Thursday, June 11, 2015

Intro: What is Postmodernism?

"Simplifying in the extreme, I define postmodernism as incredulity toward meta-narratives" - Jean-Francois Lyotard

“The dominant theories of elite art and criticism in the 20th century grew out of a militant denial of human nature. One legacy is ugly, baffling, and insulting art. The other is pretentious and unintelligible scholarship. And they’re surprised that people are staying away in droves?” - Steven Pinker

It’s become necessary for me to tackle some theory before moving onto the next stage of my philosophy of history series, so I would like to put that aside for now and turn to the dreaded topic of…. postmodernism (scary music.)

Almost anyone who is interested in philosophy can probably tell you a few things about it: it’s relativist, nihilist, decadent, French, immoral, has something to do with art and literature, and is, in short, a very bad thing. That might all be true – but what _is_ it?

Broadly speaking, postmodernism is a set of claims about the relationship between thought and language which aims to show that it is the structure of language, and not of the world itself, which determines our beliefs. If this is correct, much of what seems to be a given fact of nature actually rests on interpretations beyond our ability to fully understand or control. They are impositions on the world, conducted through but not by us. Put another way, concepts are invented, not discovered, though not through any individual act of will. Because postmodernists regard all concepts as contingent rather than necessary, they also tend to resist “grand narratives” – big theories about the meaning or purpose of life, the history of the human race or of a nation, and so on. Typically they see this as both sound scholarship (on the grounds that grand narratives tend to ignore real and irreducible differences in favor of fictitious “archetypes”), and also as a moral mission (on the grounds that grand narratives invariably vilify some group of people, and thus legitimate oppression and massacre.)

No wonder postmodernism stirs up so much controversy! Its claims are extremely broad – they encompass everything that people do or say or think, and they are subversive of every ideology, system, theory, religion, or philosophy which makes exclusive truth claims. Postmodernism instantly makes enemies out of… well… everyone who isn’t a postmodernist, more or less. This sketch is very inadequate, however. I hope that by discussing the following intellectuals, we can gain some clarity on the nature of these claims. Specifically, this series will discuss seven postmodernists (below), three structuralists (their precursors), and three critics of postmodernism (in the end.) These are:

Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004), a French philosopher and literary critic who re-interpreted the ideas of Claude Levi-Strauss and Ferdinand de Saussure, and almost single-handedly launched post-structuralism.

Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984), a French philosopher and historian who applied Derrida’s and Saussure’s ideas to power, identity, and social relations.

Jacques Lacan (1901 – 1981), a French psychoanalyst who reinterpreted Freud in light of Derrida and Saussure, and vice-versa.

Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980), a French literary theorist who argued that the authority of the author had to be rejected in favor of the authority of the reader.

Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924 – 1998), a French social theorist who argued that institutional knowledge production had come to serve largely commercial and ideological interests.

Hayden White (1928 – ), an American philosopher of history who argued that 19th century concepts of scientific history were historically aberrant, and that history in fact belonged to the genre of literature

Edward Said (1935 – 2003), a Palestinian-American literary critic who argued that Western perceptions of the Middle East were largely a product of 19th century colonial fantasies.

Postmodernism might be right, and it might be wrong – my purpose is not to argue either for or against it, but simply to explain what it is. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I’m sympathetic to postmodernism, and I think some of its claims are right – but I join the critics in rejecting its more extravagant claims about language and interpretation, and I certainly do not think that everyone’s ideas are equally useful or valid. My own point of view is pragmatism in the vein of Richard Rorty, which, though it has some affinities with postmodernism, is not at all the same thing. However, these are complex issues, and I haven’t completely made up my mind about these people and their ideas myself. That is, indeed, part of the reason for the series.

What I hope to persuade you of, if you are not already persuaded, is that there is more to postmodernism than a conspiracy against decency and common sense. These were serious people, and their ideas deserve to be taken seriously, even if we are not in the end persuaded by them. But even more importantly, I would like to provide some clarity on what exactly postmodernism is, because it is such an important topic, but not one that is easy to explain. I’ve worked hard to fill that gap, and I hope this series will provide useful information to everyone, whether they are sympathetic to postmodernism, or hostile to it, or simply curious to learn more about it.

SEP Postmodernism: 
The picture is one of Nam June Paik’s TV-Buddhas, 1976.

 Part of a series on Postmodernism (I of XV)

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