Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

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.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

  • The question of heterotopia and/as dystopia
  • Foucault and the courage of truth
  • The humanities and the advent of the ‘posthuman’
  • What is a ‘rhizome’ in Deleuze and Guattari’s thinking?