Introduction to Western Philosophy (5): Postmodernism To µ-Modernism

 

ZZizzek

スラヴォイ·ジジェク

In Part One to Four of this series I discussed how the study of ancient to modern (Western) philosophy can be a long and challenging endeavour, with potentially hundreds of philosophers and ideas to mentally catalogue and contextualize. This, in general, has followed three lines of thought: metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology. In Part Five, my final post in the series, I will now outline the important Postmodern to µ-Modern thinkers (who write philosophy about philosophy), though some consider our current age to be “Post-Postmodern” rather than µ-Modern (“meta-modern”). As a bonus, I have included a little “essay” (rant) at the end about what I see are fundamental flaws in the concept of Neo-Liberalism. And, as always, I encourage you to explore the names and ideas that pop out at you, what you might want to learn more about. Plus, I have once again highlighted (in blue) the philosophers in whom I myself am particularly interested.

WHAT IS POSTMODERNISM?

Postmodernism is a tricky concept to define as a singular thing. In art, it has come to mean styles of creation after (circa) 1970 that often include multiple media and iconoclastic themes. In philosophy and politics however it refers to a number of different theories that revolve around the idea that (1) there is no one grand narrative that guides society and thus (2) there is no such thing as objective knowledge, as (3) knowledge is based in individual perception (observation changes what is being observed, and thus we can’t know a thing’s true nature). These particular Postmodernist ideas have been used in analysis and social critique, often in service of skepticism (and to some: cynicism): in the revelation of perceived and actual evils of media manipulation and commodity fetishism.

But the major opposition to philosophical/political Postmodernism is that, in the absence of any real truth or objectivity, Postmodernism itself can’t even make that very claim. If there is no truth and/or objectivity, then Postmodernism can’t be “true” either, and to be a Postmodernist thinker is inherently contradictory, ironic, or oxymoronic. Another criticism of such Postmodernism is that many leading Postmodern thinkers are/were Marxist-leaning and replaced the idea of truth/objectivity with a narrative of oppression. If there is no truth, then there is nothing to argue over, or even fight for: nothing one can do to know any truth, no truth = there is no action that leads to knowing truth. This also means that with no truth, there can be no value claims, and thus truth is a form of oppression: someone’s else’s “values” being prioritized and promoted at the expense of those who don’t share those “values”. Truth becomes oppression to those who don’t like it (a common criticism of certain social justice advocates made by Canadian psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson).

This is where Marxism and Postmodern iconoclasm seem to merge. If there is no truth yet others are promoting their “values” (truth) the only course of action is to tear down “oppressive” institutions.  To not believe the Postmodern “truth of no truth” means one must be inherently tyrannical, and Postmodernists become those oppressed by such tyranny.  Thus, defined this way, Postmodernism becomes ideologically and impenetrably anti-truth. 

The 21st century iteration of this “Postmodernism/Marxism/anti-truth” is considered by some to be active in social justice (“social justice warriors”) and Left Wing/progressive politics, e.g. in the debate over whether expanded gender pronoun usage should be mandatory. Key to this argument are the views that (1) to refuse to use gender pronouns preferred by transgender people is hate speech, and alternately (2) that to be forced to use such pronouns is a loss of free speech and an Orwellian attempt at social control. As humans are biologically (genetically) male, female or hermaphroditic at birth, but neuro-psychologically malleable in gender/sexual identity, this debate presents an interesting challenge as various societies become more or less accepting of such issues and ideas.

(Note: It should also be mentioned that Postmodernist writing includes very important work by (1) many female philosophers, who have helped move society much closer to gender equality than previous generations, and (2) led to non-traditional Meta-Modern philosophical thinkers such as Henry Oruka. Thus, Anti-Postmodernists not acknowledging this positive advancement could be seen as hypocritical).

LATE MODERNISM TO POSTMODERNISM

Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924 – 1998): “Knowledge is produced to be sold” (commercialization of research, justification for tuition). The Post-Modern Condition: when knowledge becomes data, then it is not of the mind but rather a commodity that can be bought and sold. This is because computer technology has changed knowledge into information, owned by corporations and stored in databanks; judged by its commercial value rather than how true it is (the mercantilization of knowledge). Also inherent in this effect is how knowledge is becoming externalized from human minds, something we don’t have or have the ability to think (e.g. needing a calculator to do simple addition), thus facilitating the commodification of learning as well. In terms of philosophy we stop asking if a thing is true, instead asking if a thing can be sold; if it has commercial value.

Lyotard also suggested that if this trend continued, private corporations may seek to control the flow of knowledge and who can access it, a prescient observation made before the global reach of the Internet.

(Note: though Lyotard did not coin it, his frequent use of the word “Postmodern” led to its current status as an era defining term, thus making him the first recognizably Postmodern philosopher. His definition of the word: an incredulity towards the idea of all of human history and though being summed up in a single concept or word (ironically, like “Postmodernism”!) though, is much different than current definitions, especially the more negative ones).

Deleuze (1925 – 1985): Post-Structuralism: there is no possibility of a truly scientific study of Man, and Man is not moving from superstition to reason and knowledge as a condition of his being. (Related to dialectical materialism – Mankind gets knowledge, which becomes a “property” of the upper classes through privileged education). Difference and Repetition: Things that are governed by natural laws to happen in cycles/constantly are “generalities”. “Repetitions” in human culture are unique in that they are never exactly the same as the thing being repeated, and are often transgressive (humor and irony distance themselves from norms and laws while conforming to their own norms and laws of comedy).

Frantz Fanon (1925-1961): Afro-Caribbean philosopher and psychiatrist. His work Black Skin, White Masks (1952) studied the legacy (psycho-social effect) of colonialism on non-Caucasian peoples. In the case of black people, being black became synonymous with being inferior, and to escape this inferiority one had to essentially reject their blackness and adopt the cultural standards of the colonial presence, which meant aspiring to “white existence”. Thus Fanon stated that eventually “for the black man there us only one destiny, and it is white”. In his own life he was chastised as a child for speaking Creole French rather than “proper” (white) French, which influenced his thinking on how language usage also plays a role in colonial subordination. Fanon was also a major influence on Edward Saïd and his work on colonial orientalism.

Noam Chomsky (1928-): Linguist and philosopher. “If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion.” Manufacturing Consent: Our desire for and/or consent to social policy (and free-market capitalism) is covertly manufactured and marketed to us via the media by government and corporations.

Baudrillard (1929 – 2007): Meaning and/or value are created through difference: “dog” is known in part through “not a cat.” An excess of signs and meaning in the late 20th century have produced a hyper-reality – thus humanity has replaced reality and meaning with mere signs and symbols; human experience is now a simulation of Reality.

Jürgen Habermas (1929-): Communicative Rationality: human rationality is a result of successful communication. Formal Pragmatics: “what are the necessary conditions for reaching an understanding through communication?”

Guattari (1930 – 1992): Collaborator of Deleuze. A Thousand Plateaus: “Agencement” – the shifting relations that expressive qualities, or matters of expression, enter into with one another, “expressing the relation of the territory they draw to the inner milieu of impulses and the exterior milieu of circumstances.”

Bourdieu (1930 – 2002): Distinction – critique of Kant: social class inculcates aesthetic values in its young, and reinforces class divisions with said aesthetic notions.

Derrida (1930 – 2004): Deconstructionism – revealing the inherent disruptions and contradictions of language. The Truth in Painting – the Kantian parergon is problematic.

Rorty (1931 – 2007): Neo-Pragmatism: Universal truth and epistemic objectivity are not possible: scientific and philosophical vocabularies are useful but contingent.

Thomas Wolfe (1931): Author and journalist – influence on the (increasingly subjective) New Journalism movement in the 1960s/70s. Author of Bonfire Of The Vanities, and The Painted Word – a (brilliant) criticism of 70s modern art that posited art was now merely illustration of the art theories of critics such as Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, and Leo Steinberg, men whom he called the “Kings Of Cultureburg.” The 70s art world was now merely an insular clique of wealthy collectors and critics with undue influence over museums and said wealthy collectors – art was not visual anymore, rather just part of a social clique given to grand theories and belles-lettres.

Edward Saïd (1935 – 2003): Palestinian writer. “Every empire tells itself that it is unlike all other empires.” Orientalism: Imperialist ideology was embedded in early writing on the East, and is still present in subtler forms.

Luce Irigaray (1932): Belgian philosopher/feminist. All language is essentially masculine in nature, as male philosophers have set the supposedly “universal” standards for philosophy, especially in regard to rectitude (honor, integrity, etc.). Historically, femininity have been presented as irrational (hysterical) while masculinity is inherently rational (sober, intellectual). Irigaray responds to this, in part, through the idea of Mimesis: a process in which women subvert misogynist stereotypes about woman by purposely behaving in exaggerated versions of these stereotypes, demonstrating the inherent and irrational nature of such ideas.

Hélène Cixous (1937): French poet/philosopher. As language is often presented as opposing concepts: dark/light, good/bad, peace/war, etc, masculinity tends to be associates with the better or more preferred (superior) of the two (e.g. rational/irrational). Cixous’ ideas inspired the creation of the French écriture féminine “feminine writing” movement (also known as “white ink” writing). Cixous also raised the issue of the logic of “AntiLove” and how women come to hate themselves/their bodies through a kind of anti-narcissism created in them by unconsciously adapting sexist/patriarchal narratives in society.

Thomas Nagel (1937): American philosopher. In What Is It Like To Be A Bat? Nagel argues that science, in trying to explain consciousness in terms of the parts of the brain (materialism), cannot explain what it feels like to be a thing, what life is like for a bat, as a bat’s consciousness and personal (subjective) experience of the world can’t be explained by physics, neurology, or other physical things. The objective experience of the world he calls the “view from nowhere”: something a being can have anytime putting their own experience and bias’ aside. This ability is one of the remarkable aspects of the human mind, and if the two are reconciled, we can have a complete understanding of the world.

Julia Kristeva (1941): Bulgarian philosopher/feminist. Feminism has arisen out of the conflict between women and male-dominated structures. Because of this, many core feminist beliefs are in danger of replicating the “power principle” of male domination, thus making feminism just another form of unquestioned, uncritical domination; the very thing it supposedly is freeing women from.

Slavoj Žižek (1949): Slovenian philosopher. “All the best Marxist analyses are always analyses of a failure”. Those on the political Left are always dwelling on their failure as if, had they gone ahead, would have led to Utopia. Such failures allow the left to maintain moral myths about their position without ever having to actually wield (responsible) power or have their ideas tested through action ergo they create endless justifications for their Utopia’s elusiveness. Žižek calls this the “comfortable position of resistance” and many political critics consider this phenomenon to be occurring in the Democratic party (especially after the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States in 2016).

µMODERNISM (MetaModernism)

Metamodernism: a term introduced in the Journal of Aesthetics And Culture (Vol. 2: 2010) by Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin Van Den Akker. µ-modernism (my spelling) is an oscillating middle ground between Modern and Postmodern ideas, e.g. yearning for objective truth and relativism, hope and doubt, etc. Marked by hope and sincerity in the face of cynicism. Such techniques as Postmodern parataxis (seemingly unrelated elements set side by side, e.g. Dadaist collage) are now abandoned in favour of metaxis – a position between said elements.

Mary Midgley (1919): English moral philosopher. Her work explores the relationship between the idea of culture and nature: that humans “make” culture as naturally as birds make nests. Thus, evolutionary biology does not undermine what it means to be human rational, creative, spiritual, etc.), thus humans can be simultaneously unique and evolved from apes. Midgley is also notable for (1) her stance against scientism, the idea that science or scientific thinking is the sole method of all truth and human valuation, and (2) her view that the evils of religion or religious thinking are not exclusive to religion, but rather are always present in human affairs of all sorts.

Henry Odera Oruka (1944 – 1995): Kenyan philosopher. His work Sage Philosophy raised the issue of philosophy being a written tradition, while many other (oral) cultures considered their wise men (sages”) to be saying similarly important things: approaching the traditions of their culture systematically and critically.. Thus, many of these men and women (in sub-Saharan Africa) showed “philosophical sagacity” and should be considered as philosophical thinkers. Oruka’s work is an excellent example of µ-Modern thought‘s power to reinvigorate philosophy. 

Mikhail Epstein (1950): Interested in creating new areas of study such as Void Theory – the theory of voids, i.e. “empty” forms, holes, literary lacunae, grids, etc. Potentiation: the exploration and creation of new, previously unexplored forms (potentials) out of older analytical forms. A proponent of Postconceptualism a.k.a. the New Sincerity (Russian: новая искренность – novaia iskrennost) – the return of sincerity, enthusiasm, and sentiment in aesthetics, literature, music, etc, and the rejection of the irony and cynicism found in Postmodernism.

Alan Kirby: Postmodernism emphasizes the elusiveness of meaning and knowledge, and culture as spectacle on display before the powerless individual. The new age of 21st century philosophy started as Pseudo-Modern: a viewer is involved in the invention and direction of a program, text, or ‘work’ e.g. viewers voting on American Idol stars. The raw “material” is supplied by the network, the audience decides its “meaning.” The Internet is the epitome of Pseudo-Modernism: the individual clicks their way through the raw material, creating a “path” of meaning through cultural products – creating the sense (or illusion?) that the ‘clicker’ is in control of and managing such products. Much of this behaviour is vacuous and superficial; possibly emblematic of Pseudo-Modernism’s vacuity, “creating” nothing more than ignorance and fanaticism as its intellectual contribution. Pseudo-Modernism is now better described as an aspect of Digimodernism: the combination and enmeshing of new concepts of time and space – the intersection of real time and cyberspace.

Naomi Klein (1970): Canadian social activist/filmmaker. Though not a traditional philosopher, Klein, like Marx or Chomsky before her, is an important socio-political thinker who addresses the state of economies: in particular how global corporatism and predatory capitalism is affecting humanity (turning socially conscious citizens into mindless consumers). Thus Klein’s work is a continuation (and revitalization) of Lyotard’s idea of “mercantile knowledge”.

One such threat to humanity is know as Neo-Liberalism, what could be loosely defined as the monetization of human activity: the idea that individuals (and humanity) are best served by being treated like parts in an economic engine. This ideal is heavily criticized in academia, as profit has begun to increasingly dictate the policies of higher education at the educational and economic expense of the professors and students: essentially converting them into economic slaves.

For exampleKlein’s most famous work No Logo discusses how various corporations have branded educational items or made deals with educational institutions to effective advertise themselves as part of student life. I personally witnessed such a phenomenon such example while visiting a particular Canadian university that had made an exclusive deal with a brand of soda: a deal which specified not selling any other brand on campus. Thus, this soda company was synonymous with student life, the only such company on campus and only their products on display. Thus, no matter how diverse the product lines were, only a single company was visible and/or profited from all sodas and bottled water sales on campus, with no input from students, if they were even aware of such a thing occurring before their eyes.

Another example is the failure to replace retiring full time (tenured) professors with several part time adjunct teachers, most often Masters and PhD students who work more hours for significantly less income. Thus, instead of paying a tenured professor an income usually in the 90,000 to 120,000 dollar a year range for their services, a university will hire an adjunct teacher to teach each individual class for a mere 2,000 to 3,000 dollars a semester, hiring one teacher for one class, with an additional Teaching Assistant (inevitably Masters and PhD students) or hired to assist the teacher in grading and class management (themselves making usually $1500 a semester for all their work). This means the university is now “profiting” from significantly lower salaries while increasing enrollment for further profit. By doing so, this also means that the Masters/PhD students (TAs), adjunct teachers, full time professors have excessive amounts of work, significant stress, and have less time to devote to lesson preparation or study. Thus emotional and physical “burn out” occurs more frequently among professors, leading to more adjunct positions and more profit for the university: an vicious cycle predesigned by Neo-Liberal policy to profit from these phenomena. And, as there is now significant amounts of employee turn-over, fighting for increased salaries and better working conditions is an ongoing struggle for professors and students, a situation universities can exploit to their advantage.

I have personally witnessed this sort of thing in the Canadian province of Ontario when a personal friend of mine was enrolled in her PhD program at a major university. The Ontario government, in an effort to stop Ontarian graduate students from seeking employment elsewhere outside of Ontario or Canada (a.k.a “brain drain”), institute a policy wherein her university was required to significantly the amount of Masters and PhD students. The reasoning was that if there were more graduate students, it was more “statistically likely” that more of them would stay in Ontario. In her case, the number of PhD students alone in her department increased from 20 to 50 in a single year! This meant that the professors in the department had a 150% increase in workload when it came to advising and organizing the progress of their PhD students. Another 20 Masters students were added to the 10 already in the program that year which added an extra 200% increase in workload for the professors as they advised both PhD and Masters students during a given academic year (8 months).

As this was occurring, her department was considering removing the language requirement from Masters students in an effort to streamline the student’s education in order to graduate them at a quicker rate: getting more students in and out quicker (with less knowledge and skill) meaning more “profits” from tuition. This idea of getting rid of the requirement to learn a language related to one’s research, as a positive economic act, is horrendous, as such language study is fundamental to graduate education: fundamental to doing any meaningful work in university, or especially, outside of it. Imagine studying Korean literature with the goal of becoming an expert on Korean culture… and not being able to understand, speak, or translate a single word of Korean. What is also lost is the irreplaceable, rich life experience of foreign language context: learning how others think and becoming more sensitive to the actual feelings and needs of global citizens through their own native tongues, a context which fosters unity and understanding. This is lost by being a monolingual “academic” in a world that is increasingly bi- and trilingual.

The most extreme example of such thinking though is occurring at a major American university. During a visit to this institution, I learnt that it has enough money in reserve alone to cover its full salary/scholarship/operating costs for the next 80 years(!!), even as it increases its (exorbitant) tuition, and bonuses for its executive employees thanks to its reputation as a world class institution. The school could offer free tuition for all for 70 years and still be completely secure financially.

This anti-educational, pro-profit activity is the perfect exemplar of the potentially pernicious effect of NeoLIberalism as an educational phenomenon.

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