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Briefing Paper Series
Bernt Pölling-Vocke (email@example.com)
Master of International Relations
Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand
|Postmodernism vs. "the rationalist way in which all of the above has been discussed"|
naivety. Orthodox rationalists and their analytical languages
appear to lead towards “the truth”, but as “orthodox rationalists
do not know what they do not know”, it comes as no surprise that
detachment and the hypothetico-deductive method have proven of little
value to understand human and world affairs. Basically, the
epistemological price-tag of orthodox rationalism comprises that the
longed-for truth without preconceptions, resulting in a maximised
capacity for prediction and control, proves to be of restricted value in
explaining what it set out to explain.
what are the findings if we apply reason on itself?
orthodox science has to be immune from the influence of power, the
en-masse prioritizing of reason as an end in itself is doomed to fail if
power and knowledge correlate, as postmodernists argue. As reason
stems from knowledge – you can only reason about and detach yourself
from what you know – knowledge has to be pure. “But it isn’t”,
postmodernist moan, and point out that power and knowledge are mutually
supportive. Modes of interpretation – analytical languages – are
consistent to operations of power, which lead to a contamination of
knowledge. A clear example is the state, by no means a pre-given feature
of world affairs, but a man-made feature upon which all analytical
languages are based. “How can you claim to be detached and in the
pursuit of pure knowledge if you remain attached to man-made features as
states and sovereignty”, postmodernists would challenge, as
“different configurations of power and knowledge give rise to
different conceptions of sovereignty, statehood and intervention” (Devetak),
all compatible with the modernist project, yet all so different. As
power influences knowledge, any attempt to reach the “truth without
preconceptions” has to fail.
often use genealogy to expose and register the significance of
power-knowledge relations. It focuses on the processes by which origins
have been constructed and by which particular representations of the
past guide daily lives and social/political options. Far from
representing history, “accepted world history” (and thus the
foundation for rationalist analysis of world affairs) is full of
exclusions and cover-ups. Postmodernists therefore focus on
counter-histories, less to portray the impossible-to-get-to “truth”,
but to highlight that there are many histories, not one grand-history.
All knowledge is situated in particular time and place issues from
particular perspectives. As knowledge is never unconditioned and
plurality of perspectives reigns, the modern ideal of an objective or
all-encompassing perspective is absolutely unrealistic to reach. Issues
of orthodox international relations are thus struggles to impose
authoritative interpretations of these, with hegemonic interpretations
often being confused with “the truth”.
is also concerned with the “textual interplay behind power politics”.
With the world being understood as a “text”, all reference to it are
interpretative. Orthodox analytical languages qualify as such
interpretations, but postmodernists argue that interpretations of
interpretations are more helpful in understanding world affairs than
interpretations themselves. Once again, as interpretations are grounded
in knowledge and knowledge correlates with power, the mere idea of
basing rationalist conclusions upon these constructions are absurd.
George Bush refers to “good and evil” and frames the world in such
terms, techniques just as used during the Cold war era, postmodernists
argue that neither term is pure or complete, but only becomes so in
contrast to the other. This analysis is referred to as deconstruction,
the unsettling of what are taken to be stable concepts and conceptual
oppositions. As each term depends on the other, neither term is clear
nor truly oppositional, and if analytical languages grounded in the
modernist project reach a stage where oppositions are used in the
process of rational thought, rationalism fails. Double readings
are also a useful, postmodernist tool to illustrate shortcomings of
dominating analytical languages. The concept of “anarchy” (on the
state-level) is a good example, as realism, for example, grounds its
problems on the lack of a central rule. Clearly, the anarchy
problematique rests on a series of questionable, theoretical
suppositions or exclusions, and sovereignty and anarchy are mutually
exclusive concepts, which have to be deconstructed. By double-reading
the concept of anarchy it becomes possible to show that the anarchy
problematique orthodox analytical languages rest upon only work based
upon certain assumptions, and if the supposedly rational conclusions of
the modernist project rest upon such assumptions, failure of true
explanation is inescapable.
relations are concerned with long-standing themes such as states,
sovereignty and violence. Postmodernism revises these themes in view of
insights gained from genealogy and deconstruction, which means that it
has to be questioned by what means the sovereign state has been
institutionalized as the normal mode of international subjectivity. Of
course the world is made up out of states to which orthodox analytical
languages refer, but if reason is turned back on itself, it appears
unreasonable that the world could not be or become a completely
different one. Therefore, contemporary en-masse rationalism as an end in
itself only operates within man-made parameters and is, observed from
the postmodern sidelines, not all that rational. “Postmodernism is
thus interested in how prevailing modes of subjectivity neutralise or
conceal their arbitrariness by projecting an image of normalcy,
naturalness, or necessity” (Devetak).
critiques the ethics of sovereignty and subsequent exclusion and
questions whether the state can any longer be a useful descriptive
category or an effective response to humanity’s problems.
Postmodernists also argue that democracy within sovereign but
historically quite arbitrary states is incompatible with democracy in an
increasing interdependent, globalized world.
conclusion, postmodernism can be described as an all-out critique
of the prevailing modernity project and the world & analytical
languages it created. Postmodernism focuses on
counter-hegemonic-theories and explains how conclusions perceived as
rational only work within certain parameters, as (hegemonic) power and
It aims at explaining that it is impossible to strive for pure,
detached knowledge without presuppositions under such circumstances.
Postmodernism is an alternative approach to world affairs, not
emphasizing the sovereign subject or object, but the historical,
cultural, and linguistic practices in which subjects and objects are
constructed. Reason is being turned back on its naïve self.