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Modernism, postmodernism and poststructuralism, the difference

One clue to understanding the difference between modernism, postmodernism and poststructuralism lies in the ancient “quarrel” between Parmenides and Heraclitus. Parmenides argued that only being is, and becoming is not. Things of the world of perception, the world of the Many, of time and change, are subject to becoming, and therefore ARE not in the true sense. Only being, or the One, which cannot be perceived by the senses, but apprehended through thinking, truly IS. Heraclitus is said to have argued exactly the opposite, namely that everything is subject to becoming, or change, as expressed in one of his sayings, namely, “panta rei” — “all is flux”. But they nevertheless ARE, because they were held in existence by what he called the logos.

Corresponding to these two extremes, modernism is a mode of thinking that attempts to locate “being” or a sense of permanence within the flux of existence by finding the ONE there, while postmodernism is content to abandon any sense of being in favour of the MANY, becoming or flux. Poststructuralism steers a path between the two, “thinking them together”, or negotiating a course between the Scylla of sterile permanence and the Charybdis of incessant change, demonstrating in different ways that being and becoming cannot, or should not, be separated, and that each is limited by the other, in this way allowing change and stability to enter into a life-giving contract.

In the 19th century Charles Baudelaire formulated the difference between the modern and the postmodern (perhaps unwittingly) when he pointed out that what he called the “modern poet” has a twofold task: firstly, to be receptive to all the endless change, particularity and transformation (the Many) around him or her, but secondly, to find and articulate that which is essential, permanent, lasting or universal (the One) within the perpetual flux of modern existence. Although he did not use the terms, what he described corresponds to what are known, today, as the postmodern and the modern, respectively: poets, filmmakers, novelists, architects or artists who record, stress or capture incessant change or becoming in their work in innovative ways, are by that token postmodernists, while those who look for elements of being within the flux, or arrest it by different means, are by that token modernists.

Needless to stress, there are many ways to do this in the different arts — in literature John Fowles used multiple endings (The French Lieutenant’s Woman) and telescoped narratives within narratives (Mantissa) in his novels as postmodernist devices, for example, although a closer inspection of a novel such as The Magus reveals a poststructuralist structure that interbraids being and becoming, not allowing either to prevail over the other. Virginia Woolf reveals her modernist temperament by using images of becoming, like the intermittent flash of light from a lighthouse, or waves, in conjunction with preponderant ones of being, such as the never-changing nature of light itself, or of the ocean, which reveals itself in the epiphany of the recurrent lighthouse-beam, or the regularity of the waves breaking on the beach.

Soren Kierkegaard, too, generously gave us “models” for conceptualising modernism, postmodernism and poststructuralism. In Either/Or he distinguishes (and elaborates on) what he calls the “aesthetic model” and the “ethical model”, each of which corresponds to the structure of postmodernism and modernism, respectively. The aesthetic model is postmodernist, structurally speaking, in so far as Kierkegaard describes a mindset and corresponding practices that revel in identity fragmentation and aesthetic enjoyment for its own sake (to combat boredom). The character of A (the aesthete) learns that the method of “rotating crops” is the best way to overcome the greatest enemy, namely, boredom, not by changing one’s surroundings as much as by changing one’s mindset.

For example, instead of taking anything seriously, aesthetic “play” is recommended — if you’re at the opera, and by chance it’s the same opera being staged as the one you saw last week, you can change your pattern of enjoyment by coughing in time with the tympanum, or humming along with the strings, and if other members of the audience throw you glances of dismay, so much better; it makes things more interesting.

However, as the character of Judge William tells A in a series of letters, this approach to life means that one is different in every situation, and that your personality has no unifying integrity: you are no one, except a series of masks: the Many. This is the structure of the postmodern. Then Judge William goes on to recommend to A that, instead of this disintegrative lifestyle, he should marry, to combat the worst enemy of all, namely time, by renewing your relationship with your spouse every day in an inventive way, which would not only prevent you from becoming bored with each other, but would impart a unifying integrity to your personality: the One. In short, you would make your life into a work of art, according to Judge William. This is the model for the modern work of art, as it is structurally characterised by unity, integrity and beauty.

But Kierkegaard also anticipates, in an ingenious manner, the structural outlines of poststructuralism, where he talks of the “religious model”, although he does not follow it through, but eventually makes the switch to faith as a “leap into darkness”. The suggestive part of the religious model emerges where he writes about how, no matter how much one tries to either practise the aesthetic enjoyment of the aesthetic model (postmodern) by distancing yourself from everything in order to manipulate it for the sake of “the interesting”, or (alternatively) dedicate oneself to the elaboration of a unified self through commitment to one’s loved-one, integrating all experiences into a single, coherent totality (modern), you always fall between two stools in the ashes.

In other words, in either case, you are guaranteed to find that you cannot practise the chosen way of life “perfectly”, without sometimes failing in your intentions. As Kierkegaard points out, as compared to God (who is infinite), we find that we are woefully fallible and finite, and that we cannot perfect whatever we set out to do. While this marks the point where Kierkegaard introduces ways to accept one’s finitude in relation to an infinite God, I (for one) believe that we don’t have to leap into faith, but simply learn the poststructuralist lesson, that we have to interbraid or negotiate what has usually been seen as binary opposites between which we must choose.

In other words, don’t choose (as Derrida says, we are not in a position to), between the aesthetic and the ethical as if one is absolutely better than the other – or between the One and the Many, black and white, male and female, sensibility and intelligibility, writing or speech, nature or culture, the engineer or the bricoleur – something our culture has always encouraged us to do, believing that one of these pairs of opposites is somehow “better” than the other, and establishing axiological hierarchies as a result. Learn to think them together, or approach them in a creative, re-configuring manner. Don’t choose between nature and culture, for example, because that way death lies: we need both. This is a poststructuralist way of thinking — not the ONE OR the MANY, but the ONE AND the Many. This way we learn to do justice to the richness of life.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. David Tyson David Tyson 8 May 2014

    Peter Eisenman stated that “Modern architecture never happened, therefore post modern architecture was impossible”. According to Eisenman, at the age of enlightenment society made a transition from humanism to modernism, which is evident in the geocentric theory of man being the centre of the universe to the heliocentric theory of the sun being the centre of the universe. Humanist architecture sought to find the balance between form and function with respect to man being the centre of the universe, where as modern architecture aimed to take man out of the equation, BUT man dictates the function of a building. Industrialisation introduced new functions to buildings which led to function dominating over form “form follows function” . These industrialised buildings became mass produced off an assembly line causing a contradiction/tension between what the function of the building was and what message it portrayed (buildings became boxes to hold functions which were only identifiable by a label, apposed to being recognisable by form). Therefore “form follows function” was an extension of humanist beliefs and was not truly modern, thus architectures idea of modernism was in fact humanism and post modernism was rather post functionalism.

  2. Alexandra Wilmot 210015225 Alexandra Wilmot 210015225 8 May 2014

    The search for truth and meaning in life has been the driving force behind many human endeavors throughout history. The idea of truth is one that is fundamental to the ideas of modernism, post modernism and post structuralism. Essentially, modernist ideology would suggest that there is one truth, post modernism that there are many truths and post structuralism that there is no truth. History has given us the gift of hindsight, the outcomes of modernist and post modernist thinking are known, whilst post structuralism is something which is largely still being explored in the physical realm. Perhaps this is because it does not have an end, because infact, in line with post structuralist thinking, there is no such thing as post structuralism. For this reason, post structuralism has always been of interest to me. In my mind, Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette is one of the finest examples of post structuralist ideas which have been physically realized. The idea of an absence of truth is seen in the ideas of disjunction, madness and superimposition; ideas where plurality, multiplicity and disorder is embraced and there is no single structuring device which governs the composition. It connects by careful but severe disconnection. It rejects the truth of the past, of tradition, and it explores that magic which may occur in the realm of the absurd.

  3. Alexandra Wilmot 210015225 Alexandra Wilmot 210015225 8 May 2014

    Tschumi takes the programmatic functions and fragments them over the park and plays a game of programatic alchemy by mixing opposing functions with the hope that in their contrast and opposition, they might create an experience that is superior to anything that could have been predicted or designed. Post structuralism is about the pulling apart and the putting back together, it is the both/and; it is and is not.

  4. Simtembile Nteleza 20673087 Simtembile Nteleza 20673087 8 May 2014

    Part 1

    I find myself asking the question, why are we so concerned with identifying what is defined as being , becoming or both? Could it be the above mentioned categories are a projection of the ideals we as creatives use to manipulate space, experience, emotion and time? and to what end? as rhetorical as these questions may seem, i find myself – a young creative – burdened with the task to express my thought within the world in a physical manner, a 3 dimensional one to be exact. Regardless, somehow one of these notions is bound to express itself within my work. why? Could it be that these ideologies define what is known a the “TEXT” within human communication, in this instance a 3dimensional conversation? Even ideas still trapped in the mind are subject to this scrutiny, for example my design idea began as a Transport Interchange which for me was solely concerned with a state of “being” but later developed to became a Transit Orientated Development which encompassed both being and becoming. Let me elaborate, one was concerned solely with mobility and excluded and idea of community-building (building up a community), the other accepts mobility but states that mobility alone cannot survive without community-building – Post structuralist outlook at one simple architectural program. I make this example to say this, the line between what is being, becoming or both is thin at best. The true question one should ask is why have the concerns somewhat changed as time passed?

  5. Simtembile Nteleza 20673087 Simtembile Nteleza 20673087 8 May 2014

    Part 2

    For me personally, it indicates an idea, maybe far off to you, that being cannot really survive without becoming. For example, modernism collapsed because its stern monotone nature overwhelmed people and people sort a different outlook. Ironically, so did post modernism fade into the Post structuralist period. A period concerned with dualism. Even nature illustrates this idea clearly for us, the only time within our entire life time are we ever at the state of being is when we are no more. Harsh, I know but true. We are constantly developing, changing and developing. Even as i type this reply I am not the same person as i was three minutes ago, something within me changed. It might be enlightenment or sorrow but something. I am still the same being but my state has differed (Being and Becoming).
    In conclusion for me, personally, nothing of the world satisfies human desires if it only embodies one notion from being or becoming. Because we are beings with the potential to be either chaotic or rational, one notion does not satisfy our desire to find equilibrium within Architecture, Public space, Nature even ourselves. The IDEA of light cannot exist with the IDEA of darkness, and the IDEA of darkness cannot exist without the IDEA of darkness. How are we to know what darkness is if we had never known what light is. It wouldn’t be a concern, it would just be dark. It wouldn’t even have a name.

    That’s just me.

  6. Jarrod Ryan Jooste Jarrod Ryan Jooste 8 May 2014

    Modern culture, based on reason on science makes sense in today’s society where people want answers which are factual and have merit in them. However,at the same time postmodern influence has crept in whereby culture is reintroduced. In my opinion this is a great thing as culture gives one an appreciation of our roots but at the same time it is not naive, as reason is there to guide us. The built environment expresses such ideas through our own interpretation of our environment. In my opinion critical regionalist architecture caters best to what i expect out of design, as even though it is very rational in design, the emotive feelings are also expressed through materiality which is something developed from culture and experience of different environments. Post-structuralism in my mind is far more theoretical and has little place in the heart’s and minds of the people today even though it may be a synthesis of modernism and postmodernism.

  7. Mark Robbins 210076143 Mark Robbins 210076143 9 May 2014

    In science we learnt that all objects in the universe have potential energy. Potential energy is associated with forces acting on a body relating to that body’s position in space (links to Greek philosopher Aristotle’s concept of potentiality). Therefore, every object has the potential of ‘becoming’ and when in a state of ‘being’ this is only because of the lack of becoming, the potential to become always remains. I agree therefore that neither being nor becoming can exist solely as the ONE or the MANY respectively, the other will always be there.
    I agree with Heraclitus that everything is subject to becoming or change, however, this change would not be possible had the state of ‘being’ not existed.
    I think this should directly correlate to architecture, Modernism is one polar end and Post modernism the other. A total lack of either provides a far too extreme example of the other, the architect will choose where he sits between these polar opposites according to his/her theories but neither side is more correct than the other. I do believe that the examples of both these movements that we study tend to be extreme examples, showing the sterile monotony of modernism and the childlike decoration of post modernism in their boldest forms, but each movement had a degree of validity.
    As Virginia Woolf showed, what would the sea be without waves? And what would a rotating light house be if it weren’t for the constant light?

  8. Jeanne Scholtz Jeanne Scholtz 9 May 2014

    Modernism began as a rejection of the historical model and the overruling class view of the bourgeois social order. With the poet Ezra Pound’s 1934 proclamation to “Make it new!” encapsulating the movements approach in many ways.
    Modernism aimed to break away from the hierarchy of the historical model, but in essence replaced it with a new social order, aiming for equality and universality. This attempt at ‘locating the “being” within the flux of existence by finding the ONE’ and the break away from history led to the overruling purity of the movement and in essence the disregard of the social and aesthetic values of the inhabitants.
    Post modernism is a condition of becoming, associated with change and aiming to rectify the modernist disregard of history. Keeping this in mind at least two positions on post modernism can be discussed. The more familiar of the two, and the buildings that often represent post modernism, returns to ornament and figure. They mimicked forms and motives to relate to a society, but the work was not motivated in a cultural – historical manner. The work in no way ‘argues’ with modernism but becomes a front for the public market and a commercial exploitation.
    The other can be described as ‘poststructuralist’ post modernism. Post structuralism seeks to find a balance between being and becoming allowing for both change and stability. This post modernist position questioned socio political relations and historical forms. Rather than a return to…

  9. Jeanne Scholtz Jeanne Scholtz 9 May 2014

    Rather than a return to representation (becoming), representation is shown to be more central to reality (being). These architects worked within a post modern language, delivering a critical response to regional and historical integration.

  10. Siyabulela Njikelana Siyabulela Njikelana 9 May 2014

    There has always been an aesthetical imperative with meaning that is art, and the concern of defining or identifying the different ways of truth about our world(reality) as it is experienced. We see this in conceptual and perceptual models, one where there is a figurative perception of reality(many truths), and the one which we perceive it but it loses the reality but at the same time maintains the reality in a certain concept(the one), these are the retrospectives of the Being, Becoming and Both. These are the concerns of a creative artists in expressing the truth or in attempt of framing reality, and through more abstraction of the formal elements and the deconstruction of them both(the formal & the abstracted) the more truthful or close to the true expression of ones experience of reality, which are communicated via certain medium be it literature, poetry, architecture, film, or novels. I understand that the ideals of truth(reality) are ones which will always express themselves in any artists work, including mine and everything i use to express myself even the language which has structure, but everything I say using the language need not necessarily have the same structure of language. I guess it’s through the processing of all existence do we get to the full richness of life.

  11. Mathew Binda Mathew Binda 9 May 2014

    This article points out the basic tenants of the schools of thought, modernism, post modernism and post structuralism. The concepts discussed, Truth, Many, One, Ethical, Aesthetic and Binary Opposites are constructs applicable to understanding movements in architecture, that also manifest as physical artifacts of societal intellectual engagement. Modernism for example, extends its emphasis on reason and efficiency to a minimalist style focusing on functional qualities of the spatial environment and materials. This had a universal implication in its aesthetic (One Truth), Barcelona Pavilion. Postmodernism reacts to the sterile nature of the spatial conditions modernism generates, by playing with architectural gestures derived from but not rooted in historical motifs (Many Truth), Venturi House. Post structuralism in architecture works with the different layers of meaning related to a particular subject, acknowledging the ideals of modernism and postmodernism as pre-existing conditions (the use of modern spatial planning). This way of thinking has divulged into deconstructionist architecture which further interrogates the concept of binary opposition, which appears chaotic at times, Eisenman House 10. Although a post structuralist or deconstructivist way of thinking may increase the potential for enrichment in our lives, I believe as an architect in South Africa we have a responsibility to create in a way that is contextually sensitive and socially uplifting.

  12. Mathew Binda Mathew Binda 9 May 2014

    Architecture in South Africa is a melting pot of imported ideas with a very young urban history and we must take care not to damage the built environment. Therefore I suggest a critical regionalist AND tame deconstructivist approach.

  13. Ash Erlangsen Ash Erlangsen 9 May 2014

    I believe that most of us live in a mixture of pre-modern, modern and post-modern culture. However it is important in the way you interpret these cultures. Through reflective critical engagement with these cultures you make them your own, rather than just going with the flow.
    You should have the courage to think for yourself and have your own use of reason without fear of breaking away form the past and traditions.

    Modernity is a culture where reason and science are the basis of existence. Culture of one rather than many. (being) Post-modernity is a form of culture where different theoretical and non theoretical commitment converge. A culture of many rather than one. (becoming) However both use a logic of ‘either/or’ whilst Post-structuralist thinking escapes this with a logic of ‘both/and’.
    “In other words, don’t choose… we need both”

  14. Jim Jim 11 May 2014

    There has always been a reaction to modernism ever since it began in around 1870. The original reaction was symbolism. Modernism is only weakly foundationalist so those who get no solace from the possibility that the system of science might be a foundation and no solace from faith become frank anti-foundationalists. Modernism always had postmodernism within it. In practice it is those who do not understand much more than school physics – artists, writers, musicians etc. – who become postmodernists. They can be led like sheep to the slaughter by nasty old Marxists like Lyotard and Derrida.

  15. T. Pretorius T. Pretorius 14 May 2014

    The conclusion to your article you speak of the “thinking together” of schools of thought which seem to be binary opposites. i think that this is a valuable view to hold in all facets of life, not only in architecture.
    Rather than pejoratively evaluation and selection in the mode of “either/or” , fostering an approach of “both/and” leaves one open to learn from every experience and discourse rather than limiting ourselves by our own hierarchical constructs. Life is not simply black or white… it is many tones of grey too. it is not only being ( the ONE or infinite) and it is not only becoming(the MANY or finite) but an intertwining of both. We appreciate and experience the new in light of the old… the transient/ temporal in light of the permanent and so on; each apparent opposite highlighting and enhancing the other. So it is with architecture, the empirical rationalism of modernism: distilling the ONE, pure universal…the ethical, for the betterment of man; is appreciated more fully when viewed alongside post modernism: a proliferation of the MANY, borrowed form many times and cultures, the aesthetic…and vise verse.

  16. Z.Visser 208014997 Z.Visser 208014997 16 May 2014

    As a concept modernism promotes logic, reason and science as truth. Modernism could thus be understood as the symbol of reason and a unified truth. On the contrary, postmodernism reacts against modernist principals by promoting individualism and personal freedom to define the truth as one sees it. Postmodernism therefore represents itself as the symbol of individualism and intuition.
    As beings we have both an intellectual (reason) and emotional (intuitive) make-up, thus it cannot be argued that our make-up is both modern and postmodern. As suggested by Soren Kiergaard, one is different in every situation depending on one’s mindset. Depending on the individual and the situation one is in, one’s mindset is either governed by modern (reason) or postmodern (intuition) principles, depending on which one permits dominance. It could be perceived that because our make-up consists of both modern and postmodern facets, all beings have a generic poststructuralist make-up. However a poststructuralist mindset can only be achieved once there is a balance and equal acceptance of both modern (reason) and postmodern (intuitive) concepts.

  17. Seth Pote Seth Pote 16 May 2014

    Rational or intuitive? Art or science? Negation or affirmation? Right or wrong? Single truth, many truths or absolutely no truth? These are the questions asked by modernism and postmodernism. The answers lie within poststructuralism, in the same way that the one AND the many prevails over the one OR the many, the answers to the afore mentioned questions are: YES, BOTH and ALL. It is true that choosing the one guarantees the death of the other and therefore it is imperative to adopt a poststructuralist way of thinking. We need both, because without any darkness, there can be no light.

  18. Soumya Varghese 210044454 Soumya Varghese 210044454 16 May 2014

    Much of the early 20th century was governed by tides of new age thinking and utopian motifs of modernism (the BEING; the permanent within the flux of existence). Well aware of the limitations and inhibitions of such a movement (particularly in architecture) it was lead to a rather dramatic demise in 1956. Proceeded by a Post Modernism ideal to eradicate the singular truth with the binary or BECOMING mind-set (the flux within existence) the essence of this movement was captured in a playfulness of historic motifs added onto buildings without much rationality or purpose. It can be deduced that it very superficially represented the constant flux of existence.
    While this narrates the two unique modes of thinking, I am interested in the articles conclusion that abiding by BEING or BECOMING could be a rather difficult life to lead, one should rather attempt to re-configure these notions and give them a personal definition (as people and as architects). And in doing so, we are living by the rules of a post structuralist way of thinking.
    How does this impact architecture today, and how should it impact our South African landscape.
    Perhaps a post structuralist manner should lead us in deciphering the new identity of our architecture –our cities. As a country we are in a state of flux –between the apartheid city (which represented rationality, and the physicality of one truth) and post-apartheid city (a city is a myriad of things, possibly in flux, there is no singular truth

  19. Soumya Varghese 210044454 Soumya Varghese 210044454 16 May 2014

    instead a conglomerate of differing outlooks, opinions, memories and values that are invested by its citizens). Shall our cities and out architecture not be in the state of BEING or in the process of BECOMING –but rather in the flux between the two to create the richly diverse life that we all wish to live.

  20. Sanan N, 205000983 Sanan N, 205000983 19 May 2014

    This response draws is written in the stance that human nature is reflected within various architectures. With regards to Post Modernism, the very decision to replicate/mimic/copy is fundamentally a reflection of human greed. The desire to have something that already exists that does not belong to one’s self. If this is related in anyway to the sense of becoming, one needs to address the connotations attached to the word greed and what it means in todays day and age. Thanks to historical events and figures greed has a negative connotation in modern western cultures, but yet we over look the greed that exists in our daily existence. As a population we base our worth on our financial well being. Our financial well being can be seen as a digit from money saved and assets acquire, which are all forms of greed. The very sense of being that we base our utopian goals upon are those of greed, we seemed to have lost our sense of being in the pursuit of becoming. It seems rare to be able to switch between the two modes without compromising your own credibility. I would say that we are more than capable of doing both, if one is going on a walk, the metaphorical journey (to accomplish) symbolises the sense of becoming, enjoying the sights and smells along the way symbolises the sense of being. Can human nature not translate this micro coexistence into a macro expression or are the very temptations and challenges too great as the relationship is scaled up? Let them coexist.

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