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Surviving the Terminator: The postmodern mental condition

Ziauddin Sardar
8 July 2013

From Futures­ 22 (2) 203-210 (March 1990).

Modernity’s relentless unidirectional progress has caused the destruction of
cultures and communities, the degradation and impoverishment of the environment,
and could ultimately lead us to destroy ourselves. In the face of this threat,
writers and thinkers are engaged in an intense debate on how we can rid ourselves
of modernity, and what would be the nature of the postmodern world. This essay
looks at the performance of four recent books which have stepped into the arena to
challenge the Terminator of modernism: The End of Modernity (Cianni Vattimo),’
The Post-Modern Political Condition (Agnes Heller and Ferenc Feher),’ and two of a
series edited by David Ray Griffin on Postmodern Visions: The Reenchantment of
3 and Spirituality and Society.4

The machines rose from the ashes of the
nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind
had raged for decades, but the final
battle would not be fought in the future. It
would be fought here, in our present.

In James Cameron’s Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays an alien robot who descends from 2027 to the Los Angeles of 1984 in pursuit of a human enemy. The robot is: ‘part man, part machine. Underneath it is a hyperalloy combat chassis, microprocessor controlled, fully armoured, very tough; but outside it’s living human tissue, flesh, skin, hair, blood’, making it indistinguishable from other humans. But even the outer human characteristics are controlled by a clinical logic: ‘it cannot be reasoned with, it cannot be bargained with, it doesn’t feel pity, remorse or fear. And absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead.’ Throughout the film, the Terminator pursues its enemy with fanatical zeal, killing or destroying whoever and whatever comes into its path, putting itself together again when bits of its anatomy are shot or blown apart. In the finale, the Terminator is blown up and burnt to cinders. Its metal skeleton rises from the ashes and carries on with its mission. The skeleton too is chopped to bits, the individual bits come to life and continue with their goal.

Modernity is the conceptual equivalent of the Terminator. Since its inception in the European Enlightenment, its alleged function has been to ‘modernize’ traditional cultures and relentlessly lead mankind, screaming and protesting, by the nose towards a progressive utopia. One dimensional and unidirectional progress is the foundation of modernity. And it pursues its goal, like the Terminator, with ruthless logic and without pity, remorse or fear, and will not stop under any circumstances, ever. In the realization of its mission, modernity has witnessed the death and elimination of numerous cultures, destruction of countless communities and histories, disappearance of hundreds of valuable animal and plant species, and transformed arable land into wastelands and deserts.

As the awful dimensions of the havoc caused by modernity become more and more evident, concerned thinkers and writers have started to argue that we can and should leave modernity behind. Indeed, as David Ray Griffin states in the introduction to the SUNY series on Postmodern Visions, there is no ‘should’ but ‘we must’ do away with modernity, ‘if we are to avoid destroying ourselves and most of the life on our planet’. How do we rid ourselves of modernity? And what takes its place? What will be the nature of a postmodern world? These and other similar questions are now the subject of an intense debate-a debate which has largely been dominated by the Left but with much at stake and whose outcome will have profound consequences for the future.

Unfortunately, like the terminator, it is not at all easy to shake off modernity: it is the official culture of the world, it is part and parcel of our thought and behaviour, it is the bedrock of all our modes of doing, knowing and being. As Gianni Vattimo tells us in The End of Modernity, and Nietzsche and Heidegger pointed out before him, it is not possible to think our way out of modernity with the philosophical system of thought and language supplied by modernity; ‘yet no system that has overcome the errors of modernity and “progressed” beyond them is currently available to us, and there is no choice but to continue to use the existing systems’. We have thus been cornered by the Terminator: being modern has not only become a value, but ‘the fundamental value to which all other values refer‘.

What characterizes modernity for Vattimo is the ‘idea of history’ with its ‘two corollary notions of progress and overcoming’. We are experiencing ‘the end of history’, he argues, firstly, because the grand narratives of history have lost all meaning for us:

what was traditionally referred to as ‘history’
is now perceived as having broken down into
an infinity of ‘histories’ that can no longer be
Crejcombined into a single narrative governed
by a central theme such as ‘the march of
progress’ or ‘the triumph of enlightenment’.

Secondly, today we see history only as a kind of writing. And thirdly, the underlying concept of history, ie, progress, is now facing a crisis because it has been secularized. This means that progress has become an everyday routine; it does not lead us anywhere except to more progress. This circular process, where more progress leads to even more progress, has meant that the meaning of progress as a forward movement in history, ‘as something qualitatively different from what precedes it’, has vanished, producing an experience of the ‘end of history’. Vattimo asks:

If we agree that we are now in a point in
history that is at the end of modernity, is it fair
to assume that the problems which plague
modernity will somehow be left behind along
with it?

For Vattimo this is not likely unless western metaphysics is dealt a deathblow. For him metaphysics is a philosophical system of thought that is ‘always led by the question of logical truth’ and the use of reason. His strategy is the well established technique of such masters as Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Lyotard and Baudrillard: to deconstruct rational metaphysics in order to open it, to rewrite it and thus to lay the foundation, in terms of a Marxian-inspired historicism, of new truths for a postmodernist thought. His weapon: the notion of nihilism which attacks notions of ‘truth’ and ‘reason’-since they are interconnected in western metaphysics wherever they occur, be it in science, philosophy or art. The object is to unmask all systems of rationality as systems of persuasion and to show that logic is nothing more than another kind of rhetoric. Thus, all thought that claims to uncover truth, is nothing but a will to power and domination by those who claim to be seeking truth over those who are being addressed by them. Science and technology are particularly singled out as dominating metaphysical systems with the object of linking ‘all entities into predictable and controilabte causal relationships’ and thus to rationalize the world. This process has all but eliminated any possibility of a dialogue with cultures that are truly other as the rational metaphysics of science and technology has ensured ‘complete turopeanization of earth and of humanity’.

What then of postmodernism? It is not, Vattimo argues, a specific historical era at the end of modernity; it is, in the words of his translator, John Synder, ‘an experience at the end of metaphysics and the end of history which accompanies the most advanced phases of modernity itself, up to and including the end of modernity’. In the end, in fact, Vattimo’s brilliant philosophy of crisis is totally self-defeating: after a bout of wonderfully acute mental gymnastics, he fails to land on his feet. He blames secularization for making progress and life meaningless; yet he wants secularism to win the day, for his entire exercise is an attempt to construct a fully secular philosophy. His ‘accomplished nihilism’ kills God and all high values, yet he does not want anything else to take its place we are thus left to drift, moor-less, in the vast ocean of the postmodernist future. By constructing his edifice of postmodern thought on secularism, Vattimo gives full reign to the most oppressive and dominating conceptual force of our time-thus what finally triumphs in Vattimo’s thought is modernity itself. Terminator, 1; postmodernist thought, 0.


Vattimo recycles a great deal of Nietzsche and Heidegger. The recycling of old theories, Agnes Heller and Ferenc Feher tell us in The Postmodern Political Condition, is a characteristic of postmodern political condition:

in close sequence we have lived through the
‘end of ideology’, the ‘end of religion’, the
‘end of Marxism’, the ‘end of scientificity’,
and the ‘end of evolutionism’. Yet none of
these areas has been lost beyond retrieval.

Heller and Feher acknowledge that secularization has lost most of its credibility; indeed ‘the breakdown of the grand narrative of secularisation is a basic characteristic of the postmodern condition’-this is backed by ‘a plethora of empirical evidence’, not least by the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing downfall of Marxist ideology in Eastern Europe, ‘and widespread, and widely pluralistic, religious revival’.

What this means is that ‘the plurality of cultures and discourses’ must become a basic premise of postmodernist thought. However, the authors warn us, we must be aware of the emerging ‘religious and secular fundamentalism’ which represents ‘the bad conscience of the postmodern condition flagellating itself for its excessive indulgence in relativism’. The authors see postmodernism as parasitic on modernity and set out to answer two basic questions:

  1. ‘What are the dangers threatening the lifeline of modernity, the democratic liberal as well as “democratic socialist” traditions, values, legacies, institutions and aspirations in the “postmodern political condition”?’
  2. ‘How can these traditions, trends and aspirations be not only redeemed but also further developed?’

In an insignificant and lost paper of Kant, the authors discover their motives for the answer to the questions they have set themselves. In the paper, the old philosopher asks that his philosophical enemies should join hands with him to work together for the same purpose. In this ‘heroic’ gesture-/the attempt to accept the modern condition of theoretical pluralism with the proviso that all philosophers should work for the same practical purpose’-the authors find the liberal tolerance reaching its peak and expressing ‘a new philosophical insight’. We now proceed to be told the meaning of morality and principles of justice in a postmodern world. The political principles of democracy (American, British or the Scandinavian variety-we are not told), Heller and Feher assert, are universally valid moral maxims. These are: freedom, justice, equality, fairness and equity. Good civic virtues include the recognition of all human needs, courage, solidarity, justice and prudence. And ‘the outstanding intellectual virtue of the good citizens in the modern age, is the virtue of participating in rational discourse’. The citizens of Athens, with all those virtues that Socrates went on and on about, would be at home in Heller and Feher’s postmodern society!

Reading The Postmodern Political Condition, one cannot but help thinking that stating the obvious with a sense of grand discovery is an essential postmodern disease. Despite all their talk of pluralism and plurality of discourses, Heller and Feher are only concerned with saving the enterprise of modernity with all its dominating and universalizing tendencies. Their politics is totally divorced from metaphysics (so powerfully analysed by Vatimmo); and they are totally oblivious to what modern science and technology, free market economy and multinational corporations are doing in the name of freedom, justice and fairness. Much as one agrees with their sentiments, what Heller and Feher are actually saying is that since western ethos and values have won the day we might as well accept them as universal. (Francis Fukuyama uses the same argument to justify ‘The end of history?‘). Despite their admission that secularization has reached an impasse, they are not averse to promoting their own brand:

in the modern world, belief in divine justice
has been widely shattered and no longer
provides most of us with any guidance, and
theories of ‘natural law’ have been systematically
discredited. This, however, does not
mean that we are lacking in ultimate yardsticks.
The emergence of the modern world
has, in fact, been accompanied by the universalization
of two values. These are the values
of freedom and life.

Who says that belief in the Divine has been ‘shattered’? Why should I-Teller and Feher’s, in other words western, definition of freedom and life be universalized? Both concepts have different meaning in different cultures and worldviews; and even in western thought they are not free from contradjctory interpretations. The authors are in fact breaking one of their own rules:

the diversity of worldviews, philosophies,
metaphysics and religious faiths does not bar
the emergence of a common ethos, unless
one of the competing worldviews completely
determines the commandments and the interdictions,
and does so not only for its own
adherents but also with a universalizing

Are not their competing, western views of freedom, justice, equality, equity et al, undermining other ideas on these notions in other worldviews and doing so with ‘universalizing aspirations’?

The postmodern political system of Heller and Feher leaves much of modernist construct intact. For example, they aim to create a good citizen, not a morally and ethically conscious person, thus ensuring that the nation state continues to occupy the position it has acquired in modernity. Their pluralism is the quixotic notion that all positions in culture and politics are open and equal, but European ideas are more equal than others. By ignoring the role of science and technology in postmodern politics they have failed ta appreciate the alfconsuming
power of rational metaphysics in modern politics. Their humanism, to use Vattimo’s words, cannot ‘convince us that its values offer an alternative to technological ones’. Despite wonderful sentiments, and all the arguments for justice and equify, we end up with more of the same. Terminator, 2; postmodernist thought, 0.

Both The End of Modernity and The Postmodern Political Condifion reptesent the kind of postmodernism, let us call it ‘postmodernism I’, which is based on the premise that if the modern project is to be saved at all, it must be exceeded. The word may have lost its meaning, or be starting to have negative connotations, but the ideology has not. Modernity is a European cultural construct based on specific historical legacy and condition, and its basic goal has always been to shape science, politics, arts, morality and the world according to its own image and inner logic. Much of postmodernist thought is a sitnilar European construct and continues the old programme in a renewed attempt to justify neoMarxism or new brands of liberal humanism.

The authors that David Ray Griffin has brought together in the first two books of the ‘SUNY Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought’ want to make a clear and conscious attempt to demolish the edifice of modernity and construct a postmodern world that is not a continuation of the old modernist, secular paradigm-as is the case with postmodernism l-but a genuine, radical departure. While postmodernism 1 wants to banish God altogether, Griffin and his authors want to bring the Divine to the centre of the stage.

Here, too, secularism is identified as a chief characteristic of modernity. But says Griffin:

secularism does not involve any decline in
religiosity; it only means a transference of
religious devotion from one kind of religious
object to another-from one that transcends
the world, at least in part, to one that is fully
wordly, that is, secular. This religiosity can be
expressed in Fascism, Communism, Nationalism,
Scientism, Aestheticism, Nuclearism, or
in several other secular religions.

He could of course, have added postmodernism! While secularism is a dishonest kind of religiosity, Griffin’s ‘new age’ postmodernism is based on the honest traditional notion of a transcendent Divine Power. His postmodern endeavour begins with a return to cosmology: a return to the attempt to think about the universe as a cosmos, ‘a single integrated system united by universal principles’ which portrays ‘all things in the world-human, natural, and divine-as related together in an orderly way’.

The points of departure become immediately obvious. Unlike the proponents of postmodernism 1, all authors in Spirituality and Society and The Reenchantment of Science, whether they are talking about science or politics or social policy or economy or whatever, make their position on the cardinal issue of our time quite clear: our total alienation from nature (for which both liberal humanism and that judaeo Christian heresy, Marxism, are equally responsible) and the consequent necessity of recovering our sense of oneness with nature. Moreover, their variety of postmodernism, let’s call it ‘postmodernism 2’, has a new relationship with time-to the past as well as the future. While modernity deliberately sets out to denigrate, humiliate and destroy traditional societies and culture, postmodernism 2 acknowledges, appreciates and wants to learn from the wisdom of traditional societies. Indeed, it sets out to recover a healthy respect and concern for all our pasts: ‘the present moment of experience is seen to enfold within itself, in some respect and to some degree, the entire past’.

This is not merely lip service. In the highly original ideas of Bohm on science and Sheldrake on life and evolution, we see how the undercurrents of the past come to influence the present. In Bohm’s theory of implicate order, every natural unit, as an act of enfoldment, in some sense enfolds the activity of the universe as a whole within it. Bohm’s attempt to construct a postmodern science based on implicate order implicitly incorporates a reference to divine activity. He is thus reversing the dedivinization or secularization of nature. Sheldrake’s hypothesis of morphic resonance, which attributes a cumulative power to the repetition of similar forms, depends on an influence at a distance, over both temporal and spatial gaps. The past therefore has a serious and direct role to play in the present.

And the common sense conclusion from all of this? Griffin states it categorically:

the idea that the human psyche embodies not
only influences from its body but also the
repeated experiences of the past psyches
leads us to be wary of assuming that we can
adopt radically new forms of being human
without suffering severe, perhaps terminal,
psychic distress. Good reason therefore exists
to suspect that the modern attempt to live
without religious convictions and practices,
and without the support of intimate communities,
will not produce a sustainable society.

In such a postmodern construct, who needs ‘constructive nihilism’ to survive the future? We have a ‘rational’ and genuine reason to protect the planet and be optimistic about the future without resorting to mental gymnastics or restating established values in new, allegedly postmodern, form: ‘we care about the future of the world because we care about the everlasting divine reality.’

Just in case this is seen as being a little too close to neoconservative religious fundamentalism, a variety just as nasty as its secular counterparts, Griffin points out the major differences:

  • Neoconservatives take ‘religion’ to mean the Judaeo-Christian heritage; postmodernism 2 welcomes a religiously pluralistic society.
  • Neoconservatives support the family and local community, while postmodernism 2 extends to include bioregions and cultural regions.
  • The nation state is central to neoconservative thought; in postmodernism 2 the importance of the nation state is greatly reduced.
  • Neoconservatives are for naked capitalism; postmodernism 2 is for greater equality, both within each society and between societies, and sees reiigion as a potential source of support for this move.

While postmodernism 2 aims at total transformation of society, and these two books cover areas such as economy, social policy and agriculture, it is in science that it will make its first big impact. Modern science, Griffin argues, disechanted nature and:

began a trajectory that ended by disenchanting
science itself. If all human life is meaningless,
then science, as one of its activities,
must share in this meaninglessness. For some
time, many held that science at least gives us
the truth, even if a bleak one. Much recent
thought, however, has concluded that science
does not even give us that. The disenchantment
is complete.

An enchanted science, as described by Bohm, Birch, Sheldrake and Ferre, is one that brings us closer to nature and is an open-ended enterprise. It is ‘organismic’. It is based not on ‘the order of separation’ but on a more ‘holographic order’ and as such it ‘overcomes the separation between truth and virtue, value and fact, ethics and practical necessity’. An enchanted science is a wholly different thing from a sacred science, indeed the decline of the latter is necessary for the re-emergence of the former. Just to make it clear that postmodernism 2 is concerned with science and not some Geller-type spoon-bending, mindboggling cult, Griffin spells out what is meant by science in this enterprise:

any activity properly called science and any
conclusion properly called scientific must,
first, be based on an overriding concern to
discover truth. Other concerns will of course
play a role, but the concern for truth must be
overriding, or the activity and its results
would better be called by another name, such
as ideology, or propaganda or politics.
Second, science involves demonstrations.
More particularly, it involves testing hypothesis
through data or experience that are in
some sense repeatable and hence open to
confirmation or refutation by peers What
is left out of this account of science are
limitations (I) to any particular domain, (2)
any particular type of repeatability and demonstration,
or (3) any particular contingent

Griffin and his contributors are highly self-critical and conscious that a great deal of nonsense, shabby thought and repugnant ideas go around in the guise of postmodernism. Richard Falk, for example, acknowledges the widespread existence of ‘Disneyland postmodernism’. It has five features:

  • an abstract affirmation of a holistic, harmonious future as implicit or imminent;
  • a tendency towards homogenized uniformity, based on a colonizing logic and westernization of the globe;
  • ‘the tendency to reinterpret science and natural reality as confirmatory of a spiritual grounding for human endeavours’;
  • the emphasis on holistic possibilities of encompassing conflict; and
  • postmodernism as an expression of the privileged status of the West.


However, an acute self-critical awareness does not stop the contributors to Postmodern Visions from indulging in infectious romanticism, halfbaked propositions, or downright Eurocentrismdespite such veneration of religious and cultural pluralism. There are no nonwestern contributors to either volume; and even the two women included must have been given special dispensation because they appear in the volume on ‘spirituality’. What confirms my suspicion that postmodernism 2, like postmodernism 1, is a totally western enterprise is that when a non-western idea or personage does actually make an appearance it almost always tends to be that arch secularist of the East, Buddah. Here, for example, is Richard Falk making his concession to the non-western world: ‘postmodern ethics has ancient roots that can be associated with the lives of Socrates, jesus, the Buddah, even St Francis.‘

This line-up of heroes to justify postmodernism 2 is significant. Socrates, as I. F. Stone’s brilliant new study shows,5 worshipped Reason and was an arrogant and obnoxious man who enjoyed ridiculing ordinary folks. It is the Christian understanding of the New Testament Jesus (his teachings in Islamic tradition, for example, are quite different), along with such Old Testament notions as dominion over nature, that are responsible for our present predicament: the judaeo-Christian intellectual heritage at the root of our ecological crisis and the suppression of much of humankind. Buddah worshipped nature and produced, as have most philosophers in western history who have appealed to nature for ethics, a totally authoritarian system of thought. And poor St Francis, he is there as ‘even’ also ran. There is not much in common between the systems of thought that these heroes produced; what they do all have in common as individuals is that they all dressed and lived very frugally. We can safely conclude that the historic roots of postmodernism 2 have not been clearly thought out; and assume it is all about frugality and wearing simple clothes!

Gender of God

The two women feminist contributors to the ‘Spirituality’ volume, Charlene Spretnak and Catherine Keller, seem to be arguing that all the problems of modernity will be solved if we replace God with a female counterpart. For Keller, postmodernism 2 is essentially a postpatriarchal ‘ism’ based on a Goddess metaphor. Presumably, if there is a God He/She is a de facto God and not because we have selected/elected Him/Her to be a God. The gender of God, as metaphor or otherwise, is hardly important; what is important is how we see ourselves in relation to God and what we perceive to be our responsibilities and accountabilities towards God. Both Keller and Spretnak denounce duality on the one hand, and on the other, bring it right back in male/female perceptions: ‘the basic feminine sense of the self is connected to the world, the basic masculine sense is separate’-and never the twain shall meet.

The proponents of postmodernism 2 insist on tracing their lineage to the Greeks. Griffin tells us that postmodern organicism can be considered a synthesis of the Aristotelian, Galilean and Hermetic paradigms. Keller glorifies Neoplatonism, Greek gnosis and the alchemists. What neither of them realizes is that arrogance and authoritarianism are intrinsic in both Greek rationalist and mystical thoughts. Greek gnosis is the Terminator in its guise of mystic. It is the same arrogance and authoritarianism which provided the Enlightenment with its springboard and modernity with its mission to subjugate non-western cultures.


Towards the end of the ‘Spirituality’ volume, Frederick Ferre acknowledges that postmodernism 2 contains (at least?) two paradoxes. Firstly:

our key word, postmodern, itself contains a
tension. On one meaning, it merely points
away from the present, ‘after the now’, and
could have any content; but we are hoping to
give it a content, a set of moral and epistemological
characteristics, as though we knew
what the world after-the-now is going to be
like. We do not.

Secondly: ‘what we view now as the tender shoots of the postmodern may look different from, but at the same time much like, the modern’. As far as the ethical contents of postmodernism 2 is concerned, I would not argue with it. Charlene Spretnak, amongst others, lists the following ethical features of postmodernism 2: ecological wisdom; grassroots democracy; personal and social responsibility; non-violence; decentralization; community-based economics; postpatriarchal values; respect for diversity; global responsibility; and future focus. But as long as postmodernism 2 insists on dragging Greek rationalist and mystical cults into the picture and leaves out non-western cultures from its discourse, it will continue to look more ‘modern’ than ‘postmodern’. Reluctantly, one must concede, yet another round to the Terminator: Terminator, 3; postmodernist thought, 0.

Yet we have made real progress towards a sustainable society. Modernity is based on a fundamental value-idea, by which is meant, to use the words of Heller and Feher, ‘a value whose opposite cannot be chosen as value’: secularism, Griffin and his contributors have shown that this stranglehold of modernity can be broken; religion does have a positive value in a postmodern worldindeed, it is not possible for us to survive as humans by dispensing with the idea of the Divine. The next step is to work out the details of a sustainable society where the Divine is the prime focus. But that may take a little time.

Arnold Schwarzenegger as the original T-800 model in The Terminator (1984)

And yes, in the film at least the Terminator is finally terminated: by a rather determined woman, using rather old-fashioned technology. There is a lesson here, somewhere, for ail white, male Europeans and their proteges.



  1. Giartni Vattimo, The End of Modernity (Cambridge, UK, Polity Press, 1988)
  2. Agnes Heifer and Ferenc Feher, The Post-Modern Political Condition (Cambridae, UK, Polity Press, 1988)
  3. David Ray Griffin led), Postmodern Visions: The Reenchantment of Science (New York, State University of New York Press, 1988)
  4. David Ray Griffin ied), Postmodern Visions: Spirituality and Society (New York, State University of New York Press, 1988)
  5. I. F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates (London, Jonathon Cape, 1988).