Reinventing Government as Postmodern Symbolic Politics

By Fox, Charles J. | Public Administration Review, May-June 1996 | Go to article overview

Reinventing Government as Postmodern Symbolic Politics


Fox, Charles J., Public Administration Review


The title of this article stands as a claim that something can be learned from viewing the reinventing government movement as an example of postmodern symbolic politics. It is not, however, a claim to exclusive truth; it would be wrong to dismiss an entire movement and all of the dedicated participants as cynically engaging in "nothing but" symbolic politics. I admit, both affirmations and negations of reinvention can be telling without ever uttering "postmodern." What can an interpretation add that is based on a historical shift that few acknowledge? To answer that question, and to redeem the claim, I need first to explicate those aspects of postmodernism relevant to the task. Second, I need to adduce elements of the reinvention movement which may be plausibly subsumed under those aspects.

Relevant Aspects of Postmodernism

I have, with Hugh Miller (1995), argued that fruitful insights about contemporary public policy and administration follow from viewing these as aspects of the postmodern condition.(1) Doing so requires, at least for the sake of argument, that one accept that advanced industrial countries are undergoing a fundamental change. In other words, the work and study of public policy formation and implementation now occur in a context so fundamentally different from the past as to justify the judgment that we have crossed over from one era (modernity) to another (postmodernity). As a word of warning (self defense), let me quickly add that the epochal rupture did not occur all at once. Postmodernism can be traced as far back as Nietzsche while gathering momentum in the years after World War II. A full-fledged explication of the transformation and its implications is beyond the scope of this article. Only the production-symbol aspect of post-modernity can be sketched here.

In its production aspect, the transformation from modernity to postmodernity is associated with the widely noted move from an industrial to a postindustrial society; from an economy based primarily on the production of material goods to one based primarily on information technologies, services, marketing, credit, and consumption. To be sure, this transformation, like the earlier move from agricultural production to industrial production, is one of dominant tendencies or ideal-typical profiles. Of course, we still produce agricultural and industrial commodities but as the paradigm case of farm labor was replaced by the paradigm case of the assembly line, the paradigm case of work today is an office where symbols are analyzed and manipulated. This development has also been heralded as the advent of the information age. Toffler (1980) and Gingrich make a similar point about first, second, and third waves. As an aside, postmodernism (as a theoretical orientation) adds that allied philosophical, epistemological, ethical, political, cultural, and societal developments are of sufficient magnitude to warrant epochal differentiation.(2)

The main implication of the production metamorphosis for the purpose of this argument is the theory of hyperreality or what I call self-referential epiphenomenalism. Again, only the surface of the argument can be expressed here. The postmodernist(3) analysis finds that words, symbols, and signs are increasingly divorced from direct real-world experience. Part of this results from the switch from a society based primarily on production to one based primarily on consumption and information. Production requires group activity and communication based on the manipulation and processing of physical objects. There is a rootedness based on the direct interface between humans and material; symbolic meanings are similarly rooted. Contrariwise, in the consumptive economic mode of postmodernity, symbols float away, as it were, and procreate with other symbols leading to what Jameson (1991) calls "the free play of signifiers." As the designs of products to which symbols are attached become too complex for the consumers to master, symbols lose their mooring lines. …

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