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    12. Postmodernism

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    • 06/12/2005

    By /index.php?/user/4-hugo-holbling/">Paul Newall (2005)

    In the study of philosophy we eventually come up against postmodernism, however hard we may try to avoid it. Typically the context is someone uttering the familiar refrain "that postmodern nonsense", but sometimes it can be heard as a description of art or society. In this piece we'll try to get a grip on what it means, what we can use it for, what we can learn from it and why some people are want to insist that only troglodytes partake of it.

    What is Postmodernism?

    The first place we run into trouble when discussing postmodernism is in defining the term itself. The thinkers and ideas often referred to as postmodern disagree amongst themselves —usually significantly—as well as with dictionary versions, while opponents may not always be fair in their characterisations. With this in mind, can we even speak of postmodernism in the first place? To try to make sense of it, we can attempt several approaches.

    The word itself

    The term "postmodern" is a recent one, as we might expect. The furthest it has been traced is to 1932 or thereabouts, when it was used to describe the contrast in Hispanic poetry between Borges (and others) and newer work that seemed to be a reaction to modernism (or ultramodernismo, as it was called). Toynbee called the period from 1875 to the present (in 1940, when he wrote) "postmodern", while poets and artists began to employ it to talk of challenges to modernism. Some writers prefer to distinguish between two senses of the word: on the one hand, we have post-modern (with a hyphen) to denote the continuation of modernism, perhaps in new directions (hence the post-modern, or after modernism); on the other, postmodern (with the hyphen gone) signifies something different (postmodern, or after modernism and separate from it—replacing it).


    Given that all this talk involves modernism in some way, we need to understand this notion if we hope to appreciate what came after or replaced it. The difficultly—yet again—is that this term is itself used to denote a wide spectrum of directions, tendencies and influences in literature and art, as well as a philosophical idea; indeed, it also appears to differ in meaning in many countries, even if only slightly. Before we get any further, then, we can say that one of the main problems with postmodernism is that not everyone means the same thing by it: it could be a person rejects a claim characterized as postmodern when the listener does not even think of it as such. Perhaps the proper response, then, to someone who exclaims " not more postmodern rubbish!" is to ask "what do you mean by postmodern?" It may be worth ducking if the rejoinder is a swift clip around the ear, though.

    In order to attempt a rescue of this situation, we can focus not on the many specific differences in understanding but on the general tendency described by Jürgen Habermas and others whereby modernism is synonymous with or much the same as the Enlightenment project; that is, those ideas that came about (roughly) at the time of the Enlightenment (the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), often also called the Age of Reason. This was when the first encyclopedias were being compiled and thinkers were critical of forms of traditional knowledge or authority, especially religious or political ones. Broadly speaking, the hope was that the search for truth by means of reason and the natural sciences would replace superstition, irrationalism and fear and lead to an ordered world in which men thought for themselves instead of following custom or the beliefs that had been held unquestioningly for generations. Kant offered a motto as defining the Enlightenment, saying "Sapere aude: have courage to use your own understanding." Goya rendered this as "El sueño de la razón produce monstruos", or "the sleep of reason produces monsters".

    While it is easy to see where the attraction in the progressive enlightening that would follow the march of reason, Weber called it the "disenchantment of the world"; many of the religious ideas, superstitions and folk tales that provided explanations or comfort of one kind or another would not stand up to scrutiny, but the rational picture that replaced them could seem cold, impersonal and just as imprisoning. Habermas' opinion is that although this process may be flawed in some ways, it is not yet finished: although much has been accomplished, the potential in this approach has still to be realized. Postmodernism, then, is on this view rather an anti-modernism that would give up this reasoned effort in favour of an irrational one that is skeptical of the very possibilities encouraged by the Enlightenment.

    Whether we accept this characterization or not, we could say that postmodernism is skeptical of theoretical viewpoints that are foundational (as we discussed in our /index.php?/page/resources?record=17">fifth article) or grounded in some way, and critical of theory in general. Sometimes a distinction is made along the following lines:

    • Affirmative postmodernists: theory needs to be changed, rather than rejected

    • Skeptical postmodernists: theory should be rejected, or at least subject to severe critique

    There are other ways to appreciate what postmodernism involves by looking at some of the ideas and understandings proposed by various important thinkers, as well as by comparing some of the trends in modernism with how they have become viewed in a postmodern context. This what we'll do shortly below.

    After modernism?

    Before we get to some of the characteristics of postmodernism, it would be meaningful to ask if any of them are new or radically different from anything that came before. Is postmodernism really after modernism? The answer to this question appears to be in the negative: all the features we see below have been spoken of or held before in ages past. We could try to insist that never before have thinkers assumed them in a systematic fashion, but that is also not the case today—as we said previously.

    Some writers have suggested that the very notion of defining periods (as "modern", "postmodern" or anything else) is merely a rhetorical device: a means of comparing the present to something different (usually to show the more recent in a favourable light) by constructing some other time in history that was perhaps not so enlightened as our own. For example, we have already seen the contrast between so-called "traditional" ways and modernism or the rise of the Age of Reason. Were traditional times really as backward as they are sometimes portrayed, though? If not, then it seems fairer to say that succeeding views brought to light those features that were already there but perhaps neglected or ignored. As we saw in earlier pieces, some of the "new" ideas proposed by philosophers and others have in fact been little different from (or the same as) those in the past; the only change might be that circumstances became more favourable to their acceptance.

    Comparing the two

    Bearing these remarks in mind, we can now contrast modern and postmodern thinking on some illustrative areas and questions, taking each respectively. Although we must be careful to over generalization or oversimplification, opposing modern to postmodern we have:

    • Structure opposed to anarchy

    • Construction opposed to deconstruction

    • Theory opposed to anti-theory

    • Interpretation opposed to hostility toward definite interpretation

    • Meaning opposed to the play of meaning or a refusal to pin down

    • Metanarratives opposed to hostility toward narratives

    • The search for underlying meaning opposed to a suspicion (or certainty) that this is impossible

    • Progress opposed to a doubt that progress is possible

    • Order opposed to subversion

    • Encyclopedic knowledge opposed to a web of understanding

    Some of these will be considered in greater depth as we continue.

    Elements and influences


    One of the most important thinkers on postmodernism, referred to often, is Jean-François Lyotard. In discussing postmodernism, he wrote:

    I define
    as incredulity toward metanarratives..."

    Now some people are not too convinced about Santa's existence either and may be incredulous toward him (hence explaining the lumps of coal in their stockings), but at least we know what we mean by him. What are metanarratives?

    A narrative is usually another way of saying a "story" or a description of some turn of events, so a metanarrative (sometimes also called a Grand Narrative, with capitals for effect) is a narrative that explains (or perhaps contains) all others. For example, there are various narratives all over the world that explain the creation of the universe and everything in it; if a particular story is claimed to be the ultimate one that explains properly or accurately, it could be characterised as a metanarrative. The Enlightenment narrative that we have discussed above, to take another instance, says that reason and the natural sciences will help to free the world from superstition and ignorance, bringing us to (or closer to) true knowledge of our universe. Metanarratives can and are used to translate other narratives into their own form, subsuming them as they must if they are to explain all other accounts in their own terms.

    According to Lyotard, then, postmodernism is at least skeptical of this tendency, if not outright "incredulous" at the very possibility of finding one story that explains the world and all others. It is easy to see where this suspicion could come from: we could make the argument that since all attempts so far (that we know of) to find a grand narrative have failed, it follows that the thing just cannot be done. That does not follow, of course, as we saw in our /index.php?/page/resources?record=17">fifth article, but it might at least incline us to be doubtful of the chances of success.

    Some critics have suggested that in talking of the "death" or failure of all metanarratives, we are merely offering yet another metanarrative in their place, one that talks of this universal failure and tells us we have to accept it as the final story. Another point of objection concerns those narratives that have not yet failed; for Habermas, as we saw, modernism has not fulfilled its potential, while other cultures have their own narratives that cannot easily be dismissed just because Anglo-European ones are said to be doomed.

    Another way to look at this issue is by way of foundationalism, which we considered in our /index.php?/page/resources?record=17">fifth article on epistemology. The search for a metanarrative, according to Gianni Vattimo, is much the same as the quest for a foundation underlying our knowledge; this assumption that we require a foundation, though, is called into question. Instead, Vattimo suggests the metaphor used by Jorge Luis Borges in his famous story The Library of Babel, in which the universe is described an infinite library. When we wander though it looking at the books, we find that they each refer to other books—never an external authority, or the "catalogue of catalogues", as Borges terms it. Rather than appealing to foundations, then, or something else to ground our knowledge, we instead have to be satisfied with the library, or an interlocking web of ideas and beliefs.

    A philosopher who has looked at this question in much depth is Richard Rorty, who is very critical of foundationalism (see our /index.php?/page/resources?record=17">fifth article) and much of classical epistemology. In his early work he opposed the notion that knowledge somehow "reflects" or "mirrors" the world around us. If that is so, then it would make more sense for us to give up looking for an overarching language or narrative to understand all others in and instead just translate between them, much like Vattimo. Antifoundationalism is a rejection of the earlier ideas in favour of other understandings of knowledge, some of which we considered previously. Rorty suggests that we employ our concepts as tools to accomplish whatever goals we have, not as a means of hooking onto the world as it really is.

    Another epistemological perspective that has seen much activity in recent years and which often comes up in the context of postmodernism is constructivism. According to this idea, we don't receive knowledge through our senses or through discussion; instead, we build it up for ourselves from these and other inputs—we construct knowledge, rather than discover it. A slightly different way to say this is that we adapt our knowledge to organize what we experience, as opposed to using it to explore an external reality. This is quite a contrast with foundationalist approaches; according to some constructivists, we come up with many models to guide us toward whatever goals we have and all that reality can do is help us accept or reject those that are unsuccessful. We could say that we're devising better and better maps to get us where we're going, not exploring the territory.

    An obvious criticism of constructivism is to ask how it can select between alternative models if not by reference to a world that already exists and is not just constructed by us? Can we really say that we built up the fact that we can't breathe underwater, or was it instead forced upon us by the way the world happens to be? We find in our everyday experience that not every model is as good as any other when trying to accomplish a specific task, so many constructivists point to coherence or pragmatic concerns (cf. our /index.php?/page/resources?record=22">tenth article) instead of verifying ideas by testing them against the world.

    The notion of metanarratives and their rejection or acceptance thus involves many aspects, including epistemology and metaphysics. If Lyotard's definition of postmodernism is anything to go by then our opinions of these issues can go some way to determining how we view the subject.

    Power and knowledge

    In our /index.php?/page/resources?record=18">sixth piece we looked at the power that can be associated with terms like "knowledge" and "truth". Some thinkers characterized as postmodern worry about this and feel that some legitimate areas or methods of inquiry—or indeed modes of life—could be restricted. To take a simple example, if it is known that a certain method of farming is known to most efficient, it may be that some people insist that everyone adopt it—after all, there are a lot of hungry people. Nevertheless, should we allow this knowledge to force others to live in a way they do not wish to?

    On another level, some people consider that "primitive" groups should be civilized for their own benefit, but critics say that this assumes that what is good for one is good for everyone. This is partly a question of ethics (see the /index.php?/page/resources?record=23">previous piece), of course: should we point to the successes of a particular way of doing something or insist that others adopt it to, say, increase their health or life-span? The concern is that the sanction of calling something the truth endows it with a power that makes it easier to force people to do or accept things they otherwise might not.

    Another example of this kind concerns madness or insanity, the history of which was studied by Michel Foucault and others. According to a certain understanding of this phenomenon, popularized by a group known as the anti-psychiatrists, it is very difficult indeed to define what we mean "insane", say, unless by comparison to "normal" behaviour; what, though, is normal? Nowadays more complex methods are used in this process but it is clear that in the past it would be a relatively easy matter to define conduct that we disapprove of as abnormal or insane and legislate for the (forcible) treatment of people displaying it. If a certain group has the power to decide who is mad and who isn't, then their actions could have terrible consequences, as we have seen throughout history with the sterilization of so-called simpletons in the US or the concentration camps in Germany.

    The principle behind these and other instances is to be aware of the power and influence associated with defining terms or making distinctions between people; the way we understand concepts has consequences—the pen being mightier than the sword on occasion—so we have to be aware of this and act accordingly.


    A term that comes up often in discussions of postmodernism or thinkers associated with it is poststructuralism. Much like our opening remarks on postmodernism, this is also a difficult concept to define and involves the same notion of after-structuralism, so we need to look at this as well. Structuralism, then, is sometimes described as the attempt to bring all our attempts to understand the human condition under one model or structure, with a single methodology, all derived from the linguistics (the study of languages) of a Swiss theorist called Ferdinand de Saussure. There are many other influences but this is often said to be the main one.

    Much work and controversy is associated with Saussure's studies and that which followed, but the important and basic is that language is conceived of as not just a way of expressing our needs and ideas but something required before we can even think or have social interaction. The meaning of a story, say, is thus to be found in its structure; by analysing this and the language used, we can come to understand it.

    As structuralism became more important, particularly in Europe, poststructuralism emerged as a challenge to it. Is the meaning of a word really fixed or is it instead, to consider an alternative, actually defined by the use we want to put it to? What if the words we employ to refer to some fixed structure in fact miss their mark and never quite provide us with a bedrock structure to base everything on? Poststructuralism suggests instead that meaning is always unstable; when we use a word to point to a concept, it never quite gets there—reaching instead to another word, and thence to another, and so on. This is another challenge to the possibility of metanarratives and the Enlightenment ideas in particular.


    When we read a story, we sometimes take it for granted that the author is explaining to us what happened to the characters, what they thought about and—often—what the moral of the tale is. We could think of it as a fireside chat, in which the writer talks and we listen; in some detective stories, say, we are hoping to find out who did it, how and why. In some books, though, the moral isn't so obvious, and with poetry or movies it can be even worse; sometimes two people can see the same film and understand it in completely different ways. In that case, the issue is one of interpretation: who has appreciated the point of the piece most accurately?

    One way to answer this would be to ask the author, if he or she is still alive. Having said that, why should they necessarily be the one to decide? If we have a favourite poem that we read to have a particular meaning to us, should we allow that there are more authoritative ways of approaching it? Given that there may be very many understandings of the same piece, some of which may seem a lot more sophisticated than what the writer apparently intended, can it make sense to call one legitimate and the others not?

    Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation, named according to some after the Greek god Hermes (Mercury in the Roman pantheon), the patron of interpreters (among other things) who also lent his name to hermeticism. In the past it was associated with the interpretation of scriptures; some holy books warn against over-interpretation while others attribute many distinct layers of meaning to the same text, particularly in some Judaic works and the Hermetic oeuvre. Works by Homer, Dante or Shakespeare have been studied on many levels, but the prime example remains the religious texts: commentaries on commentaries had so much become the standard that in the fifteen hundreds Luther declared his famous maxim sola scriptura (or "by Scripture alone"), intending to strip away all the interpretations that had gone before and hence influenced the reader and instead start anew.

    In more recent times, Jacques Derrida declared "il n'y a pas de hors texte"—there is nothing outside the text. One way to understand this is to take it that there are is no guidance or adjudication to be found when considering a piece save within it; thus, when we try to decide what the correct interpretation of a poem is, we can only use the poem itself and not point to something external that would settle the matter for us. Indeed, one writer (Dilthey) said that the purpose of hermeneutics is "to understand the author better than he understood himself"; perhaps the writer unconsciously included aspects or influences in a text that he or she is not aware of and that can only be brought to light by interpretation by others? This led some to proclaim the "death of the author", but at the very least we have the author, the text itself and the reader all having an input into how the text is read.


    One form of interpretation or analysis of texts that is associated with Derrida and the so-called Yale school of Paul de Man, Harold Bloom, Hillis Miller and Geoffrey Hartman is deconstruction. It has had more of an impact on philosophy and literary theory in Continental Europe, but its influence has been felt widely. It can be traced back to Nietzsche but the problem with explaining or understanding it is that its proponents often insist that there is no deconstructionist method; that is, it isn't just another systematic approach to be applied that can be defined by explicit steps or principles. Even so, we can list some general guidelines that will help:

    • Add nothing to the text: The piece (it could be anything) under consideration should fall apart from its own flaws without needing to look outside it.

    • Look for unstated assumptions: By reading closely, we may be able to find presuppositions that the author relies on implicitly but doesn't argue for or explain; by pointing these out and criticising them, the purpose of the text may fail.

    • Reverse the terms: It may be that by changing some of the terms in a piece to their polar opposites, exactly the reverse argument is made. For example, a racist text may be just as sound (or otherwise) with "white" swapped for "black" (or vice versa); but if it applied to any group, it wouldn't be making a point at all.

    • Look for multiple interpretations: Rather than allowing one reading of the text to be privileged, try to find others—particularly those that may contradict or be entirely opposed to others. If a piece can support so many, perhaps its conclusions or premises should be called into question?

    • Look for limitations: What can the text not include or describe? What has been explicitly or implicitly excluded from it in order to make the points or arguments therein?

    A major criticism levelled at deconstructionism is that its proponents seldom attack their own work in the same way; why not deconstruct a deconstruction, for instance? There are also obvious limitations to which texts can be deconstructed: although some think it can apply to anything, it is hard to see how it can address mathematical or (some) scientific papers without the knowledge of these areas that most deconstructionists lack or without tackling the philosophical problems associated with them first.

    Another objection to deconstruction comes from a different perspective on language. According to Wittgenstein, rather than representing a correspondence between propositions and reality (cf. our /index.php?/page/resources?record=22">tenth article), language is a series of games or practices that enable us to achieve whatever goals we have in a situation; thus, as we said earlier, meaning is defined by use. On these terms, deconstructionism is simply beside the point: language adapts to its use and pulling a text apart fails to take account of this.

    Queer and feminist theory

    "Queer" was originally a derogatory mode of address for homosexuals but was adopted in a positive sense in the 1990s by some militants. Based partly on Foucault's writings on sexuality, queer theory is concerned with sexual identity and particularly the idea that fixed categories (such as "masculine" and "feminine") are insufficient to describe the diversity we see in our world. Foucault noted that a vague grouping of actions were replaced by a group of sexual categories and questioned whether this was justified or meaningful; is it enough to speak of heterosexual and homosexual or is this binary either/or not enough to account for the varieties of human behaviour? Even if we add other designations, the same question remains: are we describing divisions that actually exist or instead forcing individuals into moulds that they do not fit? What are the consequences of the latter, especially for those questioning their sexuality? Queer theory studies these and other similar questions.

    In a similar way, feminist theory considers the role and influence of gender and of ideas defining the role of women in society. For instance, is knowledge asexual? Some propose a radical feminist epistemology wherein knowledge claims depend on who is making them? Did biological differences determine, wholly or in part, the historically restricted role of women or were social and other prejudices to blame? Does the portrayal of women in the media, art or literature have a positive effect or does it merely reinforce old stereotypes? Should women work for equality or the celebration of difference? Whatever the answers to these questions, the main point raised by feminist theory is that the relationship between the sexes is not one of fairness and equal standing but instead a narrative of oppression and inequality. Whether this is so, who or what is to blame and how to remedy it is still the subject of much discussion today.

    Postcolonial theory

    Although influenced by Edward Said's early work, postcolonial theory is relatively recent and seeks to study those cultures affected by colonialism. One way to define it is as those political, economic, social and cultural practices that evolve as a result of or response to colonialism. A potential problem for any look at a former colony is seeing it from a Western perspective and judging accordingly; when people from within the culture decide to describe it for themselves, why should they adopt this perspective instead of their own? What is the effect of using the former colonial language, say, as opposed to the native tongue(s)? Does self-description come naturally or is it a reaction or resistance to being discussed on another's terms? How did the interaction between coloniser and colonised affect both?

    One consequence identified related to the Western use of the term "Orient" (or, today, the "Middle East"); according to some theorists, this had the connotation of "exotic" or different and hence instilled a view whereby other parts of the world were talked of as "us and them" or "here and there", a practice that continues today and which prevents or makes it difficult for the "us" to understand "them". In addition, "they" might have had to alter their feelings of identity as a result of the pressures of colonisation. Postcolonial theory looks at these issues and tries to increase our appreciation of our history and its impact on our ability to learn about others if we implicitly suppose them to be different before we even start.


    Postmodernism (and its related aspects) is not without its critics, of course. Several different complaints have been raised, the importance of which depend on how a particular idea has been stated:

    • Although postmodernism focuses on irrational tendencies and appears to celebrate them, it still uses reason as a tool.

    • Postmodernists mock the inconsistencies of modernism but are not consistent themselves.

    • Rejecting criteria for judging questions is not enough; alternatives have to be provided.

    • Postmodernists call for interdisciplinary work and not taking subjects in isolation, but they do this themselves in their own criticisms and fail to learn enough about other subjects to be in a position to do so.

    The first three are often forms of ad hominem tu quoque, a logical fallacy in which an argument is questioned because the proponent doesn't seem to hold him or herself to it; if the positions are explained carefully, though, there is no requirement for a postmodernist to be consistent if his or her objective is only to show that an idea is flawed. One way to think of this is as a substantial shrug of the shoulders: if someone demands to know what we have to offer instead of their suggestions, we can say "I don't know, but yours are still wrong"; afterwards we can ask what we need to conclude from this (for instance, is it better to have bad ideas than no ideas at all?). There are some thinkers, of course, that do offer explicit statements that can be addressed by the above criticisms (such as saying "we should not use reason to decide things" and then offering argument in support), but our discussion in the /index.php?/page/resources?record=20">eighth article entreats us to be careful and not to avoid interesting postmodern ideas that are not beaten so easily.

    The remark that much of postmodernist thinking demonstrates a lack of knowledge of other disciplines—leading to weak criticisms thereof—is one we could make about most subjects but has more importance in this context. Is it sensible to complain at the relationship between power and knowledge, say, without knowing how physicists and biologists claim to come by the latter, particularly given the diversity of approaches even in these (cf. our /index.php?/page/resources?record=18">sixth piece)? A situation to be avoided if possible is one in which no-one really knows what anyone else is doing but criticises them all the same. The problem of realism that we looked at before is very significant to the kinds of ideas postmodernists have put forward, which is why we find it being addressed by some of them. Opponents of postmodernism find it doubtful that the search for facts or truth need oppress anyone; although it is possible to use knowledge as power, they say, this has nothing to do with the facts themselves and everything to do with interpretation and the people doing the interpreting.

    Another telling criticism is to note that to be anti-theory is still to have a theory; that is, the theory that we shouldn't have a theory. Rejecting the need for criteria (whatever their purpose) is still a criterion. Is it possible to be as playful as some suggest, not holding beliefs or methodological approaches and instead refusing to define or pin down narratives? How lightly can we hold our ideas before we end up either holding nothing at all or become certain of them without realising it?

    One point raised against postmodernism concerns the language used in many works, which can seem tangled and obtuse at the best of times. Are long, complicated words being used as part of a specialist language or because postmodernists have nothing of consequence to say and want to hide this fact behind their rhetoric? Often the answer is a matter of opinion, or of saying that even a difficult writer can sometimes offer a comment clearly enough to raise an eyebrow before plunging back into a thicket of terminology. Since a key assumption of this series is that anything worth saying can be said clearly, it may be that some people are reluctant to wade into postmodernist thinking for fear that their time will be wasted; unless the writer is composing his thoughts merely for the amusement of himself and a few select friends, this is a difficulty that still restricts the impact that postmodern ideas can have.

    The limits of interpretation

    One thinker critical of the idea that meaning is forever deferred or that interpretation can go on and on without ever reaching an end is the semiotician Umberto Eco. In his work Interpretation and Overinterpretation he asked if instead there are limits to how much interpretation we can do with a given text. For example, suppose we take Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov, the tale of a father's murder, apparently by his own son, and with much discussion of philosophical and theological issues. We can each read it in a different way, understanding some lines, sections or characters in disparate ways and maybe even disagreeing vehemently about the moral of the story (if any); however, it seems ridiculous to say that we could interpret it as a manual explaining how to survive on Mars in the event of a global shortage of apples—some readings are too far beyond the text to be able to claim much (or any) support from it.

    In addition to apparently baseless interpretations, we can also overinterpret and see things that aren't there. An especially rich source of examples can be found in conspiracy theory, wherein the search for links between events and the hidden motivations of individuals or groups can result in speculations that, while they have some basis in fact, go too far. We see this also in the hunt for codes in Shakespeare and Marlowe: the former is believed by some to have left clues to the real authorship of his work while the latter was a spy and peppered his writing with anti-masonic comments. Eco himself gives the instance of the "Followers of the Veil" who read Dante's erotic references as coded criticism of the Church. Too much interpretation can lead us to see what we want to, rather than the (sometimes) quite specific intention of the author.

    Eco's main point is not that a text can tell us how it should be read but that it restricts what we can say. Even if we can take an infinity of different understandings, they are not equal: some of them will be supported by the text while others will not. In this respect, his remarks are much like the criticisms that were raised against older forms of empiricism (cf. our /index.php?/page/resources?record=17">fifth and /index.php?/page/resources?record=18">sixth pieces): we can't just appeal to our own ideas of what there is in the world but neither can we test them against that world without further ado; instead, we have to accept that our assumptions, goals and hopes can influence what we see but we still check our thinking to see if it has any support in the very thing we are trying to understand. Thus we can accept that there may be no final reading or fact to be found without giving up the possibility that some readings are more "far-fetched" than others. In terms of metanarratives, it may be the case that none of the possibilities yet or to come can succeed entirely, but we can still say that some are better than others.

    To summarise, postmodernism is made up of too many elements and thinkers who very often disagree with each other to permit any simplistic assessment of it. We have to take each idea as it comes and treat it on its own merits, even while it remains fashionable to employ "postmodern" as a synonym for muddleheaded.

    Dialogue the Ninth

    The Scene: The next day. Trystyn and Steven are walking beside the river, discussing the previous night's events. Both seem down.

    Steven: Why didn't you tell me she was already taken?

    Trystyn: She isn't "taken".

    Steven: What? Of course she is.

    Trystyn: You should think about the consequences of the words you use, even when upset. She's not an object; she's in a relationship.

    Steven: Which you failed to tell me about.

    Trystyn: What could I have said? It's not for me to define what she has and what she means by it. Perhaps she views it differently to me, or to you?

    Steven: You know very well what I mean.

    Trystyn: Perhaps, but not what she means.

    Steven: (Exasperated...) What? Meaning is fixed.

    Trystyn: No, it isn't. Lots of people use words in different way, or understand them differently to how you might. Meaning is flexible this way, according to how you want to use a word. Maybe her relationships are flexible, too?

    Steven: Mine are not. In any case, if you intend to use a word in conversation or anything else—if you want to communicate—then it has to be the same or nearly the same as the other party. I'm sick and tired of this postmodern nonsense where people avoid any kind of responsibility by claiming that there are just too many interpretations to call any of them valid. If you talk to someone then you have to consider what they'll think or feel; look at their behaviour, the situation you're in and the circumstances. It's just like taking a bunch of theories and testing them; it's not enough to take your own interpretation and call it equally valid to any other, or better because it's yours.

    Trystyn: You can see, though, that she might've assumed you knew?

    Steven: Why would I? How easy it'd be if we all accepted that nothing can be known at all; we can't pin meaning down because it always eludes us or remains indeterminate. You know who does that? People who are afraid to say "this is what I mean, and nothing else". You can read a book any way you like but there are boundaries to it forced upon you by the author's intentions, the characters and their goals, possibilities in the story; you can add to it, but the structure is already there to build on. If you move too far away from the context then you're just talking to yourself, making yourself look ridiculous.

    Trystyn: I guess the point of it all is to prevent one perspective from gaining power over others, or to stop it from being considered correct at the expense of all others. We know what happens when people are certain of themselves and decide to convince everyone else.

    Steven: (Shaking his head...) This kind of tyranny isn't associated with everything. I just wanted to walk her home. An author pens a story and doesn't necessarily intend to subvert the human condition or hide his motives so that some guy with no knowledge of his subject can pull it to pieces and coin a few words while he's at it. The way around problems with meaning isn't to render everything meaningless.

    Trystyn: Wow.

    Steven: (Under a full head of steam...) Of course I know that perceptions differ; that meanings vary between theories; that sometimes pinning something down can kill it. What's the solution? We have to be a lot more careful. We can take account of the problems and try to be clearer, or more cautious, but what we can't do is take our toys and go home. What does that achieve?

    Trystyn: Not much, I guess.

    Steven: Suppose it can't be done—that we can't find all the answers. Suppose even that every attempt to do so is tainted by our biases or the use we hope to make of it, or even that meaning will forever elude us. Won't we still try?

    Trystyn: I'm sorry I didn't.

    Steven: I didn't expect to know her mind, or for her to fall at my feet. It just wasn't too much to ask that you both pay some attention to me—after all, I'm hardly the most complicated of fools—and consider the consequences of what I would find meaning in.


    Curtain. Fin

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