Thursday, September 20, 2007

Something on postmodernism

This is a Blue Peter post - a talk I gave at Heythrop in 1996.

1.I have to admit to having been taken aback when Peter asked me to present a paper on postmodernism. Before doing some reading for this paper I knew nothing about the subject, so what you are about to hear is the result of a fairly skimpy reading of some of the relevant texts. There is much more to postmodernism than I deal with here, in particular whether postmodernism is actually a form of modernism, rather than a separate intellectual movement in its own right. What writing this paper has done, however, is bring me into touch with the continental tradition of philosophy: something that, having done my first degree at Oxford, I was wholly lacking in preparation for.

2.What I will do in this paper is first explain what I think postmodernism is; then describe what its view of the self is; and then offer some criticisms and thoughts of my own.

What is postmodernism?
3.Postmodernism is very much a trendy concept, so trendy in fact that when Michel Foucault was asked to comment on it shortly before his death he commented ‘What are we calling postmodernity? I am not up to date.' What I will discuss here is my understanding of postmodernism; of course, as you will see, a postmodernist would say that I could never provide anything else anyway.

4.Talk of postmodernism has been worked out in three fields in particular: art, politics and philosophy. In art it can be said to refer to the rejection of the functionality and austerity of the modernist movement, eg in architecture, in favour of a heterogeneity of styles, drawing on varied traditions from the past and from mass culture. In politics it refers to a perceived shift in the economic basis of production, away from a ‘Fordist' system of mass, automated industrial production towards one characterised by information technology and in which knowledge itself is the principal force of production. In philosophy postmodernism is characterised by a stress on the fragmentary, heterogeneous and plural nature of reality, in particular, where an appeal to an objective account of reality is rendered necessarily incoherent.

5.The overall definition that I have found most useful, and which could be said to underlie the movements mentioned above is that postmodernism is best characterised as ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives' (Jean-Francois Lyotard). A meta-narrative is an overarching theoretical framework, within which actions and thought make sense. For example, Marxism provides a meta-narrative describing the economic forces leading to revolution and the eventual triumph of the bourgeoisie; Christianity provides a meta-narrative in which God is working out his salvific plan for the human race. Incredulity towards such meta-narratives involves denying, or being suspicious of, their claims to truth. In fact, it is this sense of suspicion that seems to characterise postmodernism. A key element in the thought of postmodernism is that all appeals to truth are no more than disguised bids for power and self-affirmation. This is an element of their thought that originates with Nietzche: ‘all that exists consists in interpretations' and the particular interpretation promulgated is that which serves the interests of the person doing the promulgation. In particular there is the denial of even the possibility of a universal truth, and this is a point that I will return to.

The postmodern self
6.Postmodernism then can be characterised by this distancing from grand theories about truth or value. Where does this leave the self? The postmodern self is characterised by being trapped within a network of power interests, in which it plays out various roles that are dictated by others. The postmodern self perceives itself as having lost control as an active agent; it is a pawn in a larger game; and a larger game, furthermore, from which no meaning can be derived. In this sense a particularly postmodern author is Kafka: all understanding, and perhaps as a consequence all personal meaning, is denied the hero of his novels. In contrast to an autonomous, self-authenticating hero able to choose their destiny (or at least to participate meaningfully in the working out of their destiny) the postmodern self is essentially flotsam floating on the surface of stormy waters, being driven to and fro.

7.This can be developed further. Anthony Thiselton writes:

‘the self of postmodernity has become de-centred. It no longer regards itself as active agent carving out any possibility with the aid of natural and social sciences, but as an opaque product of variable roles and performances which have been imposed upon it by the constraints of society and by its own inner drives or conflicts'.

In postmodernism the self is seen as illusory: the self is composed of various subpersonal and transpersonal desires and forces that control the actions and processes experienced. There is no longer a stable entity that can be referred to as the self; there are only more or less continuous impressions, some of which cohere and others that do not. Postmodernism declares that there can be no confidence in believing that you can control your own destiny - to believe that you can is to fall victim to the power interests of others (which need not be personal themselves) where you should instead be suspicious.

8.This might seem to be rather a bleak conclusion, yet (ironically enough) postmodernism is actually characterised best by ‘jouissance' - an enjoyment in playing games, irony and pastiche. According to a recent New Statesman article, the film ‘Pulp Fiction' represented postmodernism ‘with shake and fries to go': the film could be described as nihilistic, but it certainly qualifies as entertainment.

9.Postmodernism, therefore, could be characterised as a cultural phenomenon by the playing with cultural forms and concepts, thrown together to see what might result. I am rather taken by Umberto Eco's assessment of what postmodernism consists in:

‘I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who is in love with a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her "I love you madly" because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say ‘As Barbara Cartland might put it, I love you madly.' At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence. If the woman goes along with this, she will have received a declaration of love all the same. Neither of the two speakers will feel innocent, both will have accepted the challenge of the past, of the already said, which cannot be eliminated; both will consciously and with pleasure play the game of irony...But both will have succeeded, once again, in speaking of love.'

The postmodern self is defined and determined by the heritage that it finds itself in - it is impossible to be authentic in any existential sense. One could almost characterise postmodernism as the impossibility of being novel, so that creativity becomes of necessity parasitic on older art. A good example might be the prevalence of mixing in pop records of recent times. Whereas in the seventies those who were protesting destroyed what they saw as a corrupt older order, now bands are consciously drawing on previous models, playing at being rock stars who hope they die before they get old. It is as if the past has become oppressive, and if it is hard to bring something new into existence then ridicule is the only avenue open.

10.As I said above, this is rather a bleak conception of human nature, and it is not one that I find particularly convincing. In the first instance we must, of course, apply a properly postmodern suspicion to the claims of postmodernism itself. Postmodernism is founded on the view that all language, particularly all claims to truth, are disguised power bids. Is this really the case? Consider the following uses of language:

Does the baby need changing?
Look out!
I'm sorry, I was wrong.
Would you like some tea?

Of course, these could be used as power bids (in the first example, perhaps one partner is trying to get the other to make a contribution to helping raise the child) but the fact that they could be so used does not mean that they necessarily have to be so used. It is quite easy to imagine situations in which the issue of power politics does not arise. I would imagine that if you try and think of a situation where power politics isn't an issue then it will be a time when you felt at ease, or perhaps, more positively, it was a time when there was real human contact being developed: there was a conversation and you felt that you were really being listened to. In the face of such instances one can accept the postmodern description, with all that follows, or be suspicious of the meta-narrative that it provides.

11.Unfortunately, when the meta-narrative is subjected to analysis and assessed it becomes banal. If we accept that not all language (and not all behaviour) is based on power politics then the postmodern claim is that in many cases language is being used to further someone's ulterior motives. Well yes. Obviously.

12.I think that there is a more fundamental weakness in the postmodern position, and these weaknesses may apply to other elements of modern continental philosophy. The driving force behind the postmodern position appears to be this incredulity towards truth claims, the view that no truth claim can be objectively justified. But why does a truth claim need to be objectively justified, and what does objective justification mean in this context? I suspect that the postmodernists have seen a situation where previously accepted norms are no longer tenable, where the old order is breaking down, but they are still analysing the situation using the previous order's methods and assumptions.

13.For example, I can accept that we have no objective justification for particular truth claims, but this does not mean that I reject all notion of truth, and certainly does not mean that I see myself as a passive participant in my life. You could say that the old order made a fetish of ‘Truth' as a Platonic form and that such a conception is no longer tenable. You are still left with choice in such a situation. The postmodern option is to leave the debate in its present form, reject one side of the argument and say that as there is no ‘Truth' you become a piece of flotsam. Alternatively you could say that the debate has been miscast, that we ought to speak of truths rather than the ‘Truth', and that therefore our lives can be based upon other meanings and other centres. Why should a linguistic or philosophical assessment dictate the nature of our lives? Fleshing this out would require another paper though.

14.I do have some sympathies with a postmodern understanding, although, as explained above, I think that it continues to absolutise something which needs to be relativised. The impression that I am left with is that postmodernism is a cultural phenomenon, rather than a substantial intellectual movement in its own right. The flavour is of a fin-de-siecle mentality where everything is being thrown into the melting pot and odd smells are coming out. My suspicion is that it is a clearing out of the old and that something new is about to come along:

‘The old is dying, and the new cannot yet be born. In the interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear'
(Antonio Gramsci)

Sam Norton
March 1996

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