3:1 — Postmodernity — 1 of 3


In the ‘90s, as a student, I was mesmerized by postmodernity’s rejection of all things holy to sociology. In place of depth, we emphasized surface. In place of a singular self, we emphasized multiple selves. In their vision of the academy, scholars were ironic in earnest rather than dry and serious. I was dumbstruck; this seeming reset of all things sociology was inspiring. That is not to say that I knew what to do with it, and after my interest being piqued I put all things postmodern on the shelf and focused on ‘serious sociology’ — the kind that ‘gets you a job.’ After a couple of years doing neo-institutional organizational analysis, I was drawn back into ‘things’ postmodern — literally — through actor-network theory, which took the form of Jan and I’s ‘actor-network state’ concept. I’ve hardly left it behind since, but a recent invitation to the Eastern Sociological Association’s next meeting to oversee presentations on ‘decoloniality’ has helped me to rethink postmodernity a bit.

How has decoloniality made me rethink/reconsider postmodernity? Decoloniality has primarily been developed in the Latin American context as a critical theory approach to ethnic studies, and constitutes practical and academic ‘options [for] confronting … the colonial matrix of power,” which is constituted by the imposition of colonial measures like race, ethnicity, gender, and all other manner of imperial state categorization schemes (Mignolo 2011: xxvii) (in this way it dovetails nicely with the “social studies of politics” that Jan and I have been cultivating over the last half-decade). The decoloniality project problematizes ‘modernity’ not as an intellectual or industrial sea change, but through emphasis on all the ‘other’ things modernity brought with it like ecocide, genocide, and the foundational self-defining notion of modernity that situates Europe in the center of the world and others on the periphery.

That’s the hang-up. Postmodern theory — I’m thinking of Lyotard, for example — meaningfully questioned modern rationality and knowledge production. This was a boon for science and technology studies, no doubt. Recognition that scientific facts are not as stable as previously believed (if that itself was ever true) resulted in research emphasis on the creation of scientific facts, which, in turn, revealed so much about the exigencies of producing “truth” and how the scientific enterprise “worked.” Postmodern theory also — I’m thinking of Harvey or Jameson now — meaningfully questioned modern industrial production and the rise of service economy and rationality of ‘late capitalism.’ This too was insightful because in addition to rationality, modernity brought industrialization with it.

According to members of the decoloniality project, while attending to knowledge and industry, postmodernists tend to reify some of the most foundational elements of modernity, namely, genocide, ecocide, and the foundational self-defining notion of modernity that situates Europe in the center of the world and others on the periphery, which advanced sociological theory might just as well serve to perpetuate. With rare exception, postmodernity contains few practical solutions to these ‘other’ thoroughly modern problems.

*Image from: http://karaflaherty.com/infographic-new-york-school-postmodernism/

This entry was posted in 3-1, Old Ideas, STS, Theory and tagged by Nicholas. Bookmark the permalink.

About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

15 thoughts on “3:1 — Postmodernity — 1 of 3

  1. postmodernists whose work suffers from faith positions of misplaced concretenesses have never really been post-modern, and that’s one thing that might be offered constructively not so much as a re-solution (it would be contradictory to offer one-size/setting-fits-all-solutions) as in a fix/cure but in terms of coming to terms with what is actually happening/manifesting in the 3D lives of people (and not just in text). Also one might than take say the analytic-tactics of Sassen, the multiple-ontologies of Mol, and the experimental-procedures of Rabinow, as proto-types to be tested, retooled, and or scrapped as needed rather than as arche-types. If ethnographic studies and the like could also be rendered in such a mode they would have a real-world (of the page) use/value without any pretensions of discovering/revealing law-like forces and or structures. A sort of move into engineering but in the sense that STS/ANT folks have shown that this is what research (even theoretical science/,math/etc) is about the making and using of assemblages.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “postmodernists whose work suffers from faith positions of misplaced concretenesses have never really been post-modern” … very nice. Indeed, in order to return to the postmoderns, it is really worth sifting through the masses — heaps too, depending upon who is writing — and selecting carefully only a handful of writers to reference when we talk about “what postmodernity was” … good point.


      • I can’t tell you how many books (papers,lectures,etc) of that time started with an prologue that paid lip-service to the various do-not/s (&knots) of po-mo and than proceeded in the rest of the text as if this/these had never been raised.
        Worse yet may be all of the later folks who learned the posts before they worked thru the various moderns (structuralism/etc) and than proceeded to recreate the the modernisms in pomo sounding but regressive forms/styles like those after Lacan and Luhmann. I read Foucault (and Rorty) as trying to work themselves thru such biases but ultimately unable to completely follow thru on their own best insights (Rorty called Derrida out on this after his unfortunate and self-defeating/contradicting turn to theo-logical “quasi-transcendentals” like Gift or Justice). I think that Rabinow benefited from being part of Foucault’s struggle and moved the work forward in ways that Michel couldn’t and as I tried (and really failed) to do for Rorty who couldn’t get over his misplaced Romance with literature.


        • Big time, I know what you mean! The reproduction — I always thought of it as “translation” before Latour translated that term into the ANT lexicon — of all things modern into postmodern terms was commonplace and, I thought, antithetical to the entire enterprise; however, as I tried my hand at “doing” POMO, I quickly learned … translating the modern into postmodern was about all I was able to accurately do as a grad student!

          On Mon, Nov 3, 2014 at 9:08 AM, Installing (Social) Order wrote:



    • Yes, you are right: they or we “have never really been post-modern” – as I will try to argue for in my piece that follows in a few hours. The “post-modern” as well as the “modern” — or maybe even “the post-moderns” as well as the “moderns” are indeed those who shaped the world with which we have to deal now, but we have to, to cite AIME, do it by doing justice “to the values they themselves most obviously hold dear” (Latour 2013: 120) without living by that values. A serious task, if you ask me…


      • A goog direction to take critique, of course, challenge the notion of any modern/postmodern divide by striking the beast through the heart — challenge ‘modern’ to start with! I remember reading Latour’s 1993 book and thinking “lord, this is nothing like SIA or POF and being thoroughly confused by the general tone and framework” but I do think that if you are sympathetic to the postmodern sort of thinking then it did open some valuable space to discuss theory at length — other than raising theories momentarily as a means to test them empirically or what have you — beep, boop, bop *quantitative noises*…

        On Wed, Nov 5, 2014 at 5:24 AM, Installing (Social) Order wrote:



  2. Reblogged this on synthetic_zero and commented:
    Nich and co. are trying a new twist on blogging theory (we obviously need some news models as we aren’t getting anywhere new with the current modes) so stop in and lend them a hand if you can.


  3. A fortunate insight from my forays into Wittgenstein is a turn away from backwards looking archive-fever dreams of arche-ological discoveries to the forward facing questions of what do we make of this, how do we move on, make our ways onward with what (and who) is at hand.


      • when I read Mol or listen to Sassen talk techniques/research it comes across to me like the better inclinations of Derrida and co.
        just think of the infrastructure studies raised by:
        ” In what way has the whole of this field been determined by a state of the technology of communication and of archivization? One can dream or speculate about the earthquakes which would have made the landscape of the psychoanalytic archive unrecognizable for the past century if, to limit myself to these indications, Freud, his contemporaries, collaborators and immediate disciples, instead of writing thousands of letters by hand, had had access to telephonic credit cards from MCI or AT&T, portable tape recorders, computers, printers, faxes, televisions, teleconferences and above all E mail. I would like to have devoted my whole lecture to this retrospective science-fiction, and to imagining with you the scene of that other archive after the earthquake. As I am not able to do this, on account of the ever archaic organization of our colloquia, of the time and space at our disposal, I will limit myself to a remark: this archival earthquake would not have limited itself to the secondary recording, to the conservation of the history of psychoanalysis; it would have transformed this history from top to bottom and in the most initial inside of its production, in its very events. This is another way of saying that the archive, as printing, as writing, prosthesis or hypomnestic technique in general is not only the stockroom and the conservatory for archivable contents of the past which would exist in any case, and just the same, without the archive.
        No, the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable contents even as it comes into existence and its relationship to the future. This means that in the past psychoanalysis would not have been what it was (no more so than many other things) if electronic mail, for example, had existed. And in the future it will no longer be what Freud and so many psychoanalysts have anticipated now that E mail, for example, has become possible. One could find many clues other than E mail. As a technological postal system, this example undoubtedly merits privilege because of the major and exceptional role played in the psychoanalytic archive by a handwritten correspondence of which we have yet to finish discovering and processing the immense corpus, in part unpublished, in part secret, and, perhaps, in part radically and irreversibly destroyed – for example by Freud himself, who knows? And one must consider the historical and nonaccidental reasons which have tied such an institution, in its theoretical and practical dimensions, to postal communication and to this particular form of mail, to its substrates, to its average speed: a handwritten letter takes so many days to arrive in another European city, etc. But the indicative value of E mail is privileged in my opinion for a more important and obvious reason: because electronic mail today, and even more than the fax, is on the way to transfroming the entire public and private space of humanity, and first of all the limit between the private, the secret, and the public or phenomenal. This is not only a technique: this instrumental possibility of production, of printing, of conservation and of destruction of the archive is inevitably accompanied by juridical and thus political transformations which affect property rights, publishing and reproduction rights, etc.”


  4. Pingback: Reflexivity, The Post-Modern Predicament | Installing (Social) Order

  5. Pingback: How French Postmodernism “Ruined the West” | Installing (Social) Order

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