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/