Translated by Greg Johnson
In 1917, in Die Krisis der europäischen Kultur (The Crisis of European Culture), Rudolf Pannwitz described the Nietzschean Superman as “postmodern.” The concept then underwent a long eclipse before re-appearing in philosophical debate in 1979.
Jean-François Lyotard is one of the first to see that a complete change of civilization took place before the eyes of his contemporaries without them even noticing. In 1979, he published his fundamental work The Postmodern Condition . The central idea is the insistence of the “exhaustion of the grand narratives” or, in another striking formula, “the end of the metanarratives”: progressive emancipation of reason and freedom, enrichment of humanity by scientific progress and technology, Christian salvation . . . The aims, pell-mell, of the philosophical heirs of the Enlightenment, the Marxists who promise the revolutionary “great evening,” and all the “unrepentant believers.” But it is, above all, the great scientific narrative of 19th-century positivist modernity, the belief in the inexorable march of progress, that was carried off by the postmodern groundswell.
With postmodernity, the very idea of the autonomous subject, the “rational animal,” foundered, the victim of a triple crisis. First, the crisis of the idea of progress. Any transformation has human, social, and environmental costs. Technological prowess produces increasing dehumanization, profligacy, and abuse. Second, the unprecedented crisis of reason. The narrow rationalism and positivism of the 19th century were swept away, knowledge changes unceasingly. Rational demonstrations are replaced by mystico-esoteric explanations and recourse to magic and clairvoyance. Finally, the crisis of the very affirmation of the subject. Following Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud — “Masters of suspicion” according to Paul Ricoeur — man became aware that what we say and do obey other interests than those stated officially. Behind the grand words of “civilization” and “humanity” new enterprises of domination hide — the “alibi humanitarianism” of the charity business for example.
The Age of the Vacuous and Ephemeral
The principal merit of the concept of postmodernity is to announce that developed Western societies have entered a process of radical change in their social, cultural, and political modes of organization: the collapse of rationality and bankruptcy of the great ideologies, but also the end of the productivist industrial age, the rise of individualism and mass consumption, the deterioration of authoritative and disciplinary standards, disaffection for political passions and militancy.
The philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky magisterially analyzes this phenomenon in L’Ere du vide: Essais sur l’individualisme contemporain.  (The Age of Emptiness: Essays on Contemporary Individualism) and L’Empire de l’éphémère (The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy ). According to him, postmodern society is characterized by a hedonistic neo-individualism that he calls the “second individualistic revolution,” the principal features of which are divestment from the public sphere, a loss of the meaning of the great social and political institutions, the dissolution of collective memory, the passion for new technologies, moral relativism, exacerbated narcissism — also denounced by Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism . For Lipovetsky, this individualism of the anti-authoritarian masses is a “democratic chance.”
As for the sociologist Michel Maffesoli, he defends a resolutely libertarian and aesthetic vision of postmodernity characterized by a return of the Dionysian and irrational, polytheism of values, urban neo-tribalism, lack of sexual differentiation, professional mobility.
Modernity and the Faustian Spirit
For all that, must we hope that postmodernity will lead to the end of every form of modernity? According to Wolfgang Welsh, the author of a remarkable book on the subject, modernity is a world view that starts with the great project of a “Mathesis Universalis” desired by Descartes, carried forward by the myths of Aufklärung, of the Enlightenment. At that time bourgeois individualism impregnated the right, with the American and French revolutions — see the work of Louis Dumont — the great modern ideologies are born, from economic liberalism to Marxism, which promise a unification of the world under the reign of reason.
It is advisable, however, to distinguish two different modernities that appeared at the end of the Renaissance. The first, moralistic and devitalized, corresponds to the narrow calculative rationalism professed by the bourgeois man so well described by Werner Sombart and is the origin of the irenic messianisms and other grand ameliorative narratives of modern ideologies. The second rationality, audacious and conquering, corresponds to an ascetic and creative rationalism theorized by Max Weber and is the origin of the great scientific discoveries.
In their Dialectic of Enlightenment , Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno distinguish two kinds of reason in European thought. The first, which receives their allegiance, is purely normative, the reason of the “metanarrative” that imposes abstract standards, develops an ethics of conviction, and is allergic to any will to power. The other is strictly “instrumental” and gives power to its user. It is scientific and technical reason as described by Max Weber, which controls the forces of the universe and puts them in the service of man. The Frankfurt School, inspired by the biblical rejection of human power, portrays the second form of reason as Promethean and the source of all evils, from capitalism to Fascism, from electro-Fascism to the destruction of nature.
According to Oswald Spengler, this “instrumental” reason incarnates in the dynamic voluntarism that characterizes the “Faustian” culture of the West, which is affirmed as the “most powerful, most vehement,” as “a will for power that laughs at all temporal or spatial limitations, which precisely regards the unlimited and infinite as constituting its objectives.”
For Spengler, modernity is an ambiguous phenomenon. Like the Roman god Janus, it presents two faces: on one side, a Faustian and adventurous vitalism, the transformer of organic nature; on the other, a homogenizing and inorganic ideology that aims to standardize whole planet, putting an end to the age of “high cultures” (Hochkulturen). The first corresponds to our tragic vision of the world, the second with the progressivist vision of History, prevalent since the Renaissance.
But even Faustian modernity leads to the reign of quantity, to “The Disenchantment of the World ” — according to the formula of Marcel Gauchet. Such is the fate of the Faustian spirit when it is cut off from its founding myths, as emphasized by Robert Steuckers: “conquering rationality, if it is torn away from its founding myths, its ethno-identitarian soil, its Indo-European matrix, falls – even after attacks that are the most impetuous, inert, and devoid of substance – into the snares of petty calculative rationalism and the dull ideology of the “Great narratives.’”
The Postmodern Interregnum
One can define postmodernity as an interregnum. Giorgio Locchi described this interregnum as a period of waiting during which destiny hangs between two options: either to complete the triumph of egalitarian conception of the world, the “end of the history,” or to promote a historical regeneration.
Thus, for Lipovetsky, since September 11th, 2001 we have fallen into Hypermodern Times , marked by American hyper-power, hyper-consumption, and hyper-narcissism. The here and now is predominant. The triumph of instantaneity signifies the end of any progressivist vision, but also the defeat of any Promethean attitude. The hedonic present wins out.
Against this postmodern, consumerist, narcissist “best of all possible worlds,” we can hope for the advent of a postmodernity combining Faustian vitality and ethno-European rootedness.
1. J.-F. Lyotard, La condition postmoderne (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1979).
2. G. Lipovetsky, L’ère du vide. Essais sur l’individualisme contemporain (Paris: Gallimard, 1983).
3. G. Lipovetsky, L’Empire de l’éphémère : la mode et son destin dans les sociétés modernes (Paris: Gallimard, 1987).
4. M. Maffesoli, Le temps des tribus: le déclin de l’individualisme dans les sociétés postmodernes (Paris: Table Ronde, 2010).
5. W. Welsh, Unsere Postmoderne Moderne (Weinheim: VCH Acta Humaniora, 1987).
6. W. Sombart, Le bourgeois (Paris: Payot, 1966).
7. M. Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 1969).
8. O. Spengler, Le Déclin de l’Occident (Paris: Gallimard, coll. Bibliothèque des idées, 1976), I.
9. R. Steuckers, “Défis post-modernes: entre Faust et Narcisse ,” Orientations, no.10, 1988.
10. G. Locchi, Nietzsche, Wagner e il mito sovrumanist (Rome: Akropolis, 1982).
11. G. Lipovetsky, Les Temps hypermodernes. Entretien avec Sébastien Charles (Paris: Grasset, 2004).
Edouard Rix, Réfléchir & Agir, no. 37, Winter 2011, pp. 49–50.