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The Portuguese version of this paper can be found in

Santaella, Lucia (2004). Cultura das mídias, 4a. ed. São Paulo: Experimento.



Lucia Santaella

São Paulo Catholic University




It is far from easy to provide a definition for the concepts of Modernity and Postmodernity which does not turn into a mere meditation on the difficulties inherent in this very definition. The topic has imposed itelf with growing insistence upon our thoughts for more than a decade now. The insistence is proportional to the degree to which this topic resists easy simplification. Positions taken up in the course of the debate have been various, and at times passionately controversial. In an effort to resist, on the one hand, an easy way out by just negating the postmodern, and on the other hand, to avoid a naïve eulogy of postmodernism, I will begin my discussion with an essential survey of the territory, before entering into my own views concerning the current debate on modernity and postmodernity.



1. The birth of the polemic



The term `post-modern' is rather older than one might imagine. It seems that it was used for the first time in 1934, by Federico de Onis, in an article published in an anthology of Spanish and Spanish-American poetry. In 1959, I. Howe published an essay on "Mass Society and PostModern Fiction". In the 1960s, a number of literary critics, mostly in the USA, used the term with a certain familiarity, and in the 1970s, it was perfectly at home in both literature and architectural theory. Its use then expanded into the plastic arts, photography, dance, music, cinema, and the expression took a hold on almost all cultural practices and on theories of culture and society. In 1979, Jean-François Lyotard published La condition post-moderne. This book was the crucial link, until then apparently lacking, which was to complete the chain. The relatively scattered discussions on the topic now received their still missing and necessary interdisciplinary confirmation.

At first, the debate was carried out by the two divergent camps of the defendents and opponents of postmodernism. It was only when Habermas appeared on-stage, that the matter took on the historical, philosophical, and political density which it still lacked. In September 1980, on being awarded the Adorno Prize, Habermas gave a speech entitled "Modernity, an Unfinished Project". In this speech, Habermas distinguished the antimodernism of the "young conservatives" from the premodernism of the "old conservatives" and the postmodernism of the "neoconservatives". In so doing, he started a polemic with his French neighbors and succeeded in provoking, on the one hand, the poststructuralists, especially Jacques Derrida, by calling them "young conservatives", and, on the other hand, the neoconservatives, represented by the herald of postmodernity, François Lyotard. This was all which was necessary to raise the temperature of the debate to boiling point. The number of journals and collections dedicated to the matter began to grow rapidly.


In 1981, the journal New German Critique, published by the University of Wisconsin, put out a monograph number in which Habermas returned to the subject with an article entitled "Modernity versus Postmodernity". In 1983, Lyotard published in the collection of essays Innovation/Renovation: Nouvelles Perspectives dans les Humanités, edited by Ihab and Sally Hassan, an ironic article entitled "Answering the Question: what is Postmodernism?", in which he addressed Habermas and other critics. In the same year, the collection of essays Anti-Aesthetics: Essays on Postmodern Culture raised the Bay Press, a hitherto obscure publishing company, from its anonymity. The article by Habermas which started all the argument now appeared in an English translation, and Fredric Jameson, the prestigious Marxist-orientated American critic, entered the fray with an article on Postmodernism and the Consumer Society, which went further beyond the threshhold of the theoretical principles of postmodernism. In 1984, alone Jameson published three important articles on the subject, among them the preface to the English-language edition of Lyotard's La condition postmoderne. In autumn 1984, the New German Critique launched another monograph issue. Habermas revived his polemic with the French, and Andreas Huyssens, one of the editors of this journal, published an important article, Mapping the Postmodern, which was to number him among the leading exponents of the movement. And still in the year 1984, the American pragmatist Richard Rorty, a sympathizer with the deconstructionist cause, made his contribution to the debate with an article entitled "Habermas and Lyotard on Postmodernity". Rorty's article provoked an immediate reply from Habermas, published in the same year. In 1985, it was Rorty's turn to reply to Lyotard, this time, with an article entitled "Cosmopolitanism without Emancipation".


To sum up: by 1985, there was no university department in the arts, literature, and the humanities in the USA which was not boiling with debate about poststructuralism, deconstructionism, and postmodernism. In 1986, Lyotard, ironic as usual, published his book Post-modernism explained for children: Correspondence 1982-1985. From then on, the number of publications in the USA and in Europe grew so much that, following the words of Sérgio Paulo Rouanet (1987: 229), "We must accept philosophically the fact that, in the opinion of a large number of people - not all of them lunatics - we have entered the age of postmodernity".


2. The pulverization of discourse


When Lyotard wrote his book, he could hardly have supposed that it would function as a force of catalyzation for the many scattered intellectual and artistic manifestations of contemporary culture concerned with the burning questions of humanity at the end of his century. One can only conclude from this that the ideas discussed in the book must have corresponded to certain prevailing forms of cultural dissatisfaction, until then vague, but in search of a mode of expression.

The debate in this book turns around narrative as a way of conferring legitimacy upon scientific discourse and procedures. The two narrative - or, rather, metanarrative - principles which had fulfilled the function of legitimacy since the French Revolution were politics and philosophy. After the Second World War, however, these metanarratives underwent a gradual, but growing loss of legitimacy, which resulted in the "decline of the regulatory power of the very paradigms of science" (Connor 1992: 32). Given this scepticism against those centralizing narratives, science, paradoxically, became ruled by dissension and invention. "Postmodern science", thus Lyotard (1979: 60), "in concerning itself with undecidables, with the limits of precise control, with conflicts characterized by incomplete information, with fracta, catastrophes and pragmatic paradoxes, is theorizing that its own evolution is discontinuous, catastrophic, nonrectifiable and paradoxical. It modifies the meaning of the word knowledge and at the same time expresses how such modification can occur. It expresses not knowledge, but the unknown." Instead of the universal and generalizable principles which used to confer legitimacy on traditional science, we now have a pulverization of discourse in the relativity of those flexible networks of language games which are optimized in the production and distribution of the new technologies of communication.

It is not just science, but the entire postmodern social discourse which is a multiform network of language games, in the dissemination of which the subject itself dissolves, "dispersed in clouds of narrative elements". According to Lyotard, it remains an option for postmodern society to "revive an art of the sublime, which proves the impossibility or the impotence of art, or of representation in general, when faced with certain types of extremism or vastness in or beyond nature" (Connor 1992: 172). While modernist art still permits the pleasure of apprehension of the sublime in artistic form, postmodernist art goes further in the direction of the sublime, by destructing its own form. It is not by chance that for Lyotard (1989: 42) "postmodernity is not a new era. It is the rewriting of certain features claimed by modernism".

Lyotard's ideas, although expressed with a certain irritation and taken to an extreme, are clearly echoes from Foucault and Derrida. From Foucault comes the disbelief in the possibility of a metatheory by which all things are linked or represented. It was him who instructed us to "develop action, thought and desire by way of proliferation, juxtaposition, and disjunction", and to prefer multiplicity to unity, difference to identity, and to enter into the fluxes and moveable arrangements to the detriment of systems. It is for this reason that some pro-postmodernists claim paternity from Foucault.


3. The paroxysms of hyperreality


Diagnoses considerably more extreme than those of Lyotard, and moving in a direction opposed to the one of Foucault, came from the main writer of the world of simulacra, Jean Baudrillard. The sequence of his works (especially 1974, 1976, 1977, 1981, 1983) reveals a remarkable capacity for change in ideas. Taking as a point of reference only his most recent writings on the simulacra and hyperrreality, we are told that reality is being increasingly converted into empty signs and that our capacity to resist this process is being dramatically reduced. Contemporary life is being invaded by artificially produced objects and experiences, signs, which no longer have any relationship with reality. Such objects are pure simulacra of themselves, trying to be more real than reality. In this world of hyperreality, all antagonisms collapse, even the most inveterate - active and passive, engagement and alienation, subversion and authority, socialism and capitalism. The opposites dissolve in each other, and all acts end up by benefiting everyone, spreading in every direction. In this system of interchangeable simulacra, the identity between power and the representations of power is so complete that power itself may effectively be considered to have disappeared (Connor 1992: 178).

The postmodern stylistics of the sublime, so prized by Lyotard, is taken to such a level of paroxysm in Baudrillard's hypertrophy of simulation that it dissolves itself. If there is, in Lyotard, a pulverization of metanarratives into micronarratives, there still remains, in the social and political web, a differential and undecidable competition of language games. For Baudrillard, by contrast, everything, power included, spreads so uniformly that it is destined to end up in undifferentiated neutrality. His book "To Forget Foucault" wanted to demonstrate the uselessness of detecting the work of power in Foucault's dispersive networks of micropower. In the age of the simulacrum, which shares the sacred horizon of appearances, power appears only to hide the fact that it no longer exists.

Although less apocalpyptic than the thesis defended by Baudrillard, the one defended by Fredric Jameson on the other side of the Atlantic is similar. For Jameson, what defines the profile of postmodern societies is the expansion of the power of capital and its invasion of the domains of the sign, of culture and of representation. It thus becomes impossible to control in our culture "the inexorable rhythms of appropriation and alienation of consumer capitalism" (Connor 1992: 45). Postmodernism - and this is his main thesis - is quite simply the cultural logic of advanced capitalism (Jameson 1984b). It produces two main effects, the loss of the traditional boundaries between popular, erudite, and mass culture and the substitution of the alienated subject, typical of emerging capitalism, by the dominant schizophrenic character of the postmodern scene. If the idea of alienation is founded on the presupposition of a coherent and integral ego, of a centred identity from which to be alienated, then, the current fragmentation and the instability of language and discourse generates the schizophrenia of the fractioned subject (Jameson 1983). The same symptom finds its place in art. Instead of the monumental works of high modernism, we now have the appropriation of fragments from other texts and images, an art made up of left-overs. In the end, there is nothing which can resist the insensitivity of belated capitalism, neither the political challenges, nor the aura of the sacred cultural texts.


3. Enlightenment and resurrection


In spite of disagreement in details, one cannot deny that the tpositions defended by these various authors complement each other. The one voice to stand out on its own is that of Habermas. There is no doubt that Habermas has had a cooling effect in this debate, bringing down the temperature of the visionaries, particularly among the epigones of postmodernity. Habermas's critique is directed against the spirit of antimodernity which he believes to be contained in the prefix "post-".

Nothing could be more complicated than to arrive at a consensus as to the temporal definition of what is known as modernity. When did it start? When did it end, if it has ended at all? Here is the nub of the question, and there is no easy answer. For Habermas, the project of modernity came into focus during the 18th century with the thinkers of the Enlightenment who made use of reason to reveal the universal qualities of humanity. For those thinkers, only reason could emancipate humanity from the irrational yoke of religions, myths, superstitions, and unlegitimized power. Modern philosophy, from Kant onwards, together with political economy and sociology since Marx and after Weber, have pursued the primordial task of reflecting on modernity and of measuring its promises and failures. In spite of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in spite of the concentration camps and the threats posed by nuclear power, in spite of all the "monsters which the dream of reason has produced", Habermas continues to believe in the project of modernity. "In spite of a strong dose of scepticism as to its aims, considerable uncertainty as to the relationship between means and ends, and some pessimism regarding the possibility of carrying out the project under the economic and political conditions of the contemporary world", modernity is for Habermas still unfinished (Harvey 1993: 24).

Although Lyotard was the one who had made the adjective "postmodern" so popular, his own position is rather similar to the one of Habermas in so far as he does not believe in any serious break which separates the modern from the postmodern. So, where does the disagreement between the two arise? Above all, from the differences in the traditions of modernity with which each of them is associated. For Habermas, modernity bears the birthmark of Enlightenment. For Lyotard, just like for Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and Guatarri, the starting point is Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger, that is, their sources are those who have undermined the dreams of reason. Thus, the great discord between Habermas and Lyotard arises from Habermas's opposition against Lyotard's disbelief in the possibility of consensus among men. While Habermas insists upon the universality of values and the dialogical qualities of human communication, Lyotard is the advocate of a defeatist relativism.


4. The complexities of the dilemma


The questions involved in this dispute make it quite clear that the idea of the postmodern is not restricted to mere stylistic changes in architecture or the arts. The stylistic changes since the 1970s, the frenzy of quotations, which marked the passage from the modern to the postmodern age, had been the alarm signals of cultural transformation. Today, we have become familiar with such stylish innovations (cf. Santaella 1992: 134). This has even given rise to the illusion that postmodernism is dead. Indeed, as a stylistic novelty, it must be dead. However, as a subject to be further investigated, the postmodern debate goes on, as is evident from the growing number of publications on the topic.

There seems to be some consensus as to the complexity of the problem under discussion. The term `postmodern', or even more, `postmodernity', has in fact had the power to gather a great variety of diagnoses around a common denominator. The more or less accepted thesis is that "cultural, political and economic practices have undergone a deep change since the 1970s. Such change announced a revolution in human events, broader and deeper than any which has so far occurred in the historical geography of capitalism". As Harvey (1993) tells us, the marks of postmodern thought can be synthesized as follows: the privilege of heterogeneity and difference as liberating forces; fragmentation, indeterminacy, and intense distrust in relation to all universal or globalizing discourses; the rediscovery of pragmatism in philosophy, the change of mind in the philosophy of science brought about by Kuhn (1975) and Feyerabend (1985); the Foucaultian emphasis on discontinuity and difference in history and the primacy bestowed upon "polymorphic correlations instead of simple or complex causality"; new discoveries in mathematics, with the stress on indeterminacy: catastrophe and chaos theory, fractal geometry the reappearance of concern in ethics, politics, and anthropology with validity and the dignity of the "other".

Many authors agree as to the revolutionary character of what has been brought under the name of postmodernity. The well-known architect Peter Eisenman (1991), when asked whether he believed in the existence of postmodernity, even went so far as to call the advent of posmodernism a cosmological change. In his view, "there can be no doubt that the culture of the media is in a postmodern age, nonutopian, nonholistic, nonteleological. All these aspects, the differences in the role of the subject in relation to the object, the interchangeability of genders and classes, all add up to true postmodernism. It is not a matter of style, but of cosmological and paradigmatic change."

Less radical is Richard Bernstein's assessment of the current cultural panorama. His key to the question at stake is the metaphor of constellation taken from Adorno and Benjamin. In his book, The New Constellation, dealing with the ethical and political horizons of modernity and postmodernity, Bernstein considers the metaphor of constellation to be more fertile than the reductionist catchword of postmodernity. This is why he chose to use the terms modern and postmodern in Heidegger's sense of Stimmung, disposition, state of mind, amorphous, protean, and in motion, but evertheless exercising a powerful influence on the ways in which we think, act, and experience things.

One who also avoids radical positions and is highly critical in relation to the irrationalist propensity of the postmodern is Rouanet (1987). For him, "postmodern awareness does not correspond to a postmodern reality; it is nothing more than the disquiet of modernity, a dream of modernity. It is literally false awareness, since it is an awareness of a rupture which never occurred. Yet at the same time it is a true awareness, since in certain ways it makes allusion to the deformations of modernity" (1987: 269). Rouanet's position is not too far from the one of Habermas, since he speaks in defense of modernity; "Modernity is not extinct. (...) We cannot run away from it. We must complete it and correct it. It was modernity which created the standards and patterns which allow us to compare what exists with what is to be desired. To be modern is to criticize real modernity with the criteria of ideal modernity - that which was heralded by the Enlightenment, with its promise of the self-emancipation of a humanity endowed with reason" (ibid.: 270). Rouanet's mediating position becomes clearer by his replacemente of the expression of postmodern by neomodern. In his definition, neomodern is the "search in the archives of modernity for the authentic meaning of modernity", the challenge to "real modernity in the name of virtual modernity", the demand for an inflexibly modern program as the only way to give solid content to the hopes sedimented in the project of modernity, as opposed to all the postmodern fantasies.


5. The suggestion of a diagram


My own approach to the problem of postmodernism, developed in the context of Brazilian cultural criticism since 1985 (Santaella 1986, 1994), aims at overcoming the simple dichotomy of the modern and the postmodern by means of a trichotomy of modernity, modernism, and postmodernity. This triad may provide a bridge to connect the opposed camps of the debate without injuring their specificity.

Modernity, according to my approach, did not begin with the Enlightenment, as Habermas would have it, nor with Baudelaire, as the literary history would claim. Modernity began at different times in the various domains of cultural production at the moment of the crisis of the feudal society. One of its origins is in the aesthetics of the Renaissance, at a time when the artistic systems of the five fine arts were codified, when perspective was invented in painting, and the tonal system in music was in its early days. In philosophy, the modern age begins with Descartes, in science, its origins are with Galileo and Francis Bacon. With Newton, modernity reaches its first climax in the admirably well-finished mechanical and deterministic model of the Newtonian universe. In literature, modernity begins with Don Quixote de la Mancha, with whom the modern myth of the problematic hero appears, and in poetry it was the invention of the sonnet, this ideal form of versification which heralded modernity.

Kant's essay "What is Enlightenment?" is only the climax of modernity, a climax which occurs at the moment when an age acquires awareness of its own profile. In the world of sociology and politics, such a climax came about with the French Revolution, when the bourgeoisie, already dominant in economics, also took hold of the political scenario. After this climax, there could only be the fall. In an age of civilization, such a fall never comes suddenly, nor at a homogeneous pace; discontinuous and slow, the zig-zag course the decline of modernity resembles the ascent which preceded it. The first sign that reason, the prime mover of modernity, was far from possessing the omnipotence which it pretended to have, came from Hegel. Reason had brought along a virus with the power to change it into its own opposite: contradiction. The philosophy of Hegel is, among other things, a colossal attempt at saving the integrity of reason in spite of the inevitable imminence of contradiction.

The onset of the industrial revolution quickened the pace of the productive processes of capitalism, yet paradoxically, it also brought into evidence the maze of the underlying social relationships. Karl Marx, the tireless detective in this maze, was the first to apply Hegel's principle of contradiction in the real and historical world, the world in which mankind moves, suffers, and strives under unequal conditions. The Kantian belief in the autonomy of reason was shaken by the disenchantment of the world which Weber began to expose in his critique of the rationalization of the social and technical world.

In a more radical vein, Nietzsche was to deride reason on a grand scale, speaking on behalf of the rebirth of ecstasy, energy, and will to power hitherto subjugated by the exclusive empire of reason. In spite of their personal disagreements, Nietzsche was to philosophy what Wagner was to music. It was Wagner who strained the tonal system to the utmost and made an end with the hierarchical structures of tonality. With Wagner, western music had changed profoundly, just as after Nietzsche, it became impossible to forget what the hegemony of reason had made us forget.

To the tradition of painting since the Renaissance, Cezanne, with his daring apple, would do what Wagner did for the dissolution of tonal music. Baudelaire was far from being the herald of modernity. Instead, he made a significant contribution to the general eruption of its crisis. Baudelaire was in fact the first to give poetic form to sensitivity and feeling in a state of crisis, thus exposing the agony of the values of modernity. Les Fleurs du Mal was the swansong of a modern age which had begun with the Renaissance; it prepared the realm of art for the seismic shocks and the aesthetic turbulence which were to follow with the Modernism of literature, music, and the arts.

At this time, Freud was already striking his deadly blows at the remnants of human confidence in the superiority of reason.


6. The deconstruction provoked by the avant-garde


In physics, the cradle of mechanicism, the theory of relativity and, later on, quantum theory were to undermine the foundations of the Newtonian model of the universe. Likewise, in the arts, new forces would deconstruct the codes and systems inherited from the Renaissance. This came about through a series of breakdowns on a hitherto unheard of scale. Mallarmé's Un coup de dés, with his fragmentation of verse, took poetry to the boundaries of the infinite. Ulysses, compressed into a single day, brought the genre of the novel to a point of no return. Malevich put white upon white, echoed by Anton Webern's discovery of silence. All these events were as inovative as they were irreversible. What we usually call modernism and its avant-garde, those aesthetic developments since the turn of the century, is, on the one side, a shattering of the past, and, on the other side, the expression of hope in a future redemption. Duchamp, Satie, and the Dadaists were the destructionists and on the side of pure scorn. Bauhaus and Mondrian were the constructionists, envisioning utopian pathways of the future.

However, from the 1960s on, something different began to emerge, among other things, from mass culture and the electronic revolution, all under the sign of consumer capitalism. Most theorists and commentators agree that this is were the postmodern begins. Its first manifestation in architecture was intended as a pure subversion of high modernism.

In spite of the prefix post-, which denotes the overcoming of what has gone on before, the new developments could easily be confused with a new stage within the tradition of permanent rupture established by modernism. But gradually, postmodern ideas began to crop up in domains beyond the arts, in culture, economics, politics, science, and even mathematics, and at last it pervaded everyday life.

The thesis which I propose here, and which takes as its starting point the argument that modernity goes back to the Renaissance, establishes no opposition, no break between modernism in literature and the arts and postmodernity. Only modernism, with its various avant-gardes since Baudelaire and the impressionists, cosntituted a true turning point in the tradition of the modern. It was this modernism that had precipitated the crisis of reason and the deconstruction of traditional values, whereas the postmodernity of our times, although constituting a new era, does not have the revolutionary momentum of breaking with its past, as modernism did. While the transition from modernity to modernism constituted a historical break, the passage from modernism to postmodernity is a step over a threshold between two related domains. In this historical sequence, modernism was the period of transition between modernity and our present postmodernity. The postmodern transformations which have taken place in science - above all in biology, neuroscience, and genetic engineering - the revolution in methodological procedures and the processes whereby science is legitimized, the speed with which economic and political change takes place, the paradigm shift in computer images and sounds, the growth of the media, and the immensity of the communicative networks which reduce our world to the size of a billiard ball - all these developments, in fact, authorize us to believe that we are indeed facing a new anthropological threshold, whose consequences we are still unable to predict.

To sum up my proposal: modernity began in the age of capitalism, the rise of modern philosophy and science, at the time when painting became portable and music left the churches. The crisis of modernity coincided with the crisis in the rule of reason; it was a slow process. It only accelerated towards the end of the 19th century with Nietzsche and finally met its nemesis in Freud. What is called modernism in the arts was a phase of transition between modernity and postmodernity. Modernism is characterized by the deconstruction of the codes and values of the modern. There is continuity, and no break or rupture between modernism and postmodernism. This is why it is so difficult to distinguish between modernist and postmodern thinkers, writers or artists. The one and only difference which marks the change from modernism to the postmodern is in the growth of scepticism with regard to the ideals and the utopian dreams of modernism which occurred after the 1960s. The loss of beliefs and dreams provoked by this postmodern scepticism resulted in a cultural tendency to overemphasize values opposed to the ones which reason had prescribed in the modern age. This explains the tendency to irrationalism, relativism, discontinuity, antifoundationalism, by which the postmodern has been defining its own profile.

Presently, however, a demand seems to be emerging for an intermediate epistemic space between the extremes of the rationalist universalism of the moderns, on the one hand, and of the relativism or even irrationalism of the postmoderns, on the other. In brief, the most pressing contemporary challenge is the task of reinventing reason. Even if the role of rationality was exaggerated in the past, this is not to say that we must simply abandon it to the insinuations of irrationalism. A more appropriate view of reason requires the understanding of the human mind in its interaction with feeling, action, experience, affection, chance, and brute fact. There is hence a radically dialogical nature in rationality due to its mediating function between the inner and outer worlds, between order and chaos, the vital and the destructive, perception and dream, self-control and the unconscious, action and contemplation. More than ever, we have to rethink reason, since the human mind, by the aid of computer networks and databanks, has extended to galactic dimensions. The present situation requires that we should have a less disdainful and less self-destructive view of rationality. It is in this sense that Habermas's message is more up-to-date, more relevant than the unfortunately more popular apocalyptic messages of postmodern thinkers as Baudrillard. In fact, there has been something in the Enlightenment which must return, and which - once the uproar of the relativists is forgotten - certainly will return. After all, reason cannot be the demon as which it has been represented in the scorn of the irrationalists.