We find ourselves in an unstable world. The old concepts of thought and language that put the things we know in clearly defined and neatly sorted boxes are out of date. Welcome to what we call the postmodern era! The problem of this postmodern area is that even the words “modern”, and everything aligned with it like “premodern” and “postmodern”, are not defined concepts with one sole description any more, but fluid ideas with changing boundaries and debatable contents, because “the elementary distinctions of the modern era lose credibility” (Seidman, p.123).
The basic ground of understanding here is 1) the realization that the way we picture modernity shapes the way we understand everything related to it, like pre-modernity, postmodernity, or anti-modernity, and 2) the believe that “modernity” is more than a word to describe a phase of time in history, but is also a way of thinking – from everyday life to the essence of scientific knowledge.
Yet depending on which author you confer with, they all try to make sense of modernity through different approaches. Sharabi for example observes the question of modernity through the study of neopatriarchy, while Euben analyses fundamentalism, and Sheehi looks at what he calls Arab Subjectivity. Steven Seidman addresses the issue with the reference to the classical poststructuralist thinkers Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard and Foucault.
To give a generalizing overview over the differences between modernity and postmodernity, one can say that modernity is understood in terms of structural thinking and the firm believe that there is a certain amount of things to know “out there” in the world and that this knowledge can be accessed by man made technologies and methodologies and be put together in one “grand theory” that describes it all, while the view of postmodern thinking is that everything we know or can ever hope to know is incomplete, subjective, and just understandable in terms of local problems. Or as Foucault puts it: “The role for theory today seems to me to be just this: not to formulate the global systematic theory which holds everything in place, but to analyze the specificity of mechanisms of power, to locate the connections and extensions, to build little by little a strategic knowledge.” (Seidman, p.177)
One thing I find rather peculiar about postmodern thinking is that postmodernism assumes that nothing can be put into generalizable terms anymore, whereby it does exactly the same thing as modernism before, in the sense that the new general theory is that there are no general theories. I am not going as far as to challenge the idea of postmodernism, but I wanted to point out this paradox.
Another fascinating thing I wanted to address, especially in reference to the classical poststructuralist thinkers mentioned in Seidman and a parallel between them, is that they all think in three stages: before modernity, modernity, and after modernity. This shows us that the world history of thought is centered around modernity. Following this argumentation we can conclude that this centrality of modernity comes along with a western domination over the area of scientific knowledge. Western ideas are put at the center of the scientific galaxy around which everything else rotates. And all the other thoughts are then either “pre”-modern, modern or “post”-modern. But more than that, consulting John Gray, I would like to argue, that the “three stages” align themselves with classical Christian thought going back to Joachim of Flora (1132-1202) who interpreted the “history of man” as a teleological ascendence of humanity through three stages – an idea which was used again and again over the time and found its way into the classic separation of historic times into ancient, medieval and modern (cf. Gray, p.12f). Modernity being the third and final stage of humanity rising towards the ultimate stage has a certain “divine” sound to it and depicts something that is worth aspiring to and in a way also determined to happen eventually.
In this perspective every thought, model, or society that is not modern is depicted as “falling back” or even “bad” – a thought Euben supports in the analysis of the different perspectives on fundamentalism as being pre-modern, which she defines as being seen “implicitly parasitic” (Euben, p.430), anti-modern, a view which makes Islamic believe and modernity incommensurate, or postmodern, which is seen as another critique of western modernity in the plurality of the different approaches characterizing the postmodern, poststructuralist world.
The personal conclusion I take from the literature and the debate about modernity and postmodernity is a certain caution when using terms, a potential courage to dare and question concepts, and an understanding that there is no one theory to explain it all but that behind every new piece of knowledge is another several questions – a phenomenon which is best summed up by Stuart Firestein (2013) who concludes in his “pursuit of ignorance” that knowledge generates more things we do not know about. To be honest, it is this conclusion that leaves me in a state of relief, knowing that no one can ever achieve an all encompassing theory to explain it all and that therefore my personal focus as a scientist should be to solve local, manageable problems, that need not be generalized to global dynamics but can be accepted as what they are: local and unique.
In the context of Middle Eastern Studies the literature also leads to the conclusion to dare and address “other”, meaning “non western”, perspectives, theories and writings of history into account, trying to surpass the question of modernity and postmodernity by stoping to think in three stages and modernity to be the ultimate ascendence of humanity.