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Post-Modernism: What's the Difference?

by Martin Jenkins

In an article from Rhizomes, Post-Modernism is defined as,

suspicion of metanarratives, foundational assumptions, totalising theories, utopian ambitions, large pronouncements of any kind.[1] (My emphasis) Although a negative definition, Post-Modernism is distinct from Modernism. Modernism is the philosophical view that holistic, reflexive, identitiarian and foundational systems of thought can and do accurately mirror or be identical with the truth of things. The systems of Plato, Aristotle, Scholastic Philosophical-Theology, German Idealism and Marxism are prime examples of the 'Western rationalist, universalist paradigm' that Post-Modernism has issues with.

Foundational, Totalising and Utopian

Following the above quote from Rhizomes, I will give a brief overview of the identified themes of the Foundational, Totalising and the Utopian and their relation to Post-Modernist thinkers. The latter term has become pejorative lately with Post-Modernism dismissed in sections of popular culture as nonsensical verbiage. I hope to dispel this by maintaining that Post-Modernism does make a difference proffering fecund philosophical and practical insights in its role as the continuation of the Enlightenment.

Western Philosophy has traditionally constructed systems of knowledge like buildings. If the foundations are sound then what follows upon them must also be sound so that the whole built system is founded and secured by strong foundations. German Idealism exemplifies this by grounding its philosophical systems on and in a Transcendental Consciousness.[2] Structures of thought from within the mind ground and provide the basis for knowledge 'out there'; such categories and concepts provide the certainty for true and correct knowledge and how to act accordingly in ethics and politics.

Systems like these are Totalising as they seek to exhaustively and definitively explain all phenomena within one paradigm that stems from the Foundation. They are therefore self-reflexive.


If human understanding occurs through language and written text, the 'Deconstruction' of text by Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) challenges Foundationalism and its self-reflexivity.[3]

If the Foundationalist approach can be equated to the unique, singular and correct reading/ meaning of a Text or in other words, the 'presence' of correct meaning with the text (i.e. Logocentrism) then Derrida has arguably undermined this. For Derrida a heuristic analysis of the Text reveals ambiguities and openings for alternative interpretations and readings to arise from the existing one. The text is thereby deconstructed.

Following on from the insights of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, Derrida maintained that the meaning of words is not determined by denotation; words are decided by their difference to other words, signs, and signifiers.[4] Tradition or suppression claims only one network of meaning whereas Derrida's deconstruction highlights the trace of other meanings from out of the relation of difference between words etc.

The cardinal concepts of Western Philosophy — Knowledge, Identity, Truth and Meaning — achieve their ascendant status by repressing or downgrading the infinite possibilities of the text in the quest of Logocentrism: the Foundational, Total and Final word on things. Derrida's critique — if accepted — undermines this project by removing the very possibility of foundationalism. This does not entail nihilism or relativism; it entails the possibility of alternatives.


Philosophies which attempt total explanation manifested as meta-narratives are to be treated with incredulity. This was the recommendation of Jean-Francois Lyotard (1926-1998) in his The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.[5] The model of society as a holistic totality became increasingly unfeasible in the light of an absence of legitimacy for a meta-narrative. The meta-narrative hoped to account for epistemological legitimacy in all areas of society such as knowledge, politics and science which were in turn legitimised by it. However, the link between knowledges etc. and the meta-narrative is not conclusive as the former can and does differ from the latter thereby undermining a single representation of the human condition in its totality. Instead of reliance on a meta-narrative founded on epistemologically dubious grounds, Lyotard calls for mini-narratives that are contingent and provisional. Many narratives exist — some in ascendancy others not — and not a single, holistic one aiming at infallible total explanation or totality.

Lyotard later develops the theme of mini-narratives (or Language Games a la Wittgenstein [6]) and the links between them in The Differend: Phrases In Dispute. Phrases are organised in Phrase Regimes (Denoting, Questioning, Humour, Reasoning, Ordering and so on) and present in Genres of Discourse (Science, Literature, Philosophy, Poetry, Economics, Politics) which evoke the being of human beings.

One such Genre or Language Game may be inapplicable to be used in place of another. There may indeed be no suitable phrase existing to articulate the difference that arises between them or to articulate the emergence of something new, something different. Silencing or ignoring difference facilitates a feeling of injustice which Lyotard terms the Differend. Hence the Differend is the unstable state of language where that which must be articulated or link the phrases cannot yet be accomplished. The aim of the philosopher is to:

find new rules for forming and linking phrases that are able to express the Differend disclosed by the feeling of injustice.[7]

The new link(s) between the different phrases and genres is to be respected in the interest of Justice. Justice is also to be maintained by preventing one genre burying another and by the creation of new links and phrases when there is no existing phrase to articulate the new. This openness to the new is Political.

Politics is the threat of the differend. It is not a genre, it is a multiplicity of genres, the diversity of ends and par excellence the question of linkage... Everything is political if politics is the possibility of the Differend on the occasion of the slightest linkage.[8]

The plurality of Genres of discourse, phrase regimens and their linkages; openness to the Differend prevents recourse to the arbitrary impositions of a totalising meta-narrative which manifests injustice in its indifference and insensitivity to what is different.


Meta-Narratives maintain a view of history wherein, following a significant event — Armageddon, the Second Coming, World Communist Revolution, the End of History — the ideal becomes the actual. This Teleology or Eschatology has created how Western thought thinks: thinking of History, thinking of Time and thinking of the human being as Subject. Michel Foucault (1926-1984) built on the genealogical and ontological insights of Friedrich Nietzsche to offer a radical theory of knowledge, of power and their role in the formation of social identities and resistance to them in the interests of Freedom.[9]

Human beings are immersed into and inscribed with structures of 'knowledge'. There is no Subject above of and independent of these, only the sites of inscription from and resistance to discursive regimes of knowledge. Discursive because they are transmissions of Power. They create the identities and corresponding normalised practices and prohibitions inscribed into 'subjects'. The emancipatory project of the Enlightenment is continued in the critical analyses and challenging of the criteria of truth underpinning discursive regimes and practices. This is achieved by means of genealogical enquiry about the events that have led us to constitute ourselves in being what we do, say and think. It also highlights the possibility of transcending such boundaries and norms.

With the emphasis on identities, Foucault introduces a new conception of Power. Power is everywhere; it does not descend from the top down — as does what he terms Juridical Power. Change the state regime and existing configurations of local discursive regimes continue to operate and change at that level. Moreover, analyses based on Juridical Power fail to be sensitive in the accounting of the myriad influences and polyvalent activities of micro power. Power is multifarious and not mono-causal in its operation. Consequently, 'specific transformations' in the areas such as the relation between the sexes, perceptions of insanity, criminality and sexuality are preferred; 'global' or total political programmes for the emancipation of the 'new man' are eschewed. These have led to the worst and most dangerous political systems. The specific issues themselves set up the problems to be addressed, they are not prescribed before hand with reference to utopian global theories. Again, the responses to events, to issues are not foreclosed but open.

Critical Ontology — as Foucault terms his activity — asks: How are we constituted as subjects of our knowledge? How are we constituted as subjects who exercise or submit to power relations? How are we constituted as moral subjects of our own actions? It asks so as to enable action. As Foucault writes:

The Critical Ontology [is] to be concerned as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is, at one at one and the same time, the historical analyses of the limits that are imposed upon us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them. [10]


The relevance of Post-Modernism's insights to Foundational, Totalising and Utopian philosophies is that they prevent the latter's pretensions to Closure. By means of this short overview of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault, I hope to have highlighted the theme of the prevention of closure and the openness to the new. The difference of Post-Modernism is that it prevents Closure.

Closure is Finality and Finality is (assumed) infallibility. Ontologically and epistemologically, Post-Modernism prevents the doorkeeper of assumed Finality slamming the door shut in the name of monopoly Truth, whether the door be that of the University or the Internment camp.


1. Ellen E. Berry and Carol Siegal Rhizomes, Newness and the Condition of our Postmodernity: Editorial and Dialogue Number 1. Spring 2000

2. For more on this see both:

J.G. Fichte The Science of Knowledge Cambridge University Press 1982

Frederick Copleston A History of Western Philosophy: 7 German Philosophy Continuum. 2003

3. Texts by Jacques Derrida are many. See for instance:

Writing and Difference Routledge 2001

Of Grammatology John Hopkins University Press 1998

4. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) maintained that language is composed of differential elements or signifiers. Meaning is not denotative of an independent world 'out there'; meaning is derived from the difference between signifiers. See:

Ferdinand de Saussure General Course In Linguistics Fontana 1977

Johnathan Culler Saussure Fontana 1985

5. Jean Francois Lyotard The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge Manchester University Press 1995

— — The Differend: Phrases In Dispute University of Minnesota Press 1989

6. The later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) moves away from locating meaning in logical atomism to that of use. The former located meaning in a world that is a totality of facts and not things. What is the case is the existence of states of affairs. States of affairs are combinations of objects, objects are simple. Facts relate to objects and propositions make 'pictures' about them. Picture articulated in language must possess the same logical structure as a fact.

The later Wittgenstein held this as too reductive. Meaning is found in the multifarious uses of language governed by acknowledged rules just as a game of cards is governed by rules. Hence Language Games. See:

Ludwig Wittgenstein Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Routledge 1961

— — Philosophical Investigations 2nd Ed Blackwell 1958

7. P. 61 Simon Malpas Jean Francois Lyotard Routledge 2003

8. P. 138-9. The Differend. Op. cit. above

9. Friedrich Nietzsche On the Genealogy of Morality Hackett 1998

For Foucault's application and development of genealogy see:

Michel Foucault The Birth of the Clinic Routledge 2003

— — Discipline And Punish The Birth of the Prison Penguin 1991

— — Madness And Civilisation Routledge 2001

— — The History Of Sexuality Vol 1: The Will to Knowledge Penguin 1998

— — — — Vol II. The Use of Pleasure Penguin 1992

— — — — Vol III. The Care of the Self Penguin 1990

10. Michel Foucault 'What Is Enlightenment?' A Foucault Reader, Ed. Paul Rabinow. Penguin 1991

© Martin Jenkins 2009