The Western-ness of postmodernity

After a week and a half’s hiatus (ah, the start of summer!), we’re back and blogging.  Today, I’d like to talk about a topic that I think will weave together some threads from the last three or four posts, and that’s the relationship between postmodernity, the West, and the Majority World.

It’s generally acknowledged that modernity was, at least in its origins, a project of the Western (i.e., European and North American) world.  Indeed, this is one of the criticisms of modernity – that though it claimed to be a universal movement in human history, it was instead a Western movement that was imposed upon other people and/or which ignored the experiences of other peoples.

Such criticism is an important feature of postmodernity’s reaction to modernity.  Postmodernity reminds us to examine social location and to distrust the sort of grand narratives presented by modernity, deconstructing them to try to find the ways in which they serve the colonialist or neo-colonialist agendas of those in the West and ignore or oppress the subaltern.

Yet it’s valid to ask whether the same sorts of critiques could be used against postmodernity itself.  While postmodernity emphasizes diversity, plurality, and attempts to recover voices unheard in the discourses of modernity, that doesn’t mean postmodernity itself doesn’t come from a particular social location.

Indeed, to the extent that one thinks of postmodernity as a reaction to (or continuation of, or the death of, etc.) modernity, then postmodernity is a phenomenon with Western roots because modernity is/was a Western phenomenon.

Furthermore, an intellectual definition of postmodernity (which isn’t my preferred definition, but worth discussing) must be acknowledged to be a strongly Western phenomenon with its roots in French philosophical traditions and its views spread through the academy, which is in its origin (and to a large extent in its current instantiation) a Western set of institutions and methodologies.

I think there’s an argument to be made that cultural postmodernity is Western, too.  I was at a mission conference a year or two ago where the subject of the conference dealt with the emerging church and postmodernity.  I remember a Korean scholar there objecting that much of what was said at the conference didn’t apply to Korea.  Even if that Korean scholar was not entirely right and a number of the values of postmodernity do have resonances in some (but not all) cultures around the world, others do not.  Storytelling and community are important in many cultures around the world, and I would argue important to postmodernity as well.  Relativism and consumer capitalism may have weaker roots or resonances with non-Western cultural traditions.  Certainly much of the technological side of postmodernity has its origins in the West, even if it is people elsewhere that takes it to its fullest conclusion (like the Arab spring).

If we conclude that postmodernity has Western roots or even a Western bias, does that make it bad?  I think not.  After all, one of the things postmodernity teaches us is that bias is inescapable.  It’s important to be aware of our biases to the extent that we can, but to think we can totally escape or overcome them is foolish, so we shouldn’t expect postmodernity or anything else to be unbiased and universally applicable.

We should, however, be wary in using postmodernity as an analytic framework for describing what’s happening in the Majority World.  Postmodernity may end up describing some of what’s going on in other sociocultural settings, but then again, frameworks from within those settings may be more useful and/or accurate.  I would argue that postmodernity as a framework is a useful tool for thinking about the impact of globalization, which now has an impact on almost every country and culture around the globe.  Postmodernity’s usefulness in this regard is a reflection of the way that much of the globalized world, like postmodernity, has its roots in the West, even if it emphasizes the inclusion of a diverse set of cultural and political contexts.

Nevertheless, while postmodernity as a framework may or may not be entirely appropriate for analyzing the Majority World, it is a useful tool for analyzing the West and for analyzing the globalized world.  I think one of the ways we overcome Western cultural prejudices is by recognizing that the West has culture in the same ways that other peoples have cultures.  Analyzing that culture with appropriate tools is just as valid as analyzing other cultures with appropriate tools.

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