Modernity, Modern Social Theory, and the Postmodern Critique*By Robert Antonio and Douglas KellnerOver a century ago, Nietzsche (1887, 1967: 151) berated the modern scientist's narrow"factualism" and "renunciation of all interpretation," and a few decades later Weber (1919, 1958)declared the age of the generalist to be over. Extreme specialization, self-enclosed disciplinaryjargons, and narrowly focused technical work have since transformed these prescient visions intoobservable realities. Responding to the dominant forms of atheoretical empirical work andahistorical "general theory" in post-World War II American social thought, C. Wright Mills (1961:183-4) asked: "Where is the intelligentsia that is carrying on the big discourse of the Western worldand whose work as intellectuals is influential among parties and publics and relevant to the greatdecisions of our time?" In his view, professional social science was guilty of "pretentious triviality"and incapable of grasping the growing threats to freedom and reason. About the same time,Raymond Aron (1970b: vi, 332) argued that classical social theorists shared "a certain solidarity"deriving from their "global historical interpretations of the modern age": a broad vision which hasbeen regrettably lost (Aron, 1969: v-xviii; 1970a: 7-9, 332-3; 1970b: v-ix, 331-2).From this perspective, classical social theory provided comprehensive analyses of the corefeatures, central processes, and imminent threats and possibilities of modernity and in this paper weargue that such broad and wide-ranging discourse is still useful and needed today. In ourforthcoming book Theorizing Modernity (Antonio/Kellner 1991), we attempt to map the nature ofthe discursive field in classical social thought, pointing to shared metatheoretical problematics andsubstantive concerns, as well as to points of methodological and substantive disagreement. Weargue that classical social theory is primarily a theory of modernity and that the classical tradition ofmodern social theory raised fundamental questions concerning the nature, structure, and historicaltrajectories of modern societies. By putting modern societies in broad historical perspective, byemphasizing the linkages between their differentiated social institutions, and by expressing thepotentialities for normatively guided social change, classical theorists such as Marx, Durkheim,Weber, and Dewey developed a discourse that facilitated comprehension and discussion of, andposed responses to, the rise of modernity and its problematic social conditions.In recent years, however, there have been a series of attacks on the allegedly foundationalist,essentialist, reductionist, totalizing, and positivist features of classical social theory; these critiqueshave challenged contemporary theorists to probe their metatheoretical assumptions and to articulateand defend the project of social theory against often strong and compelling criticisms bypostmodernists, poststructuralists, post-Marxists, feminists, historical sociologists, and others whohave called attention to overgeneralized and hyper-rational features of modern philosophy andclassical social theory. But comprehensive theories of big historical trends and structures are toooften rejected en toto on the grounds that they liquidate the local and particular and have affinity fortotalitarian social movements and political regimes that do the same (e.g. Lyotard 1984). Indeed,these critics themselves frequently rely on undertheorized global notions about the complex andfragmentary nature of new transnational structures and the dynamics of so-called "late modernity,""postmodernity," or the end of history.
In particular, postmodernist and poststructuralist critics have implicitly, and sometimesexplicitly, attacked the metatheoretical foundations of classical theory, scuttling its presuppositionsconcerning representation, the coherence of the social, and the subject. As part of their broadsideagainst the totalizing features of Enlightenment rationalism, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-FrancoisLyotard, Jacques Derrida, and others deny social theory's capacity to articulate modernity's complexcontours and to contribute to progressive social change. Postmodernists contend that criticalperspectives on contemporary society require the demolition of the grand narratives and totalizingtheories of the modern tradition.In this paper, we shall argue that the postmodern critique of modern social theory isexcessive and throws out the valuable aspects of classical theories, along with their problematicalfeatures. We claim that the substantive analyses of postmodern theory culminate in a one-sidedemphasis on cultural and social fragmentation that ignores societal interdependencies and thatdevalues social solidarities. Against postmodern theory, we argue that while positivist andhyperrationalist elements abound in classical theory, contrary themes suggest much more modestassumptions and metatheoretical positions that anticipated the postmodern critique. Moreover,classical theorists conceptualized the interdependent and integrative features of modernity, as wellas the forms of disintegration and fragmentation, providing illuminating and broad perspectives oncontemporary social formations. Thus, although postmodernists point correctly to dogmaticfeatures of classical social theory that should be abandoned, their caricature of the tradition and callfor a radical break with all modern social theory ignores the extent to which classical theoriescontinue to provide resources for the projects of social theory and social reconstruction. Ourargument is that the critical aspects of classical social theory must be reappropriated to provideadequate theoretical perspectives on contemporary society and constructive responses to thepostmodern critique.THE POSTMODERN CRITIQUE OF CLASSICAL SOCIAL THEORYPostmodernists attack classical social theorists' claims about mapping the social totality,detecting social conditions that guarantee "historical progress," and facilitating progressive socialchange. Since many postmodern critics are former Marxists who now reject radical politics,socialism, and even welfare state reformism, they advance especially scathing criticism ofMarxism's claims concerning history and universal emancipation. The postmodern critique holdsthat virtually all modern social theory springs from Enlightenment faith in science and reason andleads to "grand narratives" that legitimate political repression and cultural homogenization.Postmodernists argue that the totalizing features of social theory have affinity for centralizedsystems of power and social planning that liquidate particularity and block the creative forces oflanguage and desire.Rejecting classical social theory's meta-assumptions about representation, social coherence,and the subject, postmodernists arguethat radical cultural criticism must depart from new basesoutside the Enlightenment tradition. Postmodern theorists adopt the poststructuralist strategy ofsevering the connection between signs and their referents, abandoning modern theory's efforts torepresent the "real." For example, Derrida (1976) views language as a form of "free play,"independent of a "transcendental signified," and rejects claims about the capacity of language toobjectively represent extralinguistic realities. And an extreme postmodernist like Baudrillard
(1983a) evaporates "reality" into a contingent play of simulacra. While modern epistemologyfocuses on the correspondence of representations to external objects, Baudrillard argues that signsand images have recently replaced "the real." Speaking explicitly of a new postmodern age,Baudrillard states: "We are in a logic of simulation which has nothing to do with a logic of facts andan order of reasons" (1983a: 31-32). In his view, the proliferation of contradictory images andmessages "implodes" the boundaries between signs and referents, as well as between reality andfiction, dissolving truth and meaning.Postmodernists also emphasize pervasive cultural fragmentation and socialdistintegration, rejecting social theory's metatheoretical assumptions concerning the coherence ofsociety and, in extreme cases, the very concept of the social (Baudrillard 1983b). They conceive ofpostmodernity as an exceedingly complex matrix of discontinuous processes involving ubiquitous,instantaneous, and disjunctive changes; dispersed and overwhelming space; multiple spectaclesand discordant voices; contradictory images and messages; and an overall schizophrenicfragmentation of experience (Jameson 1984). The extreme cultural incoherence of postmodernitysupposedly renders obsolete modern theory's discourses about obdurate social structures (e.g., classhierarchy, gender structure, complex organization) and patterned social processes (e.g., integration,domination, exploitation).In addition, postmodernists contend that the philosophic subject which undergirded theconceptions of representation and social coherence in modern philosophy and social theory is ineclipse. In the Cartesian tradition of modern epistemology, Enlightenment thinkers implied thatpeople were capable of being rational subjects who, after grasping the "foundations" of knowledge,could achieve a relatively unambiguous understanding of the external world and could use this totransform the social conditions of their existence. Postmodern theorists, by contrast, present thesubject as a fictive construct, arguing that the myth of subjectivity serves a control function thatrepresses human spontaneity and difference. In this regard, Foucault interprets the subject as aconstruct of power and discipline (1977), and Baudrillard has declared that in the postmodern erathe "drama of the subject at odds with his objects and with his image" is over (Baudrillard 1988:16).Postmodern theory thus rejects the basic meta-assumptions of modern social theory, puttingits entire project into question. While taking this postmodern challenge seriously, we argue thatclassical social theorists anticipated some of the recent attacks on modern theoretical practiceswithout renouncing altogether the vocation of depicting social reality and serving as an instrumentof social change. In the following discussion, we argue that the tradition of modern social theorycontained "dogmatic" as well as "critical" features, and that there are thus themes in classical theorywhich provide both critical perspectives on Enlightenment rationalism and positivistic scientism, aswell as resources to help develop a critical theory of the present age. Consequently, since nearly allclassical theories contained both dogmatic and critical features (both originating in theEnlightenment heritage), any effort to reappropriate this tradition must itselfbe critical and reconstructive and not celebatory.CRITICAL VS. DOGMATIC THEMES IN CLASSICAL THEORYClassical theorists initiated the tradition of modern social theory by attempting to grasp the
long-term movement from traditional society to modernity. They usually created polar ideal commercial society, military/industrial society) to describe the dominant socialstructures of the old and new societies and to specify the primary developmental processes thatwere transforming social life from the local to the international level. Classical theory wascentrally concerned with developing broad and comprehensive perspectives on modernity, focusingon the nascent forms of economy, polity, society, and culture. The new social order was shaped bysocial differentiation, rationalization, individuation, class structuration, democratic state formation,urbanization, and industrial revolution. Classical social theory attempted to theorize thetrajectories of change, producing the new institutions, practices, ideas, and everyday life, thattogether constitute modernity.Classical theorists presumed that they could represent macroscopic social realities, portraycoherently the linkages between new forms of social organization, interdependence, andfragmentation. They also believed that their approaches would guide the efforts of historicalsubjects to actively regulate or to transform their social worlds. These meta-assumptions weresometimes employed narrowly and dogmatically and, at other times, reflexively and self-critically.In effect, classical social theorists reproduced the contradictory ethos of the Enlightenment,sometimes mechanistically reproducing its excessive faith in science and reason and, at others,employing its critical rationality and self-reflexivity to their own theories and to the social world.Dogmatic positivistic themes treated science as if it were a new religion with the power toconjure up a magnificent order behind the chaos and to provide guaranteed solutions to the newsocial disjunctions. Theorists like Comte and Spencer combined this excessive faith in science witha belief that reason could precisely represent the broadest features and trends of social development.They implied that social theory could unproblematically grasp reality, provide an exact system ofknowledge, and serve as an instrument of enlightenment and social change. All the gaps inknowledge about the social world were, in their view, merely a product of the level of the newnessof their science and would be mechanically overcome by further technical development. Thedogmatic arguments of these theorists grossly exaggerated theory's powers of representation,overstated the integration of society, and attributed too much rationality to the subject. In addition,they often spoke deterministically about homogeneous paths of development, ignoring regional andnational differences. Their implicit idea of modernity was too general, lacking sufficient sensitivityto particularity and differences within national and regional cultures.Although their approaches were not wholly free
argue that classical social theory is primarily a theory of modernity and that the classical tradition of modern social theory raised fundamental questions concerning the nature, structure, and historical trajectories of modern societies. By putting modern societies in broad historical perspective, by emphasizing the linkages between their differentiated social institutions, and by expressing .
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