Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 23, 2017

Postmodernism, a Very Short Introduction, by Christopher Butler

My recent reading of  Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt was a reminder of how much literature has changed in the years since I first began reading adult literature.  I can’t think of anything that I read from my parents’ bookshelves that was a blend of fiction and non-fiction, nor can I ever remember then discussing the idea of truth in books being a relative concept.  Books were unambiguously fiction or NF, and librarians did not have to struggle with which section of the shelves to put it in.   Yet now, after almost a decade of blogging my reading here at ANZ LitLovers, I have become used to, and comfortable with, all kinds of what I now recognise as postmodernist aspects of literature.  So although I’ve dabbled in Postmodernism before, now seems like a good time to investigate Christopher Butler’s Postmodernism, a Very Short Introduction and also Introducing Postmodernism, a Graphic Guide by Richard Appignanesi and Chris Garratt.

Starting with Christopher Butler’s VSI (because I’ve read his Modernism before and found it illuminating) I see that the chapters are:

  1. The rise of postmodernism
  2. New ways of seeing the world
  3. Politics and identity
  4. The culture of postmodernism
  5. The ‘postmodern condition’.

Chapter 1 begins by talking about the hostile reception to postmodernist art, specifically Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966).  Searching for an image of it, I found a contemporary example of the 1966 reaction  – with which I have some sympathy, when it comes to the visual arts.  Butler acknowledges this:

Now enshrined in the Tate Modern, it doesn’t resemble much in the canon of modernist sculpture.  It is not formally complex or expressive, or particularly engaging to look at, indeed it can soon be boring.  It is easy to repeat. Lacking any features to sustain interest in itself (except perhaps to Pythagorean number mystics) it inspires us to ask questions about its context rather than its content: ‘What is the point of this?’ or ‘Why is this displayed in a museum?’ Some theory about the work has to be brought in to fill the vacuum of interest, and this is also fairly typical.  It might inspire the question, ‘Is it really art, or just a pile of bricks pretending to be art?’ But this is not a question that makes much sense in the postmodern era, in which it seems to be generally accepted that it is the institution of the gallery, rather than anything else, which has made it, de facto, a ‘work of art’.  The visual arts are just what museum curators show us, from Picasso to sliced -up cows, and it is up to us to keep up with the ideas surrounding these works. (p.1)

(Becky, at Becky’s Books, has just reviewed a book called What Are You Looking At? which is a guide to how you might look at the more perplexing manifestations of modern art, including the bricks at The Tate.)

Postmodernism, a Graphic Guide begins in a similar way, noting people’s discomfort with postmodern visual arts.  It goes on at some length about art movements that exemplify aspects of PoMo, such as altering realism to include the uncertainty principle (that is, that something can be seen simultaneously from different viewpoints); cubism (simplifying the human form to geometry); disposing of the ‘fetish of scared uniqueness’ (because original works of art can be reproduced en masse (through photography); and (the one many people scorn) presenting the unpresentable, i.e. to make visible that there is something that can’t be seen e.g. the empty room stuff.  There are other -isms, (constructivism, Dadaism, the ready-mades, pop art, conceptual art, installations etc.) but I scampered over these pages to get to the stuff about theory (and hopefully, books).

Whereas the cartoon-style graphics in ‘The genealogy of postmodern art’ were useful, I found that in Part Two, ‘The genealogy of postmodern theory’ the graphics were just distracting, and the text was (by contrast with Butler’s book) unnecessarily complex. Things which needed more clarification were hampered by the limitations of the layout, and I didn’t cheer up until I got to the page titled ‘The death of the author’ in which it is explained that Barthes (1967) made this statement in support of his idea that readers create their own meanings, regardless of the author’s intentions: the texts they use to do so are thus ever shifting, unstable or open to question.’ 

*chuckle* Theoretically, then, in my reviews I can interpret books any old way I like, regardless of what the author or anyone has to say about it.

But overall, although it has interesting things to say about fundamentalism being a panicked response to the postmodern assault on the sacred,  Postmodernism, a Graphic Guide has too much gobbledygook for me and I just scanned it before going back to Butler’s VSI.  What he says about scepticism made sense to me.

Deconstruction, deeply academic and self-involved though it mostly was, supported a general move towards relativist principles in postmodernist culture.  It left postmodernists not particularly interested in empirical confirmation and verification in the sciences.  They often saw this as contaminated by an association with the military-industrial complex, the use of a rigid technological rationality for social control, and so on.  It also meant that the followers of Lyotard and Derrida tended to believe in ‘stories’ rather than in testable theories. Postmodernists, having abandoned their belief in traditional (‘realistic’) philosophy, history and science under the influence of French thought, thus became more and more the theorisers of the (delusive) workings of culture… (p.29).

And thus we get anecdotal, untested evidence posing as research in books promoting pet conspiracy theories about Big Pharma et al.  IMO postmodernism has a lot to answer for…

This PoMo hostility to any overarching philosophical or political doctrine, is by definition also hostile to ‘dominant ideologies.’  Postmodernists don’t like aesthetic privileging and they are alert to every instance of what Butler calls the hidden debt of any work or text to its predecessors:

… it came to be thought that any text, from philosophy to the newspapers, involved an obsessional repetition or intertextuality.  Just as much as philosophy, which since Plate has worried away at the same old problems, the novel will inevitably reproduce or re-present earlier positions, earlier ideas, conventional modes of description and so on.  (p.31-2)

Disconcertingly, this means that

…no text ever finally establishes anything about the world outside itself.  It never comes to rest, but merely, to use Derrida’s term, ‘disseminates’ variations on previously established concepts or ideas.  (p.32)

History and science get a hard time from the postmodernists.   History becomes just another narrative with stories competing for our attention and our assent.  And while Butler concedes that PoMo has some value in making us more sceptically aware, more relativist, more attentive to the theoretical assumptions which support the narratives produced by all historians, a PoMo perspective on history means that the notion of objective reconstruction according to the evidence is a myth.  But Butler says that

Postmodernist relativism needn’t mean that anything goes, or that faction and fiction are the same as history.

[…]

An exact correspondence between narrative and ‘the past’ is not possible.  WE can describe the ‘same’ event in many different ways, our access to the evidence is always mediated, nothing is simply transparent, and there are always absences and gaps and biases to be dealt with.  But narratives can still be more or less adequate to the (interpreted) evidence, and new evidence can overturn narratives. (p.36)

Butler is brutal when it comes to PoMo attacks on the objectivist claims of science.

The claims of science were to be called into question.  And yet who could now seriously deny the ‘grand narrative’ of evolution, except someone in the grip of a far less plausible master narrative such as Creationism?  And who would wish to deny the truth of basic physics?  The answer was ‘some postmodernists’, on the political grounds, inter alia, that the hierarchising logic of scientific thought is inherently and objectionably subordinating.  For example, Bruno Latour’s (absurd) contention that Einstein’s relativity theory is a ‘contribution to the sociology of delegation’ since it involves the writer, Einstein, of the scientific paper imagining the sending out of observers, to make timed measurements of events, which are then shown by the theory to be relative to one another; for Latour, it seems, social concepts can explain basic science.

Most of us think of scientists as those who really know how things are: they reveal the nature of nature; their knowledge of causal laws enables us to produce inventions that make a difference, like microchips; their standards of evidence, of verification and general consensus, which ultimately control the paradigms or conceptual frameworks within which they work, are (or should be) the best we know (far better, for example, than those current amongst economists.)  That is what a Nobel Prize means.  (p.37)

Butler has no truck with the idea that science is just ‘one story among many’.  He thinks it is an extreme view of the relativism already encountered to object to the ‘privileging’ of scientists, and to claim that rather than discovering the nature of reality, scientists are just constructing it

…and so their work is open to all the hidden biases and metaphors which we have seen postmodernist analysis reveal in philosophy and ordinary language.

PoMo would have us centre on political questions aroused by [science’s] institutional status and application, shaped as they are by the ideological agendas of powerful elites.  But Butler thinks that this questioning of the motivations for and the consequences of scientific discovery in moral and political critiques is peculiar:

There is something very odd indeed in the belief that in looking, say, for causal laws or a unified theory, or in asking whether atoms really do obey the laws of quantum mechanics, the activities of scientists are somehow inherently ‘bourgeois’ or ‘Eurocentric’ or ‘masculinist’ or even ‘militarist’.

This is, partly at least, because the truths of science, rather than those of politics or religion, seem as a matter of fact to be equally valid for socialist, African, feminist, and pacific scientists (though some people in those categories deny this).  For empirical scientists only accept truths that have this universalisable character.  Aspirin works everywhere.  (p.39)

Butler thinks that PoMO is on firmer ground when applied to ethical and social problems, such as tackling patriarchy and colonialism.  The chapter on Politics and Identity is excellent.

This VSI is a terrific book.  If you’ve ever had doubts about post-modernism and its manifestations in art, literature and identity politics, yet wondered how intelligent people came to be influenced by it… if you are open-minded enough to consider whether there is anything worthwhile about postmodernism rather than just be mocked or dismissed out of hand… this VSI is the book for you.

Author: Christopher Butler
Title: Postmodernism, a Very Short Introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Very Short Introductions series, 2002
ISBN: 9780192802392
Review copy courtesy of OUP

Authors: Richard Appignanesi and Chris Garratt, with Ziaddin Sardar and Patrick Curry
Title: Introducing Postmodernism, a Graphic Guide
Publisher: Icon Books, 2013
ISBN: 9781840468496
Personal library, purchased from the University of Melbourne Co-Op Bookshop, $12.99

 

 

Available from Fishpond: Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) and so is Introducing Postmodernism: A Graphic Guide to Cutting-Edge Thinking


Responses

  1. I did units on pomo during my M Litt but judging by my supervisor’s remarks I didn’t get a very good handle on it, but then I think that’s true of most authors too, whose reaction to the ‘death of the author ‘ is to insert themselves into the text.

    • I don’t mind if they do it well, but it does depend on what kind of book it is…

  2. As you probably know, I have a growing fondness for literature that leans to the postmodern (or is influenced by it). But I don’t always know when the label is rightly applied. Of course the same is true of modernism (and there is a strand of mid-century English modernism that I don’t care for—I think). I should look for this. It seems whenever I see these books, I never see the titles I want.

    • I liked it because what he said about PoMo made sense to me in terms of the literature I read, in which I think PoMo is mostly fun and intellectually stimulating, but he quite rightly rubbishes its application to science. I liked the critical rigour he applied to it.

  3. Sounds fascinating, and obviously one of the more essential VSIs! :)

    • Yes, I think so – unless you studied it at university.

      • Alas, I’m a non academic so I’d probably find it useful!

        • Me too, and I do find it useful:) The best of the VSIs are just what I need.

  4. I’ve always been interested in postmodernism, though I’ve had to try to grasp in the hard way as it came into universities too late for me to learn it formally. Like any idea or “ism”, it can be misunderstand (and I’m sure my understanding is not perfect) but more, it can be taken to extremes, where everything is questionable, everything is relative, etc etc.

    However, I can live with science being put under “postmodern” scrutiny, that it’s valid to question “the motivations for and the consequences of scientific discovery in moral and political critiques”. This doesn’t mean that every scientific discovery is questionable or invalid, but much that science does has political, moral and/or ethical implications, don’t you think? Also, where money for scientific research comes from and what priorities it’s applied to are worth questioning too? Or, have I missed his point.

    • I’m not sure… I interpret what he’s written as saying that certain PoMo philosophers question the *results*, the incontrovertible facts e.g. the rules of gravity and so on. And that is daft, as the example I’ve quoted shows.
      You might want to argue about whether science should research A or B because you think that the funding always goes to A because of patriarchy or whatever, but that argument and any research you do about it isn’t science, it’s ethics, religion, sociology and/or politics. It doesn’t affect the results of the scientific research. That argument might be important to have, and I personally think that ethics should be part of a science degree, but ethics is not science.
      To give an example, you might quibble over whether funds should go to research male or female contraception, but at the end of the day the *results* are neutral: the Pill has been proven to stop conception. It works. You can go on and question the social and moral implications of that from a PoMo perspective, (but that’s not science) and you can (and should) do further science to see if there are any other medical consequences, but unless through the scientific method you make a new discovery that overturns the original scientific knowledge that such-and-such a combination and quantity of compounds in the Pill has this particular contraceptive effect, the original knowledge stands. (And in fact that is what science has done with the Pill, altering the quantity and proportions and tailoring the advice about the safety of it, but it doesn’t alter the basic science that lies at the heart of it).
      (I think science is like cooking: you do this and you do that, with these components and those, and it gets done over and over and over *in exactly the same way* and the results are always the same (the cake rises). So you’ve proved that this particular recipe works and there isn’t any argy-bargy about it. That doesn’t mean it will always work in a different oven or in a different pan, because those changes alter the method. And it doesn’t mean everyone will like it: Vegans might object to the use of eggs per se, ethicists might object to the use of factory-farmed eggs. But that doesn’t alter the fact that the recipe works.)

      • Yes, I understand scientific method – one of the main things of use I remember from my school science! I was really thinking about health sciences where science “proved” for example that this sort of fat caused heart disease and we shouldn’t eat these sorts of eggs, and then that was overturned by further research, and we were told something different about fats and eggs; then it was that sugar is the main culprit; and so on and so on. It seems that the more science finds out about the human body the less, in a way, we realise it knows, and yet too often in the past these findings have been presented as “fact”. I think these changes in knowledge are understandable because the body is such a complex organism, but I think the way these sorts of findings are presented are problematic, because, as you say, further research can overturn earlier research (sometimes because of the knowledge pushed forward from that earlier research.)

        BTW, I’m not a conspiracist and I do believe the world is round!! It’s just that I wouldn’t completely discount a postmodern analysis and would say that a little bit of scepticism never hurts.

        • When I was doing that course about dementia at UTAS, there was a lot of attention to the way these ‘health discoveries’ are reported to the public. The problem often arises because journalists are (on behalf of the public) looking for a ‘cure’ or a definitive prevention strategy, but the research doesn’t work like that, especially not with long term degenerative diseases. The truth is that we all know that a healthy diet like the Mediterranean diet and some exercise is the best preventative strategy of all, but *chuckle* since most of us would rather eat chocolate and loaf about, we love to hear that eating a bit of kale is a magical alternative!

          • Oh yes, I do think the media plays a role in how science is reported. That did cross my mind as I was writing.

            As for kale yes! And the other day I read that research had proven that eating at least 6 prunes a day will improve spine density, so, the report (from an MD) says, “if you want an easy way to improve spine density, eat at least 6 prunes a day”. I don’t think, really, that it’s as easy as that!! Otherwise surely no-one would have osteoporosis. The advice was too glib. Maybe prunes help but …

            • Yes, that’s exactly the kind of thing I mean…
              (And 6 prunes a day would have a definite effect on the digestive system, eh?)

  5. Great post.

    My brain is not shaped to understand post-modernism, no matter how hard I try. Equivalent VIII is something I’d accidentally and innocently walk on if it weren’t in a museum.

    • Yup, me too!
      Sometimes I wish, I really wish, that we had artists making beautiful art the way they used to…

  6. Thanks for sharing this with me. Postmodernism is a toxic phenomenon and it has to be destroyed.

    • Hello Richard, thanks for visiting. I found your blog very interesting:)

  7. The idea that science is just ‘one story among many’ has been a dangerous and destructive aspect of post-modernist ideas. Pointing out that everything is subject to subtle biases is valid, but as you and Butler and commenters point out scientific method is designed (not always perfectly applied) to counteract this. It has been crucial to our advancement.

    • Yes, I think it has sometimes been dangerous when this belief has been applied to the plethora of books ‘exposing’ medical issues. I have a book called The Death of Expertise among my books to read, and it’s about why it has become so prevalent to distrust experts in any field. All I need is time to read it!

  8. […] too long to summarise here, but it’s especially interesting to read so soon after reading the VSI on postmodernism.  Although Goethe (wisely) did not take up art as a career because he was good at it but not great, […]


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