Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Modernity, Post-Modernity and Proto-Historicism: Reorienting Humanity through a New Sense of Narrative Emplotment

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Modernity, Post-Modernity and Proto-Historicism: Reorienting Humanity through a New Sense of Narrative Emplotment

Article excerpt


   I shall not be in the least surprised if ... in the midst of the
   future universal good sense, some gentlemen with an ignoble, or
   rather a derisive and reactionary air, springs up suddenly out of
   nowhere, puts his arms akimbo and says to all of us 'Come on
   gentlemen, why shouldn't we get rid of all this calm reasonableness
   with one kick, just so as to send all these logarithms to the devil
   and be able to live our own lives at our own sweet will?' That
   wouldn't matter ... but what is really mortifying is that he would
   certainly find followers. (209)

The quest to rationally organize society around concepts of modernity--around notions of linear progress, materialism, and individualism--has meant that there is an inherent impossibility within modernity to form an adequate response to climate change. According to Gare, 'the idea of humans as complex machines, society as a social contract between egoistic individuals, utilitarianism, [and] mainstream economic theory ... are all aspects of ... this project to order society rationally.' (210) To confront climate change would require an irrationality that is contrary to all accepted forms of modernity. One such response has been postmodernism and its incredulity towards metanarratives.

Structuralism, Poststructuralism and Deconstruction

To properly understand postmodernism it is important to understand the traditions from which it has emerged. The transition from the modern to the postmodern can be traced through structuralism and post-structuralism.

Associated primarily with Ferdinand De Saussure and Claude Levi-Strauss, structuralism was essentially an extension of the mechanical sciences into the realm of linguistics. As the 'systematic attempt to develop ... a general science of signs,' (211) structuralism was based on the belief that 'the world was intrinsically knowable,' and that there was a 'methodological key to unlock the various systems that made up the world.' (212) For structuralists like Saussure, language was seen as a system in which rules, regulations, and 'internal grammar' governed how language operated. (213) While structuralism identified that there was a relative stability to language and a degree of predictability within linguistic communities, this approach failed to accommodate chance, creativity, or the unexpected within its methodology. (214)

This predictability in language extends to the predictability of narratives--to all systems--and is consistent with the linear and fatalistic tradition of modernity. The perception of language as fixed and rigid is symptomatic of the modern worldview in which everything, including human interaction, is calculable and reducible to a symbolic equivalence. From the structuralist perspective, 'one system (or narrative) [can come] to seem much like any other ... almost as if one knew beforehand what one was going to find.' (215)

Post-structuralists object to this 'overall tidiness' in which 'there are no loose ends and everything falls neatly into place.' (216) They argue that the structuralist methodology is defective in that it tends to determine results by conforming them to its own inherent assumptions. (217) As a result, post-structuralists have sought to overcome these limitations by attacking and rejecting structuralist attempts to 'reduce the world to an object of analysis,' (218) and have done so primarily through deconstructionism, most notably associated with the work of Derrida.

Directed against the system building side of structuralism, deconstruction 'took issue with the idea that all phenomena were reducible to the operations of systems . [and the] implication that we could come to have total control over our environment.' (219) According to Sim, 'Derrida was concerned to demonstrate ... the instability of language ... and systems in general' through his concept of 'differance'--a French neologism meaning both 'difference' and 'deferral'. …

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