This is an excellent installment in a very useful series. Butler’s ‘very short introduction’ to postmodernism packs in a great deal of information and successfully characterizes the movement/phenomenon. This is no mean feat, since postmodernism is sometimes used as a philosophic nexus, one that is associated with capital-T Theory and the work of the French Nietzscheans (though Lacan receives no attention here). ‘Postmodern’ is also used to characterize fiction, photography, conceptual art, architecture (especially) and, to a lesser degree, music. Butler gives examples of all of these and attempts to make sense of a notion that is quite slippery. For example, Jameson’s famous account of the Westin Bonaventure hotel in downtown Los Angeles as quintessentially ‘postmodern’ is debatable. It does not, for example, have features that call attention, obstreperously, to function, as the Frank Gehry house on the west side of town does. The Bonaventure is ‘reflexive’ to the viewer because the viewer sees his reflection in the exterior but it is not reflexive in the sense that John Barth’s novels (or, for that matter, TRISTRAM SHANDY) are/is. In other words, this is a thicket and Butler leads us through it with great skill and lucidity.
The overall characteristics of postmodernism are discussed in detail; it is anti-humanist, anti-foundational, intensely skeptical, relativist and deeply suspicious of traditional notions of truth, meaning and reasoning. It is anti-empirical and jealous of science’s cultural positioning as well as its truth claims. It denies the reality of the ‘individual’ and is anxious to deconstruct any remaining faith in the reality and authenticity of ‘history’. Like the internet it collapses history into the momentary and substitutes imagery for argument.
Some of the Amazon reviewers have considered Butler to be contemptuous of postmodernism and, in effect, an unfair judge. I disagree; I find him to be quite fair. There are many commentators who see postmodernism as closer to the armament of the antichrist than a philosophic/cultural current. Since we are now 14 years beyond the publication of Butler’s book it has become increasingly clear that postmodernism’s impact has waned significantly. English department applicants to graduate specialties in Theory have shrunk to almost none and current graduate students are often heard to say that they feel lucky that they escaped this particular time in literary studies. Many believe that Paul Boghossian has cut the heart out of relativist/constructivist approaches in his FEAR OF KNOWLEDGE: AGAINST RELATIVISM AND CONSTRUCTIVISM (2007).
Of course, it has long been a staple of those who would criticize relativism that those who would aspire to be relativists must stand somewhere. You cannot assert the authority of relativism without, simultaneously, undercutting your own argument. The same is true of Derridean deconstruction. The endlessly sliding signifier problem and the inherently contradictory nature of language problem are often dissolved by simple context. Deconstructionists are troubled by the fact that the Greek word for medicine is also the word for poison, but as Donald Greene has pointed out, we have no confusion with regard to the meaning of the word when we see one person with a sore back take a single Valium and another desperate individual take 50, washing them down with Scotch. Similarly, ‘cleave’ means to both join and separate, but we have no trouble understanding this when we hear a minister urging a marrying couple to cleave to one another and when we see an Amsterdam diamond expert preparing to cleave a large stone. Postmodernists have urgently informed us of the weakness of Enlightenment rationality but used Enlightenment tools to defend themselves against their critics. As Thucydides put it, “it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not desire” (noted by Victor Davis Hanson in his brilliant new book on WWII).
Butler attributes the postmodernists’ contempt for the Enlightenment to the fact that reason, logic and the empirical method have deflated the claims of both Marx and Freud (which, for them, are essential): “Postmodernists are by and large pessimists, many of them haunted by lost Marxist revolutionary hopes” (p. 114), a point explored at length by Stephen R. C. Hicks in his very important EXPLAINING POSTMODERNISM (2004). Frederick Crews has now deflated the claims of Freud once and for all (try to find his influence on a contemporary Psychological Sciences department) and the numbers are in on the number of people slaughtered in Marxist states. Hence the argument that the use of Enlightenment principles and techniques has undercut Marx; thus, the postmodernists attempt to undercut the Enlightenment and get back into Marxist business.
Ultimately, Butler concludes, “the enduring achievements of postmodernism are therefore likely to be found not within philosophy or politics, or even in moral thought, but within the artistic culture” (p.123). In short, it will be remembered in the way that Dadaism and Surrealism are remembered. It will provide influences here and there and a few of its principles will be seen in our information technology but it will not displace Platonic idealism, Aristotelian empiricism or other foundational philosophic structures. I believe that this is spot on.
- Paperback: 152 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press UK; 1 edition (1 November 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0192802399
- ISBN-13: 978-0192802392
- Product Dimensions: 17.5 x 1.3 x 11.2 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 136 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 81,015 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)