The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Post-Modern Culture

Central to the long-running debate about the cultural significance of Now that is conducted under the name of post-modernism is the status of the idea of “modernism” or “modernity” itself and the use of the term by the practitioners and commentators of twentieth-century high “modern” art – from Picasso, Joyce, Eliot and Schoenberg to Corbusier and the futurists. Under the influence of this earlier interpretation post-modernism comes to be seen in terms of the dissolution of high art (together with its elitist, avant-gardist pretensions) and the rise of low (popular, mass) art created and sustained by the mass media. And the post-modern condition becomes explained, or at least perceived, in terms of certain global features of capitalism – such as the working-out of its cultural logic or its transition from an industrial to a post-industrial, electro-informational phase.

Gianni Vattimo, one of Italy’s most original philosophers, believes that modernity and what is to come after it is neither to be found in transformations of capitalism nor to be read from changes in the nature of twentieth-century artistic forms and practices, however significant these might be. For Vattimo modernity is that stretch of Western thought from Descartes to the late nineteenth century ruled by a metaphysical system of God-guaranteed absolutes such as “truth”, “reason”, “history”; and post-modernity becomes the era inaugurated by Nietzsche’s celebrated proclamation of the death of God and the consequent secularization of all human affairs.

From this starting-point – the refusal of any transcendental position underpinning human events and the insistence that all values are man-made – comes the theory of European nihilism and its development in the “philosophy of difference” associated with Nietzsche and Heidegger. Nihilism’s project is one of unmasking. What it has to show is how the whole apparatus of reason built on logic is nothing but a vast system of persuasion: logic is rhetoric, truth an illusion produced by argument; and all differences such as essence / appearance, rational / irrational, true / false and so on, lacking any grounding in as absolute outside themselves, have no more authority than the language and culture producing them.

Within this framework Vattimo takes history, conceived in terms of the absolutes of progress and Hegelian overcoming, as the prime source of modernity. But how is one to go beyond this? If post-modernity is the recognition of the illusion of historical absolutism, does not this recognition itself constitute a claim to have “overcome” modernity from some point outside it? The difficulty – Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s as well as Vittamo’s – means that nihilism’s project can understand itself only through the language of that which it seeks to dissolve. Such an understanding, whether of history or truth or reason or being, replaces the traditionally “strong”, absolutist versions of these notions by “weak” versions in which they are seen as time-bound events – humanly created, mutable and constantly subject to re-interpretation. And it is this “weak thought” (pensiero debole), its constitutive character as a system of what Vattimo calls hermeneutic ontology and the consequence of practicing it and applying it, to poetry, architecture, the nature of humanism, scientific knowledge and the idea of post-modernity itself, that he explores in these sharp and deceptively simple essays.

TLS July 4, 1989

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