Customs and Change: A Study of Modernity and Postmodernism

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Ella Stathis


This article uses the site of Customs House in Sydney to examine how the interaction of modernity and postmodernism can be used to enhance our understanding of both history and the present. It traces the history of Customs House since its construction in 1845 through to the present day, illustrating how modernity has been and is a powerful force behind Australia’s socio-economic development, and how modernity influences the way in which we approach our history.  The paper asserts that this approach provides an incomplete understanding of history and reality, as it is inclined to overlook those groups who did not benefit from modernist thinking to maintain the impression of progress being universally positive. The article then argues that it is necessary to undertake a postmodern questioning of a modernist view of history and reality, in order to better understand them. It approaches the history of Customs House, and Australia, through the perspectives of three marginalised groups; Aboriginal Australians, Asian migrants, and women. This shows how postmodern thinking must often be coupled with a modernist approach in order to explain past events and present realities. It argues that postmodernism is in fact borne of modernity, in that it is an example of intellectual progress, and progress lies at the heart of modernity. The article then asserts that an understanding of the past is essential to our knowledge of the present, and that by questioning each other, modernity and postmodernism increase our comprehension of history and reality.

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