Philosophy of Postmodernism Research Paper

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‘Postmodernism’ is a term that defies simple definition. Although earlier uses are recorded, the term has been widely used since the 1960s to refer to a range of antimodernist attitudes and strategies in art criticism, architecture, and literary criticism. References to postmodernism in philosophy and social theory did not become common before they appeared in the work of Lyotard and Rorty during the early 1980s. Philosophical postmodernism quickly became associated with the idea of a ‘crisis’ in representation, abandonment of the belief in a universal subject of reason and value, and the rejection of unitary schemas of progress inherited from the Enlightenment. In place of these foundational motifs of modern thought, postmodernism emphasized difference, diversity and irreducible conflict in human affairs rather than unity and the possibility of harmony.

There are several reasons why postmodernism should be ‘a particularly unstable concept’ (Bertens 1995, p. 12). First, the concept of postmodernism stands in a variety of complex relations to other concepts such as modernism, poststructuralism, deconstructionism, modernity and postmodernity. Since the meaning of these concepts is equally uncertain, so our understanding of ‘postmodernism’ will be affected by the particular meaning attached to these related concepts. Second, to the extent that postmodernism is considered a cultural movement alongside others such as romanticism, positivism, or structuralism, then it too will encompass a variety of distinct aesthetic and intellectual strategies. Bertens’ The Idea of Postmodernism: a History begins with illustrations of the sometimes contradictory ways in which the term has been employed. For example, by 1970 modern painting had long abandoned the idea that representation or narrative were essential to its art. In explicit reaction against modernism understood as the self-reflexive exploration of the formal possibilities of painting, postmodern painting involved a reprise of representation and narrative. In a similar fashion, postmodern architecture rejected the formalism of the postwar International style and reembraced historical and vernacular styles. By contrast, at least in some of its manifestations, literary postmodernism involved a move in the opposite direction away from narrative and representation towards a form of radical self-reflexivity. Bertens concludes that, depending on the artistic discipline, ‘postmodernism is either a radicalization of the self-reflexive moment within modernism, a turning away from narrative and representation, or an explicit return to narrative and representation. And sometimes it is both’ (Bertens, 1995, p. 5). In view of the many different phenomena to which it has been applied, it is common for discussions of postmodernism, to begin, as this one has, with the claim that the term has no clear meaning (Eco 1985, p. 65, Rorty 1999, p. 262).

1. Modernity Modernism

Just as modernism is often regarded as a response to the process of modernization which transformed the material conditions of European society during the nineteenth century, so postmodernism is often presented as a consequence of the restructuring of capitalism at the end of the twentieth century. The historical period of modernity which extends from the middle of the eighteenth through to the middle of the twentieth century saw the development of industrial capitalist infrastructure and means of production such as railways, automobiles, air transport, electricity, and telegraphic and telephonic communication. It also saw the growth and modernization of cities, the spread of public schools, hospitals, and prisons, and the development of bureaucratic and rational procedures for the government of social life. ‘Modernism’ is commonly used to refer to an artistic sensibility which embraced innovation and change. In its early stages, modernism involved a positive sense of living at the dawn of a new era. To be modern implied an heroic commitment to action and to revolutionizing oneself as well as the means of artistic production, hence the dynamic of successive avant-gardes in the particular arts. During the latter part of the nineteenth and the early years of the twentieth century, modernism meant experimentation with the style and form of the various arts.

Theorists of postmodernity assert a parallel connection between the changes associated with the restructuring and globalization of late capitalism and the emergence of a postmodern culture. Two of the leading theorists, Fredric Jameson and David Harvey, argue that changes in technology, urban space, and forms of consumption have created the conditions of a new mode of experience of self and others (Jameson 1991, Harvey 1989). In particular, they argue that the ‘compression’ of social space and time which results from new electronic and communications technologies is reflected in a new cultural sensibility. Moreover, just as the modernist commitment to the destruction of traditional ways of life and thought was often linked to a tragic sense of loss, so some theorists of postmodernity argue that a similar kind of homelessness is generated by the late twentieth century mutations in our experience of space and time. Jameson is among those who take a negative view of the cultural experience of postmodernity on the grounds that it does not sustain a sufficiently robust sense of self and history. He argues that the rapid evolution of postmodern urban space has overtaken ‘the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world’ (Jameson 1991, p. 83). On his account, postmodernity is experienced as incapacity in the face of complex and discontinuous social spaces and as disorientation in the absence of a rich sense of the past or future. The result is a widely documented fragmentary and schizophrenic experience of subjectivity, along with a tendency towards affectless repetition or ‘blank parody’ of past forms of artistic and cultural production.

For others, modernist and postmodernist alike, the appropriate affective response to change is much less one of nostalgia for older ways of being at home and more a question of orientation towards the future. Nietzsche, who is in many respects the source of much postmodern philosophy, took the condition of ‘homelessness’ as a metaphor for the condition of those, like himself, who looked forward to ‘the strengthening and enhancement of the human type’: ‘We children of the future, how could we be at home in this today?’ (Nietzsche 1974, p. 338). In their efforts to make positive sense of the experience of being estranged from the social world in which they must live, postmodernists often have recourse to the concept of irony. Richard Rorty calls ironists those who are conscious of the contingency and mutability of the ‘final vocabularies’ employed to make sense of their lives, yet nonetheless committed to the values which those vocabularies embody (Rorty 1989, p. 73). Umberto Eco argues that the postmodern attitude is encapsulated in the irony which acts and speaks in full awareness of the degree to which all our ways of acting and speaking involve repetition of the past: ‘the postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited, but with irony, not innocently’ (Eco 1985, p. 67).

While postmodernism is supposed to involve rejection of the presuppositions of modern art, philosophy, and social theory, commentators and users of the term hesitate over whether postmodernism is primarily a temporal or a typological concept. The prefix and the manner in which the term has been employed in the arts suggest a temporal reference, even though estimates of the beginning of the postmodern era range from the 1860s to the 1980s. But some theorists of postmodernism in the arts and culture treat it as simply the radicalization of tendencies already present in the modern. In philosophy, Rorty argues that, to the extent that postmodernism stands for anything distinctive, it refers to a pluralism shared by a range of modern thinkers such as Nietzsche and William James (Rorty 1999). In similar fashion, Jean-Francois Lyotard argues that postmodernism in painting stands for an aesthetic of the sublime which embraces the ever-renewed attempt to ‘present the unpresentable’ (Lyotard 1983). For these reasons, Eco suggests that postmodernism should not be chronologically defined but rather treated as ‘an ideal category—or better still, a Kuntswollen, a way of operating. We could say that every period has its own postmodernism, just as every period would have its own mannerism’ (Eco 1985, p. 66).

2. Unity And Plurality

A feature of many cultural responses to the transient, fleeting and ephemeral character of modern life is their attachment to ideas of unity, whether in the object to be represented or the artefact to be produced. Thus, for example, modernists believed that a machine or a city could be a unified, smoothly functional object, and a novel or work of art could be a complete, self-contained meaningful entity. Where there is experimentation with diverse modes of representation, this is undertaken in the attempt to convey a single complex and multifaceted reality. And even where there is a dizzying succession of conceptions of the nature of a particular art such as painting, there is nevertheless a conviction at each stage that at last the truth has been found.

Even though ‘modernism’ does not have the same currency as a classificatory term in philosophy and social theory as it does in the arts, there are epistemological parallels to this modernist attitude towards unity. Modernist thought would be that which tolerated perspectivism only on the assumption that there is a single, intelligible reality to be presented. Even when there is an acceptance of surface incoherence, as in Marx’s account of the contradictions of capitalism or Freud’s account of conscious behavior, this is balanced by the discovery of an underlying structure which produces such contradictory effects. In this sense, Harvey argues that modernism ‘took on multiple perspectivism and relativism as its epistemology for revealing what it still took to be the true nature of a unified, though complex, underlying reality’ (Harvey 1989, p. 30). By contrast, postmodernism is associated with the acceptance of plurality in both ways of being and ways of knowing. In opposition to the ideal of unified objects of knowledge, whether texts or artefacts, postmodernism refers instead to networks, open systems, or the dissemination of meaning. In opposition to the modernist ideal of unified science, postmodernism upholds the idea of irreducible difference and even incommensurability among the varieties of knowledge.

3. Poststructuralism And Postmodernism

Postmodernism coincides with the work of a number of French thinkers who came into prominence at the end of the 1960s, notably Baudrillard, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard. By different intellectual paths, these thinkers rejected the idea that theories and concepts simply represent a pre-existing reality. For some, such as Derrida or Baudrillard, this conclusion was reached via a radicalization of Saussurian theses about the arbitrariness of signs and the manner in which their sense is derived from differential relations to other signs. For others, such as Foucault, similar conclusions were reached via Kantian views of the role played by language and thought in the construction of its own objects. A consequence of Foucault’s historicization of the Kantian idea that objects of knowledge are determined in part by the underlying rules governing discourse is that ‘truth’ acquires a history and can no longer be measured solely against an independent reality.

While it is true that the work of Foucault and others does imply a form of historical relativism with regard to truth, it is overstating the case to suggest that the resultant ‘crisis in representation’ amounts to ‘a deeply felt loss of faith in our ability to represent the real, in the widest sense’ (Bertens 1995, p. 11). It is not our ability to represent reality but rather what Deleuze calls the representational ‘image of thought’ that is impugned by poststructuralist epistemology (Deleuze 1994, pp. 129–67). Foremost among the influential philosophical assumptions which make up the representational image of thought is the idea that thought naturally seeks truth. For Rorty, too, what lies at the heart of postmodernism in philosophy is the abandonment of the correspondence theory of truth and the ‘theologicometaphysical belief that Reality and Truth are One—that there is One True Account of How Things Really Are’ (Rorty 1999, p. 262). A less negative characterization might say that postmodernism does not so much reject the idea that thought represents reality as embrace more complex views of what representation entails. In this manner, Foucault’s genealogies of punishment and sexuality drew attention to the ways in which what passes for truth in the social sciences is bound up with the exercise of power over individuals and populations. More generally, postmodernism has drawn attention to new aspects of social reality, such as the systems of thought and language which condition public discourse. It has also given rise to new kinds of analysis of cultural and social phenomena: genealogical, deconstructive, narratological, and so on. In these ways, postmodernism has given rise to new research methods and new objects of analysis in anthropology, sociology, and other social sciences (Clifford and Marcus 1986, Dickens and Fontana 1994). In addition, postmodernism has been widely taken up in jurisprudence and the philosophy of law, where it has been described as the most influential trend at the end of the twentieth century (Litowitz 1997, p. 1).

4. Universalism And Freedom

One of the most influential formulations of postmodernism in philosophy was that provided in Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (Lyotard 1984), first published in 1979. Here, Lyotard uses ‘modern’ to refer to any form of knowledge which seeks legitimation by appeal to some ‘grand narrative, such as the dialectics of the spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.’ He then defines the postmodern attitude as one of ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ (Lyotard 1984, pp. 23–4). Lyotard is not concerned in this essay with postmodernity understood as an historical epoch, since his inquiry is limited to ‘the condition of knowledge in the most highly developed societies’ (Lyotard 1984, pp. 13). Rather, his aim is to show that the supposed transcendent status of scientific knowledge is an illusion sustained by a certain narrative language game. He argues that the privileged status of scientific knowledge is destined to disappear once it is accepted that this status depends upon a narrative which privileges science over other kinds of language game. This narrative of legitimation has either followed the French Enlightenment link between the pursuit of knowledge and human emancipation, or the German Idealist construal of history as the process of the realization of reason through the sciences. Lyotard asserts not only that these ‘metanarratives’ have lost their appeal but that the very idea of transcendent legitimation has given way to forms of legitimation which are local and immanent in particular social practices and forms of life. The postmodern condition therefore is the state in which we must accept this plurality of micronarratives and address the conflicts that arise other than through the imposition of a single master narrative.

In Modernity—An Incomplete Project, Habermas (1983) provided an influential response to Lyotard and other poststructuralist thinkers. He characterized the philosophical project of modernity as the desire for unification of the three spheres of cultural value distinguished by Kant—the theoretical, the practical, and the aesthetic—and for the application of the results of these distinct kinds of judgment to the improvement of everyday life. According to this view, the project of modernity consisted in the effort of Enlightenment thinkers ‘to develop objective science, universal morality and law, and autonomous art, according to their inner logic. At the same time, this project intended to release the cognitive potentials of each of these domains to set them free from their esoteric forms. The Enlightenment philosophers wanted to utilize this accumulation of specialized culture for the enrichment of everyday life—that is to say for the rational organization of everyday social life’ (Habermas 1983, p. 9). The major obstacle preventing the realization of this project, according to Habermas, lay in the manner in which these spheres have become separated from one another, both institutionally and in their internal logics and forms of argumentation, and in the manner in which they have become increasingly separated from a life-world dominated by the instrumental rationality of the theoretical sphere.

Habermas’s solution to this problem appealed to the procedural rationality implicit in language use, or what he calls ‘communicative reason,’ as a means to restoring the possibility of intersubjective consensus. Both his diagnosis and his solution to the problem of modernity are founded upon the Enlightenment belief that universal standards of judgment are necessary for the development of both reason and moral progress. By contrast, postmodern thinkers reject the idea of progress in human affairs in favor of the idea that there are many ways in which the present differs from the past. In common with Lyotard, they reject the idea of universal standards of judgment, value or ‘legitimation.’ Although Habermas characterizes French thinkers such as Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard as ‘young conservatives’ (Habermas 1983, p. 14), most of them do not wish to abandon the ideals of freedom and emancipation but only the approach which links these to universality, unity, and consensus and does so in the name of the Enlightenment.

In response to Habermas’s criticisms, Foucault presented his practice of genealogy as serving the cause of freedom, while suggesting that it represented a critical ethos or attitude towards the present which had always belonged to the Enlightenment. Genealogical criticism does not seek to identify the universal structures of human knowledge and moral action, but rather takes the form of an historical investigation into the means by which we have been constructed as certain kinds of subject. Against the presumption that human reason is an unchanging and undivided faculty, Foucault views reason as divided among the distinct rationalities embodied in particular systems of thought and practice such as ‘medicine,’ ‘discipline,’ or ‘sexuality.’ The aim of this type of historical investigation, Foucault suggests, is to determine ‘in what is given to us as universal, necessary, obligatory, what place is occupied by whatever is singular, contingent, and the product of arbitrary constraints’ (Foucault 1984, p. 45). Thus, in contrast to the idea that progress in human freedom depends upon the extension of the sphere in which universal rationality governs social life, Foucault presents progress in human freedom in negative terms as the escape from particular forms of domination. For many poststructuralist theorists, freedom is not linked to the achievement of universal standards of value or to the hope that dissensus will eventually give way to consensus. Rather, it is dissensus and the experience of irreducible difference which are the conditions of freedom and creativity or change in human affairs.

5. Difference And Multiplicity

In his later work, Lyotard introduced the concept of the differend in order to characterize the postmodern condition with respect to political and moral judgment as the situation in which conflict between two parties cannot be resolved for lack of a rule of judgment common to both (Lyotard 1988, p. 9). Foucault also described his critical attitude towards the present as one which endorsed differentiation from the past rather than movement towards some future identity (Foucault 1984). However, the recent origins of this concern with difference must be sought in the philosophical work of Deleuze and Derrida published during the 1960s. Both sought to elaborate a nondialectical concept of difference, which would see it neither as the simple contrary of identity, nor as ‘dialectically’ identical with identity (Descombes 1980, p. 136). Hegel was a focus of their criticism because he represented the culmination of a metaphysical tradition which treated identity as primary and difference as the derivative or secondary term. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze (1994) explicitly rejects the link which Hegel forged between difference and contradiction, arguing that contradiction is not the condition or ground of difference but on the contrary: ‘It is not difference which presupposes opposition but opposition which presupposes difference, and far from resolving difference by tracing it back to a foundation, opposition betrays and distorts it’ (Deleuze 1994, p. 51). Limitation or opposition is a distortion of difference, according to Deleuze, because difference in itself implies ‘a swarm of differences, a pluralism of free, wild or untamed differences’ (Deleuze 1994, p. 50). Similarly, in Of Grammatology, Derrida (1976) drew upon Heidegger’s concept of the ontological difference between being and beings and Saussure’s concept of the differentiation which gives rise to units of signification in a sign system to draw attention to the movement of deferral and differentiation (differance) which underlies all production of meaning (Derrida 1976, pp. 56–65).

Both Deleuze and Derrida were concerned with the problem of how to conceive of the identity of objects such as meanings, texts or signs which are subject to continuous variation, or how to envisage a form of unity which is not identical with itself. To this end, Derrida relied upon a series of concepts such as differance, the trace and iterability, while Deleuze relied upon a concept of open or variable multiplicity derived from Bergson. The concept of multiplicity, he and Guattari suggest, ‘was created precisely in order to escape the abstract opposition between the multiple and the one, to escape dialectics, to succeed in conceiving the multiple in the pure state, to cease treating it as a numerical fragment of a lost Unity or Totality or as the organic element of a Unity or Totality yet to come, and instead distinguish between different types of multiplicity’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 32). In his collaborative work with Guattari (Deleuze and Guattari 1987), the concept of abstract multiplicities provided the formal structure for the elaboration of a series of philosophical concepts of such things as desire, language use, and forms of social organization. Deleuze and Guattari defend their idiosyncratic practice of philosophy as the invention of new concepts in order to bring about new ways of speaking and acting.

A distinction is often drawn between ‘postmodern’ theorists, such as Deleuze–Guattari, Derrida, and Foucault, and theorists of postmodernity such as Jameson and Harvey. The theorists of postmodernity tend to adopt a broadly Marxist approach to society and culture, and to the cultural phenomena they see as representative of the social totality, in order to pass judgment. Their ‘modernist’ social theory presupposes that a total picture is possible and that cultural phenomena can be understood as effects of a certain economic ‘logic.’ They proceed on the assumption that critical distance is possible and that an appropriate interpretative framework will provide such distance. By contrast, the ‘postmodern’ theorists tend to abandon economic or other forms of historical determinism, along with the idea that a totalizing theory of society and history is possible or desirable, in favor of the idea of multiple, overlapping, and divergent histories written from the distinctive perspective of particular social groups, peoples, or interpretative frameworks (power, desire, the body, etc.). This distinction is not absolute, since there are those such as Baudrillard, Foucault, and Lyotard who might be included in both camps although at different stages of their careers. However, it is characteristic of postmodern theorists that their work involves a self-conscious attempt to theorize in a different manner, while also searching for critical strategies which do not rely upon a normative standpoint outside or apart from the object of criticism.

6. Simulacra And Simulation

Philosophies which seek to make difference an object of affirmation must do more than reverse the traditional hierarchy between identity and difference. The mere inversion of hierarchy does not change the fundamental relation between the elements involved, nor does it change the nature of those elements. For this reason, Derrida’s practice of deconstructive philosophy always envisaged a further stage after the initial hierarchy has been overturned which would involve ‘the irruptive emergence of a new ‘‘concept,’’ a concept that can no longer be, and never could be, included in the previous regime’ (Derrida 1981, p. 42). In the course of his essays he produced or drew attention to a series of such paradoxical concepts, including the trace, writing-in-general, metaphoricity, and Plato’s pharmakon, all of which served to disrupt conceptual oppositions and hierarchies in philosophy. Similarly in Plato and The Simulacrum (Deleuze 1990, pp. 253–66), Deleuze argued that the concept of simulacra served to undermine or ‘overturn’ the primacy of identity as this was embodied in Plato’s conception of a model or form of which reality is only an imperfect copy.

However, it was the sociologist Jean Baudrillard who took up the concept of simulacra and applied it to aspects of everyday life. In his earlier work, Baudrillard had argued that industrial society at the end of twentieth century had entered a new phase in which consumption rather than production served to structure social relations. He argued that the Marxian view of commodities as useful items produced in order to realize exchange value must be replaced by a semiotically informed view of commodities as signs, produced in order to realize their ‘sign value’ as differential elements of a social code of signification. In a series of essays published during the early 1980s, Baudrillard built upon this analysis and other accounts of the power of mass media to argue that society had entered a new era in which simulation had replaced representation as the dominant principle of signification. The essays translated in Simulations (Baudrillard 1983) combined a Nietzschean inspired critique of metaphysics with a descriptive account of the present stage of social life as a regime of simulacra in which the distinction between reality and the forms of its representation has broken down.

According to Baudrillard, there are many areas of social life, such as the media, where signs or other representations do not faithfully represent a prior reality but function in its stead. For practical purposes we live in a hyper-real social world of representations without referents, images without originals. The proliferation of media transmitted information and the speed with which it circulates creates a perpetual cultural present in which contemporary society has begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past.

7. Criticism Without Foundations

While critics object to the nihilistic, impressionistic and highly selective nature of Baudrillard’s descriptions, his analyses of technological, media, and political events as simulations served to draw attention to this pathological feature of the experience of social reality at the end of the twentieth century. His essays have been criticized for their failure to provide any stable foundation for criticism. However, Baudrillard openly acknowledges their ironic and hyperbolic style, describing them as ‘theory–fictions’ intended to provoke and to challenge contemporary common sense rather than convince by evidence or argumentation. Such a provocative function is often invoked in defense of postmodern theory. At best, it is argued, postmodern approaches serve to problematize established concepts and to draw attention to ways in which traditional universalist and humanist assumptions function to exclude or marginalize differences.

Postmodern theory is also criticized for its limited and negative approach to normative issues. Critics assert that the anti-universalism of Foucault, Lyotard, and others is incapable of providing grounds for moral or political judgment much less comprehensive programs for social reform. Defenders argue that their aim is both more limited and more modest, namely to work on the limits of what it is possible to think or to say and thereby to contribute to the emergence of new norms which may also become bases for judgment. To those who argue that the task of problematizing existing ways of thinking or challenging existing norms is ultimately of limited importance, postmodernists reply that not to do so is to limit the possibilities for thinking and acting differently. For this reason, they argue, the ethos or Kunstwollen of postmodernism should be seen as a necessary element of every genuinely critical approach.


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