The End of Modernity by Gianni Vattimo
This represents yet another of my wrestling matches with a writer who is hard to pin down precisely because he insists on tackling subjects that are hard to pin down. I first arrived at Gianni Vattimo—someone it keeps feeling necessary for me to read if only because of his proximity to other writers writing like-minded material—by way of Richard Rorty. The two were featured as part of a discussion in several books together and arrived at similar conclusions. However, it seems to me that Vattimo has always had just a little bit more to say than Rorty on a theoretical level.
While Rorty has been quite comfortable in his work to stop explaining some everlasting, cogent reason for his liberal project while still trying to criticize different vocabularies of progress (to his credit), Vattimo is interested in pushing ideas as far as they seem capable of stretching, as is the case with the terms ‘modernity’ and ‘post-modernity.’
As is the case with most of Vattimo’s work, one gets the feeling in this book that he’s explaining something while explaining the explanation with it. This probably comes from the fact that he doesn’t so much have a thought ‘system’ as a thought ‘style.’
Of course, Vattimo’s book would be impossible to ‘summarize’ in a short space. If it were possible, he wouldn’t have written the book but he would have, perhaps, written a blog entree or an essay. But this is the best I can do: Vattimo posits that the terms ‘modernity’ and ‘post-modernity’ have been used frequently as explanations, but are often unexplainable themselves. Here, Vattimo tries to both define them, make sense of them, map their respective ideological pedigrees and then radicalize new possibilities with those things in mind—but not necessarily in that order.
Neither term, he claims, can be traced to a specific ‘era’ or ‘timeframe’ in the strong sense, but both represent a style of thinking/living that are all tangled up together. Post-modernism can only exist adjacent to modernism, not necessarily after it.
Where Richard Rorty went as far as to say that he’d given up on trying to figure out what ‘post-modern’ meant, exactly—citing that he ultimately had no energy to figure out what Jacques Derrida, Thomas Pynchon and certain kinds of visual art all have in common—Vattimo’s aim in this book is to come to a very close interpretation of what it means.
To break it down further, Vattimo suggests that post-modernism is the culmination of a crisis which has to do with different ways of looking at Being. The crisis seems to reach its height with humanism, and here he draws on Heidegger’s interpretation of humanism as a radicalization of metaphysics. Vattimo is a pretty rigorous Heideggerian in that he thinks metaphysics needs to be done away with (‘left to itself’ as Heidegger said, if not ‘overcome’). The reason? Metaphysics are usually the result of a group of people making universal laws based on finite data, which history, especially the last century, has proved to be a violent process resulting in bigotry, wars, classicism and ethical short-sightedness.
The only way to ‘retrieve Being’ from metaphysics is a hermeneutic radicalization of the world and interpretations of and within it. But where does that put us?
Vattimo pulls a lot from other thinkers to arrive at his conclusions—or possibilities, I should call them—but one should at least be familiar with the question of and uncertainty about the meaning of modernity vs. post-modernity (which is not to say that one should know what these terms mean, for that is sort of the whole point of the book—this whole not knowing and trying to find out business). One should also be aware that most of Vattimo’s work is concerned heavily with questions of Being, which are ultimately existential questions. Though some will certainly be quick to consider his conclusions outlandish, one has to admire the degree to which he so meticulously sets out to play ideas off one another in order to both recognize and deal with different crises.
His radicalization of ontological possibilities is the reason Rorty considered Vattimo among his brand of ‘Ironists’—a former of new vocabularies who make use of the old, without any delusion that the new vocabulary will be the last to hold any weight.
Read about Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony and Solidarity