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Postmodernism, Post Structuralism and ‘Enlightenment’

by Geoff Wade

“Nothing comes from nothing – speak again” (King Lear)

The starting point for this article is a piece of writing by Jane Flax. Although she engages primarily with issues of feminist philosophy and postmodernism, she deals too with problems which give rise to wider implications, particularly in her ‘deconstructivist’ claims that all knowledge is perspectival; that there is not one authentic reality, but diverse and culturally determined ‘ways of seeing’; and that ‘meaning’ is always unstable, i.e. it is always ‘on the move’, as there obtains, ineluctably, a slippage between ‘signifier’, ‘signified’ and ‘referent’ (crudely: word, idea and object or action referred to). After considering Flax’s theses, I shall concentrate briefly on the aesthetics of postmodernism, looking critically at Linda Hutcheon’s book A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988).

It must be noted here that Jane Flax has shifted her position on these issues quite considerably; but I feel sure that she will accept my criticisms in the academic spirit in which they are intended.


Flax asserts that “feminist theory and postmodern philosophy […] are partially constituted by Enlightenment beliefs”, but in such a way as to: “offer ideas and insights that are only possible because of the breakdown of Enlightenment beliefs under the pressure of events such as the invention of the atomic bomb, the holocaust, and the war in Vietnam”. She goes on to list what she sees as ‘beliefs still prevalent’ which ‘postmodern philosophers seek to throw into radical doubt’. Briefly outlined these are “The existence of a stable coherent self […]”; that “Reason […] can provide an objective, reliable and universal foundation for knowledge”; that our only guarantee of freedom is to fall in line with ‘reasonable’ edicts; and that “language is somehow transparent”.

I share her suspicion of these precepts, and accept a case for ‘radical doubt’; but Flax’s real mission is to abandon them wholesale; and this can result in some daunting difficulties. As Daryl Tress complains (Signs, Autumn 1988), Flax only seems to see two theoretical positions: Enlightenment or postmodernism. Tress notes that this is despite the fact that when it comes to gender differentiation, “Flax warns us about the errors bred by binary oppositions” (indeed, as we shall see, Flax seems to take delight in ignoring her own cautionary tales). In the same issue of Signs, Flax argues that “scholars disagree, for example, on whether Rousseau is an Enlightenment or anti-Enlightenment philosopher”, and she admits that there are complex variations within postmodernism. But as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer have spelled out (1979 passim) the Enlightenment is dialectical: Kant and De Sade; Marx and Mill; Nietzsche and Dr.Johnson; Wollstonecraft and Rousseau, were all part of the same Enlightenment, which has its developing history (starting in Homeric Greece, Adorno claims), and its ‘light’ and ‘dark’ sides; it is both liberation and oppression. Surely then we need to sift the oppositions and transitory unities of Enlightenment theory and dynamic, to – as Susan Bordo insists – ask certain questions of ‘Reason, Truth, Human nature, History, Tradition’, for instance: “Whose truth? Whose nature? Whose version of history? […] Whose tradition?”. Flax, on the other hand, is priming us to throw out the baby with the bath-water. As Adorno so eloquently phrases it, “The task […] is not the conservation of the past, but the redemption of the hopes of the past” (op.cit. p.xv); and as Sabina Lovibond comments sharply:

[Postmodernism…] sometimes wins a trick by appealing to the role of immediate feeling in subverting the psychic order. […] But if feminism disowns altogether the impulse to ‘enlighten’, it will be at a loss to speak the wish to make these possibilities real. [Nov./Dec. 1989]

Is not though, the impulse to ‘enlighten’ an impulse to disclose the effects of ‘false consciousness’, and replace it with a higher truth? Now ‘false consciousness’ (which can be roughly described here as collaborating in our own oppression/exploitation as a consequence of being imbued with the ideology of the ruling class or sex; or, feeling contented as a worker or housewife when really you should feel thoroughly alienated, awaiting a signal to mount the barricades) has of late been having a rather bad press, even (and sometimes especially) in leftish sorts of circles. The dilemma seems to be the perceived elitist overtones, i.e. ‘correct’ knowledge residing in the heads of the Party cadre (though elitism, as a charge, often appears to be a fashionable device for refuting something one may disagree with, or cannot take the trouble to learn about properly; it can be used deviously to assert the importance, say, of Coronation Street over Hamlet or Mother Courage). Crucially, Lovibond (op. cit.) writes:

To reject ‘false consciousness’ is to take a large step towards abandoning the politics of Enlightenment modernism. For it means rejecting the view that personal autonomy is to be reached by way of a progressive transcendence of earlier, less adequate cognitive structures: in our case, the transcendence of less adequate levels of insight into the operation of male power.

Nonetheless, Jane Flax finds the notion of false consciousness distasteful; she does though observe that “a fundamental transformation in social theory has occurred. The single most important advance in feminist theory is that the existence of gender relations has been problematized. Gender can no longer be treated as a simple natural fact.” (with which I agree) and that

‘Gender relations’ is a category meant to capture a complex set of social processes. That is, gender relations are complex and unstable processes (or temporary totalities in the language of dialectics) constituted by and through interrelated parts. These parts are interdependent, that is, they can have no meaning or existence without the others. [ibid. pp. 43/4 ]

But (and this is still thematically connected to the notion of ‘false consciousness’ ) her targets seem to be socialists in general, and marxists in particular – she writes:

Marxists (including socialist feminists) uncritically apply the categories of Marx derived from his description of a particular form of the production of commodities to all areas of human life, at all historical periods. Socialist feminists replicate this privileging of production, and the division of labour, with concomitant assumptions concerning the centrality of labour itself. Labour is still seen as the essence of history.

Agreed, marxists see the forces and relations of production as seminal features of human existence: we have to clothe, feed and house ourselves before we can paint murals or compose erudite articles on feminism and deconstruction; we need to produce and reproduce ourselves. However, I cannot, off hand, bring to mind any marxists who designate commodity production as the most important feature of “all areas of life at all historical periods”, though today one can hardly deny that all areas of life world-wide are in some way affected by commodity production, and it thus partly determines all present human perception and consciousness; and emphatically, in postmodern societies, all aspects of life are directed by commodity production, circulation and consumption, be it eating, motoring, sexuality or taking holiday snap-shots; further, due to the ubiquitous nature of trans-national capitalism, the ‘knock-on’ effect is, by definition, global. Postmodern art (or much of it) is synonymous with ‘entertainment’ and advertising; ‘feminity’ is the off-spring of spectacular advertising. There is a strong sense in which Flax wants feminism to be socially anchored, but she wilfully pulls adrift from the means to secure that anchorage; she even warns of the dangers herself before slackening her grip on materiality:

It is […] appealing, for those who have been excluded, to believe that reason will triumph […]. If there is no objective basis for distinguishing between true and false beliefs, then it seems that power alone will determine the outcome of competing truth claims. This is a frightening prospect for those who lack (or are oppressed by) the power of others. [p.42]

Feminism has for some years sedulously developed critiques of universality, insisting on cognizance as in some way ‘perspectival’; but Flax ignores her own warnings and pushes this to the point where no one set of theories or beliefs may be overridingly valid; now this can at first appear innocent enough, but ought the black South African workers respect the views of their oppressors and exploiters as they do their own? and where can subjected voices be heard without a wholesale and ruthless reorganization of informational centres? Indeed in a relativist world there are no recognizable subjects to emancipate! Unless we can verify ‘meaning’, then both struggle and intellectual deliberations become irrelevant; to restrain injustice, we must insist on a measure of shared meaning, the power of Reason (which I admit can itself be both liberatory and oppressive; and that judgement can be both fought for and negotiated; in this sense it is ‘perspectival’); Susan Bordo enquires acidly “how the human knower is to negotiate this infinitely perspectival, destabilised world […] where deconstruction may slip into its own fantasy of escape from human locatedness”; politics for postmodernists must be unknowable, the Greenham Common women, despite what they thought they were getting up to, were engaged in nothing in particular! There is a failure on the part of postmodernist theory to explain how challenges can be made and met.

In the list of objections to Enlightenment thought listed above, Flax is repudiating the notion of the ‘transparency’ of language, in that she maintains that a word does not consistently ‘fit’ a particular ‘thing’ or action; now this is all very well, but as Christopher Hampton asserts:

[…] language is part of the struggle that has to be joined if there is to be any hope of challenging the operative powers and their maintenance of an oppressive superstructure […] and this struggle is going to have to be recognized as a struggle against materially organized and systematically constructed (produced) orders of power. [1990 p.17]

To view language as an indefinite ‘play of meaning’, on the other hand, is as idealist, fatalistic, repressive and pessimistic, as to see ‘meaning’ as eternally locked into static words. Language does not dominate us metaphysically (even though it always appears to be anterior however far back we go); it is an organized process of power struggles; and a challenge to authority can only realistically be made by organized disciplined and collective action, with a sense of priority; but in much postmodern/structuralist theory, the equipment required to interpret anything at all has been dismantled; postmodernism is railing at a system devoid of definition; though somehow, as Fredric Jameson insists, “a system that constitutively produces differences, [still] remains a system” (July 1989); and of the oppositional arguments that I have weighed against postmodernism, he rightly comments that they cannot “be expected to hold much attraction for people uninterested in seizing control of their own destinies [!]” (ibid).

To some extent post-structuralism is mischievous and subversive; and one of its major weapons is the much vaunted ‘parody’; Linda Hutcheon writes:

Parody appears to have become […] the mode of […] the ‘ex-centric’ […that is to say] those who are marginalized by a dominant ideology […] – black, ethnic, gay and feminist artists – trying to come to terms with […] the still predominantly white, heterosexual, male culture in which they find themselves. [1988 p.35]

She asserts that “institutions have come under scrutiny: from the media to the university; from museums to theatres” (ibid. p.9); and that, “Parodic self-reflectiveness paradoxically leads here to the possibility of a literature which, while asserting its autonomy as art, also manages simultaneously to investigate its intricate and intimate relations with the social world in which it is written and read.” But Hutcheon unwittingly creates several problems for herself; firstly she elsewhere denies any autonomous function for literature; secondly, she celebrates the fact that (as she sees it) postmodernism “refuses the referent, or real historical world”, replacing it with parody, arguing that “Postmodernism’s ironic recall of history is a perfect form in some senses, for it paradoxically both incorporates and challenges that which it incorporates”; history is reduced to texts about texts; knowledge is no more than empiricist observations and sensations. How then, we might fairly ask, can postmodernism parody something (phenomena) whose very intrinsic qualities are unassured? and which of its variant perspectives are being parodied? The marginalization of ‘ex-centrics’ is not the outcome of textuality; and their demarginalization will not be realized by removing historical referents and replacing them with the celebratory dances of Derrida et al. Oppression and exploitation are the outcome of historical action.

And if we are searching and researching, via numerous and perhaps contradictory texts, we must generally do two things: firstly we determine partly the relations between texts, through an analysis of the conditions of the texts’ production, and the ideological formations obtaining vis à vis the given time and place; secondly, we study the reading formations, and the connections between writers and intended readership. Only then can we attempt to alter the writing by theoretically shuffling socially dominant reading formations. Crucially, besides an analysis of the conditions of the texts’ conditions of production, the wider sphere of the relations and forces of production must be studied; and here, we generally have more material than simply textuality; we have machinery and artifacts; and depending on the period studied, we have that personal experience,which is so important to Hutcheon and Flax et al, to draw on. Unless we are to accept a certain degree of validity in research, the horrifying result can be, as with one French fascist, that the Nazi concentration camps become a mere ‘detail’ of Hitler’s Europe. Parody then, or irresponsible reassimilation, becomes a pastiche of floating speculation; as Jameson forcefully comments, it is the “alarming and pathological symptom of a society that has become incapable of dealing with time and history”; a society wherein “we seem condemned to seek the historical past through our own popimages […] about the past, which itself remains forever out of sight” (Jameson [ed.Kaplan] 1988, p.20).

Now I have said that postmodernism is protesting at an indefinable system, or one it cannot define, by virtue of its own terms of nonreference; and I have noted the infatuation with commodity advertising. The embarrassment for postmodernism is, I think, the fact that it is itself an integral part of commodity production, commodity circulation and commodity culture; thus postmodernism is both function and product, being inextricably bound up in a merry-go-round of ever-returning aestheticized saleable products; ergo not only is ‘parody’, as the main weapon in the postmodern subversive armoury, rather feeble. it is doubtful if it can even exist: as Terry Eagleton points out, “there is nothing there to be reflected, no reality that is not itself already image, spectacle, simulacrum, gratuitous fiction. […] If the unreality of the artistic image mirrors the unreality of its society as a whole” then we are left with no definable image, but merely a “form of commodity fetishism that is the order of the day” (Eagleton [ed. Lodge] 1988, p.387). Now parody may have been one of the strengths of the avant-garde and modernism (and early postmodernism, if that is how we nominate, for example, Beckett), but: “postmodernism […] mimes the formal resolution of art and social life attempted by the avant-garde, while remorselessly emptying it of political content; Mayakovsky’s poetry readings in the factory yard become Warhol’s […] soup cans.” [Eagleton (ed. Lodge) p.386] Now this is crucial to the position of the estranged ‘ex-centrics’, because having now disposed of rational belief and parody, what is left? Not alienation – Eagleton continues: “The depthless […] dehistoricized, decathected surfaces of post modernist culture are not meant to signify an alienation, for the very concept of alienation must secretly posit a dream of authenticity which postmodernism finds quite unintelligible.”

(Lately, Terry Eagleton has modified somewhat his vehement opposition to postmodernism.) I do concur with Hutcheon’s claim that such works as the novel The Terrible Twos can mercilessly satirize entrepreneurs, right-wing politicians and bourgeois smugness, in its integration and manipulation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Dickens’s Christmas Carol (though Dickens himself in Martin Chuzzlewit did this admirably, nearly a century and a half ago)! But even in these progressively oriented postmodern works there is not the compulsion for change which Adorno noted in Kafka and Beckett, and there is not the ‘typicality’ that Engels and Lukács perceived in more traditional forms. As Fredric Jameson argues, postmodernism is so intimately and ineluctably tied to commodity production and advertising that it is inconceivable without them; and that any progressive drive must be blunted (see Jameson [ed.Kaplan] 1988 p.27). With ‘High Modernism’ our perceptions have become acclimatized to pastiche (the ability to shock has subsided); modernism too is now largely integrated into an established academic ‘canon’. But with postmodernism, our perception are acclimatized in such a way that nothing is indistinguishable from commodities and their ‘aesthetic’ presentation in advertising. The serious dilemma here is that our whole way of seeing can never be autonomous, in that it is always tarnished by commodities thrust at us in the form of works of ‘art’, to the point where the whole of life is lived within an aura of commercial fetishism. And crucially, as Hutcheon acknowledges, “art can just as easily confirm as trouble received codes, no matter how radical its surface transgressions. Texts could conceivably work to dismantle meaning in the name of rightwing irrationalism as easily as a left-wing defamiliarization [(cf.Brecht)] critique” (op. cit. p.183). This is without doubt true of Eliot, Pound and Salvador Dali.

Hutcheon tries make a diremption of genres, giving some works – ones she nominates ‘Historiographic Metafiction’ (make of that one what you can!) – a challenging and progressive role; but this must inevitably lead to a two-fold dilemma: (a) the defining and categorizing of genres without the use of a prescriptive (and in the terms of her’s and Flax’s philosophy, ‘elitist’) measure; and (b) the historio-textual difficulties earlier outlined in this article. While there is some substance in one or two of the examples she offers, they are rather suspect; for instance she maintains that the newspaper cuttings used in the novel Manuel for Manuel, are Brechtian in that they estrange the reader from “the realist illusion of a coherent and closed fictive world” (op. cit. p.219); and she draws our attention to what she perceives as Brechtian techniques in the video The Australian Tapes – here:

[…] Douglas Davis asks the viewer […] to put her/his hands on the screen. This is not a game; it is a way of forcing the usually private and passive experience of art into the public space of action. But it does so in a typically postmodern way: Davis wants video art to be on the home t/v screens, not in the art gallery […This is] a potentially revolutionary form of address: both a mass communication, and a mode that takes place in small private space with the daily life of the viewer. [p.86]

I am certain that this ersatz communality is not what Brecht had in mind: lonely hands on a cold glass screen; his intention was that in addition to the effect of alienation, a community spirit be fostered in a theatre, obviating subjectivity. But more to the point, Brecht was a marxist, and as such he vaunted Reason; he recognized a need for organized collective (if necessary, violent) action; his plays demand a wholesale shift of consciousness, and a programme for historical change; all of which postmodernism dismisses as either undesirable or not feasible.

Finally I want to examine what Hutcheon has to say about Theodor Adorno.

Most of us have daily television encounters with Italian Grande Opera selling pasta; Beethoven selling motor oil; J.S.Bach and Jacques Loussier selling Hamlet Cigars, in advertisements drawing directly on postmodern art-forms. These art forms, asserts Hutcheon, collapse the distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. This may be commendably true in some cases; what is not acceptable is the dehistoricizing of cultural artifacts; such a jumbling of history – as in Angela Carter’s pictures, where Van Gogh is writing Wuthering Heights and Milton blindly executing divine frescoes upon the wall of the Sistine Chapel (Carter 1972, pp.197/8) – is reactionary, as are those films obsessed with time travel, where gender relations remain the same, and the inevitable bottle of Coca-Cola is displayed. On mass culture – of which these are typical stylistics – Hutcheon writes: “it is selfdefeating […] to indulge in an indiscriminate attack on the one dimensionality of mass culture and to ignore the counter-currents […] within it […And] postmodernism in general is such a force of resistance” (op. cit. p.41); also she comments that, “To rage, as so many do, following Adorno, against mass culture as only a negative force, may be […] simply continuing to use an aristocratic viewpoint” (p.26). I do agree as far as being ‘indiscriminate’ goes – and emphatically, Adorno could be ridiculously and blindly dogmatic at times, unable to distinguish between Miles Davis and Elvis Presley – but as Martin Jay comments:

[… Adorno’s] hostility came less from the conservative mandarin conviction that the revolt of the masses had polluted to temples of culture, than from his belief that the culture of the masses was a wholly synthetic concoction, cynically imposed on them from above. Rather than cultural chaos […] the current situation was one of tight regimentation and control. [Jay 1984, p.119]

He goes on to say “The result in popular music was particularly sinister, as listeners were programmed to accept music that eschewed any coherent development, and presented instead a spatialized temporality of the ever-same, which subtly served to reinforce the status quo as inescapable fate.” [p.123] As for the fusion of culture and entertainment, Adorno maintains that this “leads not only to a depravation of culture, but inevitably to an intellectualization of amusement” (Adorno & Hoerkheimer 1989, p.143); in other words, the important is trivialized, and the trivial has importance conferred upon it. And we are left with a “landscape of advertising and motels, of the Las Vegas strip, of the Late Show and […] the popular biography” (Jameson 1988).

But unnervingly we have a dilemma in criticizing the postmodern, as Jameson points out, in that “we are within the culture of postmodernism” so far that any judgment “is a judgment on ourselves” (1988); and even the Mandela Concert was partly financed by Coca- Cola! And ‘Punk Rock’, hailed by some as proletarian and revolutionary, was quickly converted to a monetary adventure; the actual performers of this noise, driven to suicide.

Naturally, an art-work – realist, modernist, or postmodernist – can never become a totality of representation, it is referential only; but it can become part of a greater struggle against (say) exploitation and war; disease and famine; further:

Artifacts for Adorno are ridden with inconsistencies, pitched battles between sense and spirit, astir with fragments which resist incorporation [into an official ‘canon’]. Their materials will put up a fight against the dominative rationality which rips them from their contexts […] [Eagleton 1990, p.353]

Also in Adorno’s view, as Eagleton notes:

[…] all art contains a utopian moment: ‘even in the most sublimated work of art there is a hidden “it should be otherwise” […].’ By their sheer presence, artifacts testify to the possibility of the non-existent […thus] expressing an unconscious desire to change the world. [ibid. p.350]

But when Andy Warhol’s soup-cans, and the repetitive nursery-rhyme jingles of advertisements (indistinguishable from the Number One in the Charts) ring loud and clear, above the horrors of Auschwitz, or the cries of the oppressed – or indeed when manic distraction has destroyed the human ability needed to concentrate on the organization of a Beethoven sonata – then where are we left aesthetically and morally?

In Adorno’s lugubrious historical perspective, the Enlightenment ended with the death-camps and the new age of electronic barbarism, fostered by a ‘culture industry’ (though ironically, like Flax and Hutcheon, Adorno saw ‘culture’ as authoritarian and oppressive); but he is not prepared to relinquish the aspirations inherent in that gigantic historical expedition; rather, there must be a new and urgent re-examination.

Adorno, T.W., Aesthetic Theory. RKP, 1984
Adorno, T.W. & Horkheimer, M., Dialectic of Enlightenment .
Verso, 1989
Bordo, S. , ‘Feminism, Postmodernism & Gender-Scepticism’, in Feminism/Postmodernism (ed. Nicholson) Routledge, 1990
Eagleton, T., ‘Capitalism, Modernism and Postmodernism’, in Modern Criticism & Theory, (ed. D.Lodge) Longman, 1988
Eagleton, T., The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Blackwell, 1990
Flax,J., ‘Postmodernism & Gender’, in Feminism/Postmodernism. (ed. L.Nicholson) Routledge, 1990
Hampton. C., The Ideology of The Text, Open University Press, 1990
Hutcheon, L., A Poetics of Postmodernism. Routledge, 1988
Jameson. F., ‘Marxism & Postmodernism’, in New Left Review 176 (July/Aug 1989)
Jameson, F., ‘Postmodernism & Consumer Society’, in Postmodernism & its Discontents (ed. A. Kaplan) Verso, 1988
Jay, Martin, Adorno, Fontana, in Modern Masters Series, 1984

© Geoff Wade 1992

Geoff Wade teaches English at the Academy Tsekleni in Athens.


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