Cover Photo by James Walshe
Intro: You already know this stuff
Sometimes people feel they don’t grasp Postmodernism because they believe it must be complicated, when in fact many parts of it are “obvious”, “normal” or already part of everyday life. We live in a postmodern world and from the end of high school onwards we have been taught and use postmodern principles. Some people feel they don’t understand Postmodernism because of an absence of a lengthy explanation of it, they feel it must have long words or difficult concepts. There must be a certain amount of forehead wrinkles and frowning before you can say you Get It when it comes to Postmodernism. Whereas the truth is that no-one explains it at length because there is nothing more to say that you don’t already know from your postmodern life experience. To a postmodern person, Postmodernism really is quite “simple” and its concepts appear to be self-evident.
Postmodernism is the word for thoughts you have as an inevitable result of achieving Modernism.
I highly recommend this essay by Nadia Rodinskaya about the two shifts in intellectual thought that humans have had so far. Seriously, it’s very enlightening and lays the ground for what is said here. Meaningness talks about this in detail too.
Modernism is stage 4 incarnate, all human life systematised and interlocking extremely well. Some systems are so efficient that human actors are no longer needed (eg factories). Urban planning has gone from not existing to common knowledge. Machines and rational efficiencies have been used in every corner of life, not excluding “natural” life eg farming but also eating, sleeping and defecating. Everything has optimised systems to manage processes in increasingly efficient ways. They are entirely invented and maintained by system 4 successes, normally in terms of civic government & services or capitalist concerns – these include banks, trade routes etc as well as business entities.
These projects need not be complete in every domain for the problems of systems to become intellectually apparent. The precursors of Postmodernism in philosophy were writing in the 19th century. In some ways the next 100 years was a project of figuring out what the hell to say but first building a language to say it in. In the 1960s – 80s the stuff that the Postmodern philosophers were coming out with was pretty great (and their thoughts are precursors to Constructivism in Nadia’s essay).
At first there were a lot of counter arguments that challenged the status quo of how to think about science and the assumptions we have about knowledge. Criticising Modernism.
Then they made up new ideas about knowledge and meaning (and most people don’t know that part).
Part 1: The counter argument
Post-structuralist critique part 1
Some philosophies in the 20th century were about trying to find an underlying structure to human behaviour, just like that which had been found in physics, biology and so on. The most famous was linguistics – trying to find how language is acquired and what rules govern it. The people who we now call post-structuralists critiqued this idea in two ways. Firstly, they stated that people do not operate according to structures. Secondly, that as people ourselves it is impossible to “get outside” of a human system to have a scientific, “objective” view of human systems.
They did this in a fancy way and Derrida is the leader, and his stuff is really dense. If you’d like to know more about the details of critiquing structures philosophically, he’s your man.
Inherent bias: Feminists smash up social theory, art and psychology.
One of the ways to know that people do not fit nicely into structures is to be someone for whom the structures do not work, people who are squished or erased by “objective” notions of how people are. The most numerous people in this category are women. Feminist writers took apart everything we thought we already knew in the 20th Century.
Susan Sontag’s critique of cameras as phallic, ahistorical, unreality-death-machines in ‘On Photography’ is utterly dark and convincing. If you’d like some Postmodern nihilism, I can’t recommend this enough.
Luce Irigaray’s project was critiquing psychoanalysis. Her books wade in and deconstruct every aspect of psychoanalysis with feminist theory so new and so extreme it’s like a welding torch. In hindsight, Freud was easy pickings for feminists since he based all his theories on men and then sometimes created a ‘mirror image’ for women or just presumed women were the same. Nope.
Irigaray’s alternative feminist psychoanalysis project was a brave and complicated effort, but I think is kind of pointless except as an intellectual exercise because psychoanalysis never had much good to say about women and finally not much good to say about anything after a certain point. It was extremely important but I think more as a step on the path than a Theory of Everything.
I think it was via Luce Irigary that I came across the idea that not only essays and novels but language and sentence construction itself is an imposed patriarchal system. That grammar rules are a too-strict arbitrary system that restricts its user base, creates unnecessary hierarchies and loses richness of meaning in favour of technical rules.
I think that is mostly silly but none the less there is the seed of an important idea in there. Kathy Acker did some extraordinary literary experiments involving stuff like this, so if you’d like a book that makes William Burroughs’ cut-up technique look like child’s play I recommend her work. Lots of sex and blood too.
Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex was published in the 1940s and still endures as relevant today. It totally nailed the description of female life within and without these structures built by men in the everyday world. If you want a primer for feminist thoughts and only read one book: dip in and out of this one. Simone de Beauvoir was an existentialist philosopher and because of this book she totally beats Sartre on historical significance and coolness.
All these structures you thought you’d made suck balls and don’t work.
Not rational digression
Just a quick digression: it was only as a result of postmodern thinking that anyone questioned the idea that humans typically act in a rational way. It took until the 1970s before psychology devised experiments that showed that not only are people more governed by their emotions than previously thought but that they actually act really irrationally, all the time, even if you try to help them with the way you devise the test.
The 70s! Think about that. It’s hard to imagine that before that, everyone was presumed to be rational. Well, white men at least. This assumption was key to propping up all the institutions we have. In fact it still is. How to deal with irrational agents operating inside a rational system is still something we are struggling with.
Post-structuralist critique part 2
Ok, so far I’ve only really talked about current structures for humans being flawed. That doesn’t mean the principle of systems is wrong, does it? Well, now for the good stuff: later Postmodern philosophers point out that “scientific” thinking is also just wrong according to its own principles.
This is talked about a lot by Foucault, using a technique he called “archaeology” to compare scientific reasoning, methodology and behaviour over time. He argued that self-proclaimed ‘objective’ systems of thought were constituted entirely from contingent historical and social influences and the changes within disciplines or the invention of new disciplines are all entirely guided by these cultural and accidental influences. In fact, they always have been.
At first he looked at specific areas, like the history of mental illness, then the medical clinic but eventually he did a history of “the human sciences”.
It became increasingly apparent with Foucault that not only was it foolish to apply physics-like principles to systems for human beings but that all science, physics included, is so skewed by cultural sanction as to lose all ability to claim objectivity or to elucidate ‘truth’.
(No arguing with me in the comments before you’ve read some of his work.)
The 4.5 gap
Many people and philosophies get stuck here. Systems seem to have it wrong and the critique of that is quite convincing. This makes systems seem to be interchangeably bad, or in another way to be equally valid. Ethical relativism looms large in particular. Very common in normal postmodern life seems to be the idea that “all opinions are valid”. There seems to be an impasse as to how to judge anything, and whether any meaning is even possible.
Is this the missing stance combination of monist nihilism? We have moved on from stage 4, which tends to favour the division of things into categories because it is a stage of independence and separation. We are moving towards a stage of inclusion (like the previous stage 3), implying a move away from division, but nothing seems to mean anything. Therefore, “all is one” in the sense that old categories do not exist, “all is one” in the sense that all is interchangeable/equivalent and the stance is “nihilist” because this equivalence erases meaning.
The real: a nihilist cul-de-sac
I’m placing this section here because it seems to fit a 4.5 nihilistic train of thought.
Lots of recent postmodern thinkers became caught up in the real, or specifically the absence of it, getting quite attached to the idea that no one can experience the real any more, using words like hyperreal or “real”.
Baudrillard talks about “the absence of negation” ie the negative side of real – “not real” -has gone. “Not real” has been replaced by something different – “artificial”, which is not quite the same. We run around in “artificial” a lot in everyday life and Baudrillard claims that since that is true, we also cannot experience real things any more because “artificial” is not the opposite of real, therefore both “real” and “not real” have become lost to us.
Baudrillard goes on and on with this stuff, but I’m not sure it needs exploring unless you really want to. The Matrix (the film) does in fact explain some of the main concepts pretty well, although Baudrillard is not talking about the ancient “brain in a jar” philosophical problem like The Matrix does.
I surmise that in 2016 we pretty much feel this concept intuitively. We all experience this real-not-real stuff on a day-to-day basis, especially when using the internet, but really it is in all forms of media.
I think Baudriallard was crapping his pants about losing a binary of real/not real and not knowing what will take its place. He seems to fear that humanity will collapse into a void. But, like almost everything, this hyperreal problem is not that scary, we are all basically fine with it in day-to-day life and the void has yet to swallow us. It also has loads of benefits which point towards stage 5 style usages.
So, it’s easy to get stuck here in monist nihilism because moving on from here is pretty hard. If not a system to make judgements, then what? What words can I even use? Luckily, philosophers come to the rescue, Thinking Very Hard is what we pay them for after all.
Part 2: What there is instead (the stuff people don’t know)
While it is clear that rational systems clearly don’t cut the mustard it is also clear that everything, especially social systems of persons, is not entirely in chaos. Social norms are in fact surprisingly consistent on the whole, even if they can differ in the details.
When postmodern philosophers discuss this they are pointing out what Meaningness.com calls pattern. They have come up with a few ways to talk about the nebulous yet patterned nature of life beyond systems.
Simone de Beauvoir not only described female life she also stated that gender was inscribed on a person by societal norms. Social rules can bruise one into conforming, sanctioned behaviour wears down grooves in a person from the outside. This is in contrast to the systemic idea that a personality springs from the inside, representing a unified self that maneuvers rationally within society. De Beauviour said that society both produces and potentially reduces the person. At the time de Beauvoir was not refuting notions of the self, merely adding to the spectrum of representation of the ‘norm’.
Much more recently the philosopher Judith Butler described her notions of the ‘performance’ of gender, where gender is a series of acts that you do rather than a thing that you are.
Each time a performance is accepted by others the information about permissible acts is reinscribed in the person. There is a continuous flowing feedback loop between self and other that is cooperatively reinscribed.
This process can be a powerful force to preserve the status quo, but there is possibility for change in this model since translations from person to person or within groups can gradually evolve new meanings, whether deliberate or accidental. In addition, challenging acts can be performed that may or may not gain acceptance. Art and jokes are places where challenging representations can be enacted.
Society then is seen as a continuous series of interactions, or dance of performative meaning. (We are starting to sound stage 5ish now aren’t we?)
This idea can be applied to any label or role in society as well as gender.
This more general trick of turning a noun (‘identity’) which is solid and fixed into a verb (‘performance of identity’) which is active and changeable is a useful technique for sliding around systemic thinking.
I recommend being pretty stoned when reading Deleuze & Guattari but especially Deleuze. Or do I? All I remember is that they use the word “rhizome” a lot in ‘One Thousand Plateaus’ and seem to be describing both the bifurcation of plant limbs and also the flowing movement of stuff or information around pathways that are both well-trodden and also continuously changing.
(That and the black hole/white wall dichotomy which seems to me to have the same unknowable message as the film 2001:A Space Odyssey but in overblown fancy French. )
Anyway the rhizome pathways seem quite cool as an idea. For a STEM application: I’ve seen some research talking about networks as a system of nodes that have a certain number of connections. The research involved flows of information, and examining whether the richness of connections that a node has effects that flow.
After his analyses of modern systems of thought, Foucault went on to formulate explanations of modern society along different lines than that held by structures. His key ideas were around knowledge and power.
Foucault claimed that, for example, biological sciences are not in the practice of ‘objective study’, they are not uncovering something that was already there, like the rubbing of the gravestone, rather they are bringing into being the object of study. Science creates things that were not previously there by categorising, labelling and cataloguing.
In this way Foucault claims that the Victorians were not disinterested in sex, or prudish about it, rather they were obsessed with it. More cataloguing, category-making and forethought went into sex during this period than any other. The reason they did this was to make efforts to control it.
For Foucault, knowledge and power are inextricably linked. From the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:
Foucault’s point is rather that, at least for the study of human beings, the goals of power and the goals of knowledge cannot be separated: in knowing we control and in controlling we know.
By knowing something, it can then be designated as “normal” or “abnormal” or “deviant”. In this way certain things can be sanctioned and other things repudiated. Power structures have evolved to reshape what is considered deviant behaviour, rather than simply punish acts. Foucault more often calls this power relations and describes flows of power around nexus points of knowledge and historical contingency.
He gives examples of these flows, which have influenced each other and sprung up for innocuous reasons but have become sites of power. One example is the examination.
The examination (for example, of students in schools, of patients in hospitals) is a method of control that combines hierarchical observation with normalizing judgment. It is a prime example of what Foucault calls power/knowledge, since it combines into a unified whole “the deployment of force and the establishment of truth”. It both elicits the truth about those who undergo the examination (tells what they know or what is the state of their health) and controls their behavior (by forcing them to study or directing them to a course of treatment).
Gutting, Gary, “Michel Foucault”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
Here again I believe we have a powerful example of somewhat abstract things flowing around a network of node points with stable yet changing connections and configurations.
Almost all the Postmodern philosophers retreat to aesthetics or art to talk about how to make decisions and how to make meaning. I think they are touching on the same thing that I am talking about when I say “judging” and David at Meaningness is talking about with meta-rationality and meta-systemicity.
They seem to be saying that the decision making process is now closer to ‘aesthetic’ in the sense that it is more a matter of sensibility to make judgements, rather than recourse to objective facts. Some talk about fusing rhetoric with aesthetics, perhaps to show it comes from somewhere. More research needed!
It is my view that several Postmodern philosophers have given us a consistent language and concepts with which to grapple past stage 4.5. These concepts slice reality along different lines.
Foucault deals explicitly with boxing things up into categories and labels, and what happens when you do so. He then offers what seems to be a more “zoomed out” view of all these different systems, showing the flows of power and knowledge over, between and around the systems we have created.
Deleuze and Guttari’s rhizomes feel like this too. I think there is so much more to be discovered but the original writing is really dense. I would go for these guys over Zizeck any day of the week though.
Butler has described a continuous and flowing notion of a “self” and a “society”/”other” that is by necessity always a performance (and therefore not necessarily a “true self”) which is always collaborative, is often stable but always slowly changing.
(In an interesting side-note I listened to a lecture of hers which marries the rights of prisoners to the rights of disabled people through the concepts of freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. This is very related to Foucault, whose work focussed on prisons and marginalised groups. It also shows how to bring two unrelated groups together in the same thought process by examining an entirely different axis.)
To conclude: I believe these flowing, changeable things that none the less have pathways, grooves and nodes or nexus points are the metaphorical ideas to move forward with. It is this flowy nature that I use to identify possible fluid mode phenomena, and it was this postmodern background that lead me to think Meaningness.com was onto something.
In true stage 5/bisexual/Postmodern fashion, almost all post-structuralist and postmodernist philophers explicitly reject the labels applied to them. Some of them are not even philosophers, which is illustrative of formal categories breaking down in academia, which is itself illustrative of stage 5 thinking being well under way in thought arenas. The overarching placeholder word “theory” is now taken to mean the people and ideas I have mentioned plus many more, who range across disciplines.
Omissions and errors
I have attempted to make a sketch of philosophical postmodernism and have missed out loads of it. Tell me which bits you’d like an expansion on! I may have made errors.
I have yet to figure out proper notes and references, sorry. Below are authors who are often said to be post-structuralists, or to have had a post-structuralist period. These are philosophy based. The ones with stars are the ones I have read. Titles after the names are ones I recommend.
Kathy Acker *
Jean Baudrillard * ‘Simulations’
Judith Butler * ‘Gender Trouble’
Gilles Deleuze *
Umberto Eco *
John Fiske (media studies)
Michel Foucault * ‘History of Sexuality Vol.1’
Félix Guattari *
Luce Irigaray *
Jean-François Lyotard *
Simone De Beauvoir* ‘The Second Sex’