In academia postmodernism is nearly impossible to avoid. Characters like Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Jameson, Baudrillard (and many others of course), have a way of transcending, or at the very least, blurring the lines of academic disciplines, so they often appear in a number of different classes and discussions. Their claims are not feeble either as they all present, in their own way, a sort of critique of that would radically change the way in which we perceive the world, if we were to agree with their ideas. However, it seems that some thinkers within academia would rather see postmodernists as challengers that rebelliously attempted to reveal the shortcomings of western thought, but ultimately fell short themselves. Due to this failure, some professors and thinkers relegate postmodernists to the land of obscurity and pretension, on the grounds that postmodernists’ arguments are faulty, and therefore the life-breaking insights they offer become empty claims.
I cannot offer the “most” common or “most” effective or “most” important argument used against postmodernism, for two reasons. First, I have a limited perspective so rather than offering a counter-argument to claims I’m not familiar with, I’ll offer a counter argument to the one I am. Second, and related to the first consideration, making these hyperbolic statements involving “most” are dangerous, unless one has taken the time to investigate every single argument and then ranked the arguments in order of importance or impact, which I will quickly admit I have not done. With these thoughts in mind, let us proceed.
The argument I have heard too many times at my College is as follows:
“The postmoderns make a quite the assertion. They claim that metanarratives do not exist. But what is a metanarrative? – A grand claim, especially as we think about history. For example, for Christians, the metanarrative would be of the world’s sin and Christ’s second coming. For modernists, the metanarrative is likely the idea that progress is being made, exemplified by scientific and technological advancements. In response, as I’ve already said, postmodernists claim that metanarratives don’t exist. Progress? Nope. Jesus? No. Nothing. Instead, in a negative fashion they claim that larger, ‘eagle-eyed’ approaches to history are futile. Furthermore, they claim that objective Truth does not exist. Rather, they celebrate a sort of subjective relativism; wherein each individual is able to assert what truth is for him or her. But let’s analyze the implications of these assertions.
“By claiming that history cannot be viewed as having any narrative, they institute their own sort of narrative, that is, a narrative of absence. Similarly, by asserting that there is no absolute truth, they create their own absolute truth, namely that there are no absolute truths. By doing these things, they erect a metanarrative that they so desperately try to disprove. In short, their argument is self-defeating.”
If this argument seems like a straw man I can do nothing to convince you otherwise. Unfortunately, straw men arguments still exist, and perhaps will continue to until they are challenged and refuted. To this end, allow me to analyze the claims provided, and demonstrate the way in which they are wanting.
If postmodernism is to be fairly put on trial, especially when postmodernism is used to judge postmodernism, one must understand the movement well. By this, I mean that if one to assert the postmodernism is self-defeating, one must be using an appropriate definition of postmodernism before proceeding. However, because postmodernism does not have a homogenized, singular modus operandi, one will likely run into issues. To demonstrate these issues, a few postmodern thinkers will briefly be explained. As a note, each thinker deserves much more time than I can afford, so take these descriptions with a grain of salt.
For example, consider the work of Jacques Derrida. His work does not set out to show that reason (logos) has always failed and must be replaced. Rather, he uses rigorous reason to demonstrate that reason has limitations and has unfairly received a privileged position in philosophy (Culler 87). To this end, it would be unhelpful to interpret Derrida as someone who rejects all objective truth. Instead, one should pay attention to his theory of différance, which is “a structure and a movement that cannot be conceived on the basis of the opposition presence/absence. Différance is the systematic play differences, of traces of differences” (Derrida 38-39). In other words, différance does not reject presence (substance/existence/essence/meaning/truth) but rather asserts that it is never fully present. Instead, traces of meaning can be found, but only ever traces, so that meaning is always deferred, yet always present.
Furthermore, he never rejects logos, but questions its privileged status, and seeks to demonstrate the way in which it may be harmful, all the while partaking in logos himself. Taken together, some considerable stretch-work would be needed for one to argue that Derrida rejects all forms of objective truth and metanarratives. Rather, it seems to me that Derrida seeks to raise questions regarding metanarratives and logos, with the aim of demonstrating the way in which they fall short.
Similarly, when we talk of Foucault, Baudrillard, Lyotard, and others, we find that their goals are tremendously different. Foucault traces genealogies to demonstrate the impact they have on our thought today, to perhaps help us understand how we have inherited unhelpful habits and beliefs. Baudrillard wrote of our entrance into a place without origin – a hyperreality; a place where signs (signifiers) eclipsed what they represented (signified). Lyotard introduced us to postmodernism and set out to define this slippery word. Jameson wrote of capitalism and postmodernism with the goal of showing that they were linked. Hopefully, after seeing a brief, reductive look at these thinkers, you can see the problem not only with trying to pin them all down under one umbrella term, but also the problem with asserting that their goal is the same.
Certainly, some similarities can be spotted, but to think they all work towards the same end is to show ignorance towards their specific projects. And this, I think, is the issue with the claim that postmodernism is self-defeating. This argument was waged by someone who did not adhere to postmodernism, and likewise, seemed not to understand their claims. Thus, unwilling to even fathom a world wherein a metanarrative need not exist, this argument lumps all postmodern thinkers together, for better of for worse, and guess what they created by trying to boil them all down to one goal? – a metanarrative! Isn’t that a surprise?
It seems that this argument does not really display an inadequacy in postmodern thinkers, but rather an inadequacy in how they are treated and the dangers of trying to apply generalized thinking to a fragmented movement. Taken together, one would be wise to treat postmodern thinkers as singular and to read up on Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard etc. so that their individual work can be interacted with in a meaningful way, instead of petty blanket statement that contributed little to the conversation. Once this is done, one would be able to criticize Foucault for his work, or Derrida for his work, instead of having to disparage them all by unfairly grouping them together. With irony, let me leave you with a general statement: please don’t make generalized statements, especially in a field as nuanced as philosophy.
By Josiah H. Nelson
Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Ithica,
New York: Cornell University Press, 1992. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Print.