History without a Subject: The Postmodern Condition

History without a Subject: The Postmodern Condition

History without a Subject: The Postmodern Condition

History without a Subject: The Postmodern Condition


"David Ashley's powerful new book is certain to become a classic in this field ... cutting-edge social science work. No other contemporary social theorist has this kind of critical, sociological imagination. He is able to take very complex systems of ideas & present & criticize these formulations in a manner that is both accessible & understandable. (Perhaps only Anthony Giddens is his equal at this.)" Norman K. Denzin University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign "A tour de force ... the best available introduction to postmodern theory & postmodernity." Ben Agger University of Texas at Arlington


This chapter addresses postmodernism's influence on theory. As the "cultural dominant" of consumer capitalism, postmodernism is not exclusively, or even primarily, an intellectual movement. It has nonetheless significantly affected academic practice, particularly in the United States.

In this chapter, I first describe how "modernity" has been conceptualized by sociologists. Next, I examine how classical sociology responded to the complexities of modernity by trying to turn it into a reflexive project that promised to make us masters of our social environment. The failure of this project, I argue, had two interrelated consequences. First, it was devastating for classical sociology. Second, it undermined what Jean-Franqois Lyotard has called the emancipatory narrative or "metanarrative" of modernity. According to Lyotard (1984, 35), this metanarrative told a story about a "practical subject" ("humanity") that was poised to emancipate itself from everything that prevented it from governing itself. Sociology not only was part of this narrative during its "classical era" (circa 1880-1920); sociology also promised to play the key role in helping realize this narrative.

After describing how sociologists have defined modernity, I discuss the cleavage that developed between theorists such as Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), on the one hand, who believed (albeit in different ways) that the emancipatory narrative of modernity could be realized, and theorists such as Max Weber (1864-1920) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), on the other, who concluded that intellectuals could never repair the cultural fragmentation, differentiation, and complexity that modernity itself had wrought. The contemporary version of this dispute is represented in the debate between critical theorist Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) and the rapidly increasing number of post- and antimodern theorists.

We have heard a great deal recently about how postmodernism reflects the end of the Marxist project of universal enlightenment. In this . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.