DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N044-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 11, 2021, from

3. Challenge to the bases of consensus and representation

The view that all systems are self-contained and largely self-referential has a radical implication that either alarms or inspires – the implication that no system has any special purchase on Truth and, in fact, that it is impossible to establish a Truth. This implication goes beyond the recuperable relativism of the nineteenth century to unrecuperable difference in the twentieth. Where relative systems could still cohabit in the single world of modernity, postmodernity involves the recognition that, to a large extent, one’s relative systems construct the world. In short, that the world is not One; that words like ‘truth,’ ‘nature’, ‘reality’ and even ‘human’ are weasel words because they imply, falsely, that an autonomous world of meaning and values exists, and that it transcends all finite and mutually exclusive human systems and somehow guarantees them. Postmodernism denies absolute status to any truth or nature or reality. The question always remains – what truth, which nature, whose reality?

While this post-structuralist critique of transcendence goes back to Plato, the postmodern version limits its ambit to the particular forms of transcendence made available in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. The discourse of modernity extends to infinity its neutral media of space and time and, in so doing, encourages us to forget finitude and to distribute our energy toward an infinite horizon. The discourse of postmodernity, on the other hand, treats time and space as dimensions of finite systems. This recognition of absolute and unmediateable finitude inspires reflexiveness because activity no longer can be referred to unchanging external absolutes. Such reflexiveness always remains experimental or improvisatory, and inaccessible to universal generalization.

The disappearance of transcendental reference creates four related crises: the crisis of ‘the subject’ (the irreducible individual, the one that is because it thinks or is conscious); the crisis of ‘the object’ (the ‘things’ – including the individual – that constitute a world that is single, not multiplied); the crisis of ‘the sign’ (the word that refers to the world thus constituted); and, consequently, the crisis of historicism (the temporal humanism that constitutes an uneasy unity in the world by formulating transcendence as The Future).

Postmodernism presents a new problematic of negotiation between finite systems of meaning and value where no transcendental reference is possible. This negotiation goes on all the time in complex ways but, in the discourse of modernity, neither philosophy, nor political science, nor indeed any science, nor even much art has attended to it. This new problematic is, in Craig Owens’ words, ‘how to conceive difference without opposition’, and how to translate that problematic, as the Renaissance translated Christian humanism, into social and political terms.

Where modernity sought the single system, postmodernity plays with the elements of systems, combining them for limited agendas, using what is useful and leaving the rest, refusing responsibility for consistency within this or that totalized explanatory system. This ‘bricolage’ becomes a key value for postmodernism. What one wants to avoid at all costs is something without play, without slack, without the living capacity for movement; one wants play in the line, play in the structure, in the sense of flexibility and variability even to the point of reorganizing the structure.

By conceiving all particulars and practices as functions of systems rather than as semi-autonomous entities, postmodernism poses especially interesting problems for two agendas of modernity that are particularly valuable to twentieth-century social and political function: historicism and individualism. History as a single, universal system of human explanation depends upon a construction of temporality that belongs to humanism and the Renaissance; its very notion of temporality is a kind of single-point perspective in time. Postmodernism puts history in the interesting position of considering its own historicity. The individual subject, sometimes appearing as the Cartesian cogito, does not, despite alarms, entirely disappear in postmodernism into systemic function. But individual identity and agency do have new definitions and functions when all practice is conceived differentially and systemically rather than naturally. Whatever is individual about a life, its unique and unrepeatable poetry, comes not from some ‘natural’ essence but from its particular specification of the complex discourse it inhabits.

Given the extent of the reformation implied by postmodernism, it is not surprising to find a flutter of reaction against it, not all of it informed and much of it governed by a desire to rescue particular epistemic investments from devaluation. The emphasis on linguistic reflexiveness, on the power of a system of signs to constitute meaning and value, has been taken by some commentators as an expression of inward-looking narcissism, a flight from ‘reality’ and, even, a threat to morality and order: it is as if the social, political and epistemic problems to which postmodernism responds were created by it, rather than by the entire culture of modernity. Postmodernism does not spell the end of meaning and value, still less the end of humanist meaning and value, but it does spell the end of certain hegemonies, especially those vested in what Alain Robbe-Grillet calls ‘habitual humanism’. In any case, Saussure’s idea of the reflexivity, rather than the referentiality of language has by no means yet been fully explored.

The postmodern critique, amid clatter and confusion, is only just under way. There is no responsible way to anticipate its full implications or trajectory. One can see, however, that postmodernism offers both a new freedom and a new constraint. The emphasis on the constructed nature of all knowledge and projects means that, because they have been invented, they can be changed; there is, morally or socially speaking, no ‘nature’ of things. On the other hand, the fact that with our languages we inherit so much of our beliefs and values ready-made means that we are much less original and autonomous than modernity suggested, and we express agency more locally, more collectively and less heroically than modernity allowed.

Citing this article:
Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. Challenge to the bases of consensus and representation. Postmodernism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N044-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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