Ramblings on Postmodernism

Written: February 22, 2004

This rant was written as part of a response to this article on postmodernism that a friend thought I might find worthwhile, but instead made me kind of angry [4/5: perhaps ‘angry’ would not be so appropriate as ‘exasperated’]. The rant might not make a whole lot of sense devoid of context, but I think I say some vaguely interesting things.

First of all, I think postmodernism is pretty cool. But I don’t know a whole lot about literary criticism or deconstruction specifically. I’ll talk about them anyway.

I feel that postmodernism is the acknowledgement that there is a unique relationship between a text and each of its observers.  (Postmodern art toys with that relationship and that context in some way.)  Deconstruction is, I think, a branch of postmodernism that deals with how we find meaning.

Semiotics — the study of signs — is at the heart of deconstruction.  The core idea of semiotics is that any communication involves four steps: encoding a message, transmitting that message, receiving it, and decoding it.  Every step involves a potential corruption of that message.

For example, anyone who’s gotten fairly deeply into learning a foreign language realizes that certain concepts in that language are essentially untranslatable — that a word in French might have connotations and allusions that one could not possibly convey in English.  Thus, any means of translating that concept from one language to another involve a loss (or change) of meaning.

Taking that farther, from a certain point of view, everyone speaks a unique language.  My concept of ‘cat’ is slightly but inevitably different from your concept of ‘cat’, such that I always mean something slightly different from what you understand me to mean.  And a third listener would have a different idea of ‘cat’ than both yours and mine.

This is not to take that to its extreme and claim that communication between human beings is fundamentally impossible — obviously, most people’s concepts of ‘cat’ overlap greatly — but not completely.  These differences in meaning are generally irrelevant in everyday life, when one is talking about the material world, and has a concrete point of reference.  But these differences become important in more erudite circumstances, such as when we are talking about mental constructs such as emotions; or when one is, for instance, translating a bible from Greek into Latin; or in academia, where one’s goal (in my estimation) should be to pin down meaning as precisely as possible.

This is also not to say that there is an infinite number of equally valid viewpoints — but that there is never just one. For example, in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, there is a character whose initials are J.C. and to whom the events described happen at age 33 (among other, smaller Christ-centric details).  Faulkner has denied any intention to allude to Christ — but the allusion axists, and we can discuss it.  (This itself alludes to a kind of corollary of deconstruction, commonly known as ‘The Death of the Author’ — that once a text is created, its creator’s understanding of it is no more or less privileged than anybody else’s.)  [5/30: I may have, unfortunately, misremembered which novel this happens in.  It was a long time ago, in high school English.  And besides, the wench is dead.]

When examining a ‘text’, we have to understand that it exists in a framework of contexts — the context in which it was created, and the context in which it is being interpreted.  (One sticky problem is that each interpretation creates a new ‘text’, and we have the potential for infinite regression.)  The statement ‘John F. Kennedy was not a homosexual’, despite being used as a kind of throwaway dig, is actually a very helpful demonstration.

I recall coming across the concept in James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games, that the lens through which we interpret a ‘text’ distorts our view.  Doing so is not pointless — but any such observation contains as much information about the observer as it does about the observed.

I think, at heart, the lesson of deconstructionism (if not necessarily postmodernism) is that every ‘text’ contains biases, as does every interpretation of that ‘text’.  And if we want to be careful about avoiding those biases, we first have to acknowledge them.  What’s important is that the biases themselves can be considered a ‘text’.

Perhaps academia has evolved all of their jargon to obfuscate the matter; or perhaps they are all too aware of the pitfalls of language and are trying too heard to be as exact as possible. Hell, while writing this, I felt the need to define many terms I used — ‘context’, ‘interpretation — with the thought that while there was no way I could make my message entirely clear, I could try to make it as clear as possible by being as explicit as possible about the terms I was using. But sometimes, in trying to prevent something, we cause it to happen.

[4/5: In response to those who wondered why the article pissed me off so, what most irraated me was the author’s basic premise; ‘I can’t understand them’ + ‘I’m really smart’ = ‘They’re full of shit’.  Knee-jerk anti-intellectualism. My biggest issue with the piece is the contention that *all* deconstruction is essentially academic onanism, and that the only reason it exists is to give jobs to dumb people whose only real skill is bullshitting.  Yes, there are some deconstructionists who deserve a slow death by strangulation.  But there are some really neat and useful ideas being thrown around, too.]