A Fresh Look at Postmodernity

The graduate student workshop “Asian Postmodernities and their Legacies” (Zurich, March 30–31, 2012) offered the opportunity to critically rethink the concept of ‘postmodernity.’

Sourav Kargupta

Limitation of space can mean both help and hindrance, it limits too often and too soon but also gives one excuse to do succinct formulations, take swift steps visiting varied themes. Therefore, contradictory it may sound, the planned shortness of this article might also give me the opportunity to touch upon as many issues as possible.

I arrived in Zurich via Freiburg, and this circuitous route already meant something. In Freiburg, I took part in a conference called the “Journey of Epistemologies,” which somehow set the tone for my journey to Zurich. The importance of the workshop “Asian Postmodernities and their Legacies” lay in raising precisely the epistemological question without compromising the particularities of located spaces (‘Asias’) [1]. The workshop tried to deal with the problematic of knowledge production head-on, without giving into the temptation of getting enclosed inside exclusive descriptions of ‘Asian differences.’ This goal was conditioned by the workshop’s interdisciplinary design as well as by its inner organization consisting of several interconnected yet varied thematic segments. The central aim was to map the postmodern trajectory. Accordingly, someone who might be exclusively interested in her own area, say ‘gender’ or ‘body,’ was invited to reflect on a theme like postmodern cityscape or tourism. In a time of increasing specialization when scholars tend to confine themselves to exclusive cocoons, the workshop set up a much-needed place for academic exchange.

Between high theory and close readings

For me personally, it was a bit tentative to begin with since I realized that the set-up had a major tilt toward Chinese studies, which is not my area. The challenge for me, then, was about navigating unknown territories and facing scholars working on and from a very different context. I perceived my job as one of understanding the underlying methodological assumptions of the presentations and of connecting them to some general scholarly problematic. In short, I could enjoy a rather pure adventure in epistemological thought, which ironically was possible precisely because I could not fully relate to the concrete contexts of most of the papers. Such free interaction would not have been possible without the academic openness shown by the participants, who kept a nice balance between high theory and close readings of particular textualities. It provided me with a glimpse of that possible space of which I have always been confident: an open forum of dialogue over the narrow confines of research conceived as the labor of the individual.

It would be unfair to pick a few of the papers or sessions and concentrate exclusively on them. And yet, within the space-limit, it would also not be fair to dedicate single lines here and there to crucial themes discussed in the workshop. I will therefore isolate only one thread, which seems to me to be representative of the workshop’s general idea. To me, what came to the fore repeatedly even amidst the multi-voiced discussions was the need the think the ‘postmodern subject of ethico-politics.’ If I may put the problematic succinctly: how to think politics alongside a postmodernist critique of subjectivity. ‘Rights talk,’ as we know, almost always remains tied to an assumption of some essential category (be it ‘woman,’ ‘subject’ or ‘body’). But how can this tally with a (postmodernist) paradigm that is anti-essential to its core? This issue opens up the crack between a theory that questions ‘subject formation’ and a politics that must work with a ‘stable subject.’ To think of the two together may well be the most important theoretical challenge of our time. The workshop posed this question from diverse angles and was able to discuss it with an academic openness, which is, to my consideration, rare.

The danger of essentialism

The workshop ended with some papers on ‘spectrality,’ or, to borrow from Jessica Imbach’s (Zurich) paper, the ‘politics of ghosts.’ What can be the shape of such a spectral politics, which bases itself on a subjectivity of the shapeless? This leads once again to the problem of thinking politics, which requires minimal essentialism in the form of a subject from within the framework of postmodernism that resists any predication of such a stable subject. Can the answer lie in a deconstructive double bind which thinks of the two in an ‘aporetic embrace?’ [2] An embrace that posits the subject not as merely decentered but as always in the process of being produced? [3] I can only leave these questions open.

Liu Xiao’s (Berkeley) paper dealt with another aspect of this tricky problematic when she tried to make a distinction between information and knowledge at the site of the ‘literary.’ Xiao’s argument faced the formidable challenge of thinking a critique of commodified knowledge without falling back onto a concept of the ‘proper,’ pure knowledge. This again indicated the productive difficulty of postmodernism, which tries to do away with any notion of properness or ideal form [4].

Crisscrossing voices

This brings me to my own presentation, which was wonderfully set up by Justyna Jaguścik’s (Zurich) paper, which already raised the question of the ‘body’ and of ‘writing’ in comparison with what she termed the “commodification of feminine representations.” In my paper I tried to think how this very representation could be opened up through the deconstructive lever of ‘writing.’

In closing, I hope I give voice to everyone’s wish when I say that we look forward to another meeting of this kind: a meeting of ‘everyone’ who came together in a space that the map calls Zurich, only to drift apart a few days later. Yet they left behind traces and trails, crisscrossing voices in debates and dialogues that linger in their memories much like the sound of the sea deep within a shell.


1 One might object that a ‘postmodernist’ approach cannot be tied so readily with an epistemological program since the latter is not a ‘new’ question by any stretch of imagination. Yet, here one should remember Judith Butlers remark that, “the pursuit of the ‘new’ is the preoccupation of high modernism; if anything, the postmodern casts doubt upon the possibility of a ‘new’ that is not in some way already implicated in the ‘old.’” See Judith Butler, “Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of Postmodernism”, in: Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott (eds.) (1992), Feminists Theorize the Political, Routledge, p. 6.

2 “An aporia is different from a dilemma in that it is insoluble – each choice cancels the other – and yet it is solved by an unavoidable decision that can never be pure.” See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1996): Spivak Reader, Routledge, p. 282. It is in this non-righteous decision, which demands immense responsibility, that I am trying to situate the postmodern-political.

3 Deconstruction does not think of the subject as decentered; on the contrary, the work of its centering would be its concern. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1993): Outside in the Teaching Machine. Routledge, pp.131–32.

4 The fragments of knowledge can only organize themselves around the constitutive pull of the subject (of knowledge) who might give them their proper place. But how to think of this subject also as fragmented? This reminds me of what Prof. Andrea Riemenschnitter (Zurich) mentioned in her opening speech (by the way of Lyotard) as the ‘empty dream of a loss’ always unaccounted for.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 2/2013, pp. 14–15)