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Postmodernism – Not necessarily absurd or without wings

Inside My Secret Cloning Chamber

Inside My Secret Cloning Chamber: Stuck in Customs / Trey Ratcliff

The term postmodernism became popular in the 1970s and 80s but has roots reaching back through the centuries.

Social theorists usually try to define concepts through a key set of ideas and parameters. Postmodernism challenges conventional perceptions of “the definition” and few seem to clearly agree on its meaning. This is partly because postmoderns questions the very act of defining, labeling and signifying.

If postmodernism has a core idea, it might be that it paradoxically has no core idea upon which to stand. Some say that makes postmodernism absurd. But that stance seems intellectually childish.  Questioning something doesn’t render the process meaningless, as amorphous as outcomes may be. Truth isn’t always black and white and only conceptual control freaks reject uncertainty.

In one sense, postmodernism is a reaction against the kind of scientific certainty associated with the enlightenment and (some definitions of) modernism. It is also a reaction against the proclaimed truths and teachings of religion.

Garry Knight – Post-Modern Architecture – An example of the post-modern style of building seen increasingly along the Thames riverside via Flickr

With regard to scientific truth claims, postmoderns challenge the idea of natural laws that accurately predict future events. They also dispute the assumption that these laws don’t change over space and time. These challenges are especially prevalent in the social sciences but also crop up in physics.

In psychology, postmodernism questions the notion of a stable, unchanging and eternal aspect of the self, such as a soul. Perhaps the ironically enduring truth of many (but not all) postmoderns is the conviction that truth claims are relative to a given culture or subculture.

Michel Foucault, for instance, says power is the creative agency that generates social truth. For Foucault, power not only represses individuals and certain types of belief, knowledge and practice. Power also has the ability to create discourses of truth. These created truths bear tangible effects on persons and their bodies.

Because power constructs truth, postmoderns are concerned to “deconstruct” taken for granted truth claims that have consciously or unconsciously slipped into public use and practice.

By way of example, a few popular areas of deconstruction are notions of the natural, the sane, and social progress. What do we really mean by using these terms? Are we implying a social truth instead of an absolute truth? Who benefits from this dynamic? And who gets the short end of the stick?

In the arts, postmoderns combine different elements from various styles and genres. And the notion of the ‘fragment’ is accepted in postmodern art, literature and philosophy. A good example of valorizing the fragment is found in rap, hiphop and club music where digital tech easily reproduces and mixes past musical and non-musical samples within a new artistic production.

versionz – postmodernism via Flickr

The postmodern scene has become somewhat holistic, even spiritual, particularly with figures like Jacques Derrida who talks about a ‘metaphysical space’ between links in endless chains of connotation. Likewise, Stuart Hall‘s cross-cultural perspective points to new avenues of inquiry once closed off by critical theory.

Historia painting by Nikolaos Gyzis (1892)

Additionally, the contemporary discipline of postmodern theology shifts the meaning once again as to what it means to be postmodern.

Daniel J. Adams’ “Toward a Theological Understanding of Postmodernism” (Cross Currents, Winter 1997-98, Vol. 47 Issue 4 ) might be taking postmodernism in the opposite direction from which it came. Adams says postmodernism is restoring the sacred in an age turned off by religious dogma and yet ironically blinded by the new dogmas of scientific materialism.

These latest postmodern trends suggest that a responsible view of the individual in society integrates biological, psychological, social and spiritual factors. So postmodern thinkers may try to separate the spiritual from the cultural in any belief system, be it religious or nationalistic.

Funnily enough, I found from direct experience that even a basic Catholic RCIA course, geared toward the general public, deconstructed the cultural from the spiritual within the Bible. So to say that postmodernism kills spirituality or leads to absurdity simply shows the ignorance of those upholding that belief.

Postmodern theology combines the best of Pontius Pilate – “What is Truth?” – and Christ – “I am…the Truth” – as portrayed in the New Testament.¹ And because we live in an imperfect world with lots of spin, this just makes sense.

¹ John 18:38, John 14:6

Related » Discourse, Language, Karl Marx, Poststructuralism, Susan Sontag, The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (PDF)

Postmodernism – Wikipedia

Oct 10 2017  Highlights with LINER


Postmodernism describes a broad movement that developed in the mid- to late 20th century across philosophy, the arts, architecture and criticism which marked a departure from modernism.


The term postmodern was first used around the 1880s.


In 1921 and 1925, postmodernism had been used to describe new forms of art and music.


In 1949 the term was used to describe a dissatisfaction with modern architecture


In 1971, in a lecture delivered at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, Mel Bochner described “post-modernism” in art as having started with Jasper Johns


Post-structuralism resulted similarly to postmodernism by following a time of structuralism.


Martin Heidegger rejected the philosophical basis of the concepts of “subjectivity” and “objectivity” and asserted that similar grounding oppositions in logic ultimately refer to one another. Instead of resisting the admission of this paradox in the search for understanding, Heidegger requires that we embrace it through an active process of elucidation he called the “hermeneutic circle”.


Jacques Derrida re-examined the fundamentals of writing and its consequences on philosophy


Michel Foucault introduced concepts such as ‘discursive regime’


Jean-François Lyotard identified in The Postmodern Condition a crisis in the “discourses of the human sciences” latent in modernism but catapulted to the fore by the advent of the “computerized” or “telematic” era (see information revolution).


Richard Rorty argues in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature that contemporary analytic philosophy mistakenly imitates scientific methods.


Jean Baudrillard, in Simulacra and Simulation, introduced the concept that reality or the principle of “The Real” is short-circuited by the interchangeability of signs in an era whose communicative and semantic acts are dominated by electronic media and digital technologies.


One of the most well-known postmodernist concerns is “deconstruction,” a theory for philosophy, literary criticism, and textual analysis developed by Jacques Derrida. The notion of a “deconstructive” approach implies an analysis that questions the already evident understanding of a text in terms of presuppositions, ideological underpinnings, hierarchical values, and frames of reference.


Structuralism was a philosophical movement developed by French academics in the 1950s, partly in response to French Existentialism. It has been seen variously as an expression of Modernism, High modernism, or postmodernism[by whom?]. “Post-structuralists” were thinkers who moved away from the strict interpretations and applications of structuralist ideas.


The idea of Postmodernism in architecture began as a response to the perceived blandness and failed Utopianism of the Modern movement.


Postmodernism is a rejection of ‘totality’, of the notion that planning could be ‘comprehensive’, widely applied regardless of context, and rational. In this sense, Postmodernism is a rejection of its predecessor: Modernism.


Literary postmodernism was officially inaugurated in the United States with the first issue of boundary 2, subtitled “Journal of Postmodern Literature and Culture”, which appeared in 1972.


Jorge Luis Borges’ (1939) short story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, is often considered as predicting postmodernism


Samuel Beckett is sometimes seen as an important precursor and influence.


The postmodern impulse in classical music arose in the 1960s with the advent of musical minimalism.


Criticisms of postmodernism are intellectually diverse, including the assertions that postmodernism is meaningless and promotes obscurantism.


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Semiology (or Semiotics)

Dimitri dF discriminación

Semiology (or Semiotics) is the study of signs. The term was coined by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), and semiology was originally taken to be a science.

But more recent theorists in several disciplines have questioned the entire notion of the “scientific enterprise,” which some regard as just another sign.

Indeed, semiology includes or, one could say, branches off into postmodern deconstruction, an approach which questions the distinction between denotation and connotation, along with many other culturally implied truth claims, normative structures and practices.

Some argue that pioneering semiologists like Roland Barthes contained the seeds of what would become known as a postmodern approach.
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Funnily enough, Wikipedia on one page argues that

Semiotics (also called semiotic studies; [is] not to be confused with the Saussurean tradition called semiology which is a part of semiotics).”

But in the link to Ferdinand de Saussure Wikipedia combines the two:

“He is widely considered one of the fathers of 20th-century linguistics[4][5][6][7] and one of two major fathers (together with Charles Sanders Peirce) of semiotics/semiology.

Related » Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Signified, Signifier, Structuralism, Wittgenstein

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Auguste Comte

Auguste Comte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sociology is usually defined in terms of the scientific or systematic study of society, two notions that postmodern – and just serious – thinkers today openly question. In fact, a recent check at Wikipedia reveals that the word “academic” has been highlighted.¹ So we could say that sociology is the “academic” study of social institutions, tendencies, and how they fit together. But I think this also falls short because it tends to give a potentially undeserved legitimacy to sociology and sociologists, when really, it’s not always right to do so.

Many sociologists stress empirical methods but, on closer examination, the validity of these methods are usually open to debate and sometimes downright bogus. Others dive deep into their books, stressing that they want to do “content” studies instead of empirical work or theory. This is fine, but it’s hardly anything different than what any serious book lover would do. Just because a person gets a paycheck and retirement income for being a sociologist,  it doesn’t necessarily follow that their thinking is rational, integrated or helpful to society.

Another branch of sociology looks at what is called “theory;” that is, some kind of “critical,” “postmodern” and more recently, “digi-performative” or “digi-modern” theory. To be critical in the theoretical sense doesn’t necessarily mean to cut everything down. Ideally, it means to try to look at things behind their face value. To question, examine, in some cases intuit,² and to think. However, some academic, communist-leaning ideologues try to push their special agendas—but only as far, of course, as they can without losing their (big fat Capitalist) paychecks.

Modern Type & Sociology Books by liikennevalo

Modern Type & Sociology Books by liikennevalo

The sociologist Peter Berger was a pioneer in the theoretical approach to knowledge. Along with Thomas Luckmann , Berger contributed to a groundbreaking book called “The Social Construction of Reality” (1966). This has been hailed as one of the most important books in the Sociology of Knowledge. Before that, Berger wrote “Invitation to Sociology” (1963) which was still being used in universities when I did my undergrad in the 1980s. Berger argues for a multiplicity of perspectives and suggests that being a sociologist necessitates standing “outside,” to some degree, from the taken for granted truth claims within one’s culture. It’s like being an historian of the present.

An example of this idea would be questioning the latest dogmas about climate change. Now that Pope Francis is on board with that agenda, even more people will probably unquestioningly accept it. But that’s not doing sociology. It’s just mindlessly following the crowd.³

Historically, the term sociology is usually said to have been coined by Auguste Comte (1798-1857). But many others were thinking sociologically – examining social trends and truth claims – well before his time. In the New Testament story, we hear Pontius Pilate say “what is truth” (John 18:38) And this idea is elaborated on in the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar (1973):

Bronze prutah minted by Pontius Pilate. Revers...

Bronze prutah minted by Pontius Pilate. Reverse: Greek letters TIBEPIOY KAICAPOC (Tiberius Emperor) and date LIS (year 16 = AD 29/30) surrounding simpulum (libation ladle). Obverse: Greek letters IOYLIA KAICAPOC (Julia, i.e. Livia, the Emperor’s (mother)), three bound heads of barley, the outer two heads drooping. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pontius Pilate: Then you are a king.
Jesus: It’s you that say I am. I look for truth, and find that I get damned.
Pontius Pilate: And what is ‘truth’? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours? 4

Also, the ancient Greeks Plato and Aristotle, along with the ancient Chinese thinker, Confucius, asked what could be seen as essentially sociological questions.

¹ Always changing with the weather, Wikipedia provides good coverage of the main players in what is now understood as sociology »

² A leading figure here is Michael Polanyi »

³ See, for instance,


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Susan Sontag

taking a picture of a picture/of sontag: Susan NYC

taking a picture of a picture/of sontag by Susan Sermoneta via Fickr

Susan Sontag (1933-2004) was an American scholar, writer, playwright, filmmaker and human rights activist dedicated to freedom of expression in the arts.

Sontag did graduate work in philosophy, literature and theology at both Harvard and Oxford. Her thinking covers many topics and is both complex and subtle, sometimes taking a turn to postmodernism but never falling into any particular category.

In her non-fiction work Illness as Metaphor (1978) she argued, not unlike Michel Foucault, that contemporary ways of approaching and understanding illness are intricately linked to societal norms and biases. Wikipdedia outlines:

Illness as Metaphor is a nonfiction work written by Susan Sontag and published in 1978. She challenged the “blame the victim” mentality behind the language society often uses to describe diseases and those who suffer from them.

Drawing out the similarities between public perspectives on cancer (the paradigmatic disease of the 20th century before the appearance of AIDS), and tuberculosis (the symbolic illness of the 19th century), Sontag shows that both diseases were associated with personal psychological traits. In particular, she says that the metaphors and terms used to describe both syndromes lead to an association between repressed passion and the physical disease itself. She notes the peculiar reversal that “With the modern diseases (once TB, now cancer), the romantic idea that the disease expresses the character is invariably extended to assert that the character causes the disease–because it has not expressed itself. Passion moves inward, striking and blighting the deepest cellular recesses.”

Sontag says that the clearest and most truthful way of thinking about diseases is without recourse to metaphor… she makes sweeping claims that, while perhaps true to a first approximation, may go too far (Donoghue, 1978).

She believed that wrapping disease in metaphors discouraged, silenced, and shamed patients. Other writers have disagreed with her, saying that metaphors and other symbolic language help affected people form meaning out of their experiences (Clow, 2001).¹

Reluctantly realizing her same sex preference at the age of 15 years, Sontag had a romantic relationship with the photographer Annie Leibovitz, among other women.



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Jean A. Baudrillard

English: Jean Baudrillard in 2005

Jean Baudrillard in 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jean A Baudrillard (1929-2007) was a French postmodern theorist who has become popular within academia. Following thinkers like Marshal McLuhan and Roland Barthes, Baudrillard asks whether we can draw a precise line between media hype and reality.

In The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (French: 1991, English: 1995) he discusses the Gulf War as a “media event.” This was controversial at the time, mostly because it seemed to trivialize so many actual human deaths. But some argue that, despite the weird title, Baudrillard doesn’t mock the tragedy. His supporters say that he merely offers an opinion as to how the tragedy fits into the larger picture of global economics, media imagery and what Berger and Luckman called the social construction of reality.”

Over the years Baudrillard developed two central concepts to describe his views: the hyperreal and simulacra. The hyperreal comes from the presence of simulacra. Simulacra are linguistic signifiers totally divorced from their original meanings. Baudrillard argues that, over time, the original meanings of signs gets distorted, or in some cases submerged, only to visibly reemerge in different historical periods. With its reemergence a sign is transformed and takes on new meanings in its new cultural setting. So at some point, the process of signification loses its original meaning and we have simulacra of what were once signs.

Baudrillard sees this process as passing through three phases: First, signs correspond to reality. Sloppy clothing, for instance, once meant that someone was poor and of lower class. Second, signs become subject to industrial production. Photography, for instance, allows the same sign to be reproduced ad infinitum. Third, signs are cut off from the original context and meanings. Sloppy clothes worn by a wealthy rock star, for instance, take on a totally new cultural connotation. And the same “look” is quickly reproduced by industrialists hoping that impressionable teens will try to emulate a pop idol. Thus sloppy clothes are suddenly desirable within certain sectors of the population where previously they had been undesirable and avoided at all costs.

Cover image of International Journal of Baudri...

Cover image of International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, this example only goes so far because the wealthy have dressed sloppily on purpose for various effects in other historical periods. The difference for Baudrillard is the mass marketing aspect. And the hyperreal refers not just to a reversal of previous connotations but to an abolishment of a former reality. As such, the line between real and fantasy is blurred. Culture “implodes” because any thinking person fully realizes that what they see on the TV news, for instance, is similar to a carefully scripted movie, with a carefully coordinated set. And that which signs apparently represent is, by thinking people, taken with a grain of salt.

According to Baudrillard, the so-called “respectable” media  does the same thing as the vulgar, in your face tabloids. But respectable media does it far more subtly, combining fact and fantasy so smoothly that it’s nearly impossible to differentiate between the two.

The main problem with Baurdrillard’s work lies is his assumption that, at one time in the distant past, signs connoted fixed, uniform meanings. Anyone who reads history will find that different groups have always been in conflict over the meaning of signs, the biblical Golden Calf being one classic example. Also, different individuals within a given group would most likely have variously interpreted the meaning of such a sign. Also,politicians, teachers, and public speakers like the Sophists have always been mixing fact with fiction in order to appear legitimate.



Michel Foucault and Jean-Paul Sartre in a protest via Tumblr

The French philosopher and social historian Michel Foucault maintains that every social discourse contains one or more (small or large-p) politically generated truth claims. Foucault also believes that every discourse encounters a counter-discourse that challenges the original discourse’s legitimacy.

Foucault says that every discourse exists within a given body of social discourses. No truth claim is advanced in total isolation. So naturally, given the range of human opinion, every discourse meets resistance or challenge.

The idea of truth for Foucault is interesting. Instead of claiming to know or discern absolute truth (as religious leaders often do), Foucault suggests that truth is relative to power struggles in society, and to the discourses created within those struggles. So truth in a given area for Foucault often seems to be nothing more than the outcome of struggle among competing discourses. In short, social power produces, creates or, to employ Berger and Luckmann‘s sociological term, constructs notions of truth.

In 2009 A user at Yahoo! Answers, KeitHxS, asked what counter discourse means.

This might be dumb….but I’m working on some homework and it asks if there is any evidence of counter-discourse?

What exactly does counter discourse mean? Like an opposing view?¹

Most professors of semiotics would probably dislike this simple and clean idea of “opposing view.” But it does capture the essence of what counter-discourse means for Foucault. What it lacks, however, is the fullness of Foucault’s analysis of social discourse. On this, a fairly good summary can be found at Wikipedia:

In the humanities and in the social sciences, the term discourse describes a formal way of thinking that can be expressed through language, a social boundary that defines what can be said about a specific topic; as Judith Butler said, “the limits of acceptable speech”, the limits of possible truth.

Discourses are seen to affect our views on all things; it is not possible to avoid discourse. For example, two notably distinct discourses can be used about various guerrilla movements describing them either as “freedom fighters” or “terrorists“. In other words, the chosen discourse provides the vocabulary, expressions and perhaps also the style needed to communicate.

Discourses are embedded in different rhetorical genres and metagenres that constrain and enable them. That is language talking about language, for instance the American Psychiatric Association‘s DSMIV manual tells which terms have to be used in talking about mental health, thereby mediating meanings and dictating practices of the professionals of psychology and psychiatry.

Discourse is closely linked to different theories of power and state, at least as long as defining discourses is seen to mean defining reality itself. This conception of discourse is largely derived from the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault.²

Foucault via Tumblr

The above mentions the very different connotations arising from terms like “freedom fighters” and “terrorists.” Another example can be found in the recent suicide of Aaron Swartz. Instead of calling Swartz a “hacker,” which would be a discourse with mostly negative connotations, there seems to have been a quick and almost general agreement within the media to designate him as an “activist,”  a much softer and respectful term than “hacker.”

Foucault’s belief that social power creates relative notions of truth is reminiscent of the idea that ‘might is right’, an idea that goes back at least to Plato. In the Republic Thrasymachus argues that notions of justice are in the interests of the stronger, and often unjust. Foucault’s view, however, differs in its subtlety and complexity.

Moreover, Foucault seems indifferent to making value judgements, at least at the theoretical level, and more concerned to simply outline his view of “what is.” This ironically creates another social discourse (that of the privileged intellectual, salaried by the university) that can be challenged by any number of counter-discourses.

While some maintain that Foucault’s idea of counter-discourse aligns his thinking with the Hegelian dialectic, Foucault himself argues against such a comparison.³

To bypass the sticky debate as to just what Hegel meant by the dialectic, it does seem fair to say that Hegel’s view involves a teleology in which a World Spirit progresses through history. Foucault, however, does not envision a master plan of teleological unfolding as found in Hegelian thought. Instead, his poststructural perspective is discontinuous and largely open-ended.



³ For those interested in the Hegelian dialectic, this Wikipedia entry seems to clear up a lot of ambiguity created by many writers and professors. This ambiguity was reflected in our own 2008 entry, still visible at Yahoo! Answers. So funnily enough, one could argue that this 2013 entry is a counter-discourse to our 2008 entry.


Comparative Religion

Map showing the prevalence of Abrahamic (pink)...

Map showing the prevalence of Abrahamic (pink) and Dharmic religions (yellow) in each country. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Comparative Religion is the academic study of world religions to determine differences, similarities and points of equivalence.

Most scholars cite Max Müller (1823-1900), Sir E. B. Tylor (1832-1917) and Sir J. G. Frazer (1854-1941) as the most important figures in the birth of comparative religion. And some will also mention Joseph-Francois Lafitau (1681- 1746).

But this can be misleading because as far back as Xenophanes (6th century BCE) we find writers comparing different religions. Plato and Aristotle also discuss diverse worldviews. And, as S. G. F. Brandon points out, several lesser known ancient Greek and Latin writers realized the importance of discerning similarities among different religious beliefs.¹

A page from Majma-ul-Bahrain (a book on compar...

A page from Majma-ul-Bahrain (a book on comparative religion by Muhammad Dara Sikoh) in the manuscripts collection at the Portrait Gallery of Victoria memorial, Calcutta. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the 19th century scholars of comparative religion tended to believe that their work was objective. They also assumed that mankind evolved from primitive to advanced states of being. Moreover, Christian biases were often present. Ruldolf Otto (1869-1937) is often criticized in this regard.

More recently, far more subtle Christian biases can be found in the works of Mircea Eliade and C. G. Jung. Before the second Vatican Council Catholic theology studied other religions mostly to demonstrate their allegedly misguided or, worse, demonic status.

The notion of objectivity was challenged by poststructuralism in the 1960’s to 1990’s—that is, the very idea of scientific and (most forms of) absolute truth were questioned.² But this kind of thinking isn’t terribly new. It’s been present for centuries with figures like Friedrich Nietszche and Pontius Pilate.

Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” (John 18: 37-38).

Bronze prutah minted by Pontius Pilate. Revers...

Bronze prutah minted by Pontius Pilate. Reverse: Greek letters TIBEPIOY KAICAPOC (Tiberius Emperor) and date LIS (year 16 = AD 29/30) surrounding simpulum (libation ladle). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today the poststructural perspective has permeated religious studies. And a recent branch of ‘postmodern theology’ offers compelling arguments for the deconstruction of Biblical and related religious assumptions.

Meanwhile, comparative religion usually involves theory and methodology courses to grapple with issues of subjectivity and interpretation vs. objectivity and truth. And also, a sociologist might argue, to try to legitimize itself as a “scientific” enterprise, which usually increases eligibility for grants, funding, and the like.

Related Posts » Geertz (Clifford), Emic-Etic, Postmodern

¹ S. G. F. Brandon ed., Dictionary of Comparative Religion (1970: 202).

² Ironically, some second-rate historians still talk about historical records as if they “prove” (rather than suggest) this or that point of view.