In my debates with people about Postmodernism, it sometimes strikes me that some people do not even properly understand who is and who is not a Poststructuralist and Postmodernist, or even the basic history of the movement.
So here is a diagram below of the major Poststructuralists and their Postmodernist and deconstructionist offshoots. It needs to be opened in its own window.
Furthermore, people seem to think my hostility to Postmodernism stems from not having read enough Postmodernist writing. On the contrary, I have read a great deal of the Postmodernist literature, not only while a undergraduate university student but also while a postgraduate – and even in later years after I got my degree. I even maintain an interest in the history of the movement, despite my rejection of it.
Let me give an account of Postmodernism’s origins.
Postmodernism is an outgrowth of “Poststructuralism,” an intellectual movement in France from the late 1960s and 1970s. This was a reaction against French Structuralism.
The early and big name Poststructuralists actually began as Structuralists, such as Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), Roland Barthes (1915–1980), and Michel Foucault (1920–1984).
If there was a seminal moment in the origin of the Poststructuralist movement, some people date it to a 1966 conference at Johns Hopkins University in which the French intellectuals Derrida, Barthes, and Lacan came to America and announced that they had turned against Structuralism.
Derrida gave a lecture at this conference later published as “Structure, Sign and Play in the Human Sciences” (Derrida 1978 ; see also the conference proceedings Macksey and Donato 1972) which marked his break with Structuralism and the general turn towards Poststructuralism.
Roland Barthes’ later essay “The Death of the Author”
(Barthes 1967; Barthes 1977) was another influential text of the early movement. In “The Death of the Author” Barthes essentially proclaimed that critics should divorce their study of a text from its author, and that a text is not a product of its author with a definite and fixed meaning intended by the author (see Barthes 1977: 146).
You think I am joking? Let Barthes speak for himself:
“Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is ‘explained’ – victory to the critic. …. literature (it would be better from now on to say writing), by refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law” (Barthes 1977: 146).
In other words, let us ignore authors and pretend texts can mean anything. In the process, we can emancipate ourselves from “reason, science, [and] law.”
If this sounds like the infantile ranting, raving and posturing of a frustrated revolutionary and Marxist to you, I think you may well be right. Apparently Barthes was a former Marxist, and a lot of the original Poststructuralists were disillusioned communists, Stalinists and Maoists.
When their revolution of 1968 failed and they became disillusioned with Marxism, the French radical left turned to a type of philosophical and cultural radicalism. Conservative critics of Postmodernism have long suspected this (Scruton 1994a), and frankly I think they may be onto something.
Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” also contains such gems as this:
“The author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the ‘human person’. It is thus logical that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author.” (Barthes 1977: 142–143).
Um, no, Mr Barthes, you bloody twit, texts had authors long before modern capitalism, and the ancient Greeks and Romans could attach the “greatest importance” to authors just as we do.
In my view, Barthes’ absurd theory – at the heart of modern Postmodernism – has done great damage to literary criticism. It is plainly wrong.
It allows lazy and ignorant literary criticism in which critics do not properly focus on the historical and cultural context in which a text was written – or on the biography of the author and what he meant to say. Instead, Postmodernism has produced a type of bizarre “literary criticism” in which Postmodernists torture texts to death and extract any and whatever meaning they like – no matter how patently ludicrous or crazy.
But let us move on with the origins of Postmodernism.
Jacques Derrida took Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” fantasies to even greater heights of mind-numbing insanity. Derrida invented the French word “différance
” (a word that conveys the ideas of “difference” and “deferral”) to convey the idea that no word can even have a clear, definitive meaning at all: true and fixed meaning is supposed to be “deferred,” indeterminate, and unattainable (Roman 2001: 309; Scruton 1994b: 478).
Derrida also liked to rant about what he called “logocentrism,” the idea that in Western civilisation speech is “privileged” over writing (Roman 2001: 309). The fact that people who were literate were historically a small, privileged and even powerful minority in most Western societies did not seem to daunt or present Derrida with any problems. Nor did the fact that the ability to read the written word and even written works themselves like scriptures have conferred enormous power on priests, monks and clerics in Western civilisation. None of this gave the prize buffoon Derrida any pause.
Derrida’s famous method of Deconstruction
is just the culmination of Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” idea. Since no text can have any fixed meaning, we can invent any meaning we like, and “deconstruct” any text by inventing a meaning contrary to what the text says. We can engage in utterly illogical, unfounded and fantastical attempts to show how any sentence actually implies or means the opposite, or nothing at all.
The end result of all this is the view that no real external reality structures, fixes or even circumscribes our words and language, and that no objective truth, knowledge or reality exists (Roman 2001: 310).
The ignorance and intellectual charlatanry of Derrida were revealed to the English-speaking world by the analytic philosopher John Searle, who, in debates in print with Derrida and other Postmodernists, demonstrated that Derrida had a wretched and ignorant understanding of the modern philosophy of language (Derrida 1977a; Searle 1977; Derrida 1977b), and how “deconstruction” results in nothing less than outright intellectual fraud (Searle 1983; Mackey and Searle 1984).
Later in his 2000 interview with Reason
magazine, Searle also drew attention to Derrida’s shameful and despicably dishonest tactics in debate:
“Reason: You’ve debated Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida. Are they making bad arguments, or are they just being misread?
Searle: With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he's so obscure. Every time you say, ‘He says so and so,’ he always says, ‘You misunderstood me.’ But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that’s not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking French. And I said, ‘What the hell do you mean by that?’ And he said, ‘He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying, that’s the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, “You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.” That’s the terrorism part.’ And I like that. So I wrote an article about Derrida. I asked Michel if it was OK if I quoted that passage, and he said yes.”
Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction and Roland Barthes’ ideas on literary criticism have flowed into the heart of modern Postmodernism.
There are other strands, of course, and many heresies and mutations. The two most important strands stemming from the original French Poststructuralism are those of Jacques Lacan (1901–1981) and Michel Foucault (1920–1984).
The strand associated with Michel Foucault essentially boils down to the idea that “truth” is whatever those in power determine it to be, and reality a construct of power, so every instance of power is oppression. The other source of modern Postmodernism is the utter pseudo-science of Freudian psychology via Jacques Lacan and his Lacanian psychoanalytic quackery
. However, I will leave an analysis of the work of Lacan and Foucault for another time.
The Poststructuralists and their ideas quickly spread to the rest of the Western world, principally via the humanities departments of universities. It has lead to the modern Postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism, deconstruction, intertextuality studies, and postmodern cultural studies you find all over the academy today.
Curiously, the madness in the humanities and social sciences faculties of the academy today is really nothing new. Back in the late 19th century an equally absurd philosophy called Idealism
dominated the philosophy departments of English-speaking universities. It was overthrown by analytic philosophy
. Now few but historians of philosophy and Western thought have any interest in Idealism, and hopefully in a century hence very few will have any interest in the equally absurd philosophy of Postmodernism.
Barthes, Roland. 1967. “Death of the Author,” Aspen
Barthes, Roland. 1977. “Death of the Author,” Image Music Text
(trans. Stephen Heath). Fontana, London. 142–148.
Derrida, Jacques. 1977a. “Signature, Event, Context,” Glyph
Derrida, Jacques. 1977b. “Limited Inc.,” Glyph
Derrida, Jacques. 1978 . “Structure, Sign and Play in the Human Sciences,” in Writing and Difference
(trans. Alan Bass). University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 278–294.
Mackey, Louis H. and John R. Searle. 1984. “An Exchange on Deconstruction,” New York Review of Books
31.1 (February 2): 47–48.
Macksey, Richard and Eugenio Donato (eds). 1972. The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man
. Johns Hopkins, Baltimore.
Postrel, Steven R. and Edward Feser. 2000. “Reality Principles: An Interview with John R. Searle,” Reason
Reynolds, Jack. “Jacques Derrida (1930–2004),” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Roman, Denise. 2001. “Poststructuralism,” in Victor E. Taylor, and Charles E. Winquist. 2001. Encyclopedia of Postmodernism
. Routledge, London and New York. 308–310.
Scruton, Roger. 1994a. “Upon Nothing,” Philosophical Investigations
Scruton, R. 1994b. Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey
. Penguin Books, London.
Searle, John. 1977. “Reiterating the Differences: Reply to Derrida,” Glyph
Searle, John. 1983. “The Word Turned Upside Down,” The New York Review of Books
(27 October): 74–79.
Taylor, Victor E. and Charles E. Winquist. 2001. Encyclopedia of Postmodernism
. Routledge, London and New York.