Letters Archive
Fall 1993, Vol. 2, No. 1
  • Postmodernism and the Concept of Culture
  • Reclaiming the Humanities
  • Placing Poe
  • Postmodernism and the Concept of Culture

    Postmodernism is a point of convergence for the disciplines, a philosophical or theoretical attitude toward history or culture which attempts to blur disciplinary lines and to disrupt academic territorial claims. Postmodernism can be divisive for these same reasons. Should postmodernism be understood as a description of our cultural condition, or as a peculiar and sometimes rarefied academic pursuit? This question, posed during the spring seminar "Postmodernism and the Concept of Culture" at the Center for the Humanities, guides the following discussion between Jay Clayton (Department of English), Mary-Kay Miller (Department of French and Italian), and David M. Steiner (Department of Political Science).

    LETTERS: Concerning the title of the seminar, "Postmodernism and the Concept of Culture," why did you question the "concept" of culture as opposed to the simple conjunction of "Postmodernism and Culture?"

    CLAYTON:: It is characteristic of the culture of postmodernism that the distinct realms of theory and practice have become not just theoretically inadequate but practically ineffective. It's impossible now to separate the social, the political, the sexual, or the economic, from the cultural realm. Culture interpenetrates all of these realms, and this challenges various views of the autonomy of literature. For the previous two hundred years literature had marched under the banner of autonomous, high culture, but the changed nature as well as function of culture in the postmodern era really levels that notion of a high, separate literary realm.

    STEINER: There is no question that culture seen in broad terms has penetrated every aspect of professional life: medicine, law, literature, humanities, science. But there is an enormous difference between accepting that very obvious and important development and saying that therefore tomorrow morning all of us could do surgery, for example. It is one thing to say that culture shapes and creates an environment which inevitably has an impact on highly specialized studies, brings them into often jarring juxtaposition with other studies with which they are uncomfortably but perhaps productively placed. It's quite another to say that because the culture is democratic in style, one which is suspicious of the high, of the closed, of the esoteric, that it therefore has successfully redefined those activities as democratic in themselves. Where I differ with your approach is that I have tried to preserve a space, a modest space and not an imperious space, for those who do a certain kind of difficult work. I have no difficulty at all with a lack of interest in such work. Why should one, after all, be interested in certain kinds of difficult philosophical enterprises? It is not the same to go from that moment of disinterest, or indeed cultural or democratic suspicion of such activities for their difficulty, to announcing that because they don't share in the democratic accessibility that one wishes to celebrate that they are to be trampled over in the name of ascendant egalitarianism.

    MILLER: I guess that I am really suspicious of preserving that space, for one of the things I find most compelling about postmodernism is that it tends to open things up more. I agree that what I'm saying now is precisely what you're criticizing, but when I look at a lot of Derrida's work for instance, which I think is the kind of philosophical work that you're talking about, I see something that believes itself to be universal. But it is a universality that I would challenge quite strongly. I think it's very traditional, white, privileged, male.... I could go on. I think that what happens in postmodernist thought is that the space of privilege is challenged over and over again, and broken apart, and that is what leads to all these conflicting discourses that we find in postmodernism. I don't think that it's just a kind of bad faith move to simplify something.

    CLAYTON:: We had a lot of disciplinary diversity in the group from the literature departments—French, Spanish and Portuguese, English, and comparative literature—but also from history, political science, sociology, and art history. I think that this nexus of disciplines captures the broad use of the word "culture" that we're driving at. Many people in the seminar were interested in getting some clarification of this term that they had heard about and were perhaps intimidated by. So we did a fair amount of clarifying of the intellectual lineage of that term, how it has changed over the years from being a rather limited technical term in literary criticism to being a much broader label for a historical moment. We also were continually being challenged to question whether clarity is possible, whether these terms don't call themselves into question to such a degree that any kind of clarity becomes illusory.

    STEINER: Criticism of literary and philosophical postmodernism or deconstruction is absolutely worth doing. It is interesting to take some of the most influential and difficult texts and to analyze them to show, for example, that in a concept like "trace" or "infrastructure" or "the Other," there may be implicit certain presumptions which the authors themselves are unaware of, traces of certain political or gender identities. That has to be done from the inside, with all respect, and it's a difficult task. After all, to use my analogy, if one is going to review a difficult scientific treatise, one gives it to those whose competence is presumably beyond question, and criticisms that will be made will be in the language of the claims of that particular discipline. So I would like to see criticisms made from the inside as opposed to with a broad brush from the outside. At the broad brush moment I reserve this instinct that what is happening is not a piece of analysis that is sympathetic to the language but is a kind of external, political reaction. The question of whether one maintains a critical edge in such kinds of analysis is in my mind an open question.

    MILLER: I see what you re saying, and you would be absolutely right if you were to criticize an article for doing what we sat around and did in the seminar. I would take that as a very legitimate criticism. But I think that in that kind of group, given the diversity of people there, we could not have done what you're talking about, taking apart texts from the inside. I'm not sure how that would work. I can see that is extremely important to do, but it doesn't seem to me to be compatible with the aims of the kind of seminar we had.

    CLAYTON: : I'm amused by this imagery of inside and outside from someone versed in postmodern theory. The notion that to be critical one must be "inside" is to beg the question of what the "outside" is, how one finds oneself or is put on the outside in the first place. Central to a notion of postmodernism as culture is the way that it has deconstructed some of these secure disciplinary boundaries. The notion that a "trained philosopher" is any more on the inside relation to the texts of Kant than a political scientist, a literary theorist, or a scholar of French, is something that postmodernism not just questions intellectually but also undermines in institutional terms.

    STEINER: I think that pinpoints our difference precisely. It is of course accurate to say that the binary oppositions that have made up Western thought, to use a cliche, from Plato to Nietzsche, have been undermined, attacked, displaced, by the work of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, and others. Derrida's famous statement, "there is nothing outside the text," is picked up by the wider community of which we are a part and can be used to good effect. But what Derrida means by there being no "outside" is not a point about the coming together of disciplines, political correctness, liberal democracy, or postmodern architecture. It is a point of enormous technical difficulty that emerges from an analysis of Husserlian phenomenology. Precisely what I'm objecting to is that a term which means something important, or doesn't mean, or is the "other of meaning" within a difficult set of texts, is then transported and colonized in this kind of cultural milieu and indeed used for rhetorical effect. So that when I say that criticism should come from the inside, I was speaking in a very conventional way, and as Jay rightly pointed out, not in a technical way. But were I to speak of the "inside" of a text in a technical way, I would be very wary of transporting that term into a term of general rhetorical or political description.

    MILLER: I m concerned about closing down all the other possibilities of interpretation for things like Derrida's reading of "inside the text." Why can't it be understood in other ways? I agree that understanding it in a very philosophical way is Important. But it is not necessarily the only way to do it.

    CLAYTON: In fact, there was a kind of authoritarian character to your statement, David. The idea that "Derrida meant this" and we are out of place in using his term in any way other than the way he meant it is a kind of master/slave rhetoric that is problematic. Further, it's ironic that you say that others have colonized this term when what we're really talking about is a kind of move to appropriate and steal the colonizers' language.

    STEINER: I think that if you mean when you say "authoritarian" that you mean "with respect to an author," I have no difficulty with being authoritarian. I do respect authors. When you translate everything into a particular interpretation of celebratory democracy, then it seems to me there is a dangerous colonization taking place. I think it's much more dangerous than an initial careful respect for trying to work out a difficult text. As Hans Georg Gadamer once said, "if you read a text only once you're condemned to read the same text always." I think in this move—which I do regard as colonial—is to bring the difficult and the strange into the familiar and panoptic vision that is already to be celebrated, the democratic, one loses the spaces of thought.

    MILLER: I think I have to object at this point to the way you are using "colonial," because I feel that it's loaded with historical significance. Your point is well taken at one level, but I really don't think that Derrida is in any danger of being "colonized" in the historical sense of the term. You're talking about representatives of two privileged heritages, institutions, histories, and colonization is perhaps an ill-chosen metaphor.

    CLAYTON: The fact that we are arguing fiercely over two fairly radical visions of what postmodernism can be is also ironic. What we don't have is a vision resistant to postmodernism, a questioning voice of the traditionalist who would prefer to return to, say, a modern rather than a postmodern moment, or even go further back than the modern to something even more traditional. What we're really debating is whether radical philosophical postmodernism is superior to radical sociological postmodernism.

    LETTERS: You and Mary-Kay would be the "radical sociological postmodernists."

    CLAYTON: That is right, and David would be the "radical philosophical postmodernist." And I think your readers are going to be immediately sensitive to that when they say "wait a minute, what about my question? You all haven't even gotten to the question whether or not postmodernism is a good thing or whether we ought to resist it as a degradation of value and human experience," which are the questions that loom in many people's minds. It is in some ways a mark of the success of the seminar that there were many skeptics in the group about the value of postmodernism and their voices weren't lost, but we were also able to get beyond the question "is it good? is it bad?" to some fairly knotty problems which really come down to problems of definition.

    LETTERS: Is this just a problem of definition, though? On the one hand, "Postmodernism and the Concept of Culture" has been talked about as a way of saying that culture already is postmodern, like it or not. But then the inside/outside distinction resists something that is ineluctably the case. Aren't the grounds of the definition in question?

    STEINER: I do see my own fascination with some of these texts as a point of resistance. I think that the authors of those texts are not misread in being read as moments of resistance to pan-Americanism, to the American democratic experiment as it is manifest in its multiple dimensions. That is why I think there is more at stake here than definitional disagreement. If those texts are co-opted, if they are turned into merely a reflection of the kind of movement that you've just described, a kind of juggernaut movement, then they are indeed silenced in their most vital aspect. I think if we were having this discussion around a table in Paris, Milan, Turin, Frankfurt, the "and" of the title immediately would have been seen to be ironic. I am suggesting that we are in a very unusual moment intellectually and academically if we want to argue that postmodernism is for everyone. We don't argue that AIDS research or fractal mathematics or classical philology is immediately accessible to everyone, but we celebrate in the academy the fact that it is getting done. I think much is at stake in the desire to appropriate these texts, some of them, for that more general view of culture.

    MILLER: I completely agree with you that this would be an extremely different discussion in Paris. Yet you seem to be implying that somehow that discussion is more valid than the discussion that is happening here, that somehow this is an inferior model. That is where I really resist. We need, perhaps, to be more aware of what may be going on in other places, and of different kinds of interpretations of this, but I don't see the need to privilege any one of them over the others. In fact, I think it's in that dialogue and in that discourse that you will find its true significance and complexity.

    CLAYTON: Postmodernism is a name for a historical moment. We are, in advanced Western capitalist societies, in postmodernism. Some of the theorists whose names have been invoked, take Derrida as an exemplar, could be seen as the product of postmodernism, rather than the author of postmodernism. I think that is another thing that is at stake in debating whether postmodernism is a cultural moment or a theory of culture.

    STEINER: I think I agree with both points. All I'm suggesting is that when you render certain ideas, texts, difficulties, as products of consumption, you so to speak neutralize a number of spaces from which that other thing, which Jay wants to call postmodernism, and which I simply want to call modern culture, or contemporary American academic culture, or elitist culture, you lose some difficult and interesting sources and spaces of resistance.

    CLAYTON: By the way, it's interesting that this seminar, unlike many seminars on postmodern themes at the Center for the Humanities, did not read any Derrida even though he has come up over and over again. One of the things that Richard Brown and I had in mind when we organized the seminar was that it might be interesting to read some different people. So we initially took some French theorists, but not Derrida and Lacan and other post-structuralist theorists, as our point of departure. We read Baudrillard and Lyotard first, then went to Fredric Jameson and then read quite a few theorists from the United States—feminist, African American, and post-colonial theorists.

    MILLER: And what was interesting about choosing Lyotard and Baudrillard was of course that in some ways they are American. They're French theorists, but both are American based.

    LETTERS: Something that has been at issue here is the question of American democracy. David has been talking about democracy as a kind of rampant egalitarianism, and postmodernism as being in the service of that. Is David right?

    CLAYTON: There were moments earlier in this conversation, David, when you said some anti-democratic things that seem troubling to me in some of their political implications. So I'm assuming that you reopposing democracy in favor of some even more free form of political arrangement and not some more oppressive or totalitarian form of political arrangements.

    MILLER: In fact, this struck me earlier in the year when you talked about the essays we read by Judith Butler, on postmodernism and feminism, and Kwame Appiah, who writes on the relationship between postmodernism and post-colonialism. At the time, you did not talk about democracy. You did, at various moments, talk about them as embracing a kind of liberal ideology, which I assume is closely related to what you're talking about here.

    STEINER: I once made a reference in the seminar to Voltaire in which I suggested that Dr. Pangloss, the famous character who pronounces that this is the best of all possible worlds, was supposed to be seen as ironic, whereas Jay had taken him seriously. It's just that the character had lived too early, he wasn't living in 1993 America. When I speak of opening spaces or holding open spaces of theoretical resistance to a certain vision of democracy, I am neither speaking in political terms of a yet more radical democracy, nor am I speaking in political terms of a more authoritarian political ideology. Protagoras's dictum that man and, we would now say, woman are the measure of all things has been at the heart of my own thinking about democratic education. The paradox for Protagoras was that he had to suggest and justify a difficult education that could only be taught by those who have gone through a very demanding and perhaps even elitist education, elite in a sense of intellectually difficult, believing that only a very difficult education could prepare the few to teach for the sake of democracy. That is, that a democracy may need certain spaces within which its own self critique is maintained and developed by those whose time and institutional support enables them to do so. I resist the sense that we do live in the best of all possible worlds, that American democracy has ended the question of the good life. I resist this neither in the name of a conventional or more radical democracy, whatever that might mean, or an authoritarian democracy. Postmodernism as I understand it asks questions that belong neither to the left nor the right, but come from the Other, to use a technical term. In an era in which the great utopian visions, Marxism and others, have apparently been laid to rest, perhaps rightly, still it is from such moments of the Other that we may be able to find the next source of intelligent auto critique.

    MILLER: I too find the idea of the Other a compelling one, and I don't think that we should shut it off or shut it down. I'll go back to "liberal" since that was my way of approaching this to start with. It did seem to me that David found a moment where Judith Butler was using war imagery and decided that she was basically embracing a liberal ideology because she seemed to express concern with human suffering. Now, of course "human suffering" can become a liberal construct that works against a post structuralist approach because of the whole question of the subject. However, what I'm personally interested in doing in my work is finding another space for this subject that neither holds it up as an immutable, essential entity, nor dispenses with it totally. The reason I'm interested in this is because this notion of deconstructing the subject, dispensing with the subject, negating the subject is extremely problematic. It's fine when we all sit around and play with it, but it is extremely problematic when you're talking, for example, about the literature of colonized peoples, or feminist literature. And so when you use the term liberal to talk about Butler's approach or Appiah's approach, it seems to me to diffuse all of the power of their argument, to deflate what it is that they're doing, and I'm wondering if that is your intention.

    STEINER: The volume entitled Feminism as Critic edited by Drucilla Cornell and Seyla Benhabib contains an article by Cornell and Adam Thurschwell. In it there is an extraordinary paragraph in which they say in slightly more formal terms what you just said. They say "look, we don't want to essentialize the subject, especially not the subject of 'woman' when the whole 'feminine' has been a gesture towards the Other. At the same time, we don't want to lose the subject completely as the subject of suffering." And so the question is from where that ground or non-ground or other-of-ground is going to come. This challenge seems to me at the core of postmodernist feminism in which the problem of the subject is inescapable. I didn't mean and don't mean to deflate what they said. I was struck only by the fact that when it came to this extremely difficult problem of finding a space that can't be a space, it embraced a fairly straightforward kind of liberalism. So not to deflate the acuity of the analysis, but just to say that in my view this real problem remains very much at the initial stages of its discovery.

    CLAYTON: I've been thinking about your metaphor of intellectual space and trying to juxtapose it with the accusation that I'm Pan gloss. Though I by no means believe that postmodernism is the best of all possible worlds, you've correctly captured a difference in our goals. My concern always has been fundamentally evaluative. One reason to think of postmodernism as a cultural condition is that one can do a history of cultural moments and position oneself, take a stance toward those things, and try and come to some kind of terms about one's own place in the world and one's own evaluation of that place. Democracy was never a question for me. I did assume democracy as a positive value. My question was one about capitalism and whether it was possible to sustain not optimism about the course of capitalism, but hope. My evaluative stance wasn't confident enough to be optimistic, much less Panglossian, about postmodernism, but I did at times make room for a kind of hope. We have to couch our discussion in terms of a wider intellectual debate, one shaped by Marxists on the one hand, who want to see capitalism as inevitably degrading to individuals and destructive to large classes of peoples, and on the other hand rightist ideologues who don't want anything but celebration of what they think of as laissez-faire capitalism. Thinking of postmodernism as a cultural condition makes it a phase of advanced capitalism. It is a phase which presents us with extraordinary promises and poses urgent questions for study at Vanderbilt.

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