ENVIRONMENTAL PERSPECTIVES: LOST OR FOUND IN POSTMODERNITY
Arran Gare, Senior Lecturer,
Philosophy, School of Social & Behavioural Sciences (E-Mail)
A schematic analysis of the relationship between modernism, modernity, postmodernity,
postmodernism and environmental perspectives would suggest that postmodernity
has revived people's sensitivity to the importance of the environment, a sensitivity
which had been lost in modernity.
Quintessentially, modernity is the culture from which the notion of progress
developed, and modernism is belief in progress. Progress is equated with the
growth of knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, increasing rationality,
the liberation of people from prejudice and arbitrary rule, the creation and
development of more rational economic, social and economic organizations, organizations
which acknowledge the capacity for rational self-determination by each individual,
and most importantly, it is equated with the development of powerful and efficient
technology to control nature. It is in relation to the notion of progress that
the significance and standing of each civilization, culture, nation, class,
organization, discourse and individual has been measured. The task set for those
left behind by progress is to modernize. The defining feature of postmodernity
is the growing skepticism towards this notion of progress.
For people who have lost their faith in progress, there is no longer an unfinished
story of humanity within which they and the communities and organizations of
which they are part can define their place. Correspondingly, previously privileged
groups of people, whether civilizations, nations or classes, lose the basis
for justifying their superiority. Privileged discourses also lose their status.
'Literature', writings held to have a significant place in history for having
advanced new forms of expression, is dissolved into the entertainment industry.
Scientists are no longer seen as super-rational beings advancing humanity's
understanding of the world, but employees paid to develop new technology. Advances
in technological are recognized, but are no longer taken to be part of the progress
of humanity. Sometimes they are appreciated as providing new opportunities;
more often they are seen as further threats to job security and social stability.
Without a narrative uniting the future and the past, the present itself fragments
so that it appears there are no broader unities of people. There are only different
groups, different organizations, different individuals, different situations
and different experiences.
This experience of disintegration has given rise to new cultural movements,
including postmodernism. Postmodernists, drawing on a long history of anti-modernism,
have embraced the disintegration of modernity.
They have celebrated the dissolution of social and cultural hierarchies and
all that has been supported by them. They have debunked the supposed experts,
whether these be humanist intellectuals or scientists. They have ridiculed the
hierarchies of status, particularly the elevated status of males of European
descent, supported by privileged discourses. The voices of Others - women, indigenous
populations, non-Western societies, heretical intellectual movements, lesbians
and homosexuals, at last are to be liberated and respected. Emotions and sentiments,
previously suppressed for being unscientific or irrational, are applauded. Not
only are the hierarchies of discourse and power brought into question; so also
is hierarchical thinking. The patterns of mutually supporting, hierarchically
related binary oppositions: progressive versus regressive, modern versus primitive,
rational versus irrational or emotional, sane versus insane, straight versus
curved or crooked, male versus female, good versus bad, are exposed as constructs
without any solid anchoring in the world, destabilized and even overturned.
Deleuze and Guattari, the most profound of the philosophers embraced by postmodernists,
argued that the 'arborescent' system, the kind of system conforming to the model
of a tree in which branches all stem from a central trunk, where all truths
are ultimately derived from a single principle, is being replaced. There is
now emerging a 'rhizome' system of thought and organization, comparable to the
root systems of bulbs and tubers, in which any point can be connected to any
Western thought and Western reality have been dominated by the tree. Biology,
theology, ontology, philosophy and history are all organized as trees. History
is always written from the sedentary point of view in the name of a unitary
state apparatus which is itself organized as a tree with a central structure
controlling a multiplicity of sub-structures. By contrast the rhizome is neither
One nor a multiple, but is composed of dimensions, or directions in motion.
While centred systems have hierarchic modes of communication and pre-established
paths, the rhizome is an acentred, non-hierarchical, non-signifying system without
a general and without an organizing memory or central autonomon, defined solely
by a circulation of states.
What effect have such developments had on environmental perspectives? Abandoning
the grand narrative of progress, according to which the ultimate end of humanity
is the domination of nature by technology facilitated by the advance of science,
allows people to re-consider the status of the natural world. And with the mainstream
of science brought into question, along with the notion of 'high culture', discourses
exalting nature can be revived. Philosophers such as Bruno, Spinoza, Herder,
Nietzsche, Heidegger, Whitehead and Bakhtin, the philosophers who severely questioned
the basic ideas on which modernity had been built, together with Asian religions
and ways of thinking of American Indians, Australian Aboriginals and New Zealand
Maoris, have been extolled to highlight the respect for nature suppressed by
modernity. And attachments to and even identification with nature is no longer
dismissed as irrational or emotional. Guattari, defending the virtues of rhizome
thinking, argued that this revolution in mentalities is required to:
give back to humanity -- if it ever had it -- a sense of responsibility, not
only for animal and vegetable species, likewise for incorporeal species such
as music, the arts, cinema, the relation with time, love and compassion for
others, the feeling of fusion at the heart of the cosmos.
This schematic history suggests a close relationship between postmodernity and
environmental concern. However, there is a difference between philosophers and
the mass of people who are becoming disaffected by modernity. And postmodernism
is only one of the responses to postmodernity. How significant is postmodern
respect for the environment in the broader scheme of things? And even if postmodernity
has been associated with greater concern for the environment, is it the cause
of this concern? Or has environmental destruction caused the disenchantment
with modernity? These questions call for a deeper study of recent cultural transformations
and their causes. To begin with, the notions of modernity and modernism need
to be looked at more closely.
Or, as Jean-François Lyotard put it, 'an incredulity towards metanarratives',
(The Postmodern Condition:
A Report on Knowledge,
 trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Minneapolis, University
of Minnesota Press, 1984, p.xxvi); that is, incredulity towards any metadiscourse
which appeals to some grand narrative.
For an analysis of postmodernist thought, see Steven Best and Douglas Kellner,
(New York: Guilford Press, 1991).
Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and
Schizophrenia,  tr. Brian Massumi, (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1988), p.21.
Felix Guattari, Chaosmosis:
An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm,
trans. Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
Two significant works on this theme, one building on Marx and one expounding
the ideas of Simmel, Krakauer and Benjamin are Marshall Berman, All
That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity,
(London: Verso, 1983) and David Frisby, Fragments
of Modernity, (Cambridge:
Polity Press, 1985). See also Scott Lash & Jonathan Friedman (eds.),
Modernity and Identity,
(Oxford: Blackwell, 1992).
More by Arran Gare