What in the world is POST-MODERNISM.


According to the dictionary, Post-Modernism is definable as : “a style and movement in art, architecture, literature, etc. in the late 20th century that reacts against modern styles, for example by mixing features from traditional and modern styles.” Postmodernism is then concerned with the individual and their interaction with the world and the things the individual is exposed to in this world. Therefore, postmodernism relates to the way that the individual chooses to be affected, and in turn affect the environment in which they find themselves with the information and things they are exposed. Knowledge cures ignorance, if you are knowledgeable, be contagious (Carney, J. 2001).

Keywords: postmodernism, metaphysical, individualism, space, race, relationship

This essay aims to discuss by means of critical analysis, the relationship that could be said to exist between postmodernism and its concern with spatial understandings of South Africa especially concerning urban areas and their relationship with apartheid. The essay will first attempt to give a definition of postmodernism and then move towards a discussion of the spatial relationships with relation to apartheid in places like Soweto, and Johannesburg. The essay will draw examples from Phaswane Mpe’s “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” (Mpe, P.  2000) for contextualization where necessary. Phaswane Mpe’s “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” (Mpe, P. 2000) was written after the apartheid era and handles issues surrounding the way black people perceive the world and how they choose to be affected by it. The text is problematic because in its honest representation it cannot help but show the places people come from have a role to play with their displacement from those places and how they fit into the fragmented notion of the city.

Postmodernism relates to the way that the individual chooses to be affected, and in turn affect the environment in which they find themselves with the information and things they are exposed. Knowledge cures ignorance, if you are knowledgeable, be contagious (Carney, J. 2001). Lyotard says this notion is best defined or rather understood as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” (Lyotard, J. 2004). The incredulity, Lyotard says; “is undoubtedly a product of progress in the science: but that progress in turn presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds, most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it.” He goes on to explain further by saying “Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of authorities; it refines our sensitivity of differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable. Its principle is not the expert’s homology, but the inventor’s paralogy” (Lyotard, J. 2004). Lyotard is saying that the notion of “monkey see, monkey do” should become obsolete because it places limitations on society’s individual views of the world. He is saying that blind faith need not be the way in which people undertake life; that there is much more to be achieved when the individual is able to embrace their individualism. Metaphysical is one way of explaining it through the reasoning the metaphysics calls for a look at deeper, more internalised things like faith. Lyotard reiterates that the need to see what is in front of one’s eyes for yourself is more important because it allows the individual to be better, more empowered. Postmodernism is characterized by strategies of irony, intertextuality, pastiche, bricolage, eclecticism, self-reflexivity, and a theoretical position, which adopts a sceptical attitude towards totalising notions of truth, reality, and progress (Nelmes, J. 2007). According to Jill Nelmes, postmodernism says that psychoanalysis and Marxism are no longer practicable as they attempt to legitimize without question the way culture and society should be perceived. Postmodernism places increased emphasis on a fragmented acknowledgement, perception, and understanding of everything humanity finds itself surrounded with as well as the concept that there is no one philosophical truth (Nelmes, J. 2007). Charles Jencks in his book, Critical Modernism where is post-modernism going? ; says by having double meaning postmodernism simultaneously maintains and transcends modernism (Jencks, C. 2007).

I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, ‘I love you madly’, because he knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say, ‘As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly’. At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her; but he loves her in an age of lost innocence. If the woman goes along with this, she will have received a declaration of love all the same. Neither of the two speakers will feel innocent, both will have accepted the challenge of the past, of the already said, which cannot be eliminated; both will consciously and with pleasure play the game of irony… But both will have succeeded, once again, in speaking of love (Eco, U. 1984).

This statement by Umberto Eco, one of the key literary polemics of postmodernism, reiterates the idea of postmodernism and is applicable to the notion of spatial relationships of urban areas in South Africa and apartheid. The relationship in this instance derives from as Edward Soja’s attempt to make society consider more than the expected disciplinary objects of inquiry – the landscape, the region, location, and place – but also to concern ourselves with the power relations at work in the construction of individual and collective spatialities, and the consequences of those constructions (Soja, E. 1989). This in turns looks at notions of the features of oppression. From race, gender, class based oppression and the effects it in turn has on social life, from economy and culture to politics and environment, and possible ways of deconstructing those forms of oppression. With this regard, Edward Soja forms an aspect of this spatiality that he calls the ‘third space’. This third space exists as a space that is for debunking the expected, the binaries; this insertion undermines the inevitability of such concepts, revealing their transience as well as the power interests that lie behind their construction and deconstruction (Soja, E. 1989). “Basically what the strategy suggests is that when faced with a strict binary choice, with an either/or option, one should reject the imposed binary, deconstruct and disorder it, and force it open to a multiplicity of alternative choices. This notion is evident in Phaswane Mpe’s “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” (Mpe, P. 2000). Because of where the characters are from, village / rural area dwellers as well as foreigners, their fellow city dwellers especially black people immediately marginalize them. It goes back to the binaries of black and white except in this instance it is black South African and black foreigner. It reiterates and forms a new racism, which has been named xenophobia and even xeno-racism. Edward Soja’s ideology of ‘third space’ is practised by the main character who tries to exist without the bounds of xeno-racism, being welcoming to the beggar on the side of the road on the route to the university though not openly because of what society has constructed to be normal and not normal.

With this regard it is then possible to see that postmodernism is far from making modernism obsolete. On the contrary, it casts a new light on it and appropriates many of its aesthetic strategies and techniques inserting them and making them work in new constellations. What has become obsolete; however, are those codifications of modernism in critical discourse, which, however subliminally, are based on a teleological view of progress and modernization (Huyssen, A. 1984). Therefore, in conclusion, this essay has successfully attempted to show the relationship that exists between postmodernism and its concern with spatial understandings of South Africa especially concerning urban areas and their relationship with apartheid. By its attempt to define postmodernism the essay has tried to give an understanding of what postmodernism is and coherently explain the spatial relationships it has with relation to apartheid in places like Soweto, and Johannesburg through examples from Phaswane Mpe’s “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” (Mpe, P.  2000).


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