Postmodernism: Reading Notes by Caleb Berkemeier

By Caleb Anthony Berkemeier

(Note: This was chosen as the Best Journal Response in my Graduate course on Postmodernism and is posted here with the author’s permission. This entry should be read in conjunction with Postmodernism: Introductory Notes“)

Presently, it would be hard to find a more contentious topic of discussion than the meaning of postmodernism and its value. In his introduction to the anthology From Modernism to Postmodernism, Lawrence Cahoone attempts to bring clarity to a debate that seems to all too easily deteriorate into extreme positions. Postmodernism, for those who exist on the periphery, is a way in which the centers of power can be disrupted, overthrown, and replaced by new centers that come from the margins of a given community. For its ardent detractors, postmodernism is an empty rhetorical game that seeks to obliterate the fundamental principles and standards of all modes of knowledge, e.g. scientific, philosophical, aesthetic, cultural, theological, or political—an attack on civilization itself. Amidst these hyperbolic generalizations there exists a more intellectually modest (and effective) way of defining postmodernism that does not betray the very system it is trying to describe. It is a contextualized view that defines postmodernism as “the latest wave in the critique of the Enlightenment, the critique of the cultural principles characteristic of modern society that trace their legacy to the eighteenth century, a critique that has been going on since that time” (Cahoone 2).

And so, as a primarily intellectual critique, postmodernism is setting itself in opposition to a mode of epistemology that is itself marked by contradiction in that its principles of rationality and liberal humanism are disclosed as problematical in their exclusionary origin and practice. After all, what good is humanism if one excludes most of the peoples of the world and considers them only fit for colonization; and what good is rationality if it is casuistically used to reinforce that exclusive position of power? In this sense, critics of postmodernism who would probably identify strongly with the principles of the Enlightenment are in danger of continuing its history of exclusion. And, in the same way, those who uncritically praise postmodernism as a mere reversal of the binaries of power are in danger of recapitulating the exclusions of the Enlightenment but from new positions of power. Thus, these two perspectives on postmodernism are revealed to be two heads on the same beast. Where we can find a true alternative to both of these positions is in Cahoone’s (and many others’) position that postmodernism is an ongoing critique of systems of power that use rationality, normativity, and the cult of common sense to maintain binaristic power relations.

Cahoone gives a historical synopsis of what preceded postmodernism and how these earlier ways of thinking brought about a shift in perspective. He begins with developments in France where the structuralists were pursuing the “human sciences” from the position of culture and with techniques of scientific rigor. It was a discipline that one could use to study humanity without being reduced to the level of the natural sciences while at the same time maintaining an appearance of objectivity as opposed to the subjective science of existentialism, phenomenology, and psychoanalysis (5). In reaction to structuralism, the poststructuralists (notably Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, and Deleuze) continued the direction of this study but rejected the scientific pretentions of objectivity (the sciences are also a product of human invention). In the British/American sphere of philosophy, the positivism that was supposed to usher in an ultimate philosophy of logic was encountering problems such as the difficulty in translating experiential data into interpretive models (6-7). Also, the decline of Marxism beginning in the 1970s after the exposure of the failure of Stalinist socialism (as infamously recorded by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago) led to a “turn to the right” and the disillusionment of many who relied on the Marxist philosophy of history for their sense of purpose in life (10). What developed from these increasingly untenable systems of thought were a new and radical questioning of the presuppositions of absolute truth upon which these systems were founded.

Cahoone identifies some of the most important and well-known forms of criticism that one encounters in postmodernist texts. There is a critique of the notion that presence is of primary importance in the accumulation of knowledge, that the way in which one interprets or theorizes an experience is of secondary importance—less “real”. The postmodernist questions this common sense view and asserts that representation and construction are as important to understanding the world (14). The notion of origin is another object that has about it an aura of importance. Cahoone says that “postmodernism is intentionally superficial, not through eschewing rigorous analysis, but by regarding the surface of things, the phenomena, as not requiring a reference to anything deeper or more fundamental” (15). Thus, the postmodernist does not engage in a futile search for origins while what can be readily analyzed is ignored.

Similarly, the idea that there is such a thing as unity and that it can be theorized is a vain pursuit. Postmodernists believe that “[e]verything is constituted by relations to other things, hence nothing is simple, immediate, or totally present, and no analysis of anything can be complete or final” (15). And, finally, there is the notion of transcendence or ideal, normative concepts (i.e. truth, beauty, justice) that are disconnected from the objects and processes of judgment. The postmodernist rejects this transcendence of evaluative concepts, instead seeing those concepts as “the product of the social relations that it serves to judge” (15). This means that the evaluative concept (and the one who uses it) is not disinterested—the concept is “dependent on a certain intellectual and social context” (15) and is a manifestation of a particular historical period and position. The strategy by which postmodernists expose these objects of criticism is by focusing on a suppressed “otherness” that those in power use to define themselves (16). By refusing to accept the given or what is plainly stated in the text, the postmodernist goes to what is hidden behind the text to find what is absent, who is excluded, and how the authoritative voice constitutes its others.

Cahoone also gives us a useful categorization of the different kinds of claims that various postmodernists make. One is the historical postmodernist that claims Modernity has come to an end and that we are now in a fundamentally different political and cultural formulation of society. Then there are the methodological postmodernists who are interested in looking at the truths and beliefs of a given society and exposing their contradictions and special interests. It is a purely negative form of critique and is antirealist because “knowledge is made valid not by its relation to its objects, but by its relation to our pragmatic interests, our communal perspectives, our needs, our rhetoric” (17). Thus, a theorist like Derrida might not be as radical as one might suppose since he admits that there is no escaping logocentrism, as flawed as it might be (17). Directly opposed to this form of critique is “positive postmodernism” that does not stop at a deconstruction but goes further to offer an alternative order. Cahoone says that all three have a right to the name of postmodernist, but it is important that we know the distinctions for the sake of clarity.

In conclusion, Cahoone deals with perhaps the most overused criticism of postmodernism, that postmodernists undermine their own inquiries by claiming that there is no basis for absolute truth or objective knowledge. Cahoone says that this criticism, although valid, is a weak one because it presupposes that inquiry must follow the “normal” or “traditional” forms (21). It is a purely negative position and does not deal with the important critiques that have come from postmodernism, as if one could ignore the fact that one’s house is on fire simply because the one who alerts him to this fact is also in possession of a burning house. What we can take away from Cahoone’s introduction is a more complex definition of postmodernism as a radical critique of the existing order, a critique that has been ongoing since the time of Socrates (21). Our response to postmodernism should not be to blindly ignore its criticisms solely because they come from a paradoxical position. No matter what our personal view may be, there is much to be learned from postmodern inquiry, if we are intellectually honest.

About the Author:

Caleb Anthony Berkemeier is a graduate student of literature in the English Department of Kent State University.