6 Approaches to the Study of Political Theory – Postmodern Traditions

Lakshmi Radhakrishnan

epgp books


Module: Postmodernism


Political theory has been enriched with multiple approaches and traditions that tend to analyse and understand politics in different and often contradictory ways. Each of these approaches have certain core premises and postulates that define its identity. However, each of them is also extremely variegated and sometimes informed by the other traditions. This paper is a broad overview of postmodernist approaches/traditions in political theory.


Social ‘science’ was subject to criticism in the 60s and 70s. While some critics challenged positivism in social sciences, others critiqued the unifying and objectivist paradigm of science itself (see Siedman 1992). Since the 1980s, postmodernism has been a significant influence in social sciences including political theory. Steven Seidman and David Wagner (1992: 2) explain postmodernism in social sciences as thus:


In the social sciences, postmodernism describes the critique of the modernist project to ground and unify the social sciences. In its critique of modernist social science, postmodernists reconsider the relationship between scientific knowledge, power and society as well as the relation between science, critique, and narrative.


The postmodern critique therefore underlines destabilizing the unity of humanity, the individual as the centre of history and society, idea of universal Truth and the belief in social progress intrinsic to Enlightenment (see Seidman 1994:1). “This “postmodern” knowledge contests disciplinary boundaries, the separation of science, literature, and ideology, and the division between knowledge and power” (ibid: 2).


Jane Bennett (2004: 46) refers to three usages of postmodernism in contemporary times:


(1)  as a sociological designation for an epochal shift in the way collective life is organized (from centralized and hierarchical control towards a network structure); (2) as an aesthetic genre (literature that experiments with non-linear narration, a playful architecture of mixed styles, an appreciation of popular culture that complicates the distinction between high and low); (3) as a set of philosophical critiques of teleological and/or rationalist conceptions of nature, history, power, freedom, and subjectivity.


Bennett argues that postmodernism refers to all the above in political theory but more intensively the third meaning. At its most basic level, postmodernism is opposed to metanarratives, totalities and grand theories. In that sense, many postmodern thinkers refute the idea of theory itself, for theories are grand narratives (Butler, in Bennett 2004: 46). Bennett outlines the following as the main features of postmodern approach to political theory despite the claims of the genre towards infinite diversity and subjectivism:


Postmodern approach often takes the form of genealogical studies “which reveal how discursive practices and conceptual schemata are embedded with power relations, and how these cultural forms constitute what is experienced as natural or real” (Bennett 2004: 47). As Seidman (1994: 6) writes, “These are historical critical analyses tracing the making of identities, selves, social norms, and institutions which focus on the role of  the  medical  and  human  sciences  in  the  shaping  of  a  “disciplinary”  society”.


Foucault, Judith Butler, Ann Ferguson- all follow this approach. A genealogical approach is not involved in tracking down the origin of a particular phenomenon; but they try to unravel the discursive practices that have led to the acceptance of certain things as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’. Foucault’s study of madness (see Foucault 1961) and Butler’s deconstruction of gender- ‘gender trouble’ are examples of this approach (Butler  1990;  2004).  Identities  and  norms  are  therefore  constructions  that  have ‘sedimented’ into ways of behaviour, language and institutions that are resistant to modify, revise or oppose them (Bennett 2004: 47). Genealogy also dismantles the epistemic privilege of the western canon, for it challenged notions of rationality, human agency, etc. (see Vincent 2009: 178).


Postmodernism therefore is interested in exploring the ‘indeterminate’ or the ‘chaotic’ that is always attached to the dominant reality. The ‘invisible’ in Merleau-Ponty, the ‘semiotic’ in Kristeva, ‘sexual difference’ in Irigaray- are examples. These indeterminancies upset the widely held normative consensus in politics, and offers ways of resistance. Judith Butler’s mimesis is a case worth mention. Butler contends that even as we repeat norms, a point may come there will be a rupture of norms (see Butler 2004).


Difference(s) therefore is central to postmodern approach to political theory. Postmodernism is not merely about acknowledgement of difference, but difference is identified as the key to politics by virtue of an ongoing process that generates more positivities (Vincent 2009:178).


Postmodernism  is  characterized  by  an  ‘incredulity  towards  meta-narratives’ (Loytard,  in  Bennett  2004:  49;  Brown  2002:  58;  Butler  2004:  13).  This  entails dismissal of a linear history of progress as well as the rejection of a definitive interpretation of history (Brown 2002: 58). Or, as Christopher Butler (2002: 13) points out, “These narratives are contained in or implied by major philosophies, such as Kantianism, Hegelianism, and Marxism, which argue that history is progressive, that knowledge can liberate us, and that all knowledge has a secret unity. For example, Lyotard accuses Habermas’ ‘universal consensus’ as a terroristic conformity (Bennett 2004: 49). Thus even if they have a descriptive account of the society, they are opposed to a final end or telos; also, nothing is outside complexities and indeterminancies.


Contingency, as opposed to necessity becomes the key to postmodern approach. For example, post-marxists like Laclau and Mouffe do not believe in the necessity of a revolution-central to Marxism. On the contrary, their idea of ‘radical democracy’ is based on contingent selves as well as contingent alliances that also do not uphold the ontological  superiority  of  any  group.  Butler  (2002:29)  captures  this  aspect  of postmodernism  when  she  writes,  “Postmodernism  thus  involved  a  highly  critical epistemology,  hostile  to  any  overarching  philosophical  or  political  doctrine,  and strongly opposed to those ‘dominant ideologies’ that help to maintain the status quo”.


It opposes all closures and fixed categories. Contradictions and differences become the hallmark of postmodernism.


Postmodernism also dismantles the binary between ‘transcendental’ and ‘immanent’.


While metaphysical theory of Kant and others made transcendental claims, postmodern studies deal with the immanent without reintroducing the transcendental (Bennett 2004: 49). A common example could be the preoccupation of postmodern political theory with the politics of the body when liberals mainly dealt with the mind.


Postmodernism rests itself on the process of ‘becoming’ an open-ended creative process in which the subject is continually in the process of becoming a subject. The non-fixity of subjectivity also implies that one is not defined by a fixed, essential identity. The absence of a fixed self and an essence to the self also directs a different form of politics in postmodern approach. Postmodernism is generally identified with fragmentation and renegotiations of meanings. As Lyotard suggests, postmodernism entails a decentering of the subject and the social world. The ahistorical standpoint of an abstract mind and universal knowledge is challenged by localized and knowledges as well as by the decentering of the subject marked by multiple and contingent subject positions.


The metaphysics of immanence also challenges the distinction between the human and the non-human; it displaces human beings from the centre of the universe (Bennett 2004: 49). If liberals made human species as the foundational identity, postmodern approach denies the fixity of such identity as well. Donna Haraway’s ‘cyborg feminism’ points to the instability of the category ‘human’ (Haraway 1989). Haraway describes human beings as ‘cyborgs’- a mixture- a hybrid- of animal and machine, language and affect, culture and biology (see Bennett 2004: 49). “We are viewed instead as a particularly complex and reflexive formation, differing from other forms in significant degree but not in kind” (ibid).


Postmodern theory is generally deemed to be anti-science by virtue of its resistance to  an  Objective  Truth.  This  is  best  represented  by  Derrida’s  idea  of ‘deconstruction’- “that truth itself is always relative to the differing standpoints and predisposing intellectual frameworks of  the judging subject” (Brown 2002: 16). ‘The death of the author’ in postmodernism entails that meanings of the text are properties of  the  interpreters  and  not  the  author  herself.  Derrida  repudiated  ‘logocentrism’ implying the fixing of meanings in texts. This in turn also implies the alterability or contingency of meanings. However, others believe that postmodernism is not anti-science; it believes only in one kind of science- that which is indeterminate and complex and non-linear. Postmodern theory is also therefore non-linear. Society is perceived  as  “an  incompletely  structured  system,  an  open  system  susceptible  to unpredictable encounters and the periodic emergence of new formations” (Bennett 2004: 50).


On the whole, postmodernism is also marked for its opposition to the empirical claims of science and the objectivity and universality of knowledge. Science is also a social construct, a body of knowledge that embodies the views of the dominant, in postmodern perspective. Science is yet another discourse, a discursively constructed set of statements, implying that like any other discourse, the ‘neutral’ science is also imbued with power.


The opposition to grand narratives and the logic of necessity is also reflected in the debunking of macropolitics and a celebration of micropolitics. In other words, politics is mainly articulated in micro political activities and hence is different from liberal and Marxist approaches. Postmodernism’s main focus is not on institutions and structures. The major foci are media, military training, intersubjective relationships, etc. the key targets of micropolitics include “bodily affect, social tempers, political moods, and cultural sensibilities” (Bennett 2004: 51). This also explains how politics gets redefined in terms of somatic and affective dimensions (ibid). The postmodern approach therefore engages with changing the micropolitical settings so as to alter macropolitical possibilities (ibid).


Postmodern approaches to political theory also deal with power differently. While liberals perceive power as located in the state, and Marxists see power as primarily flowing from class politics, postmodern writers convey that power is not located in an identifiable centre; it is diffused and pervasive; power is capillary in nature.


Foucault’s distinction between juridical power (power embodied in state and its institutions) and bio-power is worth discussion here. In his work Discipline and Punish, Foucault points to bio-power as disciplining and normalizing unlike juridical power that is regulatory. Postmodern approach therefore locates power not only in the institutions and the sovereign, but in everyday practices that constitute and normalize subjectivity. Interestingly, the subject is constituted by power relations; the very same power relations also offer room for resistance to those norms that constitute us.


The open-ended nature of categories has been perceived as a challenge to collective politics also due to the commitment to anti-foundationalism and anti-essentialism. Anti-foundationalism  is  explained  by  Seidman  as  the  rejection  of  an  ahistorical, Archimedean standpoint to claim or critique knowledge (see Seidman 1994). In other words, postmodernism rejects the idea of an a priori or pre-existing category or self that is at the centre of knowledge and politics. Postmodern writers are divided on the architecture  of  collective  politics  in  the  light  of  anti-foundationalism  and  anti-essentialism. Derrida’s deconstruction of binaries and Rorty’s dismantling of subject-object dualism in knowledge are examples. Postmodernism also is against the fixed ‘essence’ of many categories. Thus they do not believe in pre-existing categories like class, women or even humans. While Butler is opposed to any kind of essentialism (Butler 1994) but views foundations as permanently contestable , Spivak makes a case for ‘strategic essentialism’- essentialism only for strategic reasons and purposes. Yet another postmodernist William Connolly speaks of politics in the nature of ‘rhizomatic’ structures1, wherein social life is constituted by multiple minorities with divergent moral traditions and ontologies and come together for pragmatic purposes (Connolly 1999). Jane Bennett (2004:53) explains ‘rhizomatic politics’ as thus:


A rhizomatic politics does not have as its regulative ideal a general consensus. It is inspired, rather, by the vision of mobile constellations whose members support common policies but not necessarily all for the same reasons, and who attempt to render themselves ‘more open to responsive engagement with alternative faiths, sensualities, gender practices, ethnicities, and so on’”

  • 1 A rhizome is a web like root unlike a single tap-root.


you can view video on Approaches to the Study of Political Theory –Postmodern Traditions