Postmodernism: Introductory Notes (Part 2)

(These are my notes on the first handout for my summer 2010 course. See the handout entitled: “Postmodernism: An Introduction” on the course website).

(Continued from Part 1)

The History of Postmodernism

The New French Philosophers of the 1960s: In the 1960s a new group of young French philosophers rose to challenge the normative assumptions of established French philosophy. This challenge was posed to the established philosophies of “Marxism and existentialism” and “phenomenology and psychoanalysis” (4). The two leading names of the old guard: Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The old guard viewed “the individual human subject or consciousness as alienated in contemporary society, estranged from his or her authentic modes of experience or being” (4). The reasons could be “capitalism,” “scientific naturalism, ” “repressive social mores,” “religion,” and “bureaucratically organized social life” (4). The editor sums up the main project of the old French philosophers, those challenged by the new French philosophers, as follows:

To diagnose contemporary alienation they produced an historical analysis of how human society and the human self develop over time [synhcronic view], in order to see how and why modern civilization had gone wrong. What was needed, it seemed, was a return to the true, or authentic, or free, or integrated human self as the center of lived experience. This meant not an abandonment of modern industry, technology, and secularism, but some reconstruction of society (for Marx), or of moral culture (for Freud), or our openness to the vicissitudes of our own authentic experience (for phenomenology and existentialism. (4-5)

This was the dominant view in Post-World War II France and seemed to have affected, to some extent, even the philosophical thought in the United States and this is what the new French Philosophers start challenging in the 1960s. Three big names: Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze. All influenced by structuralism (Ferdinand de Saussure and Calude Levi-Strauss), the young philosophers rejected the synchronic view of history and the self and focused, instead, on the deep structures of history, language, and subject formations. Thus, while the new philosophers rejected the “scientific pretensions” (5) of structuralism, they did, as poststructuralists, dispense with any idea of an authentic self, originary culture, or, for that matter, objectivity. Their critique of the normative order, individualism, reason, and objective knowledge radically changed the French philosophy and “served to undermine the claims to legitimacy by academic authorities and the state” (6) thus undermining the political and social hegemony of the West.

The British and American Scene

During the 1960s a “quieter change” was taking place in the British and American philosophy. The reigning strain of philosophy in the US and Britain was Logical Empiricism, also known as positivism. The main assumption of these sort of approaches to philosophical inquiry was as follows:

Philosophy was to shed its metaphysical musings and ethical pretensions and concern itself with logic, the clarification of science’s method and results, and the dismissal of traditional philosophical questions through a careful analysis of linguistic errors. (6)

Various challenges were posed to this strain of philosophical thought. Kurt Godel, for example, showed that “a complete and consistent logic complex enough to include arithmetic. . . was impossible” (6). Thus, by 1960s the American and British philosophers were becoming “dubious about the canonical aims of modern philosophy and the ultimate hopes of rational inquiry” (7). [nonfoundationalism].

Meanwhile, in the fields of art, literature, music, and architecture new challenge to the established order were emerging and the varied responses to modernism from different fields can be summed up as follows:

Literature: “Literary irony and camp seemed to capture the sensibility of the time more than the seriousness of modernist search for the alienated soul and the essence of reality” (8).

Art: This period saw the rise of art that “renounced unity of style for pastiche” (8). The distinctions between high and low art were erased and the “superficial, hedonistic marketplace was . . . abandoned in an anti-heroic embrace of pop culture” (8).

Architecture: This is where postmodernism had its widest influence.

[More Later]

(Featured image borrowed from Dr. Tom Paradis’s website).

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