Friday, 23 April 2010

A Second Post on Postmodernism

Part II

(If you have not read Part I, I suggest you do so now.)

I think it's about time we move from the foundations of postmodernism to some of its common but not essential traits, as well as some examples of postmodernist thought.

This radical destabilizing of belief and knowledge must necessarily apply to the postmodernist's own beliefs, and they are not naive enough to overlook this. A postmodern thinker will in general use a specific sort of irony in anything they say; they don't necessarily mean the opposite of what they say, but they are continually aware that whatever they say applies only right now, to this context, from this perspective. Many have given up hoping to find a universal solution, even to the problems posed about postmodernism, and as such give only preliminary answers. Other postmodernists hope to find some grand rhythm behind the confusion postmodernism has so far uncovered, though they think that pattern will be better expressed in terms of dynamics, relationships, and tendencies rather than systems, identities, and facts. Postmodernism doubts the efficacy of things like logic, especially logical language and scientific discourse, which makes postmodern express difficult. Irony as a result plays an important role in at least the expression of postmodern ideas, leading the movement into wordplay, bet-hedging, satire, and deliberate self-parody.

As you may be able to tell from what I've written so far, and from the emphasis on wordplay and bet-hedging, you can guess that another postmodern trait is obscure language. Postmodernism writing and speech tends to be full of neologisms, vague language that sounds hyper-specific, compound nonce words, words heavy with suffixes, and brackets or slashes in the middle of words (such as "in/deforming the text" or "uni(n)formed"). This is partly an attempt to create a new way of discussion that doesn't rely on modernist philosophy, but, as Stephen Katz discusses in his essay, it can also be an attempt to dismantle criticism against postmodernism or hide the fact that you have nothing of interest to say. For instance, you can intimidate opponents by confusing them; they are less likely to call you out if they don't understand what you're saying, because they don't want to sound like an idiot. Instead, they try to pick up the rules of your wordgames and play those games themselves, validating your position in the process. Further, if no one understand what you're saying, they can't tell if you're not saying anything at all. Lastly, it's difficult to come up with a cogent criticism against such an argument because there aren't the standard logical pieces to work with. Even if someone does come up with an argument against what you've said, you can just fire back that binary logic (ie. modernist logic) can't address postmodern ideas, which transcend such historically located ideas. (Cait, Jon, I think you'll recognize certain professors who do this kind of thing. Think the use of "problematize" or "the economics of _______.")

I think this is almost enough for one post, and I hope it gives you a good if basic idea of what postmodernism is. I think I should give you three basic areas in which postmodernism really makes a difference in how we operate.

Identity: postmodernism dismantles the concept of self, like it dismantles many other things. This deserves a post in and of itself, but I'll give you a very brief sketch here of two 'models' of the postmodern self. First there is the Protean self, which changes according to social situation. The idea is that there is no core 'self' with predictable traits that run through a person. Rather, each person's self-concept, behaviour patterns, thought patterns, and even beliefs change as they are in different social circumstances. (Which is why we feel uncomfortable when two of our social groups begin to mingle; this is a manifestation between conflict or competition between two of our self-concepts as we try to wear both at the same time.) We are culturally trained to try to be a consistent self throughout all of our interactions, but this runs counter to what we actually do. Thus we feel guilt about changing our masks when we ought not to feel guilty. Some thinkers suggest that only some people are truly Protean, a sort of vanguard of the new postmodern self, while others suggest that all people are Protean and may only appear otherwise due to social restraints.

The second postmodern position on identity is that there is no self. When Descartes encountered his own thoughts, he reasoned that there must be a thinker, famously stating, cogito ergo sum. Buddhists disagreed with this assessment since before the birth of Christ. Having conducted a similar experiment, they determined not cogito, which means "I think," but rather, "there are thoughts." They then searched for something other than those thoughts that could be having them, and came up with nothing. They concluded that there are thoughts, desires, urges, fears, neuroses, and more, but that there was no 'self' having them: rather, what we think of as the self is simply all of these things bundled together, coming into existence and then disappearing just as quickly. Some postmodernists agree. They say that what we think of as a 'self' is just a bundle of drives, emotions, fears, beliefs, cultural expectations, biases, beliefs, beliefs about beliefs, and so forth, some or many of which are contradictory, jockeying for relative prominence. There is no "core" self, but instead a bunch of different self-components arranging and re-arranging. The fact that many of us experience having a self is simply due to the fact that our culture has since childhood insisted that we have this experience; it, too, is a cultural construct. I should also point out that attributing these self-components to biological/neurological processes might be tempting, but postmodernism would likely shy away from that. Rather, these components are themselves culturally constructed, or if not that at least they can only be understood or experienced through cultural mediation. Which is to say, (almost) everyone experiences lust and sexual arousal--but we can only experience it if we have a cultural category for it, and so how we experience it depends on what culture we are in. Notice that this view is not inconsistent with, but also not dependent on, that of the Protean self.

Science: While one of the two major backlashes against postmodernism is scientism (also called rational-materialism or the cult of reason), there is such a thing as postmodern science. This is the sort of science which is non-dogmatic, recognizing that every discovery is tentative and only legitimate in so far as it works. It has little concern for truth and more concern with whether or not it works in the current situation. Postmodern science values other domains of knowledge and does not try to impose its own discoveries upon others. Further, it often violates what are considered in theory to be rules of the scientific method, while arguing that, in practice, most major advances in science are produced by breaks from the scientific method. There is actually great overlap between the scientism of Lee Smolin, who I wrote on before, and certain postmodern scientists, as they wrestle with what makes science tick. Most importantly, postmodern scientists see the scientific method as a social construct, no more objectively valid than competing constructs; there choice of it is arbitrary, personal, historical, and, since they are aware of this, ironic. My understanding of postmodern scientists is that they don't voice their postmodern opinions too loudly in the department, since that would kill their chances of advancement.

Religion: The second major backlash against postmodernism is traditionalism, with religious fundamentalism being among these (along with the sort of 50s-ideology of consumerism and normative society). However, there is postmodernist religion as well. Buddhism and Hinduism have had postmodern members before there was such a thing as postmodernism, but even some monotheists are getting on board. The idea that our current form of worship is just a way that man has constructed in order to reach God is a postmodernist one, and it should be noted that early postmodernist writers got their ideas from Vicco, who wrote on religion. Many people recognize that their own religious beliefs are a historical 'accident,' meaning that they are only Christian or Muslim or Taoist or Sikh due to where and when they were born, but at the same time they happily and usually without internal conflict participate piously in worship. While these people might not be postmodernists, that is a postmodern attitude. There are of course other more radically postmodernist theologians, but I know less about these and so won't try to discuss them.

Likely the greatest intellectual contribution that postmodernism has made, and likely the one thread underlying all postmodernist thought, is nicely put by Walter Truett Anderson the editor of The Truth About the Truth as, roughly, "Postmodernism has changed our beliefs about belief." Its ideas and mannerisms run through our culture and has taken a strong grip on at least the arts departments in academia, so much so that postmodernism itself has sort of become that culture that we cannot see because we live within it. You might find that a number of things I mentioned are beliefs you hold yourself and you never knew that those beliefs have postmodern origins. I know I found that. While I don't agree with all of postmoderism--I believe, for instance, in an accessible universal reality--I find myself sympathetic to much of it. I will save my criticisms for another time.

If you have any questions, please ask.

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