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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

Works Cited

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.

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6 thoughts on “Is Postmodernism Self-Defeating?

  1. I agree, in that I have found that academic settings tend to use ‘post-modernist thought’ for the advantage of an ‘interesting’ perspective, and if anything, it mirrors where academia is as part of the disconnected terrain of post-modernist civilization as any other part – another cog in the machine.

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  2. Did the generality of PoMo philosophers describe themselves as such? I seriously doubt it, Foucault would ascribe himself to the post-structuralism tradition whereas Derrida is closely associated with deconstructionism. They are all founders of discursivity in their own idiosyncratic way, and as such, an attempt to describe all of them under a unitary umbrella term, strikes me as ludicrous and at best as unproductive.

    But running the risk of contradicting myself, I often catalogue Rousseau as the first post-modernist thinker in its own right.

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    • Hmm, I believe any kind of categorization is always going to fall flat of the original authors intentions. Post-modernism was a whole movement across the arts and humanities and therefore many thinkers during this period were ascribed the post-modern label although there was never a strict ‘modernist’ movement in philosophy. Post-structuralism is maybe a better label but it is a much more specific definition as it means literally thought that has broken away from the structuralist schema. There are certain factors that link together many of the so called post-modern thinkers (as the author notes) and I think these factors are sufficient for us to classify them as so even if they may not have labelled themselves in that way.

      You could argue that Rousseau is the first post-modern thinker in that he broke away from the ‘early-modern’ period of philosophy I suppose. Maybe we should we should call him a ‘post-early-modern’ philosopher! But maybe that would be a bit ridiculous haha.

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    • No – they did not. Foucault, while being associated with post-structuarlism, denied the term, along with postmodernism. Derrida denied it. Lyotard embraced it.

      “They are all founders of discursivity in their own idiosyncratic way, and as such, an attempt to describe all of them under a unitary umbrella term, strikes me as ludicrous and at best as unproductive.”

      Hmm…I think that sounds familiar:

      “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.”

      Essentially, we are saying the same thing. I only group them together to demonstrate how academia sometimes treats them, and the harm in doing so. Like you, I agree, these thinkers should not be treated them same.

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  3. The criticism you addressed is indeed wrong in claiming that all postmodernists are epistemological or ontological nihilists, but you have to realize that this very criticism of yours is a straw-man. I think it’s important to be charitable in an argument –to argue against the best position of the opposing side –and the charitable thing to do would’ve been to address the most common criticisms against those seen as postmodern thinkers.

    For example, Postmodern thinkers are indeed diverse, and they may not be fairly characterized by the term “relativism.” Nonetheless, they are certainly not the opposite of relativists either. Thinkers like Foucault and Derrida lean more towards social-constructivism and intertextuality, while many of their vicious critics subscribe to semantic externalism, scientific realism, and the sort. So, if one were strongly opposed to such positions, then it’s obvious why they would be so up in arms.

    Another common criticism against postmodernism –and this, I think, is true for most grouped as postmodern thinkers – is their intellectual integrity and the style of their prose. This doesn’t mean that postmodern thinkers do not have integrity at all, but rather that they do things that have been traditionally frowned upon: grossly misquoting and misrepresnting important figures in Philosophy, getting the scientific and historical facts dead wrong, and so on. This on top of their cryptic and impenetrable prose leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth.

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  4. Let’s be honest, postmodernity does have issues on many levels. You just can not escape every single criticism because postmodernity is ill-defined and therefor, people misrepresent it (and thus their criticism is a straw man’s argument). It is ill-defined indeed, at least as a whole, but let’s take certain features of some postmodern architecture as an example. Buildings with columns that support nothing. Hallways and doors going nowhere. Beams that do not rest on walls/columns, buildings tilted as if they could collapse anytime (but they don’t)… Buildings designed as if the architect had no design in mind. Nevertheless, one can wish for a postmodern architect, but no one will ever want an extreme postmodern engineer. You can want to subvert or question existing rules and you can lie about how a building looks like, but you can not lie about whether it stands or not. If a building is tilted so much it would fall but it doesn’t, it must have some counterweight. Even if the counterweight is hidden, it is there for real. In this light, gravity is a rather big thorn in the eye of this specific kind of “gravity-challenging” postmodern architecture. Design wise and on the level of practical use you can add some doors that lead nowhere to, but no one is going to pay big bucks for a museum that is not usable as exactly that: a museum. No matter how hard you try to make a building without a design, you still end up designing it: giving it a shape, color(s) and practical uses that meet a minimum of specific demands of the owner/builder. In that sense, I do have a feeling that postmodernism at least in architecture and to some extent as a whole, with its fragmented mixture of deconstructing attitudes towards meta-narratives (well, yes), absolute/objective truth, language, meaning and contents runs into issues at a certain point. In the end it can not live out its own goals or ideas to the fullest. It is, indeed, at least partially self-defeating in this: it runs into its own limits. Other philosophies run into their own self built walls as well, but it’s all about postmodernity here now. It does want to question certain “truths”, (and I do see the advantage of that, it’s always good to keep evaluating ourselves). But, ill-defined as it may be, postmodernism does lay a claim upon what is or is not real, what does or does not have meaning, etc. If it can not be questioned, precisely at that level, then, what is its contents? Rather self contradictory, it seems. If some postmodern thinker really wants to at least question whether words and language have any power to communicate truth, meaning and contents, he has to use words and language to do so. According to his view, we should question the very truth, meaning and contents of what he is saying as he is using words and language himself. And so, after all, he might as well kept silence in the first place…

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