Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

PART FIVE
After Modernity, Since 1979

Each of the previous periods began in years the meaning of which is evident: 1848, 1919, 1945, 1963. Reasonable people might disagree over whether historical periods actually began in those years. Just the same, the years are meaningful. Nothing similar could be said of 1980 or 1979 or any particular year thereabout.

The late 1970s and early 1980s were, historically speaking, a sloppy, indefinite time. Much happened, but hardly anyone today can say what it all meant. In the two years 1979 and 1980, the following notable events occurred in the United States: gasoline rationing; U.S. inflation was 13 percent; Chrysler Corporation was bailed out by taxpayers; Tom Wolfe Right Stuff was published; Christopher Lasch The Culture of Narcissism became a best-seller; Francis Ford Coppola directed Apocalypse Now; the Three-Mile Island nuclear reactor was damaged; Walter Cronkite retired. Interesting, but hard to figure. In the world, in the same two years, the following events transpired: the Ayatollah Khomeini led a successful revolution in Iran; the Sandinistas chased Anastasio Somoza from Managua; Panama took control of the Canal Zone; Egypt and Israel entered into a peace treaty; Rhodesia became Zimbabwe; the Soviets invaded Afghanistan; Iraq invaded Iran; Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize; Leonid Brezhnev won the Lenin Peace Prize. Though the events on both lists may suggest trends developing from the events of the 1960s, no large event defined the historical moment as in 1945 or 1963 or 1968. The late 1970s and 1980s just were whatever they were.

Yet there are those who would claim that sometime around these years, the most momentous event of the last 500 years may have occurred: the end of modernity itself. Or, more modestly, it can be said this was when people began to talk seriously about postmodernism. Why, then, is unclear. One might say, however, that the very indefiniteness of the nonevent (in contrast to the event of which Derrida spoke in 1966) is typical of postmodernism, whatever it might be.

This, of course, was not the first time social commentators spoke of a "post-something." Beginning in 1945, "postwar" meant something was changed, hopefully forever. In the late 1950s, Daniel Bell and others who wrote of the end of ideology had in mind a new era of democratic freedoms. Later, about the time John Kenneth Galbraith wrote The New Industrial State, many were talking seriously of a postindustrial world order. In the early 1990s, U.S. President George Bush spoke of a new world order. Such ventures to define the end of one thing and the beginning of the next were, in one sense, little more than the natural tendency of modern people to feel the upward-rising trajectory of progress. Modernity's foremost logical dilemma is that it must always project a next stage (thus, a post-the-previous-stage)--or it must prove that the present is, in fact, the final fulfillment of history. Because the lat-

-451-

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