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Voorkant Butler 'Postmodernism - A very short introduction' Christopher BUTLER
Postmodernism - A very short introduction
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002; 141 blzn
ISBN: 01 9280 2399

(12) Chapter 1 - The rise of postmodernism

"I will be writing about postmodernist artists, intellectual gurus, academic critics, philosophers, and social scientists in what follows, as if they were all members of a loosely constituted and quarrelsome political party. This party is by and large internationalist and ‘progressive’. It is on the left rather than the right, and it tends to see everything, from abstract painting to personal relationships, as political undertakings."(2)

[Daar was ik al bang voor toen ik de eerste voorbeelden zag die over kunst gingen. Ik wil eigenlijk minder de culturele kant dan de filosofische kant hebben.]

"But these ideas and attitudes have always been very much open to debate, and in what follows I shall combat postmodernist scepticism with some of my own. Indeed, I will deny that its philosophical and political views and art forms are nearly as dominant as a confident proclamation of a new ‘postmodernist’ era might suggest."(5)

"By the mid-1960s, critics like Susan Sontag and Ihab Hassan had begun to point out some of the characteristics, in Europe and in the United States, of what we now call postmodernism. They argued that the work of postmodernists was deliberately less unified, less obviously ‘masterful’, more playful or anarchic, more concerned with the processes of our understanding than with the pleasures of artistic finish or unity, less inclined to hold a narrative together, and certainly more resistant to a certain interpretation, than much of the art that had preceded it."(5)

"The rise of the great post-war innovatory artists – Stockhausen, Boulez, Robbe-Grillet, Beckett, Coover, Rauschenberg, and Beuys – was succeeded (and many would say supplemented and explained) by the huge growth in the influence of a number of French intellectuals, notably the Marxist social theorist Louis Althusser, the cultural critic Roland Barthes, the philosopher Jacques Derrida, and the historian Michel Foucault, all of whom in fact began their work by thinking about the implications of modernism, and rarely had any very extended relationship to the contemporary avant-garde."(6)

"This startlingly new framework of ideas was exported from the France of the late 1960s and early 1970s into England, Germany, and the United States. By the time of the student uprisings of 1968, the most advanced philosophical thought had moved away from the strongly ethical and individualist existentialism that was typical of the immediately post-war period (of which Sartre and Camus were the best-publicized exponents) towards far more sceptical and anti-humanist attitudes. These new beliefs were expressed in what came to be known as deconstructive and poststructuralist theory, to be discussed below."(6-7)

"Postmodernist doctrines thus drew upon a great deal of philosophical, political, and sociological thought, which disseminated itself into the artistic avant-garde (particularly in the visual arts) and into the humanities departments of universities in Europe and the United States as ‘theory’. The postmodernist period is one of the extraordinary dominance of the work of academics over that of artists."(7)

"Many academic proponents of postmodernist theory in England and the United States therefore concentrated on the inward translation of Continental thought. This led to a number of interestingly transplanted cultural concerns, and a sharp break with previous traditions. For example, postmodernist theory inherited a concern for the functions of language from structuralism, but when Jacques Derrida turned his attention to the problem of reference (of language to external non-linguistic reality) he went back to the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Derrida struggled with him (in De la grammatologie) apparently in blissful ignorance of the fact that many of the problems which concerned him, and the (very slippery) position he himself came to, had, in the opinion of many in the philosophical community (even in France), been far better stated and more rigorously analysed by Ludwig Wittgenstein. But Derrida does not mention Wittgenstein in his early work. Many Derridean literary theorists were therefore seriously ignorant of the history of philosophical problems, and were unaware of some of the standard solutions to them in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition. This led to intellectual division, mutual incomprehension, and splits in many university departments that persist to this day.

Postmodernists, who were rightly enthusiasts for ‘liberating’ ethical and political doctrines, were at the same time immensely dependent on the extraordinary prestige of these new intellectual authorities, whose influence was not a little sustained by their heavy reliance upon a neologizing jargon, which imparted a tremendous air of difficulty and profundity to their deliberations and caused great difficulties to their translators. According to the American philosopher John Searle:

"Michel Foucault once characterised Derrida’s prose style to me as ‘obscurantisme terroriste’. The text is written so obscurely that you can’t figure out exactly what the thesis is (hence ‘obscurantisme’) and then when one criticises this, the author says, ‘Vous m’avez mal compris; vous êtes idiot’ (hence ‘terroriste’). New York Review of Books, 27 October 1983"

The often obscure, not to say obfuscating, modes of speech and writing of these intellectuals were sometimes even intended to signify a defiance of that ‘Cartesian’ clarity of exposition which they said arose from a suspect reliance upon ‘bourgeois’ certainties concerning the world order."(8-9)

"There is therefore a great contrast and tension between the postmodernism which derived from French intellectuals and the main stream of Anglo-American liberal philosophical thought in this period. The latter tradition had been very suspicious, in a post-Orwellian manner, of jargon, of grandiose synthesis, and of Marxist-derived ‘ideology’. In the 1960s and early 1970s it was much wedded to very different methods, and most particularly to the idea that philosophy should work within an ‘ordinary language’ accessible to all, and even when technical aim at maximum clarity. The typical work of philosophy in English, from Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind (1949) through to John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971), used these methods to ask for an essentially cooperative and consensual method, and for further clarification and piecemeal correction by the philosophy profession as a whole (to which, indeed, the original authority might well respond, as did Rawls in his later Political Liberalism, 1993). In this it was as much influenced by the model of scientific cooperation as by Socratic methods. But postmodernist ideas, despite their Marxist affiliations and political aspirations, were never intended to fit into anything like this kind of consensual and cooperative framework. Many postmodernists thought that this would have simply reproduced a bourgeois view of the world, and aimed at an unjustifiable universal acceptance."(10)

"The danger, but also the point, for many postmodernists, of embedding theoretical and philosophical arguments within a literary rhetoric is that the text is thereby left open to all sorts of interpretations. There is as we shall see a deep irrationalism at the heart of postmodernism – a kind of despair about the Enlightenment-derived public functions of reason – which is not to be found elsewhere in the other developing intellectual disciplines of the late 20th century (for example, in the influence of cognitive science on linguistics, or the use of Darwinian models to explain mental development)."(11)

(24) Chapter 2 - New ways of seeing the world

"A great deal of postmodernist theory depends on the maintenance of a sceptical attitude: and here the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard’s contribution is essential. He argued in his La condition postmoderne (published in French in 1979, in English in 1984) that we now live in an era in which legitimizing ‘master narratives’ are in crisis and in decline. These narratives are contained in or implied by major philosophies, such as Kantianism, Hegelianism, and Marxism, which argue that history is progressive, that knowledge can liberate us, and that all knowledge has a secret unity. The two main narratives Lyotard is attacking are those of the progressive emancipation of humanity – from Christian redemption to Marxist Utopia – and that of the triumph of science. Lyotard considers that such doctrines have ‘lost their credibility’ since the Second World War: ‘Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives’."(13)

"Although there are good liberal reasons for being against such ‘grand narratives’ (on the grounds that they do not allow for disputes about value, and often enough lead to totalitarian persecution), the plausibility of Lyotard’s claim for the decline of metanarratives in the late 20th century ultimately depends upon an appeal to the cultural condition of an intellectual minority. The general sociological claim that such narratives are in decline in our period looks pretty thin, even after the collapse of state-sponsored Marxism in the West, because allegiances to large-scale, totalizing religious and nationalist beliefs are currently responsible for so much repression, violence, and war – in Northern Ireland, Serbia, the Middle East, and elsewhere. (Postmodernists tend not to be well informed about current practices in science and religion.)"(14)

"The result was that the basic attitude of postmodernists was a scepticism about the claims of any kind of overall, totalizing explanation. Lyotard was not alone in seeing the intellectual’s task as one of ‘resistance’, even to ‘consensus’, which ‘has become an outmoded and suspect value’. Postmodernists responded to this view, partly for the good reason that by doing so they could side with those who didn’t ‘fit’ into the larger stories – the subordinated and the marginalized – against those with the power to disseminate the master narratives. Many postmodernist intellectuals thus saw themselves as avant-garde and bravely dissentient. This heralded a pluralist age, in which, as we shall see, even the arguments of scientists and historians are to be seen as no more than quasi narratives which compete with all the others for acceptance. They have no unique or reliable fit to the world, no certain correspondence with reality. They are just another form of fiction.

Of course, an opposition to such narratives (particularly holistic or totalitarian ones) is an absolutely traditional liberal concern. Much significant postmodernist writing has therefore turned on articulating this kind of scepticism for essentially liberal ends ... "(15)

"... hence a typical postmodernist conclusion, that universal truth is impossible, and relativism is our fate. (...) The central argument for deconstruction depends on relativism, by which I mean the view that truth itself is always relative to the differing standpoints and predisposing intellectual frameworks of the judging subject. It is difficult to say, then, that deconstructors are committed to anything as definite as a philosophical thesis. Indeed, to attempt to define deconstruction is to defy another of its main principles – which is to deny that final or true definitions are possible, because even the most plausible candidates will always invite a further defining move, or ‘play’, with language. For the deconstructor, the relationship of language to reality is not given, or even reliable, since all language systems are inherently unreliable cultural constructs."(16-17)

"It is this central use of deconstruction to subvert our confidence in logical, ethical, and political commonplaces that has proved most revolutionary – and typical of postmodernism. For the relativist claim is that once we see our conceptual systems in this way, we can also see that the world, its social systems, human identity even, are not givens, somehow guaranteed by a language which corresponds to reality, but are constructed by us in language, in ways that can never be justified by the claim that this is the way that such things ‘really are’. We live, not inside reality, but inside our representations of it."(21)

"Most importantly, the reader/listener/spectator involved in the articulation or interpretation of this play of language should act independently of any supposed intentions of the author. Attention to an author would privilege quite the wrong thing, for seeing him or her as an origin, or a delimiting authority, for the meaning of the text was an obvious example of the (logocentric) privileging of a particular set of meanings. Why should these not originate in the reader just as much as the author? Authorial (or historical) intention should no more be trusted than realism. There thus arose a new notion of the text, as a ‘free play of signs within language’. This proclamation of ‘The Death of the Author’, notably by Barthes and Foucault, also had the political advantage of doing away with him or her as the bourgeois, capitalist, owner and marketer of his or her meanings."(23)

"The text, as really constructed by the reader, was thereby liberated and democratized for the free play of the imagination. Meanings became the property of the interpreter, who was free to play, deconstructively, with them. It was thought to be both philosophically wrong and politically retrogressive to attempt to determine the meaning of a text, or any semiotic system, to particular ends. All texts were now liberated to swim, with their linguistic or literary or generic companions, in a sea of intertextuality in which previously accepted distinctions between them hardly mattered, and to be seen collectively as forms of playful, disseminatory rhetoric (rather like Derrida’s own lectures, which became freewheeling, disorganized, unfocused, lengthy monologues). The pursuit of verbal certainties in interpretation was thought to be as reactionary in its implications as was the manufactured consensus of the established political order."(24)

"In arguing that language can lead us astray in this way, and that ‘reality’ can never be wholly or convincingly mastered, deconstruction refuses to accept the possibility of any sustained realism in the texts it attacks. This attack on realism is absolutely central to all types of postmodernist activity. But in refusing to come inside any existing system, or to make any exposition of one, in anything but a playful or evasive manner, it also has to deny the possibility of proposing a system of its own, without betraying its own premises. Hence the accusation frequently made against deconstructor postmodernists, that they are just sceptics who cannot make significant moral or political commitments. Deconstructors too often, true to their own premises, tangle themselves up in a perpetual regress of qualification. Much deconstructive criticism (for example, Geoffrey Hartman’s Glas and much of the work of Paul de Man and Hillis Miller) now seems to be self-indulgent and self- absorbed, and ultimately uncommitted to anything that matters." (27-28)

[Mijn idee!!]

"Deconstruction, deeply academic and self-involved though it mostly was, supported a general move towards relativist principles in postmodernist culture. It left postmodernists not particularly interested in empirical confirmation and verification in the sciences. They often saw this as contaminated by an association with the military-industrial complex, the use of a rigid technological rationality for social control, and so on. It also meant that the followers of Lyotard and Derrida tended to believe in ‘stories’ rather than in testable theories. Postmodernists, having abandoned their belief in traditional (‘realistic’) philosophy, history, and science under the influence of French thought, thus became more and more the theorizers of the (delusive) workings of culture, and that is why most of my examples of the application of the philosophical and political ideas of postmodernism are drawn from the arts."(28-29)

"This view ends up in a kind of textual idealism, because all texts are seen as perpetually referring to other ones, rather than to any external reality. No text ever finally establishes anything about the world outside itself."(32)

"As I have already asserted, all this activity kept realism of all kinds in the dock. To attempt any form of realism was to fall into philosophical error, and so the attempt to write history from the hitherto dominant positivist or empiricist point of view was doomed to failure. Once again, postmodernist thought, by analysing everything as text and rhetoric, tended to push hitherto autonomous intellectual disciplines in the direction of literature – history was just another narrative, whose paradigm structures were no better than fictional, and was a slave to its own (often unconsciously used) unrealized myths, metaphors, and stereotypes. Its sources, however objective or evidence-based they might seem to be, were in the end just another inter-related series of multiply interpretable texts, and even its causal explanations could be shown to derive from, and hence to repeat, well-known fictional plots."(32)

"Some postmodernist-influenced histories, for example Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989) and Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1921 (1996), make this narrative function quite clear. We are following a story, but no historian can claim that this one is the story, even if that is what he or she is aiming at. Apart from anything else, the relationship between the ‘invented’ or ‘constructed’ and the ‘found’ or the ‘evidential’ will always be a matter of dispute or interpretation."(34)

"But what, then, of our sense of the true, the reliable, the probably true, when we read history? Even consciously postmodernist reconstructionists are trying to help us to form better beliefs about what they think actually happened. And there is such a thing as a more or less adequately descriptive narrative. A large amount of correspondence between language and reality is possible. Hardly anyone is in favour of suppressing what is generally accepted as evidence. There is a strong sense in which historians are not free just to make things up, as controversy over the ‘Holocaust deniers’ has shown. But then realist novelists aren’t particularly free to make things up either. They have to know much of what the historian knows, and more. Postmodernist relativism needn’t mean that anything goes, or that faction and fiction are the same as history. What it does mean is that we should be more sceptically aware, more relativist about, more attentive to, the theoretical assumptions which support the narratives produced by all historians, whether they see themselves as empiricists or deconstructors or as postmodernist ‘new historicists’."(35)

"An exact correspondence between narrative and ‘the past’ is not possible. We can describe the ‘same’ event in many different ways, our access to the evidence is always mediated, nothing is simply transparent, and there are always absences and gaps and biases to be dealt with. But narratives can still be more or less adequate to the (interpreted) evidence, and new evidence can still overturn narratives. Moreover, not all literary forms of narrative are equally appopriate to historical periods and events."(36)

"But postmodernists do not like this picture. They have attacked the basic claims traditionally made by scientists:
(1) that they can describe and analyse, objectively and truthfully, and therefore with a universal application, the physical reality which surrounds us, and
(2) that their scientific inquiry is a disinterested pursuit of truths about reality, which are also universalizable, in that they are true everywhere, quite independent of any merely local cultural constraints, and in particular independent of any of the more or less hidden moral or ideological motivations which may have inspired their discovery.
For postmodernists, who are good relativists, scientists can have no such privileges: they promote just ‘one story among many’, their pretensions are unjustified. They do not so much ‘discover’ the nature of reality as ‘construct’ it, and so their work is open to all the hidden biases and metaphors which we have seen postmodernist analysis reveal in philosophy and ordinary language."(37-38)

"In considering this postmodernist attack, we need, in the interests of clarity, to keep the epistemological and the ideological issues as separate as possible. It is, of course, the point that deconstructive postmodernists and their followers wish to make, that these two claims are not, from their point of view, separable at all. But I refuse simply to assume that they are right. For it is surely perfectly obvious, and nothing new, that the motivations for and consequences of scientific discovery are open to moral and political criticism. Many of those who worked on the atom bomb, notably Robert Oppenheimer, were acutely aware of that. Quantum mechanics, genetic engineering, and our scientific knowledge of the global climate of course have interestingly different relationships to the financing and pursuit of Western political and military objectives. But these contextual judgements can be accepted without it following that the core activities of scientists are somehow unsuccessful in arriving at the most reliable way of analysing nature we can manage. There is something very odd indeed in the belief that in looking, say, for causal laws or a unified theory, or in asking whether atoms really do obey the laws of quantum mechanics, the activities of scientists are somehow inherently ‘bourgeois’ or ‘Eurocentric’ or ‘masculinist’, or even ‘militarist’."(38-39)

"As two professors of physics, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, have devastatingly pointed out, postmodernist critics of science often grossly fail to understand the empirical claims of science and the ways in which its key theoretical terms work, and often subsitute for them, when they apply scientific modes of thought to the political world, a number of tendentiously vague and misleading metaphors. The result is, as Sokal and Bricmont put it, ‘mystification, deliberately obscure language, confused thinking, and the misuse of scientific concepts’."(39-40)

(44) Chapter 3 - Politics and identity

"The most important postmodernist ethical argument concerns the relationship between discourse and power. A ‘discourse’ here means a historically evolved set of interlocking and mutually supporting statements, which are used to define and describe a subject matter. Crudely, it’s the language of the main intellectual disciplines, for example the ‘discursive practices’ of law, medicine, aesthetic judgement, and so on. These discourses, as used by lawyers, doctors, and others, do not just implicitly accept some kind of dominating theory to guide them (for example, in the guise of a paradigm as used by those engaged in orthodox science). They involve politically contentious activities, not just because of the certainty with which they describe and define people – who is an ‘immigrant’, or an ‘asylum seeker’, or a ‘criminal’, or ‘mad’, or a ‘terrorist’ – but because such discourses at the same time express the political authority of their users."(44)

"Foucault adopts the victim’s position, and analyses power from the bottom up, and not simply as an imposition of the interests of the class above. He tries to show that the will to exercise power beats humanitarian egalitarianism every time, and implies that even the Enlightenment reliance upon universal principle and reason is always incipiently totalitarian, because the appeal to an always- correct Reason is itself a system of control and will always exclude what it makes marginal, simply by seeing it as non-rational. For Foucault, these supposed irrationalities would include matters of desire, feeling, sexuality, feminity, and art. Foucault is deeply anti-progressive – he is an anti-Whig historian who chronicles the rise of unfreedom."(45-46)

" Sexists, racists, and imperialists all use similar techniques – they make their ‘normalizing’ discourse prevail, and, in doing so, they can actually create or bring into being the deviant or what many postmodernists call the other. Their discourse actually helps to create the subordinate identities of those who are excluded from participation in it. Foucault takes homosexuals, women, the criminally insane, non- whites, and prisoners as standard examples of the ‘other’."(46)

"These offend our Enlightenment intuitions about universal justice and the right of the individual to autonomy. But it is one of Foucault’s many defects that he fails to give anything like an ethical account of power in general. He wants ‘struggle’ rather than submission, but he doesn’t very clearly say why. For him, ‘power’ seems to be a kind of electrical force, an inevitable accompaniment to all human activity, like gravity. Although his thought presupposes a leftist, indeed Marxist, analysis, he avoids any obvious political commentaries and moral theories, and so in the end, although he is a classical ‘resister’, he does little more than recommend, rather as Lyotard does, small-scale, local reforms."(48-49)

"The analysis of the relation between discourse and power had a further and important consequence for postmodernists. It led to a distinctive view of the nature of the self which was a challenge to the individualist rationalism, and the emphasis on personal autonomy, of most liberals. Indeed, the term preferred by postmodernists to apply to individuals is not so much ‘self’ as ‘subject’, because the latter term implicitly draws attention to the ‘subject-ed’ condition of persons who are, whether they know it or not, ‘controlled’ (if you are on the left) or ‘constituted’ (if you are in the middle) by the ideologically motivated discourses of power which predominate in the society they inhabit.

The extraordinary achievement of Foucault and those who thought like him was, given their analysis of the workings of power, to go on to make one of the most influential of postmodernist claims – the claim that such discourses entailed, imposed, demanded (the many possibilities here constitute the interest of the claim) a particular kind of identity for all those who were affected by them."(50)

"Such deconstructions of the moral unity of the subject, and the (classically liberal) desire to help the self to evade some of the repressive ideological boundaries it encounters, are very different things. Indeed, the justification for our desire to evade or redraw such boundaries (such as those which confer sexual identity) already depends on a notion of the new moral unity or integrity or autonomy we can achieve, once the restrictive boundary is removed."(55-56)

"Postmodernists may not give a particularly convincing account of the nature of the self as it might appear in a moral philosophy concerned with responsibility, but they do very successfully adapt Foucauldian arguments to show the ways in which discourses of power are used in all societies to marginalize subordinate groups."(56)

"An example of this, which is undoubtedly central to the politics of the period since the late 1960s, is the relationship between postmodernism and feminism. The argument here is that women are excluded from the patriarchal symbolic order, or from the dominant male discourse, and indeed that they have been defined or ‘othered’ as inferior with respect to it."(57)

"It may indeed be better to follow a rationalist (Enlightenment) egalitarian project of progressive emancipation, as opposed to a postmodernist route, which so often ends up in a radical separatism. For although postmodernist arguments have helped many to define the roots of their difference from the majority, or ‘those in power’, effective political action needs something more than this rather preliminary sense of a dissentient identity."(58)

"The postmodernist self, then, is very differently conceived from the self at the centre of liberal humanist thought, which is supposed to be capable of being autonomous, rational, and centred, and somehow free of any particular cultural, ethnic, or gendered characteristics. Postmodernist analysis has turned away from such optimistically universalizable Kantian assumptions to see the self as constituted by language systems, which, although they may most obviously dominate the proletarian, the female, the black, and the colonized, have us all, more or less, in their grip. This general move from a liberal emphasis on self-determination to a Marx-inspired emphasis on other-determination is of immense importance. It is a sharp challenge to established post-Enlightenment, Anglo- American philosophical views, and it points to the irreconcilable differences of identity between individuals. As Robert Hughes has put it in his The Culture of Complaint, and admittedly very polemically, it has created a culture in which many were encouraged to see themselves as victims."(59)

"It is a paradoxical result: a left-inspired distrust of authority (of the Lyotardian kind) makes recognition of difference possible, and yet those who are perhaps most in favour of leaving differently defined groups in isolation, to compete and fight it out, are those on the right, who believe in individual freedom with the minimum amount of state restraint. One of the problems that a critical postmodernism gets itself into, therefore, is that of specifying, independent of grand narratives, or of a ‘lapse back’ to Kantian or ‘essentializing’ Enlightenment ideas, the kind of community that would be desirable, once its critique had been made. For the Utopian Marxist, the fact that no such model of community was immediately available didn’t much matter; but for thinkers with more short-term, this-worldly aims, it does. The oppositional character of postmodernist thought was therefore maintained, but often at too great a cost. For once all these differences and different identities were established, they were cut off from any central harmonizing ideology. Postmodernists therefore seem to call for an irreducible pluralism, cut off from any unifying frameworks of belief that might lead to common political action, and are perpetually suspicious of domination by others. In this, they have turned against those Enlightenment ideals that underlie the legal structures of most Western democratic societies, and that aimed at universalizable ideals of equality and justice. Indeed, postmodernists tend to argue that Enlightenment reason, which claimed to extend its moral ideals to all in liberty, equality, and fraternity, was ‘really’ a system of repressive, Foucauldian control, and that Reason itself, particularly in its alliance with science and technology, is incipiently totalitarian.

This attack on rationality by postmodernists is to some degree comprehensible, in so far as it expressed a Weberian suspicion of the means-end rationalism of technocratic, consumer societies, and of ‘capitalist modernization’. But postmodernist scepticism was also directed to the very means of rational communication itself. Jürgen Habermas, one of the most eloquent of leftist critics, is not alone in pointing out that it is very dangerous indeed to take the postmodernist turn, and abandon the ideal of communicative or indeed consensual rationality, which he sees as the best antidote to the political abuse of power. He thinks that we should aim at an ‘ideal speech situation’; a means of communication which is so far as is possible undistorted by Foucauldian effects of power, and at just that consensus and sense of social solidarity of which postmodernists are so mistrustful. For many, the postmodernist position is a disabling one – postmodernists are just epistemological pluralists, with no firm general position available to them, and so, however radical they may seem as critics, they lack a settled external viewpoint, and this means that so far as real-life ongoing politics is concerned, they are passively conservative in effect."(60-61)

(62) Chapter 4 - The culture of postmodernism

[Veel hiervan vind ik niet erg interessant. Er is veel geleuter in elke kunst. Wat schieten we daar mee op?]

"The postmodernist theory that many in the avant-garde went for was a version of the philosophy, along with its politics and history, that I have outlined in previous sections. Privilege and its hierarchically organized terms, including the formalism associated with modernism, were to be attacked and subverted. Ordered narrative and the centre, and transcendental terms of value, were to be distrusted. The primacy of Western culture (and any privileged ordering by reference to it) also had to be doubted. The aim often enough was morally admirable: to look to the margin, to the repressed, to the excluded, and to argue for a subversion or reversal of dominant values. This was indeed a classic liberal impulse, but it took place under shaky theoretical auspices."(105)

(110) Chapter 5 - The ‘postmodern condition’

"One of the central themes of all that has gone before might be summarized as ‘realism lost’, and along with it a reliable sense of past history. Indeed, Frederic Jameson points to a defining sense of the postmodern as ‘the disappearance of a sense of history’ in the culture, a pervasive depthlessness, a ‘perpetual present’ in which the memory of tradition is gone."(110)

"As we have seen, much postmodernist analysis is an attack on authority and reliability – in philosophy, narrative, and the relationship of the arts to truth. All this sceptical activity has a complex relationship, not just to the attitudes of academics and artists, but to what was seen as a more general loss of confidence within Western democratic culture. Left-wing hostility to the hidden manipulations of ‘late capitalism’, and the quite general belief, even among the most optimistic of liberals, that real news is too often subordinated to image manipulation, that the dissemination of basic information is always distorted by business corporate interests, and that even horrifyingly immediate events, which cause unimaginable suffering to individuals, like the Vietnam and Gulf wars, had become in some way just ‘dramatized media events’ which ‘take place on TV’ in scenes constructed for political ends by the cameras – the sniper with the camera over his shoulder, the speech-makers’ hopes for the better on the White House lawn, and so on. There is a strong feeling, through the work of critics like Barthes to the novels of Milan Kundera and Rushdie, that the political and historical event always reaches us in a fictionalized form, in a narrative, massaged by the more or less hidden hand of political or economic purposes."(110-111)

[Ja, maar dan is het niet erg verstandig om te gaan roepen dat de waarheid niet bestaat en alles relatief is. Daar zit niets in dat mensen op een ander spoor zou brengen. We hebben juist de moraal nodig om de kritiek onontkoombaar te maken en de realiteit te veranderen.]

"We are simply enclosed in a media-dominated world of signs, villainously generated by capitalism to synthesize our desires, which only really refer to one another within an entrapping chain of ideas. They are mere simulacra, which replace real things and their actual relationships (only truly known to those on the left, who see through such illusions) in a process which Baudrillard calls ‘hyperrealization’."(114)

"Postmodernists are by and large pessimists, many of them haunted by lost Marxist revolutionary hopes, and the beliefs and the art they inspire are often negative rather than constructive."(114)

"But they also tend to give a misleadingly pessimistic account of the information we receive and of conflict and its resolution. Many of them in fact belong to a long post-Nietzschean tradition of despair about reason. In correctly seeing all discourses as inherently related to the power systems that might be thought to back them up – as expressing power – they can give the impression that our culture is not much more than a complex interaction of opposing threats of force. Their scepticism about truth often deprives them of a proper concern for the activities of reason-giving and rational negotiation and for procedural justice. The background influence of Marx and Freud too often implies that everything we say carries the authority and the threat of race, class, rank, and sexual power-play. But this hardly allows for the function in democratic societies of legal agreements and restraints, or of the moral considerations that lead to the protection of human rights which really are meant to be universal and not culturally relative or the property of any one group. Nor does it allow for the fact that the attempt to be reasonable, and truthful, to back up assertions by verifiable evidence, and so on, is essential if we are to come to the negotiating table with something other than implied threats (or to treat the writing of history or theology or the novel as something better than the entrapment of the reader in a mythical narrative). Imagine someone who thought that anything that any (American, or Israeli, or Russian, and other) politician said was always a form of imperialist, or theological, or ‘rogue state’ bullying, simply because it implicitly reflected, say, the power of that nation’s political institutions and armed forces."(115-116)

"The best that one can say here, and I am saying it, is that postmodernists are good critical deconstructors, and terrible constructors. They tend to leave that job to those patient liberals in their society who are still willing to attempt to sort out at least some of those differences between truth and fantasy, which postmodernists blur in a whirlwind of pessimistic assumptions about the inevitability of class or psychological conflict."(116)

"In all of this diagnosis, postmodernists are open to the charge that they seriously overestimate the gullibility of their fellow-citizens. Many of their strictures are sheer nannying about the obvious, which hardly merits its respectable disguise in the shreds of theory."(117)

"It is worth asking, then, how far a postmodernist ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ is justified. There is in any case a crippling contradiction at the heart of the analysis – if anyone says that everything is ‘really’ just constituted by a deceiving image, and not by reality, how does he or she know? They presuppose the very distinctions they attack. At best, such critics are making a banal and condescending series of remarks about other people’s (self-)deceit, or merely deploring, on well-established liberal moral grounds, the success of the advertising industry, TV, etc. in getting people to consume and to believe things of which they (the critics) disapprove. This is no more distinctive a view than a preference for the views of one politician over another, and it is hardly good evidence for original insight into a radically new condition of contemporary society."(118)

"The idea here is that an awareness of the lack of foundations and the contingency of everything is a good thing. It would be more liberal because discussion of what is possible would be the less constrained, along with an awareness that one’s own position in such discussions is relative, in the sense that the opposition’s view may be as well founded. This is for Rorty a kind of existential irony. The ironist has doubts about the vocabulary he or she uses; others’ vocabularies also seem to work well. These doubts cannot be removed by any ‘final answer’ or foundational position; you can always doubt whether others have not seen more of reality than you can (with your vocabulary). Or in the artistic rather than the philosophical or political or moral spheres, we can say that there are lots of ways of making art, and no one privileged way of interpreting it. Indeed, philosophy should be a good deal more like literary or artistic criticism than it thinks it is. So the irony really consists in our never being able to take ourselves, or the vocabulary, or the theory, or the artistic genre we employ entirely seriously. We can no longer (in the postmodernist context) depend on big transcendental knock-down ideas or arguments; we have to rely on each other and on the justificatory outcomes of our local conversations with each other (which include the making of art). The criteria of success will be entirely pragmatic."(119)

"The claim to superior deconstructive insight depends on notions of truth; the idea that the self is socially constructed in all sorts of different ways does not seem to be able to destroy the idea that people are individuals who make up the unique narrative of their lives, or the idea that the legal rights of individuals need to be defended in the political context by reference to universal principles or ideals, for example those of equality before the law. The beliefs which lead to the public stoning to death of an ‘adulterous’ woman are not just to be shrugged off as a symptom of ‘the way they do things over there’ as opposed to ‘round here’. It looks as though postmodernist relativism, ironic or not, may really not be much more than a disguised plea for a pluralist tolerance, suitable to the very different kinds of personal, sexual, and ethnic positions which have come to so much prominence – in affluent societies at least – in the postmodernist period. Postmodernist thought has done a great deal to point out and to defend the differences of identity involved here. But they still, as a matter of fact, often lead to bitter conflicts, which need to be resolved by something better than postmodernist principles."(121)

"Tolerance is a principled willingness to put up with the expression and pursuit of beliefs that you know to be wrong, for the sake of some larger ideal, like freedom of inquiry or the autonomy of others in the construction of their own narrative or identity – provided, I would say, that they don’t harm others in the process. But no amount of tolerance or postmodernist scepticism should be allowed to conflict with the ideals expressed, for example, in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (disputable as some of them are) or the Geneva Convention."(122)

"In all the areas we have looked at, from philosophy through ethics to artistic activity, there are very vigorous alternative intellectual traditions outside those promoted by postmodernists, most notably the Anglo-American liberal tradition. I am thinking of authors like John Rawls, Joseph Raz, Michael Sandel, Stuart Hampshire, Amy Guttman, Martha Nussbaum, Will Kymlicka, John Gray, Ronald Dworkin, Brian Barry, and Michael Walzer. Richard Rorty seems to be the only Anglo-American philosopher known to most postmodernist theorists."(123)

"For example, many of the most influential writers, like Milan Kundera, Italo Calvino, Salman Rushdie, John Barth, Julian Barnes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Margaret Atwood, and Umberto Eco, who include in their work many of the concerns of the period, are far from being out-and-out postmodernists."(125)

"In this book, I have tried to give an account and a critique of postmodernism, because I believe that the period of its greatest influence is now over."(127)