What is post-modernism; does it really matter?

Wednesday, August 28, 1991

By Phil McManus

Everyone has heard of it, but who knows what it really means? Are the debates about postmodernism relevant only in the world of academia, or do they have an impact on the green, left, feminist and other movements for social change? Perth town planner PHIL McMANUS puts the case for a postmodernist approach, with some reservations.

Modernist thought developed as part of the European Enlightenment in the 18th century. Modernism itself is complex and has changed over time, but basically it assumed there was one truth, and that by rationality and reasoning people could find the truth. Science would uncover the truth and liberate humans from spiritual captivity.

By representing this single truth in the one correct way, people could rationally order their world and themselves. Humans could control their world, the dark side of their nature and the dark side of other humans (whether these others wanted to be controlled or not wasn't important). I believe much of modernism is based on domination.

One assumption of modernism is that the present (like the "dark side") can be improved by human action. In modernist thought, this generally meant the "creative destruction" of that which existed. As Chairman Mao and others have noted, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. The destruction of the present was acceptable because human action meant progress.

In art and literature, most 19th century work is well within the bounds of modernism. The works of the 20th century avant-gardes in art and literature are currently being debated as to whether some of them were forerunners of postmodernism.

Urban planning is an area where modernism and postmodernism are easily observable. Modernism destroys what already exists, either through the "master plan" for various utopias such as garden cities and new towns (on what was seen as a "clean slate") or through the "urban renewal" which purged the existing landscape. The functional high-rise public housing in Carlton and Collingwood is similar to the functional high rise of the University of Technology, Sydney. When form follows function (a rationalist approach), the higgledy-piggledy diversity of terrace houses and crooked lanes are obliterated by a clean, new, planned "development".

In political economy, famous modernists include Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Each developed, to varying degrees, a rational critique of the existing system, a notion of revolutionary change and a vision

of a future for everyone.

Influenced by these writers, political action was often based on one truth and called for global revolution or one General Strike. Political action also meant a vanguard of revolutionaries interpreting "the truth" and representing it in the only "politically sound" manner. I believe this way of experiencing and representing the world led to the rise of Stalin and Hitler, two latter-day modernists.

The events of the 1960s overtook the modernist form of representing those events. In The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), David Harvey uses a materialist Marxist approach to demonstrate the links between postmodernism and changes in capitalist economy. Harvey shows how postmodernism emerged somewhere between 1968 and 1972, when the changes in the world (particularly capitalist economy) necessitated changes in the way the world is represented.

Whereas modernism focussed on "one", thus concealing differences or obliterating them in death camps and gulags, postmodernism celebrates difference. In politics, this has meant the demise of the orthodox class-based vanguard party and the rise of the social movements, community action, single-issue parties and increased diversity of political agendas at all levels. Within movements, such as the women's movement, there is a growing recognition of the differences between women based on race, age, sexual orientation, and so on.

In Australia's cities, postmodernism can be seen in the architecture of people such as Philip Cox, whose postmodern concept for the extensions to the UTS retains the facade of warehousing (a sense of history and place) as collage over the new educational function behind this structure. This is in stark contrast to the modernist tower of the UTS.

Postmodernism in architecture generally emphasises surface (appearance) over interior. Postmodernism uses materials from many different sources, across time (history) and space (geography).

Society can be represented as collage (an art form used by modernists but appropriated by postmodernists as their own) in which power relations are a collage of class, gender, environmentalism, race etc interlaid with each other.

Sometimes this is used to reflect differences in power and as justification for a greater voice for oppressed groups. However, sometimes there is an assumption of equality between pieces of the collage.

Conservative environmental politics has manipulated this assumption to suggest that we are all equally responsible for the earth's condition today and in the future. This reinforces stereotypes such

as blaming women who use disposable nappies. Women are not only stereotyped as being solely responsible for child-care, but are seen as equally responsible as the president of General Motors for destroying our environment.

People who are hungry and cold in Africa are assumed to be as equally responsible as international arms dealers for damaging the earth. Where modernism sought to unify, postmodernism recognises differences, but power differences may be disappeared.

Postmodernism is basically a framework for experiencing and representing the world. It is socially constructed and should be questioned. It has addressed some of the limitations of modernism, but it also has, in my opinion, serious limitations. It may disappear power differences and it becomes so relative that, without ethical bases, it faces the same danger as existentialism. If anything is possible, why isn't everything acceptable?

Simply adopting the label of postmodernism without a critique of its context or an ethical basis for individual action will only result in the perpetuation of an unjust world. However, in developing the critique, the benefits of postmodernism (such as making feelings valid and recognising the possibility of multiple perspectives) can assist to create an individual understanding of the world in which we live, and provide appropriate ways of representing this world.
Phil McManus worked with independent WA MLA Ian Alexander on a plan, launched in May, for a light rail transit service in Perth to replace the controversial City Northern Bypass Road and Burswood Bridge link road.