Volume 10 Number 1 1997

Change, Postmodernism and Postmodernity

Intimations of Postmodernity, Zygmunt Bauman, Routledge,1992, 232 pages, 12.99 paperback

Modernity and Self-Identity : Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Anthony Giddens, Polity, 1991, 244 pages, 12.95 paperback

Consumer Culture and Postmodernity, Mike Featherstone, Sage, 1991, xii + 164 pages, 35 cloth, 11.95 paperback

Ways of Escape : Modern Transformations in Leisure and Travel, Chris Rojek, MacMillan, 1993, 251 pages, 42.50 cloth, 15.99 paperback

Peter Bramham
Leeds Metropolitan University.

One can argue that the major icon of postmodern culture is the game Trivial Pursuits. The question on the card is: "Who Are the Best Sociologists in 1996 to Help Us Understand Postmodernity?".

One correct answer would be (in alphabetical order) Bauman, Featherstone, Giddens, and Rojek. With Michael Ignatieff in the chair of the Late Show, these four would lay the strongest claims to seats in the comfy chairs in the studio. Perhaps of more significance is that all four would be ideal performers, celebrity intellectuals, for global (postmodern?) TV.

Some social theorists claim that in the late twentieth century we are entering a qualitatively different era or social epoch which can be described as `postmodernity'. Others, writing from more established Marxist cultural studies and feminist traditions, dispute the term `postmodernity' and dismiss postmodernists as nihilistic intellectuals who have misrepresented art as life. Such critics argue that the term high modernity or late capitalism more closely expresses the condition of these `New Times' (Hall, S. `New Times', Marxism Today,1988). However, most intellectual domains or discourse formations recognise the presence of the `postmodern' in acknowledgement of the radical nature of contemporary changes taking place in all spheres of life.

Whether one examines the economic, social, political or cultural spheres, significant shifts in experiences, lifestyles and social circumstances have been encountered in recent decades. Although the term `postmodernity' derives largely from cultural experiences, in particular from architecture and consumer culture, it has been adopted as an inclusive term to incorporate a range of major economic and social changes.

For Bauman the postmodern is a state of mind, a self-reflexive consciousness of intellectuals, as they articulate new discourses and embrace new functions in the body politic. Whilst these changes are often contradictory and strong, continuities with the past remain. There are, it is argued, features of a `postmodern' society which are significantly different from a previously `modern' era. The `modern' and the `postmodern' are best understood as a couplet. Bauman's position is clear. There is a need for a sociology of postmodernity but not a postmodern sociology.

Modernity: Intellectuals as Legislators

The issues raised by postmodern thinking and the birth of postmodernity are multi-dimensional and complex. Change permeates several spheres of life: the economic, the political, the social and the cultural. From the Enlightenment into modernity, the site of intellectual endeavour was essentially culture. The intellectual project was a rational one, of surveillance and control: an interrogation of the worlds of culture and morality to construct social order. Intellectuals were the handmaidens of the State, both scientists and legislators. They worked as social engineers for the nation state which was the carapace within which to embark on the modern project to construct a rational, efficient and integrated industrial society. Society and the nation state were co-terminus and the role of the intellectual was to gather social facts within political and administrative boundaries so as to integrate local deviations, subcultures, and communities into a national system, to feed the data bases of bureaucratic policy systems.

Traditional power had been exercised `unreflexively' whereas the rational project in western states was ubiquitous, disciplinary and civilising. Alongside philosophical certainty, was cultural confidence, the missionary zeal of the colonialist. If society is man-made, then the ambition of the modern state is "to actually make the society" (Bauman 1992, p10). The systemic nature of the concepts (e.g. socialisation, culture, consensus, power, and hegemony) illustrated both whose side the intellectuals were on and from whom they were receiving their money and sponsorship. The modernisers mapped out the future convergence in industrial society globally, and sociology sat comfortably within a Parsonian Weltanschauung, with an emphasis on integration and value consensus. Sociologists who are old enough will well remember Gouldner's analysis of the state of affairs with The Coming Crisis in Western Sociology (Heinemann 1971). The crisis was brought on by Marxist and feminist critiques of liberal, malestream sociology and welfarism; lately, and more destructively, the assault has been led by postmodernist thinking.

Postmodernity; Intellectuals as Interpreters

Postmodern analysis celebrates diversity and relativism. If the confidence of sociologists as a scientific discipline was weakened by the critique of interpretive sociologies in the 1960s, the postmodern turn in the 1990s seems to have killed it off. In the rational modern panoptic discourse, relativism had to be exorcised whereas in the postmodern, it is a precondition for knowledge. Society and social analysis dissolve into multiple realities, diverse forms of life, private language games - separate discourses - each with its own ontology, epistemology and methodology which map out the intellectual terrain to be explored and explained. There has been a shift from cognitive questions (how do I interpret the world?) to post-cognitive questions (which world is it?). Whereas Berger and Luckmann in The Social Construction of Reality (Allen Lane, 1967) looked quite a solid home for people to live in, the postmodern world is homeless, destroyed (like Arthur Dent's in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy) by global information highways, characterised by multiple realities which can be contested and explored. As the state becomes less interested in culture for legitimation, the market takes over; the postmodern project is to produce willing consumers rather than obedient citizens. People are employed in society as consumers not as producers.

Postmodern writings are full of hyperbole, just as postmodern tourist experiences are full of "hyperreality" or virtual reality. Baudrillard suggests iconoclastically that "history is over" and we now inhabit a two minute "depthless culture"; a `culture' of excess, polyvalent with the absence of adjudicating authorities. He has emphasised the impact of mass media, particularly television, in the full emergence of a consumer society, and of pastiche, the playful simulation of `fake' and the `real'. Language and texts have been displaced by figural forms. For many, authenticity and real life nostalgically belong in the past but these can be represented and reconstructed in theme parks and heritage centres for tourists not only to gaze upon but also to experience, interact and engage with. Rojek provides countless and telling examples of the restlessness of modern experience, as people explore the simulacra of theme parks, virtual reality and global culture. Consumers are bound into the social by seduction, the excluded non-consumers by repression. Leisure, as part of the patterns and styles of life and consumption, plays a significant role in defining people's identities, experience and consciousness. These approaches have been adopted by Hebdige in analysing developments in Britain in the 1980s, particularly in relation to popular culture and "consumer identities".

One key feature of the postmodern is difference and dedifferentiation - traditional hierarchies, divisions and boundaries collapse. Certainty implodes as "all that is solid melts into air". Divisions between high and low culture are deemed to be no longer relevant. Postmodern analysis posits "the death of the author". There can be no one uncontested interpretation of a book, painting, or film and therefore intellectuals have no authority to speak for "the other", to present their analysis as the privileged account.

Dedifferentiation occurs within ordinary people's everyday life. For example, the organisation of both time and space becomes more flexible and fragmented as individuals deconstruct traditional patterns and reconstruct their own individual pathways and life course. Whether one looks at patterns of work, ethnicity, leisure tastes, sexuality, meal times, media consumption, lifestyles, holidays, traditional and collective patterns have become more differentiated and individualised.

Mike Featherstone's work on consumer culture provides a comprehensive overview of postmodern theories, paying particular attention to an emergent and distinctive service class. Different perspectives emphasise the dominance of particular processes of change. The neo-Marxist retains its emphasis on the mode of production of commodities, their circulation and consumption. Many would acknowledge the prime significance of economic shifts dating from the mid 1970s onwards within developed economies as industry adopted what has been termed a post-Fordist regime of flexible accumulation. This has been contrasted with the historic `Fordist' structures of industrial capitalism based on Henry Ford's development of the assembly-line method of working and the economies of scale associated with routinised mass production.

Dynamic economic change experienced in advanced economies since the 1970s has involved a shift from manufacturing industry to service `production', with finance capital replacing manufacturing capital in economic significance. Occupational restructuring has also taken place and still continues, with a growing division between a `core' workforce enjoying benefits of continuous well-paid employmment and a `peripheral' workforce consisting of lower paid, part-time and often de-skilled and insecure employees. There is also a discernable long-term process of feminisation of paid employment with increasing proportions of women in work and sections of the male population facing long-term unemployment.

Such economic changes have wider repercussions in the changing nature of class, gender and status patterns and the growing emphasis on individualised consumption in all areas of social life. Recently, Marxists have acknowledged that market processes have opened new choices in patterns of consumption for racial minorities and the working class, which traditional Marxist politics have denied.

For theorists like Jameson, these postmodern forms reflect a culture which is itself increasingly commodified and consumed, in late capitalism. In this context, images, styles and representations become products, as does information itself, as culture is integrated into commodity production as part of the logic of late capitalism. David Harvey in The Condition of Postmodernity (Basil Blackwell, 1989) in particular has attempted to make sense of these socio-cultural changes in the physical reality of urban spaces. Like all other areas of life and existence, urban spaces reflect change, so the postmodern city emphasises quality of life experiences and the importance of city image. There is competitive civic investment in malls, plazas and marinas and the holding of spectacular events both sporting and cultural. Heritage features are developed in an effort to produce an attractive environment for tourism and commerce. In a variety of ways, through the gentrification of certain residential areas, the improvement of historic quarters, or the transformation of waterfronts, the city comes to reflect the image and expectations of a postmodern public.

Political theorists have linked these socio-economic changes to the growth of liberal individualist anti-collectivist ideologies in western democracies. There has been a shift from postwar welfare states to more flexible post-welfarism. There is a collapse of the social as society becomes deregulated. New patterns of capital accumulation require complex systems of regulation, negotiated and legitimated by new ideologies and policies. The role of the state, politics and public policy change along with the shift from Fordism to Post-Fordism, as powerful groups inside nation states seek to move towards more flexible systems of regulation which are symbiotic with the needs of transnational capital and global corporate investment strategies. Shifts in public policy, like all aspects of life, have been affected by the growth of private provision in housing, transport, health, education, and welfare. Increasingly, private market competition and contracting of services has come to replace mass municipal or collective state provision. Leisure services exhibit a growing economic rationale and discourse rather than one of social welfare.

For postmodern theorists the links between new lifestyles and consumption are significant in leisure and in the formation of personal identities. Featherstone has argued that consumer culture celebrates the aestheticisation of everyday life - fashions become significant and one must live with style(s). The media endorse not products but lifestyles. Consumption then is not so much the consumption of commodities but the consumption and display of signs.

Self Identity and (Post)Modernity

Giddens' early work on structuration theory raised the question of the place of the individual within sociology. This book is praised by Dennis Wrong for setting the real agenda for social analysis, mirroring the substantial impact of his own work in 1975 on the "oversocialised" view of man in sociology. If Mrs Thatcher is correct in suggesting that there is no such thing as society, merely individuals and the family, then this is clearly the place to start. Giddens resists the term postmodernity preferring that of late or high modernity, an epoch geared to the domination of nature and the reflexive making of history.

Wrong attempted to integrate Freud's ideas into a sociological approach to socialisation. Giddens himself has written extensively on his stratified view of the personality - the unconscious, practical consciousness and discursive consciousness, yet this book explores the discourse of social psychology, with his concern to grasp the relationship between the self and the quest for identity in high modernity, or what other writers would define as postmodernity.

The building blocks for Giddens' analysis of this postmodern condition are developed in the separate chapters of Modernity and Self Identity. Modernity is fundamentally about risk and uncertainty, trust and intimacy. Individuals search for ontological security and authenticity, grasping for survival strategies in the face of openness and chaos. There is unremitting anxiety about self-identity. Unlike traditional societies where culture constrains choice, there is a growing pressure from the processes of high modernity to construct something of and for oneself. Under this pressure to construct an identity, the individual is encouraged to be reflexive in the process, to monitor feelings and to find oneself. One's life course becomes a reflexive project during which one must make choices and discover one's self and identity. Life plans and lifestyles are mapped out within the contours of life chances. Experts abound in high modernity to help individual choice in body and soul issues. It is a broader choice than consumption lifestyles in that the individual has life sectors and one must invest time and resources to develop careers and significant stages in one's biography.

Modernity also fuses the local and the global. Experience of the world is based on trust in, and dependency on, abstract expert systems which are themselves embedded and stretched over time and space. Trust is an `effort bargain' the individual makes with the institutions of modernity. The latter can just be taken for granted at a local, national and global level. Banking systems, transport, water production, health care, weather forecasting and so on mysteriously provide the resources, rules and regulations within which the individual can organise his/her life path. Modernity is a reflexive project in that knowledge systems themselves are a resource; they are part and parcel of the very constitution of relationships. Giddens is concerned about the failures of the political system to address people's fear of powerlessness. He identifies a democratic vacuum to which Right/Left political parties are failing to respond. Consequently, individuals choose political involvement in GreenPeace, or Anti-Racist movements rather than through the complex mainstream political parties in their quest for governance.

Modernity also means the sequestration of experience which drains the everyday world of moral judgments, as they are squeezed to the sidelines. Following Habermas and Gorz everything is reduced to technique - the dominance of instrumental and economic rationality. The market, the state and globalisation cuts out people's experience from existential problems and social life viz issues of death, sexuality, madness and illness. All this too is managed by experts as people no longer have the confidence, competence or opportunity to deal with such issues. The individual lives out choices within his/her body, with diet regimens and distinctive patterns of consumption. For Giddens the individual is the centre of both change and reproduction. Agency choices must connect with structural global processes and vice versa. For Giddens life politics and emancipatory politics are of central importance. The life political agenda demands an encounter with moral dilemmas and existential issues which modernity has institutionally excluded.

A Postmodern Sociology?

Postmodern books should carry a double government health warning to vocational and policy-led social researchers. First, these postmodern arguments are likely to deconstruct! Secondly, the state is no longer interested in society as a political project; the conventional sociological career is redundant, the sociology party is over. Postmodernism wishes to replace social science research with more challenging and diverse discursive formations. Postmodern sociology itself does not have a concept of postmodernity. It is a signifier with the postmodern condition as its signified. It stresses the need for "thick descriptions", an anthropological view of cultures as alien and in need of decoding and explanation. Intellectuals become free-floating interpreters.

Social theory about the postmodern tends to remove the everyday realities of work and leisure into esoteric debate and obscure terminology. It is destructive - critical of everything, so there is no urgency to be critical anymore. Whatever their theoretical position, whether acknowledging a distinctive break with past existence or not, all recognise significant recent change and attempt to understand it. Leisure also conforms to these cumulative changes, as Rojek seeks to demonstrate. Increasingly commodified, individualised, diverse and flexible, it is represented by the television and video, Sega and Nintendo games, the personal stereo, virtual reality games, and the interactive C.D. player. It is much more about high technology and individualism than collective participation and communal enjoyment. Participants are restless sensation seekers and demand direct involvement and high quality, and only those leisure forms which can respond succeed in such a context.

The accumulation of change in economy, society, politics, and culture has led some then to designate a qualitatively new era of postmodernity. Part of the debate has also involved a questioning of the nature of social theory itself. Postmodernists argue that the "crisis of modernity" is not merely a matter of economic, political, social and cultural dynamics but is an intellectual crisis in understanding the social world. Intellectuals are no longer authoritative legislators but interpreters. The Enlightenment `project' and its key ideas on the nature of scientific objectivity, progress and emancipation are being questioned, as just one language game. "Open questioning" and deconstruction of knowledge are central to Lyotard's thesis, as is the rejection of the notion of objectivity in the form of grand theories or meta-narratives which he associates with "myriad stories and fables" (Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, Manchester University Press, 1984).

Whether the more extreme claims of postmodernism are accepted or not, these approaches to social theory highlight significant recent economic, social and political changes and attempt, paradoxically given the scepticism about meta-narratives, to make sense of them comprehensively. The focus on individual consumption and its emphasis on current life-styles and cultural forms ensures its importance in attempting to understand sociality in the l990s. For the postmodernists, the world is no longer a fixed entity, characterised by freedom or control but is fragmented, dedifferentiated and de-centred.

Social theories need to be reflexive and explore both new times of consumer culture and old enemies of inequality. Many sociologists would feel that the above books overstate the changes taking place. For example, the case against sociologists as legislators has been too sharply drawn in that sociology has always been both involved with and detached from the status quo. Others may feel that these books paradoxically are insufficiently self-reflexive, that more work needs to be done to save the sociology of the postmodern from postmodern sociology. Bauman, Featherstone, Giddens and Rojek hardly need this reviewer to plead in their defence. After all they are the four names on the Trivial Pursuit card and heading for Ignatieff's sofa.


Copyright Peter Bramham 1997



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