What is postmodernism? (fwd)

Lois Shawver (rathbone@crl.com)
Thu, 30 May 1996 09:32:16 -0700 (PDT)

What is postmodernism?

Where to begin? Well, first, let me say that I very much liked what
Robert Parks wrote about it. Postmodernism begins with a loss of faith in
the dreams of modernism. Modernism is the mindset that emerged during the
Enlightenment, an optimistic faith in the idea that methodology of science
can lead the human sciences to meaningful psychological understanding of
people. Postmodernism begins, as Lyotard said, with an incredulity towards
our cultural metanarratives, and a major metanarrative, especially in
psychology, is individual difference theory. But postmodernism does not
replace this modernist dream and all its metanarratives with another

In place of the lost dream of modernism, postmodernism gives us a new
vocabulary, a new language game, for helping us notice dimensions of
experience that were obscured by the modernist vision. It's a dynamic
language game, with meanings evolving and changing.

And when you are within this language people may well say things that you
will want to challenge. Being postmodern is not endorsing a dogma. It is
just a new language game, but it is a powerful language game that calls
attention to dimensions of our reality that were obscured in our
forgetting, our denial, such as the political dynamics behind
publications which then become recognized as truth. It doesn't say that
specific dynamics are always there. It simply calls attention to the
dynamics modernism tried to minimize and overlook. Once we're looking in
this direction, we can discuss and ponder what various people see.

So postmodernism is partly a new language, a new set of terms that call
our attention to new dimensions. No one is committed to using these
words, but those who begin to see the landscape around us through this new
vocabulary are inclined to use these words. Myself, I think it is a
mistake to move too quickly into this vocabulary. It strikes those who
haven't learned to speak it as utter nonsense. And there are many
epigones who use the terms in a nonsensical way. But there is no
proposition, no argument that postmodernism has the last word, no theory
as to how people work.

Understanding postmodernism merely involves learning to read and
understand this new language. The task is made difficult, in part,
because the writing to this point is largely exploratory work in which the
authors, especially later Wittgenstein and Derrida, are more concerned
with thinking through these issues with a select group of thinkers than
they are in teaching new students. This movement desperately needs
introductory interpreters.

How do you know your interpreters are giving you the right interpretation?
Trust interpreters who open up postmodern text for you so that it starts
making sense when you read and hear it. Distrust the detractors who make
postmodern text seem idiotic. Good interpretation doesn't just inform
you so you can avoid reading and learning from other sources. It opens
up those sources and makes them meaningful. The same is true, of course,
for what it helps you read. That, too, should open up new sources of
text (and not necessarily just postmodern text).

A few key concepts that we can discuss if you like: "language game",
"metaphorical structuring", "parasitic language", "deconstruction",
"metaphysics of presence", "the Other", "the dialogic mind", "social
constructionism", "differance", "metanarrative." You can probably
provide me with a few more. Postmodernism, by the way, includes learning
to say, "What does that mean?" and recognizing the hidden dynamic force
in all of us that wants to avoid doing that too often.

I think this is enough for starters. What do you think about my
suggestion that postmodernism is not only an incredulity towards
metalanguages, as Lyotard suggests, but is also a new evolving, dynamic,
and powerful language game in its own right? Is that a meaningful image
for you? Can you see how that might apply to postmodern discourse that
you have come across?

..Lois Shawver