I was asked to give a quick ‘n’ dirty run down on postmodernism, and it seemed like a good idea to provide a slightly shorter version here…
Postmodernism: Identity, Politics and Ethics – or how do postmodernists mean?
Postmodernists would say that, like it or not, we are social creatures. We do not in general produce isolated private texts. We are a communicative species. We are marinating in discourse. And it is a discourse that has not arisen spontaneously for each individual – so we are socialised by our immersion in language – however broadly conceived – as shared communicative acts. Culturally, we are a product of the traces of the history of discursive acts that have seen us emerge at a given point in a given time.
Jacques Lacan, following a particular strand of Freud, has noted that, culturally, we are not unitary beings – we have a multiplicity of selves articulated by and through language. (see The Agency of the Letter, and The mirror Stage in
Ecrits). Julia Kristeva carried this further into a politically powerful means of questioning inequalities based on biological gender, by showing how culturally, gender difference is itself an articulation of culture, with its own history of patriarchal and at times misogynist assumptions.
Michel Foucault, extending the work of Roland Barthes noted – in the concept of the author-function (What is an Author?) – that a writer necessarily writes the traces of his or her culture, and that the history of discourses position the writer within a time and space and context and importantly, within a power structure – underlining the political implications of the concept of the speaking subject.
Taking this further, Jean-Francois Lyotard in his paper: “the Referent, the Differend and the Proper Name” (sounds like a movie title) argued strongly that language games are agonistic – to speak is, for that moment, to silence other speaking positions, and that language can systemically silence those whose conditions are not recognised within the terms of that language, and thereby injustice arises (see his book Heidegger and the Jews).
So far in all this, I can find no a-historicism. In summary, a range of those characterised as postmodernists would probably say something along the lines of:
Once upon a time the world was not as it is. And for those nostalgic for the good old days when meaning was meaning and men were men and women knew their place, they would probably say the world will never again be as it was – there can be no re-iteration, only instances of iterations.
And so to the question of meaning. Is meaning now indeterminate? To what extent was it ever determinate? And what kinds of things can we say about any given text? Is it really all just free play and relativism?
Let’s turn this around and ask: What if the foundationalists are right? Let me begin with some egregious and gross over simplifications to illustrate the consequences.
Firstly, you must assume that language bears a one-to-one relation with reality: with world stuff (or get close enough to be able to speak with authority about reality and objectivity). Then you assume that people write what they think/believe and do so without fear or favour. Assume human beings are unitary subjects conditioned (trapped) by their biology – what you speak is what you get. It’s okay to generalise, because if it holds in the microcosm it must also hold at the macro level – we are dealing here with universals. I could go on about how essentialism means there is no place for Humanities education, because people might question facts as though they were cultural artefacts, and start blathering on about how history is written by the victors and herstory is not written at all.
Make no mistake: absolutism, foundationalism, essentialism – however you name them – are armed and dangerous. To speak is to silence the Other, whether it is done with words or bullets or improvised explosive devices.
Saussure in linguistics, and Levi-Strauss in anthropology noted that language (or any system of representation) is basically a differential system – a system of differences – that can be analysed in terms of minimal pairs, building a series of dual relations based on minimal differences between them.
Saussure also pointed out that the actual terms chosen are arbitrary insofar as it is possible to associate any given sound or sign to represent any given referent. And he illustrates that with the fact that ‘arbre’ and ‘tree’ can both be used to name a tall woody-stemmed plant with branches and leaves. By arbitrary, however, he doesn’t mean we can just ‘make up’ a term, but rather, meaning is negotiated within the linguistic community and consensually assigned and used to stand in place of the thing for the purposes of naming.
Perhaps he was ahead of William Gibson in his constitution of language as a kind of cyberspace – a consensual hallucination.
And these naming conventions occur within a system of language in a structured way – a way that can be analysed synchronically in relation to other parts of discourse in terms of how it fits within the system at a given point in time, and diachronically, in terms of the history underlying the evolving meaning of that term within cultural use.
Derrida takes up this differential system and points out – uncomfortably for some – that language mediates between us and whatever we conceive reality to be. Actually that is not new – Kant, Husserl, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Heidegger all noted variants on this theme. But in noting that language stands in place of the thing, but is different from it, Derrida also noted that by standing in place of, it also puts off until later – it defers our access to the thing. This double formulation of difference and defer-ment is what he collapses into the term différance – the ‘a’ signifying the join.
Because language is of a different order from the world of things, the shift from thing to language is the first order of metaphor (from the Greek: meta–pherein – to carry over). In this sense, there is no ‘literal’.
For Heidegger, this meant there was no metaphor – because there can be no metaphor of metaphor, only language and more language – and any shift into metaphor would actually be metonymic (a shift of extent, rather than of kind).
Language, however, marks a boundary – the articulation of which locates the difference between things – insofar as those differences impinge on our senses. And this has certain consequences. If meaning is a by-product of practices of boundary-making, and the friction between boundaries is what makes the thing meaningful, then perhaps there is no need to consider a centre or core. What if meaning were only a symptom of boundary-making practices – of visible differences?
The consequence is this. The centre is absent and meaning is historically contingent (upon the traces of friction between boundaries) and essentially contested (it only becomes meaningful when it rubs up against something that forces us to decide if it this or that, self or Other.
For Derrida, identity is a consequence of difference, not the other way round as foundationalists would have it.
The foundationalist narrative would say first there is a thing, and when it meets a boundary, that boundary delineates this thing from the other thing.
But Derrida is a philosophical sceptic. How can we KNOW an identity until we have identified it? – until it has been made present. It was this kind of discussion that surrounded the scientific controversy of the existence of the ether. In the end, scientists of the turn of the 19th century concluded that ‘there may or may not be an ether, but while we cannot measure it, and it has no discernable impact there is no need to include it in our calculations.’ – Encyclopedia Britannica, 1889.
And to be rigorous, we need to be aware that the referent is not necessarily ‘world stuff’. The referent is our concept of world stuff which is itself a form of mediation. The best we can get is a socially agreed concept – itself a product of language within a system of differences.
But that doesn’t mean we cannot mean.
Merely that meaning is not stable, and can change over time. It can be re-construed. Deconstruction is not about the destruction of meaning, but about the constant re-construal of meaning
There are real and actual consequences in this for identity, politics and ethics.
We are social beings. Our identity is socially constructed through a multi-faceted system of differences. Moment by moment we construct our identity in relation to the Other – that which is not self. So, being immersed in culture, there can be no neutral position. As soon as I encounter something I am with it or against it. It reinforces who I am, or it challenges who I am.
As social beings we articulate a multiplicity of identities, depending on the register or context in which we are operating. I am a lecturer, a parent, a partner, a musician, a woodworker – and they are all me in different contexts.
As an academic I can be one who agrees with Gadamer, while not a Gadamarian. I can be influenced by X but differ in the nuances – whatever the minimal pair. And my identity can be said to be the product of my history of how I am different from the myriad facets of the world with which I have been in contact, or touched by in some way.
And where I am at my weakest, I will exert the greatest strength in my defence. It is there I will make my most vocal protest until it is socially established that my position is no longer under threat. As Foucault pointed out, Identity is a function of relational power. But at each moment of identification I am ethically obliged to assert where I stand. Under this rubric, I alone am responsible for the person I am becoming. There is no neutral position. Is this nihilism? Is this without a ground for ethics?
Lyotard reminds us that to speak is to silence other positions. This has ethical consequences. What we consider ethical is part of a complex social and historical matrix of individual choices and decisions over time. To be rigorous, we cannot abrogate that responsibility to a higher power, an external order, because within any given culture, we are implicated in any complicity with unethical practices. And we have to be able to live with the consequences. For the relativist, philosophical sceptic, it is incumbent on us all to be responsible for our actions, and for those actions carried out in our name. We have no Nuremberg Defence – ‘I was just following orders’, ‘it was the will of god, or of Allah’, or ‘that’s just the way it is, mate’.
For postmodernists, language is essentially a closed system. It is tautological, self-referential. But it has real consequences and actual effects and impacts.
And to help us find an ethical standpoint there is only the shifting, contested history that has brought us to a socially negotiated ethical position that we can live with.
That history has left its traces. It has left its traces in what goes without saying; the silent majority; the primacy of the first term in a binary pair.
As for foundationalists? Rising towards the Sun of Presence: It is the way of Icarus!