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.[1]

      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.[2] 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 other point.[3] 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.[4]

      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.

[1] Or, as Jean-François Lyotard put it, 'an incredulity towards metanarratives', (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, [1979] 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.

[2] For an analysis of postmodernist thought, see Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory, (New York: Guilford Press, 1991).

[3] Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, [1980] tr. Brian Massumi, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), p.21.

[4] Felix Guattari, Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, trans. Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), p.200.

[5] 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).


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