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The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism

Les Reid on a companion to Postmodernism which, rather unpostmodernly, gives a clear account of the historical facts of its subject matter.

Is there anything of any significance, philosophically speaking, to be said about fashion? Flares in, bosoms out, hair up, trousers down .... surely it is all just a matter of taste which ‘fashion’ somehow elevates into a social convention? Of course, there are mysterious, unpredictable aspects: the baseball cap worn backwards catches on, whereas the anorak, with or without the hood up, gets the thumbs down. But these are mysteries for sociologists to grapple with, not philosophers. The baseball cap, even if worn upside down, does not inspire much metaphysical, epistemological or ontological reflection.

Such thinking may explain the cool reception given to Postmodernism when it arrived in Britain from France in the early 1980s. Its close affinity with fashion, particularly in film, television and literature (ie. ‘the po-mo style’) ensured that its impact on philosophical discussion here was limited and short-lived.

Now, twenty years later, the time may be right for another look at that enfant terrible of French philosophy. The Routledge Companion, edited by Stuart Sim, is intended to be both an introduction and a reference book. The first half consists of essays by various authors, relating postmodernism (henceforth ‘po-mo’) to philosophy, politics, feminism, the media, etc, and the second is a dictionary of concepts and authors, including some critics. The Companion has the merit of being generally concise and clear, whereas the original authors were often prolix and rhetorical.

The Companion will be useful to many types of reader, not just philosophers, because po-mo is still very much with us. Still in fashion, perhaps. For example, in film, the deliberate use of anachronism, the playful mixing of genres in pastiche and the archly self-conscious moments of self-reference which made Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet a success, have proved equally popular in Moulin Rouge. Likewise, popular ‘reality tv’ programmes such as Big Brother, Survival and Treasure Island are said to be po-mo because they treat genre conventions playfully and ironically, mixing documentary, game show and soap opera.

Open any modern text-book for Film or Media Studies and you will find po-mo treated, not just as a style, but as a philosophy based on the semiology of Saussure and embracing a radical, sceptical account of meaning, reference and truth. The foundation is the argument that words are not names for things. A sentence is not just a string of labels. Rather, language is a social activity and meaning is created through social conventions. So far, so later Wittgenstein. Po-mo goes on to argue that we therefore inhabit a world of signs, where texts refer to other texts and meanings are created out of patterns of difference and similarity.

The pluralism for which po-mo is renowned derives from that social construction of meaning. All languages are equal: there is no single privileged way to describe reality and therefore no one version of the truth. Po-mo has abandoned the attempt to find a Grand Narrative which describes the human condition. Marxism, Christianity, Islam, Liberal Humanism and Nazism are some of the Grand Narratives which people have idolised as the Truth, but po-mo rejects them all on the basis that all narratives are equal. There are different societies, different ways of life, different realities and any attempt to impose one can only be a tyranny to be resisted.

Hostility to Grand Narratives is not peculiar to po-mo, however. Few people now accord to astrology, with its assumption that stellar patterns influence human lives, the credibility that it formerly had. Since the Enlightenment, there has also been strong scepticism about religious claims that humans have another life after their bodily demise. Similarly, in Britain Marxism has not been hailed as a true metaphysical account of how societies evolve, which is how it has been regarded elsewhere, but rather as a moral creed advocating public over private ownership.

But such forms of hostility to Grand Narratives are quite different from po-mo. They are based on an evaluation which demotes one narrative and promotes another. People have discarded astrology in favour of astronomy and they have discarded myths of an after-life in favour of an account of growth and decay based on comparative biology. Voters in Britain have chosen social democratic parties and a mixed economy instead of a planned economy based entirely on public ownership. However, the po-mo attitude that all Grand Narratives “have collapsed” is not a selective judgment like that. It is the wholescale rejection of all of them: thus Lyotard, “The Grand Narrative has lost its credibility” (p.19)

At once the problem arises of the status of that assertion. It has itself a universality which is condemned in Grand Narratives. So the po-mo account of the demise of Grand Narratives is itself a Grand Narrative. Jürgen Habermas pointed out this contradiction back in 1981. Surprisingly, the Companion records Habermas’s criticism (p.33) but does not answer it. I was therefore left with the feeling that po-mo generates provocative slogans but is essentially incoherent.

The essay on science added to those doubts. Science clearly is a Grand Narrative, offering an account of the human condition in terms of biology, anatomy, evolution and mankind’s place in the history of planet Earth. The pomo response is to attempt to relativise it: “Science is one language game” (p.75) “... a kind of discourse” (p.18). We are told that “owing to the collapse of Grand Narratives, science can no longer justify itself or legitimate its practices by appealing to the innate value of ‘knowledge in itself” (p.76). But in what sense has science collapsed? In genetics, for example, the accumulation of knowledge and practical application in medicine continues unabated. Similarly, sciencebased technology is improving all the time. So po-mo talk about collapse seems premature, as Mark Twain would say.

There is an entry for Stephen Hawking in the dictionary section which includes the statement: “When a star runs out of fuel, one of three things will happen to it, depending on its size.” The three possibilities are then described. It seems to me that the Grand Narrative of science is functioning as usual there. Likewise, the dictionary does not hesitate to provide us with potted biographies in standard form: “Freud, Sigmund, psychologist (1856- 1939). Sigmund Freud was born in Freiburg to a Jewish family. When he was three the family moved to Vienna ...” Once again the Companion seems to be untroubled by any po-mo doubts about ‘historical facts’ and the Grand Narrative of history. Thus the relativistic scepticism which the po-mo authors make their own raison d’etre, is undermined by the conventional use of Grand Narratives throughout the Companion.

Am I being too po-faced about po-mo? Its critique of Grand Narratives, particularly science, may be inconsistent and invalid, but perhaps its real importance is as a provocative, iconoclastic protest against cultural, political and philosophical complacency?

On this point I agree with Frederick Jameson when he says that the playful, ironical attitude advocated by po-mo authors tends towards complacency itself and will not sustain serious criticism of the status quo. Thus, taking Green issues as an example, understanding the science of greenhouse gases, fossil fuel depletion and environmental degradation will provide a better foundation for a Green campaigner than po-mo relativism which devalues that scientific understanding and reduces commitment to the level of a fashion accessory: “This year Green is the new Red.”

In conclusion, this Companion provides an interesting and varied overview of the many ways in which po-mo has established itself as a cultural phenomenon. It is also a critical Companion and does not try to proselytise for the po-mo cause. Indeed, the fact that it does not disguise the central incoherence of po-mo is, in my opinion, very much to its credit.

© LES REID 2003

Les Reid used to be a moderate in all things, but now he is only moderately so in most things. He belongs to the Belfast Humanist Group.

The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism edited by Stuart Sim. £13.99 pb, £40 hb. ISBN 0415243084.

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