Modernity, postmodernism and politics (in places like South Africa)

In Deon Rossouw (ed.), Life in a postmodern culture. Human Sciences Research Council Press (1995)
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In this chapter I show that it is possible to interpret an important group of postmodern texts as presenting intellectual and practical challenges with a specific focus that is worth the serious attention of everyone interested in politics. My interpretation shows that a certain strand of postmodern thought is not only consonant with a liberal democratic political morality, but also modifies and extends it in an eminently desirable direction. Such an interpretation has become possible because a significant consensus has emerged from the writings of prominent commentators and participants in the debates about postmodernism. I reconstruct this emerging consensus by referring specifically to the contribution of these postmodern texts to politics, thus leaving aside its possible contribution to the arts and sciences. I start by giving an exposition of a new understanding of modernity that has been brought about by the debates on modernity / postmodernism. Then I characterize the postmodern political condition by describing those changes in contemporary modern societies that stimulate and facilitate the development and growth of postmodernism. The next section provides an interpretation of the political philosophy contained in the work of prominent postmodern thinkers such as Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard and Jencks. In this overview I show that an emphasis on the importance of heterogeneity and otherness unifies the diverse contributions of these postmodernists to political philosophy. I conclude the article by drawing some implications for politics in places like South Africa, from the insights I judge postmodernism provides to political philosophy in general.

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Hennie Lötter
University of Johannesburg


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