I ask this question, because I, personally, want to know! My own academic training in philosophy ended when I got my doctorate from Boston University, in 1972. This was seven years prior to when the word “post-modernism” entered the philosophical lexicon. And since, after only one year teaching (1972-73), I was fired as “too experimental” for that “experimental college” (New College of California), I migrated out of the field of philosophy entirely, and began to study astrology. That interest sealed my fate as an academic! However, I’d say that I’ve been a “philosopher” all along. Why? Because, like Socrates, I continuously question my own assumptions, inviting my mind to expand beyond current (often unconscious) boundaries.
Now, back to post-modernism. What is it?
That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.
The term “postmodernism” first entered the philosophical lexicon in 1979, with the publication of The Postmodern Condition by Jean-François Lyotard.
And you know what? I have a hunch that the most basic distinction between post-modern and what came before it may concern the question of “essences.” Is there any such thing as an unchanging essence? And in human terms, as a “soul”? Or is all sound and fury signifying nothing but various language-games playing upon or within an unknowable reality.
The term “postmodern” came into the philosophical lexicon with the publication of Jean-François Lyotard’s La Condition Postmoderne in 1979 (in English: The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, 1984), where he employs Wittgenstein’s model of language games (see Wittgenstein 1953) and concepts taken from speech act theory to account for what he calls a transformation of the game rules for science, art, and literature since the end of the nineteenth century. He describes his text as a combination of two very different language games, that of the philosopher and that of the expert. Where the expert knows what he knows and what he doesn’t know, the philosopher knows neither, but poses questions. In light of this ambiguity, Lyotard states that his portrayal of the state of knowledge “makes no claims to being original or even true,” and that his hypotheses “should not be accorded predictive value in relation to reality, but strategic value in relation to the questions raised” (Lyotard 1984 , 7). The book, then, is as much an experiment in the combination of language games as it is an objective “report.”
On Lyotard’s account, the computer age has transformed knowledge into information, that is, coded messages within a system of transmission and communication. Analysis of this knowledge calls for a pragmatics of communication insofar as the phrasing of messages, their transmission and reception, must follow rules in order to be accepted by those who judge them. However, as Lyotard points out, the position of judge or legislator is also a position within a language game, and this raises the question of legitimation. As he insists, “there is a strict interlinkage between the kind of language called science and the kind called ethics and politics” (Lyotard 1984 , 8), and this interlinkage constitutes the cultural perspective of the West. Science is therefore tightly interwoven with government and administration, especially in the information age, where enormous amounts of capital and large installations are needed for research.
The state of epistemology these days reflects our “post-modern” sensibility, where what is or is not “true” depends on the position of the observer, and just how well he can convince others of his “position.” While some still speak of “objectivity,” as if it’s actually possible, those who have been exposed to post-modernism know better. As do I. Not because I’m a “post-modernist,” but because even in my 20s, my own personal experience had taught me so: all perspectives are framed from within a certain “point of view.”
Seven years before the word “post-modern” was invented, I noted the blurring of the distinction between “reality” and “fiction.” This was back in 1972, a conclusion buried within my own doctoral dissertation. Thus, no surprise, at one point in my oral exam I baldly stated that “there is a very fine line between fiction and fact,” I remember the moment well, because suddenly, a vibration of discomfort seized the table where all these professors were sitting, trying to evaluate whether I was “worthy” to receive the “PhD in philosophy.” One of them then challenged me: “Give us an example.”
And out of my mouth flew these words, describing a situation that had occurred not too long before: “My son, Colin, when three years old, once asked me, ‘Mom, which is more real, my dreams or yesterday?'” His question was serious. It deserved a serious answer. But since I didn’t know the answer, I honored him for asking it: “What a wonderful question, Colin!”
Well, that answer to their question (with another question) broke up the “dissertation exam” — and after only 20 minutes of what was supposed to be a two hour ordeal. “You can go now,” they told me, as they prepared to decide my fate in private.
P.S. I did receive the “PhD,” but only because my dissertation was then being seriously considered for publication by Oxford University Press.
P.P.S. Several weeks later, that press, told me, by letter, that they published too many of the philosophers whose works, mostly in the footnotes, I made fun of. It would be “embarassing,” the letter concluded.
So why am I bringing this up now? Because of all the growing concerns about telling the difference between fake and real news. And my conclusion? There really is no way to tell. No matter where you stand on any particular matter, the next moment might reveal something that overturns your previous position. And furthermore, yours, and mine, and others, because we inhabit separate bodies, all have separate “points of view,” each of which, when seen from close to, dissolves into infinite space.
And even so, I’m still an “essentialist,” as regards the soul.
So that puts me in an uncomfortable in-between place, embracing contradiction, polarity, paradox, “reality” and “appearance” and the constant frisson between the two. Luckily I continuously aim to get, and stay, centered, in the heart, rather than spend all my time in the brain, trying, and failing to “figure things out.”
As Whitman put it: “I contradict myself? So I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”
All this by way of introducing another video find, this one in the middle of last night. Held me all the way through.