Postmodernism

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Postmodernism is a difficult and complicated movement to treat, especially because there is little agreement among philosophers themselves. One of the striking things about Postmodernism is its breadth and scope… it includes fields like philosophy, arts, literature, architecture, and even film and drama. This is further complicated by the deliberately obscurantist style of the postmodern writers. In fact, many people believe most of postmodernism, if not all of it, to be an empty, mindless rhetoric lacking any substance or meaning, and believe the postmodernists to be “intellectual imposters”. Despite having the title of philosophy,  its most significant impact has been on cultural theory, literary criticism and media. Postmodernism has aroused the strongest hostility from the philosophers of the analytical camp, who fail to understand what these postmodernists write at all which might be called philosophy. To give the readers an idea of the jargon-filled pseudo-scientific obscurantist style of postmodern writings, it’d be better to present a quotation from Félix Guattari, one of the recognized postmodernists:

“We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.”[1]

So, it is not surprising that analytical philosophers dismiss postmodern writing as meaningless rubbish. It might be true to a great extent, nevertheless, I feel that there are certain ideas related to postmodernism which are worthy of being noticed, and it will be my attempt to present those ideas in a simple, clear manner, divorced from their obscure style of postmodern writing.

As obvious from the name, postmodernism is some sort of a response to modernism. Of course, the question arises: what is modernism? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this as well. A proper answer would involve a dive in the world of art and literature, and would include a study of people like Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Proust, and Kafka. However, at the risk of great over-simplification, I’d like my readers to assume for the moment that modernism is roughly the same as the Enlightenment Project; the French intellectual movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with protagonists like Voltaire. Also known as the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment thinkers believed that reason and science can produce objective knowledge and universal truths about the world and that employment of these will lead to the progress and perfection of human institutions and society. In simple words, the cure of all human dilemmas is the use and application of reason. Postmodernism, on the other hand, is simply disgusted by this worship of reason, and believes that the ideals of enlightenment have failed, that reason and science has not just led humans to prosperity but also led to horrific things like Auschwitz and the Holocaust, and that the objectivity and universality which reason and science claim to possess is unwarranted.

In the political sense, postmodernism was born after the 1968 Paris événements, a series of events beginning with a student strike, and becoming intense enough to paralyse the whole country. Thinkers like Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard lost faith in the Marxist theory because the French Communist Party was believed to have played a part in defusing the revolutionary situation and siding with the government. The politics of postmodernism is, therefore, with exceptions, that of disillusionment with the Marxist system of thought.

On the linguistic side, postmodernism can be called as ‘post-structuralism’. Post-structuralism is a theory of literary criticism often associated with postmodernism; it is a reaction against Structuralism, which treats language as a system, with set rules and procedures. Structuralism believes that there is a deeper, underlying structure in language. Ferdinand de Saussure, the first major exponent of structuralism, believed that there is a distinction between a deeper level of langue, which are the rules and procedures in a natural language, and a superficial level of parole, the chain of words which these rules generate. Using this methodology, structuralists believed that all aspects of social life have an underlying structure. For example, Lévi Strauss believed that different myths from different primitive societies have a deeper, underlying structure which is common to all myths. Post-structuralism denies the very existence of any such deeper underlying structure, be it language or social life. A text has no stable meaning, and its meaning is also indeterminate. Derrida is the most recognized exponent of post-structuralism, whom we shall see in detail.

In many ways, Nietzsche is the great grand-daddy of postmodernism, and his writings have been one of the greatest influences on postmodernists. His nihilism and perspectivism make the postmodern ideas look strangely familiar. Like the postmodernists, Nietzsche shares hostility towards objectivity and claims of absolute truth. There are many places where Nietzsche has touched upon the idea of the dissolution of the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘apparent’ world, and he refers to being as “the last breath of a vaporizing reality”.[2]

The story begins officially with Jean-François Lyotard (1924 –1998), and his book The Postmodern Condition (1979). Lyotard says that the introduction of computer and its extensive use has changed the very nature of knowledge. Knowledge is no longer preferred by its appeal to truth, but rather by its efficiency; the ability of being converted into digital form. Knowledge that cannot be translated into the digital language of computer will not survive and endure. It will be eliminated.

Lyotard introduces the distinction between scientific discourses and narrative discourses. Narrative discourses are like popular stories, myths or even philosophies that are found in different cultures. These myths, these narrative discourses legitimize themselves. For example, the Greek myth of Chaos giving birth of Gaea does not seek to prove itself by external evidence; it legitimizes itself. Scientific discourses on the other hand need evidence to prove its statements. Its theories need to be verified or falsified be accepted as scientific. Therefore, science cannot legitimize its own activities. Questions like “Why should society encourage science and its research work?” transcend the scientific discourse. So what does science do? It turns to narrative to legitimize itself. There are two particular such narratives which Lyotard considers most important: The Enlightenment and the Hegelian philosophy. The former is a political narrative while the latter is a philosophical narrative. In Enlightenment we have the narrative that use of reason will lead to a society of content and liberated individuals. In Hegel’s philosophy, we have the ideal of the unification of all knowledge. Lyotard calls these ‘Grand Narratives’ or ‘Meta-narratives’; narratives which encompass and explain all the other little narratives. These two are not the only Grand Narratives. Other examples can include Marxism and Christianity.

So, it is the meta-narratives of Enlightenment and Hegel’s philosophy which legitimize science, or rather, used to legitimize science, because Lyotard says that since the Second World War people have lost their belief in these Grand Narratives. The holocaust has shown that science can lead to persecution and oppression instead of freedom and liberation. And on the Hegelian ideal of unification of knowledge has also been lost, as science has increasingly indulged in paradoxical concepts like an electron can pass from one orbit to another without crossing the space in between. Science is no longer concerned with discovering the laws of nature, but rather with deciding which theory or what kind of research works better. Without the support of these meta-narratives, science is now forced to legitimize itself, just like a myth.

This is how Lyotard describes postmodernism: it is incredulity towards Grand Narratives. People have lost their faith in all-encompassing theories which have the ability to explain everything. Instead, there is now a collage, a carnival of contradicting and conflicting micronarratives, little narratives, which explain a limited number of things, and which make no claim of representing the reality.

This, however, raises an interesting criticism: Is not the narrative that people have lost faith in Grand Narratives a Grand Narrative itself? And indeed, it is one of the criticisms levelled against Lyotard’s postmodernism. By attempting to explain the postmodern condition, postmodernism itself becomes an all-encompassing theory, something which it is trying to demolish in the first place.

Frederic Jameson (1934– ) believes postmodernism to be the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’ i.e. the social manifestations of the period of late capitalism, in which there is unrestricted growth of multinational corporations. Since Jameson is a Marxist, he believes that the world is governed by historical forces and also in the Hegelian idea that every age has a spirit. So, the spirit of the late capitalist society is postmodernism. Jameson says that postmodernism is trying to deny this very idea of a historic awareness, while a historical consciousness is what we severely need at the moment to avert the fragmentation of postmodernism.

Jameson is also remembered for his distinction between parody and pastiche. In modernism there was still a concept of unified identity, even though it may have been an alienated. And since there was an identity, it could imitated by parody. But in the postmodern world, the identity and language has been fragmented. All unity is lost. And with the loss of unified identity, parody has also disappeared. What we are left with is a pastiche—a random pasting together of images from different sources.

Michel Foucault (1926–1984) is another philosopher identified with the movement of postmodernism. Foucault has basically presented a philosophical analysis of history leading up to the present time. He terms it ‘archeology’, which is a large-scale philosophical analysis of social practices (or ‘discourses’) in history. Foucault has given special attention to how madness has been perceived throughout history and how attitudes to sexuality have changed. He believes that these archaeologies show discontinuities, in which the social perception changes very radically in a short period of time. For example, after the Enlightenment there was a drastic change in the way insanity and madness was viewed. What would have been an acceptable behaviour in the medieval times suddenly became ‘insane’ according to the growing cult of reason, and need was felt for such insane individuals to be confined and locked away. Foucault calls it ‘The Great Confinement’. Foucault denies the possibility of writing history from a purely objective point of view. Such a task is impossible because it will require a point of reference outside the flow of history. Foucault sees all such attempts by the academics as cases of ‘transcendental narcissism’. Foucault is also interested in the relationship of power and knowledge. He believes that it is erroneous to analyze power at large levels, like that of the state. Power exists only at a micro-level; there is only micropolitics of power. Power is exercised at small, local levels; a prison, a hospital, a university, a house, these are all such examples. And since power exists locally, the only way to resist it is to resist it locally. Being a homosexual, Foucault was aware of how power exercised at local levels leads to the repression of such individuals. He often faced administrative restrictions from the university owing to his sexual affairs. Unfortunately, Foucault was also only of early victims of AIDS, when he died of this disease in 1984, being the first high profile French personality to have been an HIV victim.

Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007) is one of the important postmodernist thinkers; especially his ideas of simulacra and hyperreality have gained a lot of popularity. Baudrillard argues that in our postmodern world, the simulacra (the copies of real objects or events) have replaced the reality; they have become more real than reality itself. He gives the reference to a short story by Borges in which the cartographers of a kingdom produce a map so detailed and exact that it ends up covering the whole geographic territory, and hence becomes the reality. Similarly, we are living in a world of media images and simulacra which have become more real than reality – they have created their own ‘hyperreality’. The images of Madonna have become more real than Madonna herself. Baudrillard calls it the ‘death of reality’, which should not be taken literally as meaning that reality doesn’t exist, but rather that simulacra have become more real than the reality. An interesting example is given by Jim Powell: In an episode of Beavis and Butthead, the two are watching TV, and they see on the screen that police breaks its way into an apartment—their apartment!—and busts them, but they are so immersed in watching the TV that they don’t even realize that the whole event is taking place live. “Life has become TV, and TV, life. TV watches us, and we watch TV watching over us.”[4] It is in this way that the distinction between reality and simulation is lost; Douglas Kellner writes “in the media and consumer society, people are caught up in the play of images, spectacles, and simulacra, that have less and less relationship to an outside, to an external "reality," to such an extent that the very concepts of the social, political, or even "reality" no longer seem to have any meaning.”[5] The film Matrix by the Wachowski brothers is thought to have been inspired by Baudrillard’s philosophy of Simulacra and hyperreality.

Baudrillard created a lot of controversy by his famous claim that the Gulf War ‘did not take place’. On one hand we can take it as saying that what we saw as the Gulf War was actually just a play of media images, visuals and spectacles. But what Baudrillard meant was perhaps that there was little difference in the political scenario before and after the war (a claim for which he has been strongly criticized): Saddam remained the sovereign and retained most of his military and political power, and hence, in a sense, there was no war.

Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) was a very famous and controversial Algerian-born French philosopher who has in many ways replaced the image of Jean-Paul Sartre as the top French intellectual celebrity, being the founder of the notorious ‘Deconstruction’. Deconstruction has risen up a whole storm of controversy and discussion, and responses differ from passionate advocacy to hostile denial. However, whatever its philosophical status may be, there is no doubt that deconstruction has emerged as one of the most influential ideas of our times.

Philosophers debate heatedly about how to define Deconstruction. Derrida himself said that any attempts to define deconstruction as ‘Deconstruction is X’ will simply miss the point. However, we can see it as a certain way of reading a text. Here I must mention that a ‘text’ is not just a text (written material), but it could be anything… it could be a painting, a song, a video. Derrida criticizes western philosophy for its unacknowledged belief in a ‘metaphysics of presence’, a view that a text has a stable meaning that can be determined unambiguously. In contrast, Derrida advocates an interpretation of text in which there is a continual play of difference.

In my attempt to explain Deconstruction in an easy and clear manner, I am guilty of over-simplification, but this is perhaps unavoidable as a first step to make the horribly obscure writings on Deconstruction somewhat understandable.

All texts have a polarity: There is a Centre which tends to repress and marginalize the Other. To use the analogy of a society, in a patriarchal society, Male is the centre while Female is the Other. The Centre is given a privileged position while the Other is ignored and pushed away. Similarly, texts have a Centre and an Other. This centre constitutes the dominant interpretation which has been preferred, while the other is the compendium of alternative explanations which have been suppressed and ignored. Deconstruction aims to reveal this polarity of the text and then show that multiple interpretations are possible, all of which are valid, and that there is no single meaning.

In his humorous and highly enjoyable article How To Deconstruct Almost Anything - My Postmodern Adventure[6], Chip Morningstar explains how he has understood the methodology of Deconstruction. He describes it in 5 steps.

Step 1: Select a text.

Step 2: Decide what the text says.

Step 3: Identify within the reading a distinction of some sort.

Step 4: Convert your chosen distinction into a "hierarchical opposition". This is to say that one of the components of the distinction is usually given greater privilege than the other.

Step 5: Derive another reading of the text which reverses the polarity of the opposites. That is, find a way to interpret the text which contradicts and opposes the original interpretation. This is the crucial part of Deconstruction, and this is what postmodernists are adept in doing in a number of styles, including all manners of reasoning that may not be strictly logical, utilizing rhyme, pronunciation, translation, mythologies, Freudian and Marxist thought, and so on.

This interpretation from Step 5 will be in contradiction or disagreement with the more obvious interpretation. Which of these will be the true interpretation? Derrida says that both of these interpretations are true and equally valid. (It is a usual practice in Deconstruction to consider only the text and the author's intentions are not considered a restriction to interpretation. That is, the text means more than what the author intended it to be. Barthes proclaims it as the 'death of the author'.) Once you have seen both interpretations, none of them remains dominant. The text has been ‘decentrized’. It has lost its Centre, and therefore there is now a free play of meaning. The meaning of the text will fluctuate between the two interpretations. Jim Powell describes “There is no central configuration that attempts to freeze the play of the system, no marginal one, no privileged one, no repressed one. According to Derrida, all language and all texts are, when deconstructed, like this. And so is human thought, which is always made up of language. He says we should continuously attempt to see this free play in all our language and texts.”[8] And Stuart Sim writes, “The end result is a form of philosophy which looks closer to game playing than to traditional philosophical argument.”[9]

One of the implications of Deconstruction is that, if language is fragmented, then it means that people, who think it terms of language, would also be fragmented. “If the sentence breaks down, so does the psyche. So does our experience of past, present and future.”[10] Hence, it might be said that the disease of modernism was alienation and paranoia, while the disease of postmodernism is Schizophrenia.

Derrida's thought, however, is not just about challenging the notion of a stable textual meaning; it is a radical critique of all philosophy as we know it. Derrida's aim is destabilization of all sorts of boundaries and distinctions. This aim is expressed in the very manner of Derrida's writing. His philosophy is not the standard run-off-the-mill philosophical reasoning with clearly defined premises, arguments and conclusions. He doesn't adopt a particular stance himself. He doesn't prove or refute philosophical ideas in question. Rather, he plays with them. He unchains the instabilities of the text and lets them run amok. Like the Joker in Nolan's film The Dark Knight, he just wants to watch the world burn.

Derrida loves undecidability which eats away at the binary oppositions that exist in our thought. For instance, we have an either/or distinction between life and death. Something is either alive or dead. It can't be both or neither. But then there is the concept of a zombie. A zombie is neither alive nor dead, or perhaps both alive and dead. It is an undecidable. It disrupts our opposition, refusing to settle down. As Derrida explained in an interview: "[Certain marks] I have called undecidables, that is, unities of simulacrum, "false" verbal properties (nominal or semantic) that can no longer be included within philosophical (binary) opposition: but which, however, inhabit philosophical oppositions, resisting and organizing it, without ever constituting a third term, without ever leaving room for a solution in the form of speculative dialectics." [11] This undecidability that Derrida brings also unfixes metaphysics and shakes its foundation. 

One undecidable is the Greek pharmakon, which appears in Plato's play Phaedrus. It's a word which means remedy and poison at the same time. The inventor-god Theuth presents the gift of writing to King Thamus as a pharmakon for memory and wisdom. Derrida unearths the play of undecidaility and shows how it unsettles the meaning of the whole play.

Perhaps the most famous undeciable is Différance, a French neologism coined by Derrida. Différance is a word that does not exist in French, but it is related to the French verb différer (it means 'to defer' or 'to differ', depending on the context) and the noun différence (difference or deferral)Différance is pronounced the same as différence, so it cannot be heard, it can only be seen. Thus it disrupts the hierarchy of speech and writing by privileging writing, and brings an uncertainty in communication. Différance can simultaneously mean difference and deferral; furthermore, it is auto-referential. It differs from itself by meaning two different things, and it defers its own meaning. The word itself is what it means. Différance is neither noun nor a verb (or is both), neither a word nor a concept (or is both), neither an entity nor an action (or is both). It "leaves philosophical language ruined, sick with its own instabilities" [12].

When the University of Cambridge decided to give an honorary doctorate to Derrida, there was a huge controversy raised by the faculty, and 18 philosophers from different institutions, including the famous analytical philosopher W. V. Quine, signed a letter of protest saying that Derrida's work "does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigor". And it accuses Derrida of “translating into the academic sphere tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the Dadaists or of the concrete poets.” And that his writings consist merely of elaborate jokes and puns like "logical phallusies"[13]. However, despite all this hostile criticism, Derrida has gone a long way in establishing himself as an important thinker, and the popularity he has achieved is a proof of that.

One of the ideas that is commonly heard in discussions about postmodernism is the idea of ‘death of philosophy’. Since postmodernism has fragmented, deconstructed and destroyed everything, what remains now? “Jürgen Habermas, for example, argues that the abandonment of any commitment to universal reason on the part of poststructuralist thinkers like Foucault ultimately leads to the end of philosophy, and to any possibility of being able to discriminate between the claims of competing theories or discourses.”[14] [My emphasis]

For a summary of postmodernism, I think there is no better way than to borrow from Ihab Hassan’s table of schematic differences between modernism and postmodernism. Some of the differences that he mentions are[15]:

Modernism     Postmodernism

romanticism/symbolism     paraphysics/Dadaism
purpose     play
design     chance
hierarchy     anarchy
art object, finished word     process, performance
distance     participation
creation, totalization     deconstruction
synthesis     antithesis
presence     absence
centering     dispersal
depth     surface
interpretation     against interpretation
reading     misreading
narrative     anti-narrative
paranoia     schizophrenia
origin, cause     difference-difference
determinacy     indeterminacy
transcendence     immanence


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Footnotes:
[1] Quoted in the article ‘Postmodernism Disrobed’ by Richard Dawkins
http://richarddawkins.net/article,824,Postmodernism-Disrobed,Richard-Dawkins-Nature
[2] Aylesworth, Gary, "Postmodernism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2005/entries/postmodernism/
[3]
[4] Postmodernism – For Beginners by Jim Powell, Orient Longman, page 64
[5] Kellner, Douglas, "Jean Baudrillard", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2007 Edition), URL: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2007/entries/baudrillard/
[6] http://www.fudco.com/chip/deconstr.html
[7]
[8] Postmodernism – For Beginners by Jim Powell, Orient Longman, page 106
[9] One Hundred Twentieth- Century Philosophers, entry on Derrida written by Stuart Sim, Routledge New York 1998, page 44
[10] Postmodernism – For Beginners by Jim Powell, Orient Longman, page 107

[11] Jacques Derrida, "Interview with Jean-Louis Houdebine and Guy Scarpetta," in "Positions" (The University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 42
[12] 'Introducing Derrida', Jeff Collins and Bill Mayblin. Icon Books; Fourth Edition edition (April 5, 2011), Page 77
[13] Barry Smith, et al., "Open letter against Derrida receiving an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University" The Times [London]. May 9, 1992.
http://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/elljwp/againstdsdegree.htm
[14] One Hundred Twentieth- Century Philosophers, entry on Foucault written by Stuart Sim, Routledge New York 1998, page 59
[15] Hassan "The Culture of Postmodernism" Theory, Culture, and Society, V 2 1985, 123-4
[Cited in http://www.as.ua.edu/ant/Faculty/murphy/436/pomo.htm
]