Pegging “Postmodernism”


“Clothespegs” by Otodo, licensed under Creative Commons.

In the original post and discussion which prompted me to create this blog, I felt the need to distance or separate the terms “postmodernism” and “poststructuralism” from a tactical viewpoint. Here I’ll try to explain why, and in so doing attempt to clarify some of the main strands of critical theory that my readings of the ELT industry draw upon – that’s to say, as much as clarification can be any use when dealing with thinking which tends to value opacity over transparency.

The words postmodern-ism/-ist, in conjunction with relativ-ism/-ist crop up frequently in Geoff Jordan’s and Kevin Gregg’s various defences of the rational basis of SLA theory against what Gregg calls “attacks from within the gates” (Gregg: 2000) – attacks which basically (and often clumsily) question the right of rational realism, or scientism, to be the only or most privileged way of accounting for second language acquisition. I would like to offer some thoughts on Gregg’s article in a future post. Compared with Gregg, Jordan’s approach is more considered and shows that he has read beyond the SLA version of “postmodernist” thinking, but I don’t think his conclusions differ too much from Gregg’s.

There, I did it again, putting “postmodernism” in inverted commas, those punctuational clothespegs we use to hang up soggy concepts, concepts we’re not happy about touching. Why? Because, for me, it’s less a way of thinking than a description of the state of things. While it is true that what can be called poststructuralist thinking emerged around the same time as the postmodern state of things began to become most visible, around the late 1950s/early 1960s, I don’t think either term is reducible to the other. So although there are those in SLA who have described their approaches as postmodernist, I’ll be using poststructuralist  as an umbrella term covering several (and sometimes competing) theoretical approaches whose methodologies can be used to analyse not only postmodernity (as a description of a state of things) but any body of discourses in which there are questions of reference, representation, power and difference. Which is to say, from the poststructuralist perspective, any discourse at all.

postmodernconditionOf course, there is a certain degree of slippage, or drippage from this most soggy of concepts, “postmodernism”, and it’s hard to avoid the backsplash. Jean-François Lyotard’s seminal The Postmodern Condition, a book whose position on science we will return to, may offer some kind of waterproof protection (another umbrella, perhaps). Lyotard shies away from attaching -ism or -ist to the root word of his enquiry except when referring to artistic movements, suggesting that there are certain types of creative activity which are consciously postmodern, are postmodernist, are consciously reacting against or going beyond modernism. “Postmodern” on the other hand, for Lyotard, applies to a cultural condition in which belief in the grand narratives or “metanarratives” of the enlightenment, sorely questioned during the modern period, have finally collapsed – a world in which plurality or eclecticism disrupts the idea of dominant ways of doing things, dominant styles:

Eclecticism is the degree zero of contemporary general culture: one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald’s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and “retro” clothes in Hong Kong; knowledge is a matter for TV games. (Lyotard: 1984)

You’ll notice no websurfing – The Postmodern Condition was published in 1979, although it proved prescient in its prediction of massive public information storage and retrieval systems. But this description of the eclectic, decentred, playful postmodern subject, accurate though it may be when referring to the contemporary cultures of the world’s most “developed” societies – Lyotard’s explicit field of study – seems troublingly close to the ideal consumer-subject, plastic and malleable, of what has optimistically been referred to as “late capitalism” (see Jameson 1991). On the one hand, there is the political and ethical move that a postmodern culture offers – to suspect grand narratives, to create new, situated, unstable but potent interventions; and on the other is a postmodern identity very much at the service of the discourses of advanced consumerism (you are what you buy, for example). Advocates of a consciously performative vision of identity, such as Judith Butler, are in this sense politically suspect, open to the accusation of “late capitalist libertarian[ism]” (in Zizek’s phrase; Zizek 2007).


Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, a “postmodern” film about about a film (about a book).

What are some of the hallmarks of this idea of postmodern culture, encompassing as it seems to do both radically radical and radically conformist positions? Aspects may include the dominance of the image, in advertising, entertainment, social and news media; a certain abandonment of cultural and political metaphors of depth and a consequent privileging of surface, of superficiality; a certain distancing, a renunciation of emotion and emotional response to art, culture or politics in favour of irony, the postmodern shrug, the one-liner; the repeated citation of other works, the celebration of intertextuality – not “quoted”, woven together by artistic genius as it may have been by a modernist, a Joyce or Eliot, for example, but “incorporate[d] into the very substance” of the work (Jameson 1991); the idea of self-referentiality, that representation is only ever about representation, from TV shows about TV shows to novels about novels to films about film; the collapse of the modernist distinction between “high” and “low” culture; and the coming to voice of previously subordinated identities, contradictorily coinciding with a persistent questioning of the stability of identity, of the possibility of an individual style, which in itself, according to Jameson, has led to the triumph of pastiche over parody.

What, then, is postmodernist critique, or postmodernist thought (two collocations, drip drip, that cannot be ignored) – is it to be defined as thinking/theorising about postmodernity, somehow outside it but observing it critically – or is it thinking which is postmodern in its nature, born from the condition of postmodernity and therefore slave to no grand narrative? I find this question too sticky; I find its undecidability unproductive. To add to my reluctance, there is the sense in which the word “postmodernist” itself has, at least in the hands of rationalism’s most vehement defenders, a pejorative import – that using it, whether in or out of clothespegs, carries with it an implicit mockery, a snigger behind the hand at the term’s contradictory anachronism (not helped when one considers those works which exhibit many of the key features of postmodernist art but predate the movement by sometimes hundreds of years – Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman (1759) being one obvious example).

There is, of course, this danger with “post-“anything, the seeming impossibility of the development of an idea whose definition places it after something else, with the only tactical options being to go back to what was there before the post-, or to post the post- itself, or to somehow accept that we’ve reached the end of history, at least in epistemological terms. My preference for “poststructuralism” does not escape these questions, cannot really be fully and satisfactorily separated from “postmodernism” on the conceptual washing line, but its history as a way of thinking rather than a set of general cultural conditions, or a mode of representation of those conditions, make it seem far more useful to me in my present task.

Structuralism is a theoretical paradigm first emerging at the beginning of the 20th Century in the field of linguistics (with Ferdinand de Saussure) and later gaining currency, at least up to the 1970s, in literary and cultural theory, anthropology and sociology. It advocated a mode of analysis which considered meaning as dependent on an overarching structure, often regarded as fairly static. Within this structure culture becomes intelligible. Roland Barthes’ analysis of James Bond stories, for example, sought to identify the elements particular to Bond narratives, and by extension, all narratives – in mapping out a grammar of narrative structure, Barthes put forward the idea of a narrative code, the understanding and acceptance of which by a reader is essential to understanding the story itself.

Speaking very broadly, structuralism’s emphasis on systems of signs as the source and condition of any meaning, of the idea of human culture as fundamentally coded, rang true with some of the intellectuals caught up in the revolutionary atmosphere of late 1960s Paris, but its ahistoricism and tendencies towards totalisation, hierarchisation and what Derrida called its need not only to suspect, but “to reduce and to suspect” (Derrida: 1967), did not. For Barthes, on the one hand:

One of structuralism’s main preoccupations [is] to control the infinite variety of speech acts by attempting to describe the language or langue from which they originate, and from which they can be derived[.] Faced with an infinite number of narratives and the many standpoints from which they can be considered (historical, psychological, sociological, ethnological, aesthetic, etc.), the analyst is roughly in the same situation as Saussure, who was faced with desultory fragments of language, seeking to extract, from the apparent anarchy of messages, a classifying principle and a central vantage point for his description. (Barthes 1975)

For Derrida and others, however, the impossibility of definitively reducing the “infinite variety of speech acts” became the starting point for poststructuralism, a more radical force in critical theory insofar as it refuses the idea of a dominant structure that cannot in its own terms be deconstructed, that cannot escape its own history or suppression of history, that cannot unequivocally posit itself as a universal structure with a defining and delimiting “central vantage point” that somehow stands outside that structure, that escapes structurality. This, for Derrida, constituted a rupture, a moment

in which language invaded the universal problematic; that in which, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse – provided we can agree on this word – that is to say, when everything became a system where the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the interplay of signification ad infinitum. (Derrida 1978)*

In the case of Michel Foucault, one can trace this rupture in the trajectory of his works, from the more strictly structuralist perspective of The Order of Things and The Birth of the Clinic to a mode of historical critique more focused on conceptual instability, on the idea of power and knowledge as both produced and productive, but above all situated and contingent. In this way, although Foucault resisted the term poststructuralism, there is a movement in his work which breaches the totalising concept of structure, and that allows me to bring Foucault and others together with Derrida under the umbrella of poststructuralism without reducing the critical tensions between them. Zizek, to whom I referred earlier, is another example of an unlikely umbrella-sharer – a Marxist (or postmarxist?) thinker who at once resists the poststructuralist insistence on the dissolution of stable subjectivity and at the same time adopts some of poststructuralism’s more recognisable moves in order to do so.

I will suspend any discussion of what these moves may be for now – Patrick Amon has already elucidated a key example in his first comment on the previous post. I would rather, in the next one, turn more firmly towards the ostensible object of study for this blog – the ELT industry – and show the moves by attempting to deploy them. I have always felt that there is no poststructuralism outside of poststructuralist readings, no deconstruction outside of doing deconstruction, so from now on I will abandon this unavoidably reductive attempt at overview and proceed, as best I can, with the business at hand. Just don’t call me a postmodernist – or even a “postmodernist”.

*EDIT: Just to complicate the chronology of structuralism/poststructuralism I have offered, the rupturing “event” to which Derrida refers in the history of the concept of structure is not easily identified as the historical moment of rupture which produced poststructuralism, in a linear sense, as something which follows structuralism, whose centre could not hold. Derrida goes on to cite three great masters of suspicion regarding centred structures, Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger, whose names, along with that of Marx, should never be omitted from any account of the development of poststructuralism – and whose ghostly presences call into question the “post-” of that formation.


Barthes, Roland and Lionel Duisit. 1975. “An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives”. New Literary History Vol. 6, No. 2

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. “Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences”. Writing and difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Gregg, Kevin. 2000. “A theory for every occasion: postmodernism and SLA”, Second Language Research 16

Jameson, Frederic. 1991. Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press

Lyotard, Jean-François. 1984. The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Zizek, Slavoj and Michael Hausser. 2007. “Humanism is not enough.” IJBS. Vol. 3, No. 3