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A critical look at the events of the current first half of the 21st century invites us all to ask the ensuing question: “Has the world remained static since its creation?”
The obvious answer to such an interrogation is negative. From its creation to the present century, human society has undergone various changes and transformations. Human activities did not only impoverish the land, but also enriched it with substances. Lifestyles and ways of thinking constantly change. Without falling into the trap of hollow verbiage, it would be relevant to underscore the strengths of one of the systems whose advent influenced the evolution of humanity. Like other systems, capitalism remains a civilizational value, which shaped Western societies and various others. Created in Europe, that system helped the West rise to the top levels of all fields of endeavor. There is neither need to dwell on its harm nor progressive (upward march) in human beings’ lives both on the old continent and elsewhere in the world. Detailed studies on that system are countless and vary from one researcher to another. Through a definitional approach, Frederic M. Scherer (2010, 2) indicates, “capitalism is viewed as the set of economic relationships that emerged with the rise of the industrial or factory system during the 18th.”
However, what is the common denominator of those critical works is that they all confirm the dynamism of that system. Over centuries, it was enforced on other continents (America, Asia, Africa, etc.). No one can deny; capitalism experienced a sharp expansion, even a dazzling, impressive, generalizing rise. That transplantation can be justified by the Westerners’ disproportionate will to dominate the world and impose their socioeconomic and sociopolitical visions on others. For instance, the American capitalism is anchored in the Anglo-Saxon model. Known for its pronounced liberalism and concrete results, the American capitalism imposed itself as a reliable way out. In La condition politique, Marcel Gauchet (2005, 463) maintains the following, “the American universalism is classically national. It is made up of a country, which considers itself as exceptional insofar as it wants to be universal, through the values, which undermined its foundation and expansion” (Translation mine). Plainly, America is characterized by its liberal economic system, which allows its citizens to invest capital freely. However, on the African continent, capitalism was introduced because of colonization, with all its corollaries, an absolutism with blurred assets –only Westerners are the incumbent leaders. In terms of economic exchange, colonized societies work and supply the Western industries with raw materials.
A closer look at the history of capitalism shows that, since its emergence in Europe up to its implantation on other continents, that system set up a new economic order that profoundly influenced human societies. The Industrial Revolution brought it to a climax, with an intense acceleration of socioeconomic and cultural transformations. Indeed, human beings succeeded in freeing themselves from precariousness and obscurity –a new era settled in all sectors. Human aesthetic aspirations intensively went upward. Accordingly, urbanization and technical and technological progress created a new way of life, a new hygienic order. Architectural, cultural and literary fields, in their turn, appropriated that new era. Indeed, displaying the characteristics of modernism in his book titled Le monde postmoderne –Analyse du discours sur la postmodernité, Yves Boisvert (1996, 23) avows, “on the ‘aesthetic’ level, architecture (…), through a style nicknamed ‘purist’ insofar as it is intended to be a metaphor for cleanliness and where it conveys a minimum of values by emphasizing a form univalent. It is the realm of meaning, purity and uniqueness. This primacy of the raw form is governed by formulas fixed in precise and rigid codes, made up of general laws, which cannot be transgressed. Therefore, Modernism is very exclusive; it cannot tolerate dissidence” (Translation mine).
More explicitly, modernism was binding, it advocated absolute discipline; its manifestation was not only economic. In terms of politics, only unilateral practices could prosper. There was only one political party. Contradiction was absent, even forbidden. In colonized areas, that system of governance was successfully enforced. It imposed its ideological universalism through which the Western World was perceived as the benchmark to be followed. Literature, art, philosophy, and science were used to test human experience. Obviously, if Western capitalism and modernism gave rise to modern societies and large economies, it should be underscored that both systems had dramatic impacts on human beings. Criticizing their deleterious socioeconomic and sociopolitical influences, in the book entitled La dialectique de la raison, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno (1974, 37) aver, “any attempt aimed at breaking the constraint exerted by nature by breaking that nature only results in a submission greater than the yoke of it. That is how European civilization went astray. Abstraction, instrument of reason, behaves towards its object like destiny, the concept of which it suppresses: an enterprise of liquidation. Under the domination of leveling abstraction according to which everything in nature is reproducible, and under the domination of industry for which abstraction organizes this reproducibility, liberated men themselves become that ‘herd’ of which Hegel says that he is the product of reason” (Translation mine).
The unicity of truths and thoughts taught by modernism prevented the emergence of innovations. As a result, several colonized societies remained under the Western domination for a long time without embarking in an efficient and fair process of autonomous development, i.e. without initiating a reliable social development program emanating from their local or national elites. Everything was imposed on them as if the Western World were the unique holder of knowledge and teacher to provide lessons of good conduct or civilization. In those societies, it was not necessary to think for oneself, thinking was forbidden. Rather, one had to blindly abide by the rules, norms advocated by the West. Worse still, despite the attractive model of life provided thanks to technical and technological progress, the rate of inequalities kept on increasing in some Western countries (America). Jürgen Habermas (1985, 10), one of the critics of the era of modernity writes, “the mirrors of current events and recent history reflect on the man of the end of the 20th century a double and disturbing image; the satisfaction of seeing oneself master of nature to a degree never achieved before is matched by the horror of realizing that one is now capable of the most absolute inhumanity. No doubt, he has learned to tame distances and increase his life expectancy, but it is, ridiculously, at the cost of denying it and annihilating it. Given those perils, the modern conquests of science and technology, democracy, secular morals, arts, and freedom of expression do not seem to weigh heavily. (…) a current tends more and more to impose itself a little buoyant in the West, which designates the current situation as the failure of the project of modernity, through the drift of what it embodied, whether it acts universalism, progressivism, rationalism, or even humanism” (Translation mine).
Pointless to dig into all the shortcomings conjured up by the critics of modernity. What is more essential is to underline that the project of modernity was ambitious enough and involved rigid rules, which made its smooth running and effective realization almost impossible. Scrutinizing its weaknesses in one of his theses, Alain Touraine (1992, 11) asserts, “the idea of modernity, in its most ambitious form, was the affirmation that man is what he does, that therefore there must exist a correspondence of closer and closer between production, made more efficient by science, technology or administration, the organization of society enforced by law and personal life driven by interest, but also by the desire to free oneself from all constraints” (Translation mine). Pragmatically, modernity could not help humans get out of the rut; rather it contributed to confining them in a social bondage –a metaphorical abyss in which they were threatened. Therefore, the emergence of postmodernism should be perceived and understood as humans’ reaction to make a way out, serving as a noble saving escape; i.e. a way, which helps them get rid of the fear of absolutism and unilateralism spread by modernism. In his book on postmodern issues, Yves Boisvert (1996, 103) maintains, “postmodernists affirm that the different values, ideologies and truths available to individuals are henceforth condemned to coexist peacefully. It is therefore an opening towards a society characterized by ‘peaceful coexistence’.”
A scientific analysis of arts, cultures, and literature is advantageous in this respect. Eager to evolve in a peaceful, multipolar world, humans adhere to the pluralist vision embodied by postmodernism. A vision which, in its approach, welcomes and promotes difference, peaceful coexistence; a vision which, according to Gilles Lipovetsky (in Boisvert, 1996, 103), favors the following ideals, “others no longer manage to shock, originality has lost its power to provoke, and all that remains is the derisory strangeness of a world where everything is allowed” (Translation mine). It is obvious, in the era of postmodernism, everything is allowed, except conflict (chaos). Indeed, it is a sort of revisiting human relationships whose essence is to consider the other as one’s equal; i.e. without disparaging or rejecting him/her. Thus, practices such as homosexuality are admitted and those who practice them deserve respect. In other words, postmodern discourse stands out as one of the areas where homosexuality flourishes. Through the foreword of William Simon’s book titled Postmodern Sexualities, Ken Plummer (1996, xv) reveals one of the interests of postmodernism, “Simon’s study is about the postmodern, and he raises many important insights as to where our sexualities may be heading in the twenty-first century. His postmodernism is evidenced not just, in what he says but in the way that he says it. Boldly he ‘abandons any pretence at linear coherence’ in his writing, and suggests that his readers (i.e. you) ‘read selectively’ (…) Simon’s project is to open theoretical spaces to examine the sexual as it is social constituted, and along the way he discusses many important topics. Homosexuality assumes an import role.”
Despite divergent particularities, postmodernism promotes a form of life in which inclusion and tolerance are advised and privileged. To materialize that vision, humans resolutely break with previously accepted norms. Thus, postmodern ideals apparently emerge in arts, cultures, and literatures. For instance, in one of his critical studies titled Postmodern Theory, Mark Currie (1988, 18) addresses the paradigm shift that fiction appropriates and that postmodern criticism sets out to elucidate, “the analysis of point of view is one of the great triumphs of twentieth century criticism. Its power was partly the power of analytical terminology, to describe subtle shifts in the narrative voice, the movements into and out of other minds, or the modes of presenting the speech and thought of characters. But it was more than descriptive power. It was a new exploration in the rhetoric of fiction, the way that fiction can position us, can manipulate our sympathies, can pull our heart strings, in the service of some moral aim.”
With reference to those details, the interest of interrogating the above areas of knowledge is to account for the forms, characteristics, and challenges of postmodernism.
Boisvert, Y. (1996). Le Monde postmoderne –Analyse du discours sur la postmodernité. Paris, L’Harmattan.
Currie, M. (1988). Postmodern Theory. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire & London, MacMillan Press Ltd.
Gauchet, M. (2005). La condition politique. Paris, Gallimard.
Habermas, J. (1985). Le Discours philosophique de la modernité. Douze conférences. Paris, Gallimard.
Horkheimer, M. & Adorno, T. W. (1974). La Dialectique de la raison. Paris, Gallimard.
Scherer, F. M. (2010). “The Dynamics of Capitalism,” HKS Working Paper No. RWP10-001, Retrieved 06/06/23
Simon, W. (1996). Postmodern Sexualities. London & New York, Routledge.
Touraine, A. (1992). Critique de la modernité. Paris, Librairie Arthème Fayard.
Department of English, American Studies, University of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.
Topics of interest:
● Architecture (form & symbol), urban diversity, colors;
● Globalized cultures (cultural & political formations), cultural hybridity;
● Discursive heterogeneity, fragmented narratives, hyperreality, magical realism, intertextuality, subverted sexualities, homosexuality
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January 22, 2024