Preface. The Postmodern Turn: Paradigm Shifts in Theory, Culture, and Science

By Steve Best and Douglas Kellner

Table of Contents

1. The Time of the Posts

2. Paths to the Postmodern: From Kierkegaard through Marx and Nietzsche

3. From the Society of the Spectacle to the World of Simulation: Debord, Baudrillard, and Postmodernity

4. The Postmodern Turn in the Arts

5. Chaos, Entropy, and Organism in Postmodern Science

6. The Postmodern Paradigm from Theory to Politics

Preface and Acknowledgements

The past several decades have witnessed a postmodern turn in theory, the arts, and sciences which is part of a major paradigm shift and, some would argue, an epochal shift from a modern to a postmodern world. The dramatic changes and turmoil in every dimension of life have led many to claim that we have left behind the modern era and are entering a new postmodern epoch. [1] These arguments provoked an explosion of postmodern discourses over the past two decades (surveyed in Best and Kellner 1991), producing theory wars between advocates of modern and postmodern theory. Key postmodern theorists argue that contemporary societies with their new technologies, novel forms of culture and experience, and striking economic, social, and political transformations constitute a decisive rupture with previous forms of life, bringing to an end the modern era. In the sphere of culture, there has been a repudiation of modernism and postmodernism in the arts has permeated every aesthetic domain from architecture to film to new multimedia artifacts during the past several decades. In addition, various forms of postmodern theory have circulated through every domain of academic discourse and have challenged and transformed intellectual practice in a plethora of fields, including science.

We are calling this dramatic transformation in social life, the arts, science, philosophy, and theory "the postmodern turn," and argue in this book that we have now entered a new and largely uncharted territory between the modern and the postmodern. The postmodern turn involves a shift from modern to postmodern theory in a great variety of fields and the move toward a new paradigm through which the world is viewed and interpreted. The postmodern turn includes as well the emergence of postmodern politics, new forms of postmodern identities, and novel configurations of culture and technology. Most dramatically, it advances the claim that we have left modernity behind, that we have entered a new (post)historical space with new challenges, dangers, and possibilities.

The postmodern turn is exciting and exhilarating in that it involves an encounter with experiences, ideas, and forms of life that contest accepted modes of thought and behavior, and provide new ways of seeing, writing, and living. The postmodern turn leaves behind the safe and secure moorings of the habitual and established, and requires embarking on a voyage into novel realms of thought and experience. It involves engaging emergent forms of culture and everyday life, as well as confronting the advent of a expanding global economy and new forms of culture, politics, and identities. Indeed, the postmodern turn itself is global, encompassing by now almost the entire world, percolating from academic and avant garde cultural circles to media culture and everyday life, so as to become a defining, albeit highly contested, aspect of the present era.

Although many at first dismissed the postmodern turn as a fad and have been predicting its demise for years, its discourses continue to proliferate and attract interest, winning fervent advocates and passionate opponents. The term "postmodern" is thus increasingly taken as a synonym for the contemporary social moment and as a marker to describe its novelties and breaks from modern culture and society. Yet there is no agreement on what constitutes the postmodern, whether we are indeed in a new postmodernity, and what theories best illuminate the dynamics and experiences of the contemporary moment. Accordingly, in the following and forthcoming studies we will engage in mapping some of the many twisting and winding pathways into the postmodern, exploring some of the theoretical discourses that have investigated the postmodern turn in theory, the arts, and the sciences.

We will therefore map and analyze some key moments in the postmodern turn in an attempt to illuminate our current situation. Our goal is to interrogate key shifts in theory, culture, and society to provide insights into the passage from the modern to the postmodern. We combine social theory with cultural criticism to contribute to writing the "history of the present" (Foucault) and to developing "a theory of contemporary society" (Horkheimer). We believe that mapping the transition from the modern to the postmodern requires sociological and historical perspectives which relates the current moment both to the past that conditioned it and the future it anticipates. Critical theory, as we interpret it, rejects the mechanistic notion of time that fragments the temporal continuum of history into a random and meaningless series of "events" (such a nihilistic view is evident in Foucault, for example); it sees past, present, and future as an unfolding evolutionary dynamic that has moments of discontinuity, but nevertheless is coherent and meaningful. Rejecting the positivist dichotomy between fact and value, theory and politics, critical theory interrogates the "is" in terms of the "ought," seeking to grasp the emancipatory possibilities of the current society as something that can and should be realized in the future. It thereby gains a leverage for normative criticism and "utopian" projection by analyzing the social forces that constrain and inhibit the realization of human potentialities for greater freedom, social justice and solidarity, as well as a harmonious relation with the natural world, while envisaging the new social forms and sensibilities required to enable and realize these possibilities. Critical theory affirms with Hegel that "the rational is real" only when the possibilities for human freedom have been actualized, in the context of a rational society governed by democratic and ecological norms. Of course, against Hegel, such a society is to be actualized through the struggles of human beings, not a hypostatized Spirit, and nothing guarantees that a humane and ecological society will ever be realized. Yet the possibilities for new relations of human beings with one another and the natural world exist and they justify militant struggle and sacrifice.

Our entry into the conceptual field of the postmodern in Chapter 1 provides a provisional mapping of the contours of the postmodern turn and explains some of the key concepts, issues, and problems that we will engage. In Chapter 2, we explore some important sources of postmodern theory in 19th century thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche, and show how these theorists anticipate contemporary forms of the postmodern turn, demonstrating our claim that postmodern discourses do not emerge in vacuo, but rather have a complex history of anticipations in modern theories and developments. In Chapter 3, we explore one key path to the postmodern through Guy Debord and the Situationist International, to Jean Baudrillard and French postmodern theory. Debord and the Situationists updated the Marxian critique of capitalism within the context of consumer and media society, providing a transitional link from the modern to the postmodern and influencing the work of Baudrillard, who developed one of the first and most compelling analyses of a new postmodern era.

After these analyses of some trajectories of postmodern theory, Chapter 4 maps the origins of postmodern culture in literature, the visual arts, and architecture, and charts the shift from modernism to postmodernism in the arts. Our analyses suggest that in a postmodern society of the image and spectacle, culture is playing an increasingly important role and thus it is imperative to develop critical theories of culture and a cultural studies that will interrogate the meanings, effects, and consequences of this shift in culture and technology.

Chapter 5 analyzes developments in postmodern science which constitute a major break with modern science. In particular, we claim that the transition from modern to postmodern science is a key route into the postmodern turn and examine how the concepts of entropy and chaos figure importantly in contemporary scientific discourse, along with new understandings of organism, ecology, and the cosmos as a whole that put in question the misguided modern project to dominate nature. These shifts are parallel to developments in postmodern social theory, philosophy, and the arts which leads us in Chapter 6 to chart the contours of a new postmodern paradigm shift. In this concluding chapter, we argue that we are entering a new conceptual and social field which the discourse of the postmodern is attempting to articulate.

By now, there are many genealogies, many narratives, and many ways of presenting the turn to the postmodern, each with its own designated precursors, privileged disciplinary focus, path of development, and point of view. No genealogy of the postmodern is neutral and unmotivated, and responses range from positive and celebratory discourses of those affirming the postmodern like Hassan to the critical ones of Habermas and others deploring it. The postmodern turn, as we shall see, moves through many different fields and crosses a varied terrain of theory, the arts, the humanities, science, politics, and diverse areas of social reality. We will trace the pathways through some of these thickets, mapping some territories traversed by the postmodern turn, and illuminating some of the ways that the postmodern has captured the contemporary imagination.

While we show how the postmodern turn in the arts and sciences parallels in certain respects the transition from modern to postmodern society and from modern to postmodern theory, we will also show differences among postmodern discourse in the fields of theory, the arts, and science, as well as variations within these domains themselves. There is thus a specificity to each path to the postmodern, different accounts that can be given of the postmodern turn in each field, and intense contests over how to portray the postmodern turn in particular domains, as well as more generally. Yet despite these differences and contestation, we wish to show that there is a shared discourse of the postmodern, common perspectives, and defining features that coalesce into an emergent postmodern paradigm (see Chapter 6).

How we trace the genealogy of the postmodern helps determine how we see contemporary society and whether we have a positive or negative, simplistic or complex, vision of the vicissitudes of contemporary history, the problems of the present age, and prospects for the future. Thus, it is important to have many genealogies and numerous perspectives in order to acquire a dynamic and complex account of the postmodern that grasps both continuities and discontinuities, as well as progressive and regressive lines of development.

Our goal throughout is to delineate the postmodern turn in a variety of fields and to show how the disparate trajectories of the postmodern, despite their differences, are coalescing into a new paradigm that we see as emergent, not yet dominant, and therefore is hotly contested. As Kuhn defined it (1970), a "paradigm" is a "constellation" of values, beliefs, and methodological assumptions, whether tacit or explicit, inscribed in a larger worldview. Kuhn observed that throughout the history of science there were paradigm shifts, conceptual revolutions that threw the dominant approach into crisis, and eventually dissolution, a discontinuous change provoked by altogether new assumptions, theories, and research programs. In science, Kuhn argued, a given paradigm survives until another one supersedes it, seemingly having a greater explanatory power. At any one time, in other words, certain assumptions and methods prevail in any given discipline until they are challenged and overthrown by a new approach that emerges through posing a decisive challenge to the status quo and, if successful, becomes dominant, the next paradigm, itself ready to be deposed by another powerful challenger as the constellation of ideas continues to change and shift.

Kuhn limited his focus to scientific paradigms, but obviously there can be a paradigm for any theoretical or artistic field as well as for culture in general, such as Foucault attempted to identify for different stages in the development of modern culture through his concept of episteme (1972). As we conceptualize it, the "postmodern paradigm" signifies both specific shifts within virtually every contemporary theoretical discipline and artistic field, as well as the coalescing of these changes into a larger worldview that influences culture and society in general as well as the values and practices of everyday life. We wish to contextualize paradigm shifts not only in the history of ideas, as Kuhn and others have done, but also as effects of developing social and institutional factors, as driven by changes in industry, technology, economics, politics, and often science itself. Thus, we will analyze paradigm shifts both as internal and hermetic responses within a given domain, as changes in the tacit, underlying, (archaeological) "rules of knowledge" that the early Foucault tried to identify as informing conceptual ruptures within the human sciences, and as part of broader shifts in society and history that influence shifts in culture and thought. Philosophy, art, literature, and science have their own histories, problems, debates, and conceptual dynamics, but they are also deeply conditioned, whether acknowledged or not, by larger social and political conditions.

We will thus examine changes both "inside" and "outside" given disciplines, avoiding both sociological reductionism and determinism and conceptual idealism that fails to see intellectual shifts as part of broader social patterns and movements. Thus, in our view, postmodern paradigm shifts arise in different fields as critical responses to ideas and methods perceived to be staid, dogmatic, erroneous, or oppressive, as well as in response to developments in society, technology, economics, and politics. In the next chapter we will begin delineating features of the once dominant modern paradigm and some conceptual distinctions to elucidate the dominant types of postmodern paradigms. In succeeding chapters, we will depict emergent postmodern paradigms in the fields of theory, art, the sciences, and politics. We sort out the claims for and against postmodern theory, and advance our own position that we are currently in an era between the modern and the postmodern, and that therefore both modern and postmodern perspectives are relevant, requiring new syntheses and a transdisciplinary approach to capture the complexity and turbulence of current events and developments.

We endeavor to follow up our previous book Postmodern Theory (Best and Kellner 1991) which interrogated the discourses of the postmodern in its now classical theorists from Foucault through Jameson with some studies that supplement and go beyond that earlier work. After its positive reception, we began by collecting some essays already published separately and jointly by us on postmodern culture and theory. We then reworked all of these texts, while adding new ideas and undertaking further collaborative studies, so that the text now appears, as in our first book, as a joint authorship and the studies form an articulated whole, delineating our shared perspectives on contemporary culture, society, and politics. We work in a transdisciplinary space and develop critical reflections on a wide range of topics in social theory, philosophy, media culture, painting, architecture, literature, science, technology, and politics. The text reflects our position that social reality can be analyzed most adequately through multiple methodological and theoretical perspectives. Building on recent work in Kellner's Media Culture (1995) and Best's The Politics of Historical Vision (1995), we seek to present new insights into both postmodern theory and contemporary society and culture, which we argue is a borderland between the modern and something new for which the term "postmodern" has been coined. Providing conceptual content and articulation to this vastly overused and abused concept is one of the goals of the following studies. [2]


1. The books on postmodernity and the concept of the postmodern now fill a small library and are still growing. They include: Baudrillard 1983a; 1983b; and 1993 [1976]; Lyotard 1984 [1979]; Kroker and Cook 1986; Harvey 1989; Turner 1990; Lash 1990; Best and Kellner 1991; Jameson 1991; Bauman 1992; Smart 1992 and 1993; Lyon 1994; and Bertens 1995.

2. Toward the completion of writing this book, we rediscovered Ihab Hassan's book The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture (1987). Although our books share the same title, and Hassan's subtitle implies the engagement of a postmodern paradigm shift, to which he contributes a certain amount of anecdotal evidence, our orientations are completely different. Hassan's approach is symptomatic precisely of what we reject -- an ironic, detached, playful, and willfully cryptic and allusive approach to postmodern discourse. A paradigmatic example of a certain postmodern style, Hassan's book is a pastiche of enigmatic essays, none of which clarify or define the main tendencies of "postmodern theory and culture." Indeed, Hassan is a master of "definition" by lists (both names and concepts), quotes, examples, and arcane terminology. As he proudly admits (40), "I have not defined Modernism: I can define Postmodernism less." He invokes Thomas Kuhn's name and the notion of paradigm shifts at various places, but doesn't engage the concept of paradigm except to reject it for vague reasons (120), while still declaring that we live in a "postmodern moment of unmakings" (121) that transcends the postmodern turn in any one discipline. Our approach, by contrast, is to recognize the complexity, plurality, and unfinished nature of postmodern discourse, while nevertheless attempting to clarify and map numerous genealogies, approaches, and styles of the postmodern, examining its various uses and abuses, regressive and progressive aspects. While postmodern discourse is open, evolving, and unstable, it is not totally indeterminate or closed to definitions and analysis. And while Hassan seeks to flee from "rightist or leftist cant" for "a tough and limber pragmatism" and a "posthumanism" (xvii), two utterly opposed concepts in the tradition of James and Dewey, we cannot flinch from the fact that transformations of capitalism are responsible for key aspects of the postmodern turn and are the source of global social and environmental crisis today. Moreover, we seek to revive the egalitarian, democratic, and humanist norms that constituted the best of modern and progressive traditions which Hassan and other postmodernists are willing to leave behind.