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Modernity and Postmodern Culture

Jim McGuigan
Open University Press: Buckingham
0335199151 (pb); 033519916X (hb)
13.99 (pb); 45.00 (hb)

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Following on from his critical survey of British cultural studies (Cultural Populism, Routledge 1992) and his account of contemporary (mostly) British cultural policy (Culture and the Public Sphere, Routledge 1996) Jim McGuigan now attempts to take on directly that which he had stalked in these two works - the 'postmodernists'.

McGuigan's argument, put simply, is that postmodernism is a philosophical idealism, relativist and nihilist. In placing 'post' after modernity it raises serious questions about the validity and vitality of the Modern (and Enlightenment) project. The 'postmodernity' thesis is nevertheless rejected; we have not transcended capitalism and anyway, there are many others (Giddens, Beck, Habermas, Jameson)who can give convincing accounts of contemporary phenomena without claiming a distinct 'postmodern' world nor dismissing intellectual modernity - or at least that part of it called 'critical reason'. However, McGuigan does accept something called 'postmodern culture'. This is not in the avant-garde artistic or architectural notion of the word; he goes with Frederick Jameson's 'cultural logic of late capitalism': '[post]modern culture... is best understood as culture in general, including contemporary mass-popular culture, media texts and everyday experiences, conceived on the model of a force field or structure of feeling' (5)

His argument begins with Lyotard's book (which is hideously shortened for no apparent reason to The Pomo Con.) trying to put it into context about questions of epistemology; we then get an account of postmodernism in architecture and a summary of various texts about Disneyworld. This is the closest we get to a systematic account of what/who 'the postmodernists' are. The chapter on 'Modernity - an incomplete project' is one of two substantial chapters; from Habermas we go back to Kant and the Enlightenment, facing feminist and 'orientalist' critiques along the way. After an interlude on Foucault - to which I will return - we get a second hand account of the Lyotard-Habermas 'debate' and a brief summary of Bauman's indictment of the enlightenment in Modernity and the Holocaust. In pursuit of McGuigan's claim that 'the project of intellectual modernity is revisable and, in theory, renewable' we get a five page recounting of Steven Lukes' 'utopian' novel The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat. Chapter three prefers Baudrillard to Jameson; Chapter four notes the fragmentation of identities as central to postmodern thinking but points out in the light of non-western critiques; first, that this is less a de-constructive 'opening to others' than one might suppose and; second, that in some hands (Huntington) this can lead to a conservative, fortress Europe approach. Chapter five gives us a straight, roundly positive summary of Castels - which 'in scope and ambition...clearly does bear comparison to the greatest works in the history of social science'(104). The last chapter is the second substantive one in which he looks at the notion of 'Risk Society', general epistemological and ontological feelings of uncertainty, and the status of scientific knowledge.

McGuigan's intentions are clear: [T]he argument of this book [is] that the postmodernisation of culture does not transcend historical modernity though it is a powerful challenge to intellectual modernity' (123). The concluding lines spell this out: 'Instrumental reason is useful but blind. Ironic reason is fun but irresponsible. Critical reason is crucial'. (151) The problem throughout is that 'the postmodernists' hardly ever turn up to play. Lyotard is given the most exposure, though refuted by Habermas. Baudrillard is brought on mostly for comic effect, especially in the conclusion, where a quote is introduced as an example of 'the wit and wisdom of postmodernism'. (150) The section on Foucault is revealing. His work on 'the ruses of modern reason' is invoked but not discussed - Baudelaire is introduced merely so the Flaneur can be set up as a portrait - avant la letter - of the contemporary, bohemian postmodernist. And before that charge is discussed we are with the real inspiration of Foucault the postmodernist - Nietzsche, 'the evil genius of neo-conservatism'. This book fails to give a real sense of the challenge posed by 'the postmodernists' and thus can only fail in its project. The description 'fun but irresponsible' does no justice to the work of whose who have transformed the intellectual landscape of the second half of the 20th century. It reduces postmodernism to an intellectual flaneurism (is this bad? We aren't told but left to assume it is.); and leaves us, not with the sense of great challenge, such as Perry Anderson's editorial in the first issue of the new series New Left Review, but the silly sectarianism of the senior common room.

Justin O'Connor
University of Turku, Finland

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