Postmodernism: A Brief Sketch Pt. 1

I could just as easily have sub-titled this “Why you shouldn’t freak out”.

Postmodernism the philosophical movement should be quickly dissociated from some cultural elements commonly identified as postmodern, in particular, new-age spirituality, the bogey-man of not-postmodern people, which may be defined as that impetus to take from all religions a spirituality which works for everyone’s whim. That is a profoundly modernist “project”.

Postmodernism is not nearly so optimistic, though, strictly speaking, it isn’t pessimistic either. At its heart, Postmodernism isn’t a positive philosophy, but a set of critical “techniques”, for pulling apart texts, and these rarely lend themselves to positive responses to the problems they create. This may seem like a reason to be dismissive of postmodernism, but don’t be.

Let’s take two catchphrases “the death of the Author” and “there is nothing outside of the text”.

The first is the title of an essay by Roland Barthes and the second a snippet of Derrida. Both refer to the idea that once a text is written, once it is transmitted, the author has little authority over the text, or, rather, that he shouldn’t, especially if he’s dead. And he does figuratively die as soon as a text is transmitted, or, at least, he should. The short of it is that we tend to make judgments about the meaning of texts based on what we know about the author — a sort of historical approach. We might imagine ourselves doing justice to the author and affording him great authority, but the reality is opposite. We have not afforded him authority to roam, but to remain in a cell which we have derived from his historical circumstances or what, historically, others thought of his text. The Bible is a fun example of this.

Take the well known passage “For God so loved the world …”. Now, we might easily suppose that, if, say, Paul was reading John’s gospel and said, “I have spoken with John and he means ‘love’ seriously, not sarcastically.” We might know as historical fact that Paul had communicated with John, but, beyond there, we can have little certainty of what John actually meant. There’s nothing beyond a statistical likelihood that Paul told the truth about his encounter with John, and, even if he had, we have nothing which assures us that Paul understood John’s meaning anyways.

What actually is afforded by a face-to-face encounter? Indeed, Derrida in particular, and the postmoderns in general expressed skepticism that there was a significant difference between a conversation and writing. We suppose that one or the other is advantageous of different reasons. We might even suppose that one is good for one sort of communication and the other for another. But why do we think this? It’s easy to think of ways in which meaning is better conveyed, but why do we think meaning is conveyable? Suppose that, independent of writing or speaking, only 70% of meaning is conveyable. There might be instances in which the speaker or writer nods his head and says “yes, that’s what I meant”, but is he perfectly aware of what his interlocutor meant when the interlocutor presumably repeated back to the author in different words what the author had said? Even if the interlocutor had repeated the same words back to the author, there would be even less indication that either understood the other.

Barthes’ response to this uncertainty was to recommend that we avoid characterizing the author at all and instead play in the text itself — the author had died in a figurative sense and was no longer an authority on his own text.

This has the peculiar result of throwing our manifold truth claims out of the window. Taking the Bible again, suppose that we were to place in quotation marks any particular word in a given passage. “For ‘God’ so loved …”. What begins to happen here? We begin to think that “God” might mean something other than YHWH or Jehovah. “For God ‘so’ loved …”, “For God so ‘loved’ …”, and so on. And why should we do this? The postmoderns aren’t saying that we should, but they are pointing out that we have a certain predilection for viewing a certain combination of words in a certain way. The next question is, what about the text and the text alone recommends this particular view?

I hasten to add here that the postmodern does not take that view, the conventional one, to be unacceptable, rather he wishes to show only that we have a view which is not as obviously clear as we might have thought. This brings me to my primary claim here, that the premoderns are, perhaps, startlingly Socratic in their tactics.

What of the claim “all truth is relative” oft attributed to postmodernism? This is a poor rendering of a complex claim, namely that truth claims (combinations of words which seek to express a claim to truth), are relative to the context within which they were produced. Thus Derrida’s pessimistic view of translatability. To quote another blogger, “He is optimistic that a commentary could provide explanation of every nuance and possible meaning of a word, explaining intention, meaning, denotation, connotation, and semantic overdeterminations, but a translation requires economy, meaning there is always a balance between length and adequate transmission of meaning.” So, when one encounters the truth claims of the Bible, an (author)ity upon which many rely, one can understand the tension between religious folks and the postmoderns.

Part 2 coming shortly.

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