Back to the postmodern

We may feel safe enough in classifying Jean-Frangois Lyotard (1924- ) as postmodernist, if only because he makes an express claim to being just that. Not that this deters commentators from referring to him instead, or in addition, as post-structuralist. It depends, of course, on how one conceptualises the two terms. Wolin, as we have seen, looks to Lyotard’s own understanding of the matter, suggesting that, from this perspective, post-structuralism emerges as the epistemological corollary of postmodernism. This allows Wolin (1992, p. 16) to locate Lyotard among post-structuralist thinkers while still emphasising the way in which he engages with the postmodern.

Lyotard does engage with the postmodern and he does so in his own fashion. For him the postmodern is found within the modem, not in any sense apart from it.

The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable. (Lyotard 1984, p. 81)

This takes us to the heart of the postmodernist stance. It is not just a jettisoning of Enlightenment claims to reproduce reality faithfully. Such claims have been well and tmly thrown out in the course of the modernist revolt. We noted in Chapter 6 how Adomo uses ‘mimesis’ and Benjamin’s ‘constellation’ to characterise human thought—not as something ‘true’ that captures reality conceptually and represents reality- as-it-is, but as a mere mimicking of reality in full recognition that reality is too rich for reason.

Lyotard is not just repeating these modernist strictures against Enlightenment epistemology. He goes much further.

In rejecting objectivist epistemology and the bourgeois realism that feeds on it, modernist forms of cultural criticism offer themselves as alternatives. From the modernist standpoint, we may no longer have clarity and certitude but at least we have a creative and liberating embrace of ambiguity. If we must lose the firm grip we have on reality, we can remind ourselves of the price we pay for having that firm grip in the first place—the repression of so much of reality’s richness. We can tell ourselves, in fact, that relaxing the grip will mean a rewarding return of the repressed. Benjamin’s and Adorno’s constellation resembles the technique that modernist poetry is said to have drawn from painting—’a juxtaposition of details to make a field of force, not an argument’ (Donoghue 1994, p. 25). In other words, while a constellation lacks the force of argument, it has a force all its own. There is no doubt about it. Modernist criticism presents itself to us overwhelmingly in redemptive pose.

Lyotard, on the other hand, offers no such redemption. Unlike the modernists, Lyotard does not substitute mimesis or representation for what Enlightenment thinking offers as a grasp of the real. Even such mimetic representation is denied to us, for it is in itself one of the grand narratives (grands recits) of modernity that, on Lyotard’s accounting, are no longer credible. No matter that the modernist narrative speaks of emancipation rather than speculation. The grand narratives of speculation and emancipation are in the same boat. The grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation.’ Both have witnessed ‘the decline of the unifying and legitimating power’ (Lyotard 1984, pp. 37-8). Included in this decline is each and every ‘metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth’ (1984, p. xxviii). What we are left with is not a modernist form of presentation but a ‘sense of the unpresentable’—at best, the possibility of a ‘stronger’ sense of the unpresentable. ‘Finally’, writes Lyotard, ‘it must be clear that it is our business not to supply reality but to invent allusions to the conceivable which cannot be presented’ (1984, p. 81).

This is not entirely new. Some phenomenologists certainly glimpsed this radical unpresentability of reality. Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), for one, loves to tell us that experience is mystery. It is an error ‘to take experience for granted and to ignore its mystery’ (Marcel 1965, p. 128). How, then, are we to explore the mystery of experience? Not by reasoning discursively and logically about it, as Enlightenment thought would have us do. Marcel is quick to point up the contrast between his ‘phenomenological description’ and any kind of ‘logical schema’ (1964, p. 176). Far from reasoning about experience, we listen to it. As musicians might listen to voices joined with them in producing a symphony, we listen to what is for us a grand symphony of being (Marcel 1963, pp. 82-3). Yet, for all our investigation of it, Marcel reminds us, the mystery of being remains mystery and cannot be converted into the content of thought. We cannot describe such mystery. We can only allude to it as poets and musicians do (Marcel 1952, p. 299).

Yet Marcel is no Lyotard. Postmodernism not only brings this acknowledgment of reality’s unpresentability to centre stage but links it forcefully to the postmodern condition in which we find ourselves. The postmodern world is at once, and paradoxically, a world of massificatton and a world of fragmentation. The mass society obliterates time- honoured distinctions and without those distinctions we have no sense of how the whole might fit together. As Lyotard insists, there is no metanarrative that can bring things together for us. There is no metalanguage and our language games are thoroughly fragmented.

In the name of Lyotard postmodernism says we’re now living with/in the ‘postmodern condition’, where something funny is happening to the ‘metanarratives’ we live by—those big stories (of science, progress, Marxism, humanism . . .) that cultures tell themselves in order to understand and legitimate their practices. These narratives are fragmenting into a disorderly array of litde, local stories and struggles, with their own, irreconcilable truths. (MacLure 1995, p. 106)

Earlier in this chapter this postmodern condition was described as an implosion and a blurring even of the distinction between the virtual and the real. This fits well enough with what Lyotard is saying to us. However, the word ‘implosion’ is associated more expressly with the name of Jean Baudrillard (1929- ) and it is Baudrillard who, more than any other, focuses on the character of hyperreality and its displacement of what we once considered ‘the real’. Baudrillard leaves us with ‘simulation’ and ‘simulacra’ in an obliteration of all distinction between the imaginary and the real.

There are other postmodernist theorists, to be sure. Mention might be made of Fredric Jameson, who sees postmodernism as the cultural logic of late capitalism, and Richard Rorty, who has developed a postmodernist version of American pragmatism. There is not space here to give these (or the many others) the attention they deserve. Hopefully, enough has been said to provide something of the flavour of postmodernism.

What the postmodernist spirit has brought into play is primarily an overpowering loss of totalising distinctions and a consequent sense of fragmentation. The boundary between elite and popular culture, between art and life, is no more. Along with that boundary has gone the messianic sense of mission that modernists have allowed themselves.

Under the influence of post-structuralism, even the clear distinction between different texts has gone, with intertextuality inviting us to move at random between them and to read one into the other.

What were formerly regarded as clear-cut differences in style appear to have vanished too. Where, in the past, artists and writers were seen to create particular styles, which could then be parodied, this is no longer the case. All art is repetition. Parody continues, but it is a specifically postmodernist form of parody. It is parody without fun—‘pastiche’, to use the word that Jameson has popularised in this connection. Pastiche is a mimicking of various styles. These may well be what Sarup (1993, p. 146) dubs ‘dead’ styles. Dead styles are found, for example, in the nostalgia film. In these films and other media dealing sentimentally with the past, styles long gone from the human scene are revived, thrust together and set before us. This, Dickens tells us (1994, p. 90), is ‘a generalization of pastiche onto the collective level’.

Yet, if parody has lost its funniness, there is still a playfulness and carnival spirit in postmodernist work—the ludic element. Irony is forever to the fore, along with allegory, artifice, asymmetry, anarchy.

With all this in mind, we have a number of questions to face. What happens when the postmodernist turns to research? What kind of envisaged world forms the backdrop for postmodernist research? What assumptions does the postmodernist bring to it? What form is the postmodernist’s analysis of the human scene likely to take? Given what we have discussed in this chapter, we know there are no tidy answers to any of these questions. They are questions we cannot sidestep, all the same.

Source: Michael J Crotty (1998), The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process, SAGE Publications Ltd; First edition.

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