Quiet Mountain Essays
Copyright ©, 2005
The Postmodern Challenge
In contemporary sociological theory the term postmodernism has lacked a clear definition because of
controversies surrounding it. While some define it as a new era to come, others argue that we are
already living in it. Yet, still others argue that there is nothing new but an extension of modernism, so
it is therefore high modernity. Ritzer (1996:470) claims that postmodernism is “the hottest game in
town”, and that it has been abused by both its supporters and detractors in the course of the debate
between them. Scott (1997:277) views the postmodernism worldview as a product of a search for
alternatives. Seguin (1994), however, introduces the subject of postmodernism as generally
confronted by two responses. The first denies the very existence of the concept and, initially, refuses
to engage in debate. The second response views postmodernism as a weapon devised by capitalism to
solve the dilemmas undermining it since the oil crisis.
This paper adopts a definition by Taylor & Winquist (1998) who state that postmodernism is: a
strategy of refinement of a certain intellectual movement, a post-Marxist libertarian movement; an
artistic style which emerged in the 1960s; a new ideology of global capitalism; the most recent
movement of criticisms; a protofascist ideology; and a mutation of the western societies. Taylor &
Winquist (1998) further note that in literary criticism the term postmodernism was used by Irving
Howe and Harry Levin to lament on the leveling off of the modernist movement in the 1960s. They
were looking back nostalgically at what seemed like a rich past. It was only in the 1970s that the
term gained momentum encompassing first architecture, then dance, theatre, painting, film and
Advantages of Postmodernism
1. It is a liberating movement - by championing the cause of the oppressed, postmodernism offers
a breath of fresh air. The oppressed are not those of the modern era, such as the working class, but a
medley of interest groups, communities and identities that include at a minimum, women, racial
groups, gays and lesbians, ethnic minorities and various expressions of non-western sentiments
(Kellner 1992). These groups are offered an opportunity to create reality from their own perspective,
questioning the grand narratives, the norm pertaining to issues of class domination, religion, gender
2. By championing the cause of the poor, postmodernism offers an end of the western dominated
history. The end of history is seen as a liberating experience, for it frees those trapped for years within
the walls of a Eurocentric discourse. Now, history has to be redefined from below, or from any
perspective and angle, because there is no longer one history but multiple histories. There is a refusal
to continue with a universe crafted by the minds of the “dead white males” (Lee 1994). The bottom
up approach in rural development aims to define reality and write the text from another angle. This
implies role reversals wherein the third world produces knowledge from its own perspective, and also
the researcher is no longer the only 'knower' because the informants know more about themselves
than the researcher. However, the extent to which local knowledge replaces western universalistic
concepts still depends on the strength of local political alliances with the west. In other words, while
there are efforts to indigenize knowledge, these processes are not independent of the global influences
of the western powers. If one is to take the example of structural adjustment programmes (SAPs)
introduced by African countries, many have been acclaimed to be home grown, but we know that
the one who gives you money also gives you ideas on how to spend it. That is why those who have
not used their monies properly, or have not followed prescribed procedure for creating certain
conditions (for example: good governance, democracy etc.), have faced the wrath of Bretton Woods
institutions and, ultimately, have had their supplies cut until they are in compliance with the set
3. Cultural reinvention - this suggests that traditional life worlds are constantly activated through
globalization to produce and reproduce images of otherness. This activation of the traditional life
worlds may result in managed pluralism or unrestricted outbursts of nationalist sentiments. In the
first place, managed pluralism refers to an endorsement of multiculturalism that allows for the
continuous reproduction of ethnic identities without severely compromising the goals of
modernization. Cultural reinvention ultimately dramatizes the differences of the western and non-
western. An example could be the choreography of our Zimbabwean local dances that are far from
the “original” but are meant to magnify the differences between Zimbabweans and “others”. For
instance, Thomas Mapfumo’s mbira music differs from American music but, at the same time, his
music is a shift from the ‘original’ mbira music as Zimbabweans know it. Thus the resultant music is
neither American nor Zimbabwean but a fusion, hybrid, pastiche of the past and present.
4. Mass tourism and traditionalism - Mass tourism that is a result of globalized leisure capitalism
is a vital stimulant of traditionalism. It not only provides an economic incentive for multiculturalism
but also a social or political reason for rejecting a mono-cultural model of modernization. The
community based resource management programmes are such examples, as they are connected to
consumer markets and mass tourism, as well as traditionalism, but do not question regimes in power.
Critique of Postmodernism
1. Multiculturalism is problematic - De Sausa Santos (1996) argues that the domination of
modern science as knowledge, and as regulation, brought about a destruction of many forms of
knowledge, particularly those that were peculiar to people subjected to western colonialism. Such
destruction provoked silences, and rendered unpronounceable the needs and aspirations of the people
or social groups whose forms of knowledge were subjected to destruction. The question therefore is:
how then is it possible to engage in a multicultural dialogue where some cultures were reduced to
silence, and their forms of seeing and believing the world have become unpronounceable? In other
words, how is it possible to make silence speak without having it necessarily speak the language of a
multicultural dialogue? The argument therefore is that multiculturalism is a ploy, a ruse meant to
trick “the other’ into believing that they are on the same footing with the western (De Sausa Santos
2. Postmodernism is another Eurocentric metanarrative. By discarding the old metanarratives
postmodernists are creating yet another one. Postmodernism emerged from the west, against
modernity. Its major concern of destroying grand narratives such as religion, tradition and history, is
rather detrimental to the very existence of the non-west, because it is those very narratives that make
the non-west different from the west. In other words, by creating a secular world, postmodernists are
bringing in a new metanarrative that has no echo in the non-west. The very insistence that
everything is meaningless is a western notion that has no support among African civilizations (Sardar
1996, Smart 1993). As if that was not enough, the postmodernist obsession with irony, ridicule and
cynicism becomes a sword that finally writes off the non-west by further marginalising them.
3. Postmodernism does not address issues of power because it does not question structures of
power, but rather creates false ideas that the west now respects the non-western through globalization
etc. The process, therefore, of inclusion in the multicultural dialogue is a process of exclusion, since it
is impossible for Zimbabweans, for example, to instruct non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on
what to do without risking the flight of these western agents. Thus, the rules are still the same but
expressed differently. Is participation useful in rural development when the evaluators have their own
evaluation plans even before the project is implemented? What is postmodern about poverty?
Postmodernism has been useful in as far as pointing out that women are not a homogeneous group
but rather belong to diverse socio-economic groups based on race, ethnic and class identities.
Therefore, to the extent that postmodernism offers a critique of modernization, and shows the
contribution of other non-west societies, postmodernism offers a pervasive questioning of modern
institutions, practices, and forms of rationality. However, it is rendered a loud sounding nothing by
its inability to question political power structures. It only states that we are different, which is nothing
new since everyone knew that before. In terms of rural development, there is no 'multi-vocalization',
so the equal participation of the hitherto suppressed is a myth.
De Sausa Santos, B. 1996 “On Oppositional Postmodernism” in R. Munck & D. O’hearn (eds)
Critical Development Theory; London: Routledge.
Kellner, D. 1992 “Popular Culture and the Construction of Postmodern Identities” in S. Lash and J.
Friedman (eds) Modernity and Identity; Oxford: Blackwell.
Lee, R. L M. 1994 “Modernisation, Postmodernism and the Third World” in R. Brym (ed) Current
Sociology; Vol 42#2.
Ritzer, G. 1996 Modern Sociological Theory; New York: Macmillan.
Sardar, Z. 1996 “Development and the Locations of Eurocentrism”in R. Munck and D. O’Hearn
(eds) Critical Development Theory; London: Routledge.
Scott, A. (ed) 1997 The Limits of Globalisation: Cases and Arguments; London: Routledge.
Sequin, E. 1994 “A Modest Reason ” in Theory Culture and Society; Vol 2 #3.
Smart, B. 1993 Postmodernity; London: Routledge.
Taylor, V. E. & Winquist, C. E. (eds) 1998 Postmodernism: Critical Concepts; London: Routledge.
Ms. Hungwe is a lecturer in the Department of Human Resource Management at the Midlands State University in
Gweru, Zimbabwe. She is a sociologist by training and has a Masters degree in Sociology and Social
Anthropology; and is currently working towards a PhD in aging. A frequent contributor to QME, Ms. Hungwe
has written on aging and gender, as well as food security and gender, for this journal.
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Some Tenets of Postmodernism
Deconstruction - the most visible feature of deconstruction is its focus upon languages, literary
discourse and meaning of texts. Derrida (1976:158 in Smart 1993) argues, “There is nothing outside
of the text”. Postmodernism questions received wisdom, and consciously seeks and creates
juxtapositions, appropriating from one source to be used in another anything that helps to show and
contest the constructed character of social reality. The ultimate aim is to question objective truth,
since it is viewed as an artificially imposed restriction on the total supremacy of the inventive mind,
while reality is considered a fleeting by-production of fiction. There is what Lyotad refers to as
“incredulity towards narratives”.
Avantgardism - generally refers to the unorthodox. It refers to a shift from production to consumption
(authorship to reception- seriousness to play).