Monday, 21 April 2008

Postmodernism 101, Part 2.

So, as I discussed yesterday in incredibly simplistic terms, the modern condition took language at its word. In fact, more than this, it believed in concepts such as a single ‘truth’ that could be discovered through empirical science, which relied on the truth of observation. In other words, as humans, we could view the world and, through reason, figure out what we saw before us. There was a direct relationship between the object before us and how we understood or made sense of it. In turn, language could represent that object fully through carefully constructed sentences or descriptions. As long as we understood the language, we could understand the world.

Yet, the niggling thought at the back of the minds of humanity was that this was just a bit too easy. Even amongst the most literate people, miscommunication constantly occurred. New scientific developments, such as the discovery of the atom, highlighted that what we saw with our eyes wasn’t necessarily what was happening at all. And the labels that we placed upon things chafed as they didn’t quite fit. And in this moment of doubt came the post-structuralists.*

Post-structuralism argues that language does not fully encompass human experience. There is a gap between the word and the experience or object that it describes. The word ‘woman’ describes you, but what does it mean to be a woman? Women are people with the female biological sex. But what is female biological sex? Well, it’s having a vagina and breasts. But not all women have breasts. Some women don’t have vaginas. Some women don’t menstruate or have babies. How can this word capture what it means to be a woman? Women can mean so many things and yet this multiplicity of experiences is captured by one word. What use is the word ‘woman’ when no two ‘women’ have the same experiences? For post-structuralists, language can never entirely capture experience.

More importantly is the concept of categorisation. Why do we group all people with vaginas and breasts together under the label ‘women’? Perhaps, we could destroy the concept of ‘women’ altogether and label people with different terms. So now people are no longer divided into men and women, but blondes, brunettes, and redheads, regardless of whether they have penises or vaginas. How would getting rid of the concept of ‘women’ alter how we understood the world? Now take this idea and multiply it for every word in every language. Why are those four shades of blue all categorised as blue? Why are Fords, Peugeots and Nissans all grouped together as cars, but that we distinguish cars from vans? Perhaps grouping things together based on colour or age or distance from the ground is a more useful way of organising the world?

Now at first glance this idea does not seem too revolutionary, but the implications are huge. If how we categorise things gives them meaning, then language constructs experience. This is not to say that experiences aren’t real. An earthquake or eating your dinner doesn’t just exist in your imagination. But, how you understand what you did or what happened around you is entirely decided by how you understand the world, which in turn is shaped by language. You just painted your living room red. This physical event happened. But, the name of the colour you painted it was constructed. The signification of that colour- is it warm or cold, peaceful or angry, does make the room feel smaller or larger- is entirely constructed. Was painting your room about making the house more homely, about being more sellable? Any meaning that the event had was a function of the cultural language system in which you live.

Furthermore, the physical is also to a large extent constructed by language. You just painted a ‘room’. What is a room? Where does it stop? Does it stop at a doorway? Why? Why is that a ‘natural’ stopping point? Why not see all houses as a single room, as an indivisible space, or perhaps rooms are about function- all bedrooms should be the same colour? What about the body? Why does the arm go from your wrist to your shoulder? Why not get rid of the concept of arm and instead thinking of things in smaller chunks (hand, wrist, forearm, top-arm, shoulder) or bigger chunks (you have one arm that goes from right hand to left)? Perhaps the hand should include the wrist and so the order would go hand to forearm. Why is the mind separate from the body? If we see mental health as part of the physical body would we treat it differently? Would we treat the physical body differently if we could imagine that it worked in the same way as the mind? The physical, therefore, is not a static, observable object waiting to force its meaning on the world. The very act of observation relies on how we have been trained to categorise and view the world.

That training, or language that we use to interpret experience, is called discourse. Discourses are the bigger stories that link together different words, or signs, and give them meaning in relation to each other. In fact, in many ways, discourse precedes the sign as the sign is meaningless without the discourse. For example, the significance of a banana can only be seen when we have an understanding of the category ‘fruit’. What it means to be woman can only be understood when contrasted with what it means to be a man. Like pieces of a jigsaw, when words are removed from their context they become meaningless. In the context of patriarchal society, what woman is can only be understood as part of a larger discussion about power and authority and what types of authority women are entitled to hold. The word ‘woman’ does not just mean someone who has a vagina; it situates someone with that label into a much larger and complex construction of the world. Knowing that women should have vaginas actually tells you almost nothing about being a woman. Just like meeting a woman and being told that she is a woman tells you almost nothing about her life, and yet tells you everything. (In this sense, the sign can be both empty and full at the same time).

Ok, I think this is enough for today. Tomorrow we will discuss the implications of this theory for how change happens in post-structuralist thought. Class dismissed.

*Post-structuralism is a way of understanding language that is at the basis of post-modern thought- post-modernism however is bigger that post-structuralism

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