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what is Postmodernism?

Updated on June 8, 2012

The question ‘What is meant by “Postmodernism”?’ is very similar to Immanuel Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” as they both dive deep into epistemological debates i.e. debates that are concerned with the relation of our knowledge to the social world, and question our understanding of our knowledge. In the essay, Kant rightly says “Sapere aude (Have the courage to use your own reason)-that is the motto of enlightenment-”; he goes on to suggest that we should change the concept that our knowledge conforms to the nature of objects, and explore the notion that objects conform to our ways of thinking. The postmodernist school of thought is heavily influenced by Kant, Hume, Nietzsche and Descartes’ thoughts of knowledge and questioning it, but postmodernist such as Lyotard, Derrida, go a step further by suggesting that there is no ‘reality’ and that our knowledge and ‘truths’ only appears real/true because we have become so familiar with them. Very briefly, postmodernism can be described as ‘an assault on unity’; it is a theory that has “an incredulity towards metanarratives". So what is "Postmodernism"? Is it an epistemological approach that tries to make everyone aware of their conceptual prisons, and questions our knowledge and whether or not one can truly perceive reality or conform to socially constructed “truths “. Or is it a denial of mans central beliefs such as reality, society, truth and reason?


Postmodernism is mainly famous for its denial of the centrality of discourse, that is to say, the certainty of metanarratives, by this I mean that other metanarratives ascribe “truths” about our social world due to their experiences and observations such as man is sociable, greedy and evil etc. To paraphrase Kant's maxim that suggested that objective reality is known as it conforms with the knowing mind i.e. metanarratives will ascribe a ‘truth’ about the world as they conform to that ‘reality’; now, realism for example, ascribes man’s inherent evilness and war-mongering as the ever stagnant truth about our world, and to realist such as H.E. Carr, this is the truth about the world as there are war-mongering states and groups like Al Qaeda that illustrate the evilness of man. These premises stated by metanarratives all state a predicated idea that as long as we can form reality to what we perceive to be real, then it must be real for everyone.

Postmodernist such as Derrida will argue that, at best, realism (and all metanarratives) offers us a partial interpretation of the world at a period in time, and at worse only offer us a biased perspective of how the world should be like thus fuelling the concept of conceptual prisons that encircle our social world making us subjective to ‘reality’, by which we become oblivious to any other knowledge besides our own. In this, theorist such as Derrida, Foucault, Ashley and Smith will express the point that there is no objective reality and that social science is historical, political, and cultural, and therefore biased thus narratives or meta-narratives are always constructed by theorist and they are thus always contaminated by his or her standpoint and prejudice, therefore postmodernism asserts the notion that there is no reality to which truth can correspond. Rather, our ideas and words correspond only to other words and ideas, thus, creating our understanding of reality.

Derrida’s deconstruction is one of the key themes in postmodernism, deconstruction is the constant questioning and dismantling of implicit or explicit notions of presence, thus the reader becomes the tool to understand what the ‘text’ means. Nietzsche (rightly) says, ‘”There are no facts, only interpretation” and by interpretation, I mean the conscious act of the mind in which the reader attaches meaning to a ‘text’; the reader will say X really means or is Y or that A is B. This is to say, that the human subject is malleable and is a social construct of the world in which he constructed himself, therefore there are no grand metanarratives which prescribes the “truth” about our world nor is there a blueprint to all human emancipation; it is simply an interpretation of an interpretation of our self made ‘reality’. Thus, postmodernism is more willing than others to admit that there might not be solid ground or ultimate source of appeal on which to establish the “rightness” or “wrongness” of a particular value system, simply, postmodernism asks us to be incredulous towards all metanarratives and deconstruct ‘text’ in order to find your own meaning.

In this sense, postmodernism then becomes incredulous to almost everything, denying that there is such a thing called ‘reality’, only that there is “truths” (self-imposed reality) about the world, and that one cannot objectively know and understand ‘reality’.The downfall of postmodernism lies within its own incredulity towards all metanarratives as it seems to condemn everything, propose nothing, demolition is the only job that the postmodern mind seems to be good at’. Although the theory rightly warns of the dangers of assuming that what you is the ‘truth’ and must be truth for everyone else, however, it does not give you a reason of why you should not write. On metanarratives, postmodernism claims that there is no such a thing called ‘reality’ but there are ‘truths’ about our world as we all subjectively interpret ‘text’ to our own experiences and knowledge, thus making metanarratives irrelevant as they cannot truly tell us about man’s nature or explain oppression and man’s inhumanity towards man but only offer biased interpretations. As it is sceptical of metanarratives, the theory becomes a double-edge sword in the sense that, itself is a metanarrative that assumes that there is no ‘reality’ and there only interpretations of interpretations and that metanarratives are infected and corrupted by the prejudice and ideologically partiality of the theorist, as such the theory falls to its own trappings. Because the theory uses abstract ideas such as ‘truth’ and ‘language’ it is often regarded by other theorist such a Noam Chomsky as a vague shapeless entity that denies reality and doesn’t add anything to analytical or empirical knowledge thus lacks credibility and congruity.

Ultimately, postmodernism is a theory that can be characterised as having an incongruity towards all metanarratives meaning that it denies that there is such a thing as ‘reality’ but that there are only ‘truths’ i.e. interpretations bout the world. Although postmodernism appears to be paradoxical i.e. it denies metanarratives that make universal truths; when itself does the same by claiming that there is no reality, and is cynical or even nihilist i.e. it denies everything, the theory simply asks the reader to be incredulous to the ‘text’ by deconstructing it and not claim that what they perceive is true for everyone and must be the truth about the world.


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