are these post-modernists? We never learn, though Rosenau cites Baudrillard, Derrida, and articles by Todd Gitlin and Klaus Scherpe. The theorists of postmodernism and its exemplars exchange places freely in Rosenau’s account, and it is often difficult to tell which is being described. Nor do we get the opportunity to judge postmodern thought for ourselves; Rosenau rarely quotes her theorists and even more rarely explores an individual author’s work or argumentation. Postmodern thinkers, in her account, do not argue: they claim, they assume, they relinquish or adopt ideas, they reject or they share views; but they never appear to present a connected argument, elaborate an interpretation, or explain their case. How could they when, as Rosenau never tires of repeating, postmodernism “rejects reason,” preferring instead “the romantic, emotions, feelings” (94). This attack on reason, on the truth claims of modern science, on “the modern subject,” and on moral certainty make up, in Rosenau’s view, “one of the greatest intellectual challenges to established knowledge of the twentieth century” (5).
Rosenau is far from comfortable with that challenge. She dedicates her book to her parents, identified as “strong modern subjects, who had no confusion about their identity or their values.” She worries about the “cynical, nihilist, and pessimistic tone” of the skeptics, who find in “death, self-inflicted death, suicide,” “affirmations of power that conquer rationality” (143). She finds it alarming that “postmodern social movements” like fundamentalism have become “widespread and hegemonic” in some places, because “post-modernism in the Third World provides a justification for requiring women to adopt forms of dress that were abandoned by their grandmothers” and promotes the re-establishment of traditional marriage roles and the restoration of male prerogatives (154–5). In this book, Derrida lies down with the Ayatollah Khomeini; their issue is, as might be expected, monstrous.
Rosenau does scant better justice to her primary concern, the challenge of postmodernism to the social sciences. Though she cites work which has...