Postmodern Views Of The Notions Of Objectivity, Individuality, Language And History

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Through literary history, there have been many trends and movements that shaped the minds of artists, thinkers and creators in every decade. The school of thought or movement that is considered the most recent to the current times is postmodernism which for some critics still continues now. As it might spoil by the name, postmodernism is a continuation of the movement modernism. It is a movement created against modernism though some critics say that it’s instead a more radicalized and improved version of it. They argue that Postmodernism erases the impurities of modernism and takes on the better parts of its ideology, continuing to improve them to be better. It originates in the mid to late 20th century that takes on many fields such as philosophy, arts, architecture, literature and criticism. The term has been more generally applied to describe a historical era in the name of postmodernity and said to follow after modernity and the tendencies of this era. It is a movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology. Postmodernism is also mostly a reaction to the assumption of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. It carries literary conventions such as fragmentation, paradox, unreliable narrators, often unrealistic plot, parody, paranoia, dark humor.

Postmodern literature is a form of literature that is characterized by the use of metafiction, unreliable narration, self-reflexivity, intertextuality, and which often thematizes both historical and political issues. The most important early postmodern philosopher representatives were Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jacques Derrida. Michel Foucault is also often thought of as an early postmodernist though he personally does not agree with that label. These thoughts and ideas created the origins of postmodernity which many postmodern scholars agree upon even though in the core of the movement it is bound to reject all kinds of objectivity and rationality. Most common targets of postmodernism and critical theory which it is bound to reject or conflict upon includes notions of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, language, and social progress as well as history, meaning and individuality. To understand postmodernism, it is important to look into different representatives of the movement and their take on the notions of the subject as postmodernism is one of the most criticized and argued upon movements through literary history.

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In the case of reality, postmodernists have a rather more radical view on the topic than the other school of thoughts in literature. The pragmatics claimed that it was not really possible to describe reality as it is or may be with the use of language but the word itself has its own made meaning assigned to by the speakers themselves. It is basically based on the groups own beliefs and views as well as their own satisfaction that make the reality truthful. Reality is seen as a construct that will perform some functions. There is no outside reference that language be put against to test it’s truthfulness or accuracy. This idea also inspired the Postmodernism movement in its belief that there isn’t one reality and can be multiple ones instead. For each group, there is a word of choice to define the reality they choose to accept.

Postmodernism is an innovative movement that is characterized as a rejection of all traditional school of thoughts before though some thinkers say that it also consisted with the valuable views of Modernism. It is possible to say that it’s a more radical and improvised version of Modernism. Postmodernists however claim to reject not one or two theories but all philosophical traditions of the ones before. Critical theories such as deconstructionism, pragmatism and New Historicism that belong to the postmodern movement did criticize views that are opposite to them as traditional thinkers did before them but unlike them they did not make attempts to tell the truth about reality. They have realized what the ones before them failed to grasp in their thinking, that human reasoning is not an adequate tool to be able to grasp the truth of reality. In this way this theory also has a conflicting nature as it is not sure whether there is one true reality but different views on how it is by the postmodernists or there are multiple realities that coexist with each other. Though some postmodernists reject the label of relativism, their approach to the concept of reality is pretty accurate to the one of relativists. Many postmodernists deny that there are objective statements or truth to reality in fact they deny anything regarding objectivity in the concept of reality. It is constructed by discourses similar to the ideas of linguistic practices. The origin of this type of thinking is also related to the roots of scepticism which postmodernism has a relation to. Many scholars have different views on reality. Lyotard’s consistent view that reality consists of singular events that can’t be represented by rational theory is one example. Lyotard’s philosophy showcases many of the major themes that post-structuralist and postmodernist scholars agree with. Foucault himself uses the term ‘power/knowledge’ to signify that power is represented through claimed forms of knowledge, scientific understanding and truth. ‘Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power… ‘ as he says. In this way they have different ways of depicting the same idea.

Postmodernism stays to be relevant in discussions because much of our current thinking and school of thoughts are rooted in postmodern ideas. There is no documented or agreed movement after postmodernism. And it is relative to the current thinking because it is normal to hear in arguments “that’s subjective” or “that’s one way of interpretation there is no one meaning” and so on. This thinking originates from postmodern theory and specifically from language theory. Most of those ideas of postmodernism were made and shaped in the 60s and 70s specifically by French thinkers such as Derrida and Foucault as we mentioned and their concepts of language. The view of postmodernism regarding the language and meaning aspects is relatively similar in the fact that meanings are put through the use of words and language and the way the language is used also majorly affects the way we perceive the meaning. Humans think in language which is the reason for literature. The ideas and concepts are formed in words but because the language is not trustable or arbitrary as humans are, the resulting language is also unreliable or messy. This inherent ambiguity that is built into all languages and by relation to human consciousness is the driving force for postmodern thinking and theory. Another reason for this is also because of cultural reasons. Different groups, academic disciplines, countries, generations, etc. use different ways to express themselves. So the usage of language also depends on this different groups and the meaning also changes relating to this.

Postmodern theory claims that there is no one objective definition to any symbol or term as it all depends on culture and can be tainted by concepts such as bias or power. It again brings us to the idea of reality and how it cannot simply be one objective concept. We use language to transfer and give meaning to things but language is faulty which results in our concept of reality to be faulty in relation. Language itself forces all thinking to remain as ideological. It also rejects the idea of innate concepts and ideas. In the case of the scholar’s perspective, Derrida argues that ‘there are no self-sufficient units of meaning in a text, because individual words or sentences in a text can only be properly understood in terms of how they fit into the larger structure of the text and language itself. As for Lyotard, he compares discourses to “language games” that like language games, discourses are discrete systems of rule-governed activity involving language. Because there is no universal “reason” or “truth”. Lastly Barthes draws on Saussure’s conception of semiotics which in the way the signs behave within society. In particular he examines the arbitrariness of signs within texts.

In case of meaning it is not really possible to take it from the notion of language as postmodernists tend to see them as in relation to each other and claim that different groups and thinkers might achieve different interpretations to the meaning of a text through numerous ways. It is a rather particular thing about postmodernism that the writers might take on a number of different schools of thoughts under the umbrella term of postmodernism. Yet what is consistent through their theories is the idea of uncertainty. In the case of meaning, Roland Barthes gave special attention to the process of reading the text instead of the author. Because he believed that the author was not responsible for giving the meaning of the text and was instead just producing in the process of writing and meaning was given into the text after it was read by the readers and there was no singular meaning because of this since everyone brought its own to the work. He goes more into depth about this topic in his work the ‘Death of author’.

The concept of language by relation also changes the concept of history. For the concept of reality is impossible to pursue and the most close to pursuing it is by the use of language which also changes depending on the culture, the concept of history is also deemed impossible by the postmodern context. Even the difference between two generations that exist one after another is alienized to such a degree where it is not possible to fully comprehend their framework of thoughts and ideals. The most modern historians and literature researchers and critics can do is try to understand them through learning the history of the past yet it would not be possible to fully achieve it. It is also commonly believed nowadays as many scholars do argue that history is not a science and is definitely not an objective field of study. History is subjective and the truth is what we make it to be.

Postmodern historiography is also closely associated with structuralism. Structuralism achieves to explain that history occurs because of broader social, economic and political movements or structures and not because of some single historical figures. Many postmodernist historians approve the structuralism theory which also brings its own criticism from others as it is not sure how to choose one interpretation over another if the concept of objectivity is also denied. An important figure who did research on this topic, Foucault believed that attempts to understand history or also reality depended on various groups that competed for power and whatever truth is acclaimed happened to be by the influence of these groups. An example of this can be said to be the American history which is thought very differently in many different countries. A country or group of people that is in conflict with another one would be bound to twist some of the truth while giving a synopsis of the events. It can be something that happens unconsciously to consider that what we perceive can be changed depending on how we feel and think about certain things regarding the given or taken information.

There are also different opinions regarding some of the most important representatives of postmodern thought. One is Michel Foucault who’s entire philosophy is based on the assumption that human knowledge and existence are greatly historical. He argues that what makes a man human is his history. He argues on the notions of history, change and historical method at some length through his career. Foucault describes his work on a number of occasions as the history or the diagnosis of the present, as the analysis of ‘what today is’. The question should simply be ‘how is today different from yesterday?’ As for Lyotard, he defines the postmodern movement and thinking as ‘incredulity towards metanarratives,’ in which ‘metanarratives are understood as totalising stories about history and the goals of the human race that ground and legitimise knowledges and cultural practises. ‘For Barthes, literature that can affect the changes upon the human subject he called ‘ecriture’. This is a special type of writing that changes the individual subject.

The postmodern idea on individualism or the individual subject is on line with the other elements of postmodern views. Meaning that there is no one type of human being that is ideal nor one moral way of thinking and living. Thus the postmodern person can be called as a hybrid, they have not one core or self that is a permanent self but instead they have many. They are not fixed living beings that do not change through their lives and development. The boundaries that are put into them and put by them on themselves are constantly in a state of change and development. It is one of the necessities of being able to continue to exist in the world we live in in the 21st century. Being inflexible will definitely not help a person in living in the circumstances of the modern world. Personality and identity are illusions, the individual is a puppet that is molded into its subject by the occurring external factors and events and not by their own means. Contemporary critics remark that in movements like psychoanalysis, structuralism and poststructuralism there is a rejection of human nature that exists by its own and instead they believe it to be the product of culture and convention. It is a constant changing notion that has no core state and will continue to form and evolve depending on various subjects. It can be said to be against the principle of beliefs of humanism. The idea itself is definitely subjective though it is against the principle of the individual subject’s existence. For Foucault, as a representative of poststructuralism, he problemated the notions of individual and subject. He saw the notion of individualism as the lasting residue of rationalistic liberalism which shows his attitude towards the idea. Most of the postmodernist critics’ view on the topic is also on the line with this viewpoint.

On the whole the school of thought of postmodernism accommodates many conflicting views and thoughts on the notions of reality, language, history, meaning and individuality. Considering the nature of postmodernism; which many describe and criticize as being very negative, anarchic and subjective, it is not a revelation that the views on these subjects are also very conflicting and broad in itself. What is common and regular in postmodern thinking is that there is no one universal truth or reality which also applies to all these notions. Names such as Foucault, Derrida, Barthes and Lyotard contributed to the origins of those philosophies with their works on fields such as semantics, philosophy and post structuralism. Their researches and ideas have provided to the movement the fact that their continuation of each other’s ideas by maintaining the main philosophy made a common view to be possible. Otherwise it would not be possible to call it a movement for there to be a common group of people who agree on some views for the least. It is one of the reasons why there is not any newer movement after postmodernism. Though critics have different opinions regarding this, in the education of literary history it ends with postmodernism. Some say it’s because the notion of postmodernism is still valid today. Some others say that the sceptical nature of postmodernism is the most suitable to today’s world and literature. There are even some who anticipate that there will be a post-postmodernism movement. It is not yet in motion whether one will happen, still it is a fact that until today the views of these scholars who have been long gone still continue to live and grow.


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