Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Postmodernism: psychology or structure

When people say "postmodernism is" or "postmodernism requires that" I'm generally skeptical, and move to argue. I did that in this post, from which the following is an excerpt:

"We've had some great discussions lately touching on post-modernism, and I'd encourage everyone to check out the books that started this whole debacle. Mair would be rightly all up on if you said "Sociology is" without doing the reading, thinking and discussing to back up your pronouncement of the essence of a discipline, and there are grad students in ivory towers around the globe whose heads would explode if they read some of what passes for posting in the blogosophere. Don't be satisfied with some book by James W. Sire that devotes 3 pages to the godless scourge of post-modernism--go ad fontes, my friends."

Now, it is certainly not the case that you have to have read everything Derrida or Rorty wrote to be PM, or to speak in a PM manner--I'd never argue that. (But you definitely can't get your ideas about PM from youth group.) I've heard several speakers and authors use phrases like "in these post-modern times" or "in our post-modern world." When challenged, they back up such proclamations by talking about how and what people think and what they take to be authority, and how back in the day it was so much better and so much easier to keep people in line, and everyone was a Christian, etc. Conversations like this can quickly devolve into shouting matches about who's a relativist, and so that's why I always take what I'll provisionally call the psychological approach to conversations about PM: dealing with PM in terms of people's beliefs.

Recently j. morgan put forth to me the argument that being in the post-modern condition has little to do with one's own beliefs (see this post for some of the conversation so far) and much more to do with the structure of one's society. He would argue that most of us in America in 2006 lack a metanarrative that dictates our decisions and social structures (which I grant), and that post modernism simply is living in a society that has Walmarts and Targets. This turns the debate upside down, and makes sense of comments from j. morgan like these:

"I think that most of us, while acknowledging some problems with Modernity, aren’t honest about how radical that shift has been."

"The problem is that the only consistent way to shop at Target is to be Foucault. For those of us who cannot bear to be consistent, we are forced to bear being inconsistent."

For j. morgan, Foucault stands in the same position to post-modernity as Henry Adams did to modernity: as a prophet who correctly read the signs.

I have objections to this position, which I will provisionally call the structural approach, though they are less strenuous since j. morgan and I seem to agree on at least the nature if not the extent of the psychological issues involved. I'll deal with those in my next post. So, to summarize:

Papua New Guinea tribesmen have metanarratives and hunt and are not PM. Americans have multiple competing metanarratives available, which they can shop online for. They're PM.

Any questions?

4 Comments:

At 12:48 PM, Blogger RedHurt said...

So, are you saying that all it takes to "be PM" is to live in a society where several different metanarratives are frequently used as a matter of convenience? Where inconsistency is consistently the case? This sort of definition severely skews the line between modernity and post, as it's rather tough to say when one metanarrative was supplanted by several in cultures as diverse and confused as America has almost always been. It makes the worldview chart more like a spectrum, which I'm fine with - I just want to know if that's what you're saying.

 
At 11:07 AM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

Redhurt, assuming that the questions were directed to me, here is my reply:

“So, are you saying that all it takes to "be PM" is to live in a society where several different metanarratives are frequently used as a matter of convenience? Where inconsistency is consistently the case?”

Yeah, I think so.

“This sort of definition severely skews the line between modernity and post, as it's rather tough to say when one metanarrative was supplanted by several in cultures as diverse and confused as America has almost always been. It makes the worldview chart more like a spectrum, which I'm fine with - I just want to know if that's what you're saying.”

Well, that’s just it. I am not sure that what we keep calling Postmodernity isn’t really just being honest about Modernity; correctly reading the sign posts. In other words, I don’t think there is a line, just a slow progression of people who got to the implications of Modernity.

 
At 1:41 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

I think I'm with J. Morgan here, I'm a structural post-modernist. I'll wait until your next post to decide fully though...

 
At 1:34 AM, Blogger RedHurt said...

Thanks j. morg. I was really addressing Charles, but that wasn't clear and he was reprinting a lot of your thoughts, so thanks.

For a long time I thought Foucault's Pendulum was about the philosopher Foucault, and not some wussy physicist named Jean. Now I'm 20 pages from the end, and not a single reference to our PM aids toting hipster.

Wikipedia says that foucault denied being part of any PM or post-structuralist movement and rather considered himself to be an honest part of modernity. Seems he'd agree with you, j. morg.

my verification word is bigxyz, which is the name of an alphabetically inclined muppet rapper.

 

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