Postmodernism: some guides
To offer oneself as a guide minimally presumes that one knows the locality sufficiently well to be of help to someone unfamiliar with it. An expert can show a novice around modern philosophy or differential calculus or eighteenth-century British literature without worrying all that much about whether it is even possible to perform the task. After all, people more or less agree that there is something called ‘modern philosophy’, for example, even if they disagree whether it begins with John Locke (1632–1704) or René Descartes (1596–1650), and even if they argue whether it has been done more effectively in recent years in continental Europe or in Britain and the United States. Those very disagreements are the sort of thing to which a thorough and responsible guide would alert us. Yet in presenting oneself as a guide to postmodernism there is reason to doubt whether the task can be done. For people do not agree about what postmodernism is, where to go to see its main sights, or even if one can distinguish its central features from others that are less significant. Several people hailed as central figures in the postmodern landscape reject the label of ‘postmodern’ in no uncertain terms. Some postmodernists tell us that there is no fixed landscape any more, and after listening to them for long enough we might come to think that their own thoughts and words do not form a stable terrain either. And yet there is no shortage of people offering to take you on a tour.
As it happens, here comes a guide. He is wearing a badge with vertical stripes of blue, white and red, and printed over
them: Les tours de postmodernisme
. It seems promising. After all, you’ve heard that postmodernism is a thoroughly French thing, and so you sign up without delay. The tour will take place in a lecture theater, you are told, and will introduce you to various thinkers and writers. One name has already been written on the board, Jean-François Lyotard (1925–98), and underneath it is the title of one of his books, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge
, originally published in French in 1979. ‘It was Lyotard’ – the lecturer has begun, speaking in excellent English with only a whiff of a French accent – ‘who made a generation attend to the word “postmodern”. Of course, the word itself had been used before. It can be found as far back as the 1870s, and perhaps some of you Americans have read Bernard Iddings Bell’s book Postmodernism and Other Essays
? No? Well, it was published in Milwaukee in 1926, and indicated a new kind of religious believer, someone not taken with liberal theology. But as we say in France, les choses ont changé,
things have changed, and the word now means something else.
‘So let us return to Lyotard. The postmodern, he argued, was an attitude of suspicion towards the modern. Why? Because the modern always appeals to a “meta-narrative” of some kind, something that overarches all human activities and serves to guide them: the natural primacy of human consciousness, the fair distribution of wealth in society, and the steady march of moral progress. To be postmodern is to distrust the claim that we can attain enlightenment or peace by the judicious use of reason, that we can become happy or prosperous, that any of our higher goals can be achieved if only we wait and work, work and wait.’ He clears his throat. ‘If the modern designates the era of emancipation and knowledge, consensus and totalities, then the postmodern marks an attitude of disbelief towards the modern. It is not – I repeat not
– an epoch that comes after the modern. For Lyotard, the postmodern is what is most radical and irritating in the modern, what offends the canons of good
taste: it insists on presenting what we cannot conceptualize, what we cannot find in our experience.
‘But I am not a guide to Lyotard,’ the lecturer says with a faint smile. ‘I work for Les tours de postmodernisme, and so I wish to show you the towering figures of postmodernism. To do such a thing would scandalize true postmodernists’ (again, he smiles) ‘since they mock the monumental. They would think I’m merely pulling a stunt. Then again, a “true postmodernist” is a contradiction in terms, since no postmodernist is entirely comfortable with inherited notions of “truth”. No, I’m not tricking you – it’s the truth!’ And he smiles again, this time for a second longer, before turning around to face the blackboard. Jacques Lacan (1901–81): that is the name he writes on the board, and no sooner has he started to tell you about Lacan – his famous seminars at the Hôpital Sainte-Anne and then at the École Normale Supérieure, his views on Sigmund Freud and what he drew from philosophers from Plato to Martin Heidegger, his extraordinary reading of a story by Edgar Allen Poe, ‘The Purloined Letter’ – you are puzzled. Is he a psychoanalyst, a philosopher, or an unusual sort of literary critic? Your guide suggests he is all three in one, and your pen is moving quickly as the lecturer scribbles on the board. It seems that Lacan’s main concern is the self or what philosophers, reflecting on the theory of subjectivity since Descartes, have called ‘the subject’, and his theme is how this subject is organized and disorganized by language. We might think that language enriches the self, giving it a greater understanding of the world and its places there, but Lacan sees things quite differently: language impoverishes the subject, strips it of being and meaning.
The guide draws two intersecting circles on the board. One is called ‘being’ and the other ‘meaning’. ‘The point of intersection,’ he says, ‘is the place of the subject: it is the site of two lacks, being
. Lacan wants us to see the subject as the
space of desire.’ It turns out, though, that desire is not a raw yearning for any particular object or person in the world. No, it is a longing that has been shaped by metaphor. ‘Yes, metaphor,’ your guide insists, ‘“X is
Y”. And not only metaphor but also metonymy, “X is contiguous
with Y and takes on some or all of its attributes”. You’d like an example? Okay: “a walking stick” is a metonymy (the stick
is not walking, you are, but with its help), “a boiling kettle” (the kettle
is not boiling: the water next to the metal is). Get the idea? Good. Now for Lacan the subject stands beside a fragment of what is longed for.’ So the subject is motivated by a desire for something not quite symbolic and not quite real: the full-grown man does not want his mother’s breast again but unconsciously desires the enjoyment that the maternal breast suggests. ‘Of course,’ the guide says, smiling ruefully, ‘the subject can never be satisfied; we always miss what we aim for, and besides we are always changing and consequently desiring other objects.’
No sooner have you started to grasp how the Lacanian subject turns on those two venerable literary figures, metaphor and metonymy, than your guide is heading elsewhere. Another name is now on the board: Jacques Derrida (1930–2004). ‘He started as a brilliant scholar of phenomenology, the approach to philosophizing devised by Edmund Husserl,’ the guide declares, ‘and has created a massive body of work, ranging from Plato to Jean-Luc Nancy. As it happens, he wrote a complex and devastating essay on Lacan called “Le facteur de la vérité” (1975) which, like many of Derrida’s titles, is impossible to translate: it can mean “the postman of truth” or “the factor of truth”, and both are important in the essay.’ Derrida has mainly been concerned to show that philosophical concepts are not restricted to philosophical texts: they can be found operating in economics and literature, art criticism and politics, psychoanalysis and theology, pedagogy and architecture. ‘He believes that Western thought has always sought firm grounds – Being, God, the
Subject, Truth, the Will, even Speech – but that the quest for these grounds can never arrest the play of textual meaning. Those grounds are always figured as moments of presence: God is absolutely pure self-presence, for instance.’ The guide pauses and writes a list of texts by Derrida on the board: Speech and Phenomena, Of Grammatology, Margins of Philosophy, Glas
... ‘One of my favorite essays by him is “Des tours de Babel” (1985). How to translate that? Well, “On Towers of Babel” or equally “Some Towers of Babel” or perhaps “Turns of Babel” or even “Tricks of Babel”,’ he says, smiling again. ‘He reads the old story in Genesis and turns it into an allegory of deconstruction. So he tells us how the Shem tribe wants to make a name for itself by building a tower that will reach all the way to heaven. The Shem want to spread their language over the universe, make everything translatable into their terms. Yahweh, Lord of the Universe, will have none of it, and imposes his own name on the tower, “Babel”, and thereby upsets their project. The proper name – Voltaire thought it came from the Babylonian word for “Father” – is heard by the Shem in their language as a common noun, “confusion”, and as it happens Yahweh confuses them linguistically: the consequence of their pride is an irruption of different languages. The Shem cannot translate “Babel” because it is a proper name, yet Yahweh requires them to translate it and, in doing so, he creates confusion among them.
‘If you like, you could say,’ and here the guide pauses for effect, ‘that Yahweh deconstructs
the tower that the Shem want to build. He shows that they cannot render all of reality clearly and without loss into their own language, that the tower is a thoroughly human construction, like all others, and that because it is incomplete and unable to be completed we can inspect it and see how it has been put together. Derrida condenses much of his teaching into one elegant French expression, plus d’une langue
, which without a context to fix its meaning can signify both “more than one language” and “no more of one
language”. There is no higher language to which we can appeal that will resolve all differences and render everything finally clear to us. We always have to translate, from one language to another, or within the one language, from one idiom to another. We always translate and we always have had to: there never has been an original language or an original text that preceded our endless work of translation.’
So that’s what deconstruction is, you think, and now you are smiling with the guide. ‘Derrida is an astonishingly good reader’ – the lecturer continues – ‘he can show those contemporaries who think they have abandoned or surpassed philosophy that they maintain a relation with a ground of some sort, while the commanding philosophers of the past – Plato and Hegel, in particular – offer us opportunities to develop new ways of thinking. The essay he wrote on Lacan that I mentioned a moment or two ago, “Le facteur de la vérité”, demonstrated that the psychoanalyst was entangled in metaphysics when he believed himself to be quite free of it.’ He looks around and sees a few puzzled faces, including yours.
‘“Metaphysics”? Well, you are right to be puzzled. There are various definitions of the word, and it’s easy to get confused. The word comes from the Greek meta ta physica
, meaning what comes after physics. The word became associated with some highly influential lectures by Aristotle (384–322 BCE
), now gathered together and called the Metaphysics
; they came after his lectures on nature called the Physics
. Long after Aristotle, people thought of the topics the philosopher considered – things like the nature of being, cause, unity, numbers – as removed from nature, so metaphysics became associated with the supersensuous, namely, that which is above or beyond what our sense experience can register. I can experience this piece of chalk’ (and he dangles a long, white stick before you), ‘but I cannot experience the essence
of the chalk. Postmodernists tend to use the word “metaphysics” more generally than do readers of the Metaphysics
. They follow
the meaning that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) gave to the word. Metaphysics, he thought, asks the question “What are beings?” but fails to ask the more fundamental question “What is being?” Because it doesn’t ask that question, it figures being by way of beings, and so we think of being as a firm ground like God or Mind.’
That said, he moves on. ‘Derrida can also show us how to read literary texts more closely and finely than we are used to doing without doing anything like conventional literary criticism. Prose writers like Maurice Blanchot (1907–2003) and James Joyce (1882–1941), and poets like Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–98) and Paul Celan (1920–70), fold philosophical motifs in strange ways in their work and give us opportunities to rethink the concepts we have inherited.’
You are about to ask for an example, but it is already too late. Your guide is now talking about open networks of micro-powers, rhizomatics, and the free flow of desire. The names on the board are Gilles Deleuze (1925–95) and Félix Guattari (1930–92), the one a philosopher and the other a writer on anti-psychiatry. They became friends and wrote several books together. Two are especially important, it appears: Anti-Oedipus
(1983) and A Thousand Plateaux
(1987). ‘Lacan wanted to return to the early Freud, but Deleuze and Guattari set themselves against the preoccupation with the subject that they find in Freud. Desire, they say, does not arise from the subject but is flowing everywhere; in fact, the subject is an effect of desire. There is no original desire for the mother to be satisfied, only a generalized flux of desire that is now formed this way and now that way.’ All that is rather a lot to take in, you think to yourself, yet the lecturer is still in full flight. ‘The really bold position adopted by Deleuze and Guattari,’ he says, ‘is the claim that experience is not maintained in the consciousness of a subject. They are radical empiricists, true heirs of the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–76), and they argue that there is no ground of experience,
whether in the mind or outside it.’ What does all that mean? Luckily, the guide has anticipated your perplexity. ‘If Deleuze and Guattari are right,’ he says, ‘we have to rethink experience and all that goes along with it, especially perception and consciousness, and recognize that the human has no exclusive right to them. That’s why A Thousand Plateaux
discusses desiring machines and genes, evokes “becoming animal” and “the body without organs”. The book points us beyond humanism.
‘In his own way, Michel Foucault does the same,’ he adds, then remembers to write his dates on the board: 1926–84. Now here’s a name you’ve heard before. You’ve heard that he analyzes the relations between power and knowledge, and now you are taking notes, as best you can, about how his notion of archeology differs from the usual practice of history. ‘Where historians attend to continuities and try to set discontinuities within a larger framework of development or evolution, an archeologist like Foucault has no interest in smoothing out the past but prefers to concern himself with rifts, ruptures and contradictions.’ The concept ‘man’ itself is a fairly recent invention, it appears, and if you understand your guide correctly Foucault thinks its time is more or less over. Sovereign man, subject and object of knowledge: he arrived on the scene, according to Foucault, only a few centuries ago, and his demise has been heralded in the narratives of Franz Kafka, Maurice Blanchot and Pierre Klossowski, among others. ‘In his later work’ – the lecturer continues, and by now your hand is getting tired from taking so many notes – ‘Foucault tried to think outside the realm of the subject. He argued that power is everywhere: it is not concentrated in individuals and is not limited to social classes but abides in structures and systems. You can resist power, but you can never get outside it.’ The guide is just about to write more names on the board, for there seems to be no end of them, when a bell strikes the hour, and the lecture is over. As you say farewell to your guide you murmur to yourself the
names you have already heard, as well as several others you jotted down along the way: Jean-François Lyotard
, Jacques Derrida
, Jacques Lacan
, Gilles Deleuze
, Hélène Cixous
, Julia Kristeva
Overhearing you, another guide comes over and says, ‘But that’s
not postmodernism, that’s just more high culture – worse, élite academic culture. Besides, postmodernism started in the United States and at first had nothing French about it at all. Lyotard merely made postmodernism respectable to professors of English and Philosophy by hitching it to post-structuralism.’ He pauses, and you can now take in his badge. It is in American red, white and blue: Popular PoMo Tours
, it says, and it has a stylish reproduction of the ‘Nike’ logo underneath. ‘The word “postmodern” was coined by American writers and architects in the late 1940s and early 1950s,’ he goes on. ‘They wanted to signal that they were doing something different, something more risky, than what their modernist moms and dads were doing. But of course it’s taken off in all sorts of directions since then, and if you want to find out about it you’d do better to look around Las Vegas than Paris. Here, let me show you the real thing,’ he says, ‘free of charge. It’s my lunch break, after all. Come on, this is my favorite café in the mall.’ And before you can say a word he is already on-line. His laptop screens several video-clips of Madonna (‘See how she perpetually remakes herself ? There is
no authentic self to be discovered’) and some footage from the Gulf War (‘What really
happened in operation “Desert Storm” was the film of it broadcast on CNN’). Then he points out Philip Johnson’s AT&T Corporate Headquarters in New York (‘See how it cites Roman and Neo-Classical features? See its Chippendale pediment? Johnson makes a pastiche of the architectural past’), an advertisement for Coke (‘The image
is what you really consume’), Mark Tansey’s canvas ‘Myth of Depth’ (‘The man walking on the water is Jackson Pollock, and he is calling representation into question, and, with it, presence and, if you think about it, the Christian God as well’), and then runs a sequence from the movie Blade Runner
(1982), before talking about it in conjunction with the book on which it is based, Philip K. Dick’s pulp science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
(1968). Hardly a surprise, he lauds an essay by an American, Donna Haraway: ‘Manifesto for Cyborgs’ (1989). Then he slips into some French names, and keeps going back to two in particular, Jean Baudrillard (1929– ) and Roland Barthes (1915–80) ...
‘I thought you said that those French scholars don’t give a proper sense of postmodernism,’ you object. ‘You miss the point,’ your new guide says. ‘Postmodernism takes what it likes from high culture and puts it to work in popular culture. Besides, Barthes and Baudrillard never bought into philosophy as a’ – and here his face turns sour – ‘master discourse.’ ‘So you mean that postmodernism is to do with taking things out of their contexts, fragmenting them, focusing on surfaces rather than depths, and, well, playing with them?’ ‘Ah, now you are getting the idea,’ says your new guide, and leans back deeply in his chair. ‘It’s about collage and pastiche, parody and irony. It’s the triumph of the visual image over written text,’ he says, and slowly strokes his laptop as he speaks. ‘And it’s the triumph of data and simulation over nature,’ he whispers, as though to himself.
You are about to ask him about that when, just behind him, a woman puts down her glass and turns around. Clearly irritated, she says, ‘I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong impression that postmodernism is only about popular culture. Your friend here’ – she looks sharply at him – ‘seems to think that ...