Episode 3: Postmodernism / September 11, 2020

With Dr David Baker

Hosted by Hamish Stewart

Edited by Signe Emilie Eriksen

Posted in Main feed History of Philosophy

Have you ever wondered what Postmodernism is? A hugely influential movement during the second half of the 20th century, it has gone on to influence contemporary philosophy in countless ways. Today, David Baker, a Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC, talks us through what Postmodernist philosophy looked like, and the difficulties inherent in defining anything Postmodern. Hamish Stewart and guest host Max Forster join David in discussion.

In this episode we discuss Postmodernism, and its predecessor, Modernism. We talk about how Postmodernism was a reaction against the ‘meta-narratives' of much of philosophy before it. We also discuss how Postmodernism attempted to approach philosophy in a new, and “playful’ way. We finish by talking about Postmodernism’s detractors.

02:24 – When was the label ‘Postmodernism’ coined?
03:47 – What was Modernism?
10:58 – Understanding ‘play’ in Postmodernism
15:00 – Critiques of Postmodernism
15:48 – Comparing and contrasting Postmodernism and Post-structuralism

Further reading:

Kwame Anthony Appiah. (Winter, 1991).  "Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?". Critical Inquiry 17. 336-357.
Lyotard, Jean-François. (1979). “The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge”.


Hamish Stewart: Max, you’re a genius; I totally agree with everything you’ve said
Dr. David Baker: Everything!
Max Forster: I’ll take that specific piece of recording, and whenever I say something…
Dr. DB: I like it! You can make it like a ringtone on your phone.


Max Forster: Hello everyone, welcome to Thoughts. My name is Max Forster…

Hamish Stewart: …and I’m Hamish Stewart.

MF: Today on the show we have Dr. David Baker. He gained his PhD at John Hopkins University and after teaching for several years at the University of Hawaii, he’s now a distinguished Professor at the department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His work focuses on early modern literature and history, with an emphasis on Ireland as well as the digital humanities. Thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Dr. David Baker: I’m so glad to be here. Hi to both of you; I know Max from a class we had together and I’m really looking forward to this. Hi guys.

HS: Hi, yeah, thank you so much for coming on. Today we’re going to talk about a movement that was highly influential in both disciplines represented at our table, or our zoom conference, philosophy and literary studies – postmodernism, as well as its contemporaneous movement poststructuralism.

MF: Right, and uh, what I find remarkable about postmodernism is that on the one hand it really was influential, as you say Hamish, but on the other hand it is often reduced to platitudes and simply misunderstood. I was in class, with Professor Baker actually, and David you asked us what postmodernism was – we came up with answers like “nothing is objective” and “there are no absolute truths” et cetera, so I think the complexity of postmodernism goes unrecognised a lot of the times. A nice fact to illustrate this is that you can order deconstructed salads these days.

HS: What’s a deconstructed salad?

MF: Well, you get tomatoes, you get the lettuce, but you have to construct the salad yourself, so you get the ingredients but separately.

HS: I should probably also say at this juncture that I am going to be the equivalent of the people who were at the very start of his class saying that postmodernism is just relativity or something…that’s going to be where I’m coming from!

MF: Right, so David perhaps you can help us untangle the complex of postmodernism today.

Dr. DB: Yeah, um, postmodernism as a term was first floated by Francois Lyotard in a book called The Postmodern Condition, in a 1979 book. It’s a wonderful little slim little volume, I urge everyone to check it out. He famously described postmodernism as motivated by incredulity towards meta-narratives. In other words, big stories, and then a sense that the big stories had had their time and now needed to be interrogated. So, that is a working, sort of a useful starting point, but I mean, I think the reality is, Max, that there isn’t one movement that we can succinctly define as postmodernism. We’ve talked about this, I think it’s more likely that there are postmodernisms, plural. So, ah, you know, the postmodern movement extended from the 80s, 90s, maybe even into the end of the century was various, and it just played out in all sorts of cultural arenas. But for our purposes, for our purposes today, I think it’s helpful to think of the word itself: post-modernism. In order understand postmodernism is, you sort of have to get a sense of what modernism was. Because postmodernist thinkers very self-consciously oriented themselves towards what they thought of as a whole preceding era and, at least according to them, what distinguished modernism was really that it was an Enlightenment project, that it had a sense of objective reality that the objective reality was knowable, that there were stable selves, and especially that there were universal truths that, you know, transcended all various cultures. This is what Lyotard meant by meta-narrative, right, it was, modernism was a vast collection of meta-narratives. Postmodernism pretty much denied all of those premises but it didn’t think of itself as a dependent for modernism, it thought of itself as deeply influenced by modernism, engaged in the ongoing kind of project of trying to unthink or undo modernism. So it placed itself after modernism. So, I think that’s kind of a…just concentrating on the word and then adding an ‘s’ to the end of it is a pretty helpful way of sort of getting a sense of what postmodernism was. It was really, it was a mood almost, as well as a set of teachings. That’s probably an umbrella way to think of things.

MF: Thank you for that first introductory note, David. So we’ve heard that there are different postmodernism for different disciplines and that there are also different relations that postmodernism can have to modernism. Perhaps we can go back a little bit so that starting quote, David, can you tell us once more what are meta-narratives? Can you give us an example?

Dr. DB: Meta-narratives are these big, incoherent stories that the moderns told themselves. Typically they had a model of history built into them, they had a teleology, things were going in a certain direction. Um, I guess they were implicitly progressive, and they could, here again, you have a variety... What they meant by that could be a variety of things. In a French context, I think most French intellectuals thought of both Marx and Freud as the thinkers they were pushing off against. So, think of Marxism, think of Freudianism, those are both just big, wonderful explanatory machines. The postmodern attitude towards them was to find in the universalising narrative a whole set of sub-narratives that could be told, some of which were played out against modernism.

MF: You often hear that the sort of meta-narrative of the Enlightenment was one of reason, or the optimism that reason can explain everything, so it has universal value. So, um, what were these meta-narratives used for?

Dr. DB: So, as you know Kwame Appiah wrote an essay called Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial? And, in that he makes a number of really salient points, one of them which is that the way postmodernists understood modernism was it was inevitably a Western project. You don’t have to take too many leaps to get from the fact that the Enlightenment and its successor period modernism was a Western project, to remember that the West somewhat in the same period was engaged in imposing itself on most of the rest of the globe. Colonisers and such took with them Western ideals and Appiah argues that really what they were doing was creating kind of a unified, global capitalist space and that that was what, for the most part, in the last analysis modernism was. One of the things that postmodernism typically stresses is that the principles of the Enlightenment and of modernism could be used, uh, for instrumental purposes, and were, and so that for instance universalising principles were really the principles of Western man, properly so-called, and they were used to obliterate all sorts of counter-traditions, counter-realities, counter-knowledges. And that emphasis is still very much with us.

MF: So, meta-narrative of reason serves in part as a legitimising myth for colonialism?

Dr. DB: Exactly, it can. And it also does a lot of other things, of course. It drives the formation of most of the academic disciplines we have today. It generates what really counts as knowledge, and so on and so forth. It’s not a simple picture; you can use an instrument for various purposes, and sometimes claims towards reason were used to dispossess others.

HS: And I assume that postmodernists weren’t denying that there was a lot of truth in some of the elements of the meta-narratives in the modern period, but rather were just saying that the idea that you can get a meta-narrative that explains everything is unrealistic.

Dr. DB: Right. And that’s a really good point to make. This goes back to Max’s earlier comment which is what postmodernism and poststructuralism which we’ll eventually talk about has come to seem, is a kind of, I call it folk-postmodernism, kind of a sense of relativism and a sense that all perspectives are equal. That is not at all what the postmodernists, and/or the poststructuralists tended to claim. Exactly as you said, they were in this kind of tense, dependent relation on modernism. They weren’t trying to deny the authority of all meta-narratives, they were trying to inhabit the meta-narratives and show where the narratives broke down, what they excluded, what they’d been used for, as Max suggested. So, the history that they told themselves was not one of rupture where they simply, you know, were wrong or were right, it’s rather we see something built into the project that its original thinkers either didn’t or couldn’t see.

MF: I think Appiah put it nicely when he says “in each of these domains, there is an antecedent practice that laid claims to a certain exclusivity of insight and in each of them postmodernism is a name for the rejection of that exclusivity, a rejection that is almost always more playful, though not necessarily less serious”. And I think what this quote points out nicely is the fact that postmodernism is not strictly a rejection, it’s a rejection of a claim to exclusivity.

Dr. DB: Yeah, that claim is made on the behalf of an actual set of people who then say that modernism is ours and then not other peoples. Yeah, I think you hit on the important word in that quote. And they he goes on to point out that postmodernism is both playful and serious.

HS: This playful thing, what…what are they getting at there?

Dr. DB: There’s really two emphases built into the word play and one of them is the kind of sense of externally structural shifting, play in the sense…not of, you know, not as a fun pastime but a set of movements within, a set of constraints that then provide a shifting meaning. But in the spirit of much of poststructuralist work, one of the contrasts to modernism was that the postmodernists, they didn’t present themselves as the same serious mode that their predecessors did. So, they really liked wordplay, they liked language games, they wrote in a kind of discursive way – some of them, not others. Um, all of that was a linguistic practise that signalled close attention to play [indecipherable, 11.40]

MF: And perhaps they presented themselves in that more playful and less serious mode, not unserious but less serious mode, because that serious mode is automatically an exclusive mode, so to speak.

Dr. DB: Exactly right, and when you think about it the mode of seriousness that was sometimes characteristic of modern thinkers is implicitly a claim to authority, right? It’s continuous with the unspoken claim that you don’t have authority; I do. So, uh, by adopting a more playful mode the postmodernists were trying to both distance themselves from their predecessors and undercut the kind of authority that they had assumed for themselves. So that put postmodernists in a very kind of interesting relationship, you know, it was like, how do you playfully claim authority? Or when you’re playful are you totally trying to undercut the authority of the modernists?  Or are you just showing it up for the kind of game that actually is? Of course, you earn the right to show that by playing the game yourself. So postmodernists were steeped in the thinking of their predecessors but they used some of the same claims, or they reacted against those claims, for what they hoped were different purposes.

HS: Let me ask you this: so, once the postmodernists have made their argument that there can be no meta-narrative that is exclusive, and they’ve inhabited meta-narrative, where do they go next?

Dr. DB: So, um, when you think about it, if they were to say modernist claims were advanced as truth but in fact they’re false, they would be playing the modernist game. So they don’t want to do that. In fact, this is where play comes in. Instead of boxing themselves into a relationship of intellectual antagonism, they both take on board much of what modernists say and show that actually there’s a lot that the modernist claims don’t encompass, or as Max would remind us that the modernist claims have been advanced as instruments of power struggle. So, the question’s great, because how do you slide out of the mode that you’re trying to tell a counter-truth or how do you resist replacing one meta-narrative with another meta-narrative. So, typically what the poststructuralists did – so I’m talking about poststructuralists specifically now – was they built themselves a set of linguistic tools by which they could investigate the claims of their modernist predecessors but show that the claims themselves were unstable; that there were presuppositions that were being denied or that identities were being presumed and these identities were in fact relational, or something like that. What they did was, I mean it was really…you can see this as we’ll talk about what Derrida does with Levi Strauss at the Baltimore conference. They, uh, they found ways to make canon of modernist thought say or perhaps confess to the very kinds of anxieties that it had been designed to close down.

MF: I feel like what we haven’t talked about in Appiah, and I feel like we have to talk about it, is that he isn’t purely affirmative of postmodernism, right, he’s also critical of postmodernism. Postmodernism purports to be a rejection of modernism but for Appiah, in some sense, at least repeats the modern mistake.

Dr. DB: I think that is in fact what he’s implying. Remember the title of the essay is, it references postcolonialism. So I think what he’s trying to say is that at the time he was writing, in 1991, that the postmodernists had perhaps unwittingly reproduced some of the universalising and thus exclusive gestures of modernism itself.

HS: Yeah, I see. Now, before we finish, in part one we talked about postmodernism, and in part two we’re going to talk about poststructuralism and Derrida, but lets explain what the difference exactly is between postmodernism and poststructuralism.

Dr. DB: Right, they’re often run together. And it’s true that they were more unless contemporaneous. What we’ve been saying about postmodernism, it is true in broad strokes, but it’s really useful to focus on poststructuralists because they made up a more specific set of claims and there you can look at the ways in which their debates played out around, you know…actually, we’ve already said it’s hard to reduce the postmodernism/postmodernism debate to a set of engagements over true, but actually the poststructuralist did have a very distinct take on, as Derrida said, truth, presence, man, god, and so forth. The reason I think it’s maybe more productive to think about the poststructuralists is because they have a more specific intellectual lineage. They are descended, really I think, from the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, um, and they sort of weaponised his insights and use them against their intellectual predecessors who I guess were modernists, but now the focus or the zone of combat is more defined. Now it comes down to, what is, how is poststructuralism different from structuralism proper, instead of how is postmodernism different from modernism proper. And I guess one of the most famous venues for that was the conference that took place at John Hopkins University for the 18th to 21st of October 1966. And there, it was a kind of a grab bag of thinkers, but what came out of that conference would change the trajectory of much intellectual work, certainly in the United States and also in Europe. That’s where young Derrida first emerged, that’s where he got all kinds of pushback from older humanists and structuralists proper. Everyone at the time recognised that something had changed, and the fact what it changed in one way was a kind of playfulness – go back to Hamish’s point – that was exhilarating for some and intimidating for others. So, what happened there was that two intellectual traditions were suddenly juxtaposed with one another. On the one hand you had Anglo-American humanist scholarship, which, you know, was based on commo sense realism. On the other hand you had a continental and mostly French tradition of reading techniques and philosophical investigation. And when you put the two together, the combination was explosive. So what you really have is kind of, a sort of, an enforced cross-pollination of traditions of Anglo and Continental hermeneutics that have a lot in common and can be assimilated to one another, but nonetheless are so far from being identical that the encounter is sure to generate all kinds of conflict, resentment, angst, and so it proved.

HS: Wonderful, wonderful. Ok, ok, so, everybody, join us next time in the next episode where we talk about poststructuralism and in particular young Derrida, and then old Derrida, and then all the Derridas.

Dr. DB: And deconstruction.

MF: And deconstructed salads.

Dr. DB: Yeah, deconstructed salads!

HS: And deconstructed salads. In the meantime, thank you Max and David for joining me.

Dr. DB: Thank you, it was really great talking to you guys.


HS: Remember to follow us if you’re listening on Spotify, and remember to subscribe if you’re on Apple Podcasts.

Transcript written by Frances Darling