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A Post-Modern Age Essay, Research Paper

A Post-Modern Age?


Post-Modernism can be described as a particular style of thought. It is a concept that correlates the emergence of new features and types of social life and economic order in a culture; often called modernization, post-industrial, consumer, media, or multinational capitalistic societies.

In Modernity, we have the sense or idea that the present is discontinuous with the past, that through a process of social, technological, and cultural change (either through improvement, that is, progress, or through decline) life in the present is fundamentally different from life in the past. This sense or idea as a world view contrasts with what is commonly known as Tradition, which is simply the sense that the present is continuous with the past, that the present in some way repeats the forms, behavior, and events of the past.

I would propose that traditional ways of life have been replaced with uncontrollable change and unmanageable alternatives, but that these changes and alternatives eventually create something that may result in the society that traditionalists actually seek after; the balance between Nature and Technology. Modernity itself is merely the sense that the present is a transitional point, not focused on a clear goal in the future but simply changing through forces outside our control. I will first describe how “Modernity” came about, and then to indicate some of the features for which “Post-Modernity” is meant to be a reaction, response or addition to modernization.

Beginnings of Modernity:

First, I aim to give a broad historical picture against which we may understand the rise of Modernity as an idea related to science and society or as a framework for a view of rationality. We know that we experience change as either progress or transition, that is, we view our historical situation and our lives presently as deriving meaning and value in some unrealized future.

The shift from Renaissance humanism to Modern rationalism can be understood in terms of four shifts: (1) from an oral culture in which the theory and practice of rhetoric played a central role to a written culture in which formal logic played a central role in establishing the credentials of an argument; (2) from a practical concern – with understanding and acting on particular cases to a more theoretical concern with the development of universal principles; (3) from a concern with the local – in all its stable diversity, to the general – understood in terms of abstract multi nationalisms; and (4) from the timely – a concern with making practical decisions in the transitory situations which demand wise and prudent responses, to the timeless – a concern with understanding and explaining the enduring, perhaps eternal, nature of things.

There are several societal factors that have indicated and resulted in the rise of Modernity. The origin of Modernity may have its roots in several periods: the year 1436, with Gutenberg’s adoption of moveable type; or in 1520, and Luther’s rebellion against Church authority; or 1648, and the end of the Thirty Years’ War; while even still, it could have begun during the American or French Revolutions of 1776 or 1789; or even the rise of “Modernism” in fine arts and literature. How we ourselves are to feel about the prospects of Modernity depends on what we see as the heart and core of the “modern, and what key events in our eyes gave rise to the “modern” world.

Societal Responses to Modernity:

During the period of the 1500’s thru the 1900’s the framework and presuppositions about Nature and Humanity were being progressively challenged and overturned by many scientific advances, until not one, or very little of their elements were accepted by reasonably educated people. European society was becoming known as traditional, hierarchical, corporate, and privileged. These features had characterized Europe and much of the rest of the world during these few centuries. Virtually every society on the globe by the opening of the eighteenth century could be characterized by social dependency s and discrepancies between wealth and poverty. All of these societies also confronted the problems of scarce food supplies.

After a time during the same period, important changes began to occur in the societies of the world from Asia to Europe. A population explosion due to an improved food supply created pressures on the existing traditional and newly modernizing social structures. Commerce, banking, and agriculture improved greatly and a more stable and certain money supply were established; however, only Europe at the time was becoming highly industrialized.

Eighteenth-century Japan stood, of course, in marked contrast to both Europe and China. Tokugawa rule had achieved remarkable stability, but Japan had chosen not to enter the world-trading network, except as a depot for Dutch and Chinese goods. The population grew less rapidly than that of Europe or China, and the general economy seemed to have grown slowly. Like the situation in many European cities, guilds controlled manufacture. In all these respects, Japan in the eighteenth century sought to spurn innovation and preserve stable tradition.

Throughout the eighteenth century, Africa continued to supply slave labor to both North and South America. The slave trade drew Africa deeply into the transatlantic economy.

Latin America remained at least in theory the monopolized preserve of Spain and Portugal; however, that monopoly could not survive the expansion of the British economy and the determination of Britain to enter the Latin American market. At the same time, British forces established control in mid-eighteenth-century India that would last almost two centuries.

Seen in this world context, European society stood on the brink of a new era in which the social, economic, and political relationships of past centuries would be destroyed. The commercial spirit and the values of the marketplace clashed with the traditional values and practices of peasants and guilds. That commercial spirit proved to be a major vehicle of social change; by the early nineteenth century it led increasingly to a conception of human beings as individuals rather than as members of communities.

The expansion of the European population further stimulated change and challenge to tradition, hierarchy, and communities. A larger population meant that new ways had to be devised to solve old problems. The social hierarchy had to accommodate itself to more people. Corporate groups, such as the guilds, had to confront an expanded labor force. New wealth meant that birth would eventually cease to determine social relationships, except in regard to the social roles assigned to the two sexes.

Finally, the conflicting political ambitions of the monarchies, the nobilities, and the middle class generated innovation. The monarchies wanted to make their nations rich enough to wage war. The nobilities wished to reassert their privileges. The middle class, in all of its diversity, was growing wealthier from trade, commerce, and the practice of the professions. Its members wanted a social prestige and influence equal to their wealth.

All of these factors meant that the society of the late eighteenth century stood at the close of one era of European history and at the opening of another. However, as these social and economic changes became connected to the world economy, the transformation of Europe led to the transformation of much of the non-European world. For the first time in the history of the world, major changes in one region left virtually no corner of the globe politically or economically untouched. By the close of the eighteenth century a movement toward world interconnectedness and interdependence that had no real precedent in terms of depth and extent had begun, and it has not yet ended.

Expressions on Modernity:

We as humans tend to experience modernity as a plethora of alternatives, either in regard to a lifestyle or historical possibilities; future directed behavior (as opposed to tradition) tends to accelerate the proliferation of alternatives. Traditional cultures may see themselves as repeating a finite number of alternatives in the present; in modern cultures, the future opens up a vast field of historical and lifestyle choices. This proliferation of alternatives can be a source of great anxiety and often results in cultural attempts to restrict alternatives in the face of this anxiety (for example, China and its strict imperialistic control over its varied populations). Let’s keep in mind that it is not the alternatives themselves which create this anxiety, it is the sense that the proliferation of alternatives has or will become unmanageable.

For most of humanity, Modernity has created a world view in us that is primarily abstract; that is, we experience the world as composed of fragmented, and separable units. Abstraction is a difficult word to define; for our purposes, it is the idea that areas of existence and culture can be separated from, that is abstracted out of, other areas of existence and culture. In addition, we tend to form social groups that are largely based on abstractions (corporations, nations, economic classes, religious preferences, race (which is really an abstract rather than a physical or biological category or relationship), sexual preferences, etc.). As a result, membership in social groups tends to be unstable and transitory as one can easily move between social groups. This, again, creates a high sense of anxiety and tension; this anxiety results, on the one hand, in attempts within these abstract groups to define and redefine themselves as real, that is, not abstract, as well as attempting to limit the possible number of social groups; that is, to manage the alternatives. In distinction to Modernity, traditional cultures tended to experience the world as whole and integrated; separate areas of existence and culture are seen as integrally related to other areas of existence and culture. I n addition, social groups are based on real, biological kinship ties, so that social relations tend to be stable and permanent.

Finally, we see ourselves as having lost tradition; that is, that our behavior patterns, our rituals, etc., are all new and innovative, that we are not repeating the past. But in fact, the experience of Modernity is, in fact, to live in traditional ways and to repeat tradition in unrecognizable or changed forms. Modern cultures still perform traditional rituals, such as sports; yet to a degree, the origin and prior meanings of these rituals have passed out of the culture. Modern cultures still repeat ways of thinking in the past; in fact, the bulk of modern culture is based on traditional ways of thinking repeated relatively unchanged; yet often modern cultures tend to view these ways of thinking as innovations. Even though our modern social groups may be based on abstract categories, the structure and content of these social groups repeat the structure and content of previous kinship groups, in other words, we tend to base our abstract social groups on principles derived from reality; we do not, however, experience these social groups as reality. So, in sum, the idea that Modernity is discontinuous with the past, is an illusion. This illusion creates Modernity itself. What has changed is social connectivity; we have disconnected most of the practices and ideas from our collective memory of an activity s origins and meaning. This now leads us through our previous history to the concepts, reasoning, and experiences of Post-Modern thought.

The Post-Modern Condition:

The cultural traits of a Post-Modern society can be characterized simply as an information-based society. It is a society which believes that Modernity has failed, bringing with it the persistence of inequality; that progress may not, bring a better life, that science and technology create as many problems as it solves, that reality is not scientific and objective, but creates a socially constructed condition for which cultural debates intensify and can lead to violence and reactionary movements, and that social and public institutions are in constant change; thus, requiring and even demanding more stability. The benefits of Modernity or of Post-Modern structures can be questionable; many individuals of this new electronic age do not completely embrace consumerism, and in some cases are critical of technology, but nevertheless embrace its potential.

There can be no doubt that the historical circumstances of the late twentieth century are very different from those of earlier periods. What the transformations of contemporary social life has been, however, and the relative significance of these changes with respect to one another is a matter that can be highly varied, and I don t presume to know everything about Post-Modern thought or philosophy, because it can take on many aspects, and I/we could be entirely fooling ourselves if we try to express it.

Post-Modernity does seem to represent some kind of a break with the past, in fact Post-Modernity may simply be an extension of Modernity. However, Post-Modernity in this age seems to be characterized by new societal forms, and relationships between the cultural, economic, political and social realms, and a return to traditional values. There is a new kind of enmeshing of the cultural, economic and political spheres in Post-Modernity, combining the Modernist with Marxian ideals creating together our Post-Modern Age.


There has been a transformation of the content and forms of contemporary culture and even in our notions of “culture” (for example, high versus low or popular culture) including dramatic changes in the nature of the media and in the content and forms of presentation of media images (the “television generation, the “electronic age, the “information age, the “voyeuristic society, etc.); an increased awareness of the plurality of national, ethnic and linguistic viewpoints with the internationalizing of communications and global interaction, etc.; a radical shift from colonialist to post-colonialist perspectives on modernization, and questions of “Third World” and community development which produces problems of coping with the plurality of perspectives on the world without any credible source; the loss of relative autonomy of the cultural sphere (as distinct from the economic and political spheres) with the recognition that culture and communications are an industry and that they are politicized, not “objective”, “neutral” or necessarily critical. Similarly, there have been massive changes in the nature, content and form of economic structures and interrelationships, for example through the shifts which have made a large proportion of the world’s production information rather than the production of goods and services ; global unification controlling the means of production and a complementary diffusion, fragmentation and privatization (individualization) of consumption; new conflicts over development, modernization and exploitation versus the necessity of the ecology movement, conservation and the preservation of natural diversity; and so forth.


The break away from 19th-century values and traditions is often classified as Modernism and carries the connotations of transgression, rebellion, and a loss of soul and humanity. However, the last twenty or so years have seen a change in this attitude toward focusing upon a series of unresolvable philosophical and social debates, such as race, gender and class. Rather than challenging and destroying cultural definitions, as does Modernism, Post-Modernism resists the very idea of boundaries. It regards distinctions as undesirable and even impossible, so that an almost Utopian or Marxist world, free from all constraints, becomes possible. It must be realized though, that Post-Modernism has many interpretations and that no single definition is adequate.

Different disciplines have participated in the Post-Modernist movement in varying ways, for example, in architecture traditional limits have become indistinguishable, so that what is commonly on the outside of a building is placed within, and vice versa. In commercial terms Post-Modernism may be seen as part of the growth of consumer capitalism into multinational and technological identities. Its all-embracing nature thus makes Post-Modernism as relevant to the common folk of society as to the great thinkers and intellectuals. Post-Modernism it would seem is the reason for the emergence of interdisciplinary and cultural studies in universities. Post-Modernism, then, is a mode of consciousness (and not, it should be emphasized, a historical period) that is highly suspicious of the belief in shared speech, shared values, and shared perceptions that some would like to believe form our culture but which in fact may be no more than empty, if necessary, fictions.

I believe we should be committed to salvaging what we can of the ideals of Enlightenment and Modernity. We need to stay open to all valid claims of reasoning, knowledge, spirit, tradition, and humanity; for we are not, and cannot be, all knowing in this life. To be focused so completely upon Post-Modernism or Modernity, suggests that we can somehow define a group, any group, in the sense of its cultural essence; which is not in truth completely possible or even wise. Are we in a Post-Modern Age? I would say yes as a defined theory or word, but in the reality of man and life, the answer is No. Man is continually changing and adapting and for ever continuing to progress in spirit, technology, and social/cultural adaptation. Whatever age we are presently in, we are modern compared to the one before, each age lives its own Modernity; each era obligated to find its own balance between Nature and Technology, Tradition and Progress; a continuous cycle until the end of man.

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