Postmodern Questions, Poststructuralist Methods

[The following is a lightly touched up version of a response paper for my theory independent study. This week we read Lyotard, Baudrillard, Lemert, Harvey, Jameson and Butler on the issue of what’s up with postmodernism. Lemert’s answer is the best: postmodernism is not what you think.]

In “Contingent Foundations”, Judith Butler questions the very foundations of the debate about postmodernism with uncharacteristic wit and clarity: “The question of postmodernism is surely a question, for is there, after all, something called postmodernism?” (3) Butler argues that postmodernism as a theoretical movement is largely a construction of its opponents, who cram together quite disparate, primarily European works (e.g. Derrida’s literary criticism, Foucault’s historical analysis of discourse, etc.) into a single boogey-man. These opponents often focus on Lyotard, author of The Postmodern Condition, because he had the kindness to use the term itself, unlike most of the other supposed postmodernists (including Butler herself). In this essay, I will turn to the question of postmodernism – that is, what various authors mean by the term. I argue that postmodernism is most usefully thought of as a description of a period of history – generally the mid-to-late 20th century through the present – and that authors described as “postmodernist” often share a concern with the peculiarities of this moment, but not necessarily a substantive theoretical stance. That is, postmodernists are interested in the postmodern moment in the way that economists are interested in the economy, but they may exhibit as much contentious disagreement as Marx and Ricardo, or Keynes and Friedman about the underlying dynamics of that moment. Thus, postmodernists are those that ask questions of postmodernity. On the other hand, poststructualism (a term Butler accepts, albeit with reservations) usefully describes a method of inquiry attuned to certain sensitivities – the interrelationship of ways of knowing, forms of power, identities, etc. Poststructuralism is a way of seeing that has been applied to many times and places – from 16th century Europe through present-day dentistry.

Like the critics of postmodernism so belittled by Butler, I will begin my foray into postmodernism with the ever-helpful Lyotard. Lyotard’s fame comes primarily from his three word definition of postmodernism, one which is often misread to describe a kind of theorizing rather than a moment in history (just as Butler notes when she hears postmodernism described with phrases like “if discourse is all there is…” … “if real bodies do not exist”… etc., Butler [3]). Lyotard argues that, “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity to metanarratives.” (xxiv)

Most citations of Lyotard stop there: postmodernists are those whacky literary theorists and social scientists who deny metanarratives like rationalization, globalization or science. I believe this confusion stems from Lyotard’s focus on knowledge in the postmodern moment (the subtitle of his essay is “A Report on Knowledge”). Thus, Lyotard’s description of postmodern knowledge (which is incredulous to metanarrative) is read as a description of his own work, rather than his explication of how knowledge works in general in this era of computerization and the commodification of information. That is, Lyotard is not prescribing a method but rather asking, what does knowledge look like in the postmodern moment? His text continues, “This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences…” That is, progress in the sciences (a metanarrative Lyotard invokes uncritically in this passage) produced a moment in which knowledge producers have begun to doubt the horse they rode in on. In particular, Lyotard emphasizes that the criterion for knowledge has shifted from its correspondence to an underlying truth (i.e. metanarrative), knowledge is justified by its performativity, that is, by what it does in the world (xxiv, and many other passages).

One example of this performativity criterion comes from the field of economics. Milton Friedman famously argued in his essay, “The Methodology of Positive Economics” (1953), that economic knowledge should be judged by its ability to make predictions about the future, not on any grounds of plausibility nor, to crib from comedian Stephen Colbert, its “truthiness”. Friedman wrote:

[T]he relevant question to ask about the “assumptions” of a theory is not whether they are descriptively “realistic,” for they never are, but whether they are sufficiently good approximations for the purpose in hand. And this question can be answered only by seeing whether the theory works, which means whether it yields sufficiently accurate predictions.

This quote, I would argue, epitomizes postmodern knowledge in Lyotard’s framework. Lyotard himself examines tools like game theory, as well as the rise of the great uncertainties in modern science: quantum mechanics and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem in math, etc. (55-56) The production of this new form of knowledge is, in turn, upsetting the basis on which that knowledge was constructed – the performativity criterion – as the notion of a unified, knowable, determined system itself is under attack (55). Thus, postmodern knowledge forces us to collectively reassess our criteria for knowledge-production, and (perhaps) leading science to consider more thoroughly the roles of narrative and rhetoric, abandoned long ago with the rejection of folk knowledge (60).

I hope I have sufficiently argued that Lyotard is not advocating a new form of knowledge but rather attempting to describe an existing lay of the land. In this, Lyotard has much in common with authors such as David Harvey, Frederic Jameson or Charles Lemert. Each of these authors sees postmodernism is a particular dynamic exhibited by the late 20th century – visible in Jameson’s title, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”. Harvey focuses on shifts in architecture (as an example of cultural shifts in the 1970s), and sees postmodernism as a reaction to existing modernist forms: “Postmodernism, by way of contrast [to modernism], privileges ‘heterogeneity and difference as liberative forces in the redefinition of cultural discourse.’ Fragmentation, indeterminacy, and intense distrust of all universal or ‘totalizing’ discourses (to use a favoured phrase) are the hallmark of postmodernist thought.” (Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, 9) Note here that like Lyotard, Harvey emphasizes the way that cultural productions in the postmodern vein reject universals, but also like Lyotard, Harvey is not positing himself as a postmodernist! Indeed, by collecting these fragmented forms and acts of resistance to the modernist paradigm, Harvey is engaging in a decidedly un-postmodern project. So, perhaps we should discipline ourselves a bit and refuse to refer to authors like Lyotard and Harvey as “postmodernists” but rather as “theorists of postmodernity.”

Charles Lemert makes this point delightfully clear in his essay, “Postmodernism is not what you think.” For Lemert, this title is a double entendre – first, like Butler, Lemert argues that most have misconstrued what postmodernism is. Second, Lemert argues that postmodernism is not primarily something that is thought, but rather a moment in which we are collectively embedded. Drawing on Baudrillard, Lemert argues that modernity (born in the late fifteenth century) has taken a decided turn, and now “Social life … is much more a spectacle that simulates reality than reality itself…. There is something to this but, I should warn, it does not necessarily mean that the world does not exist – only that it exists in some strange new form.” (27) Lemert draws on familiar examples from popular culture – the hyperreality of Disneyland famously analyzed by Baudrillard himself, the surreality of Michael Jackson’s race or Madonna’s sexuality, and the rise of the reality TV show, which is all the more real for being so incredibly contrived. Postmodern thought, then, consists of thoughts about postmodernism. But the postmodernism lies in culture, in discourse, in new forms of scientific knowledge, and new kinds of buildings – not merely in the heads of a few Frenchmen and their disciples.

Before concluding this essay, I want to return to one of my initial provocations: the difference between postmodernism and poststructuralism. As I have just laid out, postmodernism refers to a particular description of the late 20th century, and postmodernist thinkers are those who theorize postmodernity. Poststructuralism, on the other hand, refers to those who, as Judith Butler puts it, think that “power pervades the very conceptual apparatus that seeks to negotiate its terms, including the subject positions of the critic; and further, that this implication of the terms of criticism in the field of power is not the advent of a nihilistic relativism incapable of furnishing norms, but, rather, the very precondition of a politically engaged critique.” (6-7) Poststructuralists, then, criticize the ways that power authorizes knowledge and forms of identity to make possible a certain form of politics focused on opening up new possibilities – new sexualities, and new ways of being gendered, in Butler’s case. Poststructualists may apply their methodological lens to many different problems in many different times and places – Foucault, for example, focused on surveillance and incarceration as tools for creating certain kinds of docile subjects in Discipline and Punish. Thus, we might say that theorists of postmodernity believe that the way reality works has fundamentally changed in recent years, while poststructuralists might say that reality has always been made to work through the complicated articulations of modes of understanding and relations of power (which in turn produce a variety of outcomes). Postmodernism and poststructualism are thus potentially compatible, or at worst orthogonal – one, a set of questions about a particular time and place, the other, a toolkit for excavating new potentialities.



  1. Thanks for this post. I found it quite insightful.

  2. Very nice post. Here’s a question for someone who has recently read the whole gamut of works with “postmodern” in the titles: why is it that Marxists like Jameson and Harvey are so clear-eyed and hard-headed about postmodernism, while non-Marxists are like cotton candy? (This was Chuck Tilly’s term for Baudrillard. He did not mean it in a nice way.)

    • I don’t know that I can answer that question satisfactorily, but I wonder if it has to do with how much they buy into the whole postmodern moment. Baudrillard, for example, seems to run with it – he sees the world moving a certain crazy way and he’s going to embrace it in the style of his own work. The Marxists have a strong tradition to hold on to, and so they are approaching this crazy set of new ways of knowing, producing, building, etc. with a very critical eye.

      Although, it’s worth mentioning that Baudrillard started off as a Marxist, or at least very closely connected with Marxism. But I don’t know his story that well.

  3. This is very well done.

  4. The way you describe the “performativity criterion” sounds a lot like Levi-Strauss’ bricolage…?

    • My knowledge of CLS is quite weak – we read some of The Savage Mind in a theory class a few years ago and that’s it. So, would you expand a bit on your question? My understanding of bricolage is that it refers to the way that new things (knowledge, tech, cultural forms, etc.) are usually composed of combinations of old things. I don’t quite see the connection between that and the idea that we should judge the production of science based on its ability to change the world rather than its truth content.

  5. Well, I have to qualify that I only know Levi-Strauss through Derrida – so I’m quite open to being corrected! It wouldn’t be the first instance of disputing Derrida’s reading of someone.

    I had in mind the description of bricolage in Structure, Sign and Play:

    “The bricoleur, says Levi-Strauss, is someone who uses “the means at hand” [les moyens du bord], that is, the instruments he finds at his disposal around him, those which are already there, which had not been especially conceived with an eye to the operation for which they are to be used and to which one tries by trial and error to adapt them, not hesitating to change them whenever it appears necessary, or to try several at once” and so on. (Writing & Difference (2001), p.360.

    Now, compare your Friedman quote: “the relevant question to ask [is] … whether they are sufficiently good approximations for the purpose in hand.”

    The concern in both is for usefulness for the purpose “in hand” (interesting that they both use this expression), rather than a commitment to a set range of tools, concepts etc. Accordingly, Derrida suggests of Levi-Strauss that this is empiricism (somewhat pejorative in French), and it expresses the same criticism of past discourse that you had highlighted.

    This fits with your description of the poststructuralist as one who asks questions of the postmodern. What’s interesting are the dates: Friedman 1953, Levi-Strauss 1962… not exactly the dates that people would necessarily set for ‘the postmodern’.