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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.

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Discourse on Method
Discourse on Method by René Descartes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Traditionally, the term discourse was applied to any kind of serious treatise or homily that was used for educational or pastoral purposes. A good example of the older usage of discourse can be found in Rene Descartes’ Discourse on the Method (1637).¹

But with the rise of postmodernism, the idea of discourse underwent something of a revolution. Instead of representing the “last word” on a given topic, discourses now became socially relative truth claims. And rather than being perceived as originating from some great authority on high, to be received by a passive audience, the new idea of discourse is far more intersubjective. That is, in the grand scheme of things, one truth claim is about as good as another.

The poststructuralist thinker Michel Foucault popularized the idea of discourse as an essentially political utterance. The key for Foucault is that discourse (as relative instead of absolute truth) always occurs within a relational matrix of social power. For Foucault, a given discourse actually creates a specific truth. This truth is relative to the network from which it emerges. In postmodernism, which includes but also extends to thinkers other than Foucault, discourses may be vocal, written or gestural.

The Foucauldian understanding of discourse also includes institutionalized practices (e.g. the school system) or even architectural statements connoting a certain truth claim about a given group or society (e.g. 1 WTC, Burj Khalifa, CN Tower, Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, Taj Mahal).

In addition, Foucault maintains that different discourses may take similar forms. For instance, political and economic discourses of the 18th and 19th centuries embrace discursive styles reflecting the scientific belief in evolution.

Medication pills blister 2

Medication pills blister 2 (Photo credit: hitthatswitch)

In the 21st century, giving a discourse a scientific look and feel may enhance its social legitimacy, appeal to the masses, and therefore have real effects. This is perhaps most obvious in TV ads, where products are often endorsed by actors portraying scientists, doctors and nurses. Dressing up ads in the garb of science is one form of scientism.

Interestingly, some contend that all of science (and not just cheesy ads) is really just another kind of mythmaking. These critics argue that science is always biased at some level, has degrees of institutionalized corruption, and reflects some kind of culturally relative paradigm (way of seeing the world).

From this perspective, science is a kind of temporary fiction. Its method does generate practical and helpful results. But some argue that scientists should better recognize their limits and not make overblown truth claims based on the visible successes of the scientific method. After all, this method is, to put it simply, one that tests hypotheses. And any hypothesis is always subject to falsification—if not today, perhaps tomorrow. So technologies usually improve, as does our grasp of ourselves and the world around us.

Related Posts » Counter-Discourse, Poststructuralism

¹ This historical introduction is derived from David Macey’s The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory, 2000, pp. 100-101.

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Jacques Derrida

Elisabeth Roudinesco - Jacques Derrida

Elisabeth Roudinesco – Jacques Derrida (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was an influential French philosopher of language born in Algeria who taught at the Sorbonne and the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris.

Derrida and his followers suggest that the semiotic sense of denotation is, for the most part, chimerical and that everything is connotation.

Related Posts » Connotation, Denotation, Marx (Karl)

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An image of the deceased French philosopher Ja...

An image of the deceased French philosopher Jacques Derrida. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the general sense, denotation means representing by signs or symbols. In semiotics it means affixing a specific, fixed meaning to a sign, in contrast to connotation. Although some thinkers present this distinction as if it’s a recent development, it was first introduced by J. S. Mill in A System of Logic in 1843.¹

Jacques Derrida and his followers suggest that the semiotic sense of denotation is, for the most part, chimerical and that everything is connotation. From this, one may try to claim that “there is only connotation.” But this claim arguably creates a meta-truth or master denotation that may also endlessly self reference (i.e. be reapplied to itself) in an infinite series of connotation. So this kind of claim would be paradoxically true and false.

¹ See online at


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