Postmodernism in Order to Understand the Current Term Paper

  • Length: 10 pages
  • Subject: Black Studies - Philosophy
  • Type: Term Paper
  • Paper: #14101080

Excerpt from Term Paper :


In order to understand the current themes in philosophy of postmodernism and post structuralism, it is important that we understand the structuralists themes, which dominated the philosophical thinking in the twentieth century and influenced many postmodernists and post-structuralists. In the early and mid 20th century there were a number of structural theories develop to explain human existence. In his study of language, the structural linguist Ferdinand Saussaaure (1857-1913) proposed that "meaning" was to be found within the structure of a whole language and the system of language rather than in the analysis of individual words. He suggested that by studying language we will be able to understand how the human beings create meaning and how this process is connected to practice. For the Marxist, the truth of human existence could be understood by an analysis of economic structures. While the Psychoanalyst attempted to describe the structure of the psyche in terms of an unconscious [Sarup, 1993].

In the late 1960s the structuralist's movement, which was based in France, attempted to synthesize the ideas of Saussaaure, Freud and Marx. Thinkers like Claude Levi-Strauss and Lacan developed structuralism, which was against the existentialist doctrine, which claimed that man is what he makes himself. For these structuralists the individual is shaped by sociological, psychological and linguistic structures over which he/she has no control, but which could be understood and uncovered by using structuralists methods.

In the late 1960s three French thinkers, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuz devised new methods of analysis to understand human existence; their methods were sharply influenced by German philosopher Nietzsche. These thinkers did not disagree with the structuralists that language and society shaped the individual (they were very critical of Freud and psychoanalysts) but they disagreed that there were definite underlying structures that could explain human condition. Thus these thinkers although very diverse in thinking and also critical of each other have come to designate, what has been called Post-Structuralism [Madan, 1993].

Michel Foucault is seen as one of the most important representative of the post-structuralists movement. In his historical and genealogical analysis, namely "Madness and Civilization," "The Order of Things" "Discipline and Punish" and "History of Sexuality" Foucault proposed a new concept of power which has played an important role in the current philosophical thinking. Foucault showed how the human sciences (knowledge) were intertwined with mechanism of power. His main thesis was that meaning is not fixed it changes from society to society and from one period to another. Thus he suggested a kind of cultural relativity; he also challenged the concept of the author (as an authority) and said that the author has become obsolete by the power of the reader in the interpretation of text [Koray, 1999].

Derrida on the other hand developed a new technique called deconstruction, which attempts to uncover the multiple interpretations of texts. Derrida suggests that all text has ambiguity and because of this the possibility of a final and complete interpretation is impossible. Thus there is no fixed meaning in the words or language, meaning is created and constructed and it is purely subjective. Derrida in his magnum opus "of Grammatology" also suggests that our whole language is metaphorical and this is the reason why there cannot be a fixed meaning. Meaning for Derrida is depended upon the reader's experiences, thus Derrida's theory of Differance lie in the belief of the inadequacy of language. Derrida aims to show that every text inevitably undermines its own claims to determine a definite meaning [Quigley, 1998].

Post-Structuralism and Postmodernists basically argue that "truth" is relative, it says that language is rooted in culture and its practice, thus it always favors that particular culture. Meaning on the other hand is not objective but depends on the experience of the individual. For both Foucault and Derrida 'texts' is not a natural reflection of the world. Text structures our interpretation of the world. The whole post-structuralists thought conclude that we live in a relative world in which all attempts to find an objective meaning is futile. I short Post-structuralism is an understanding of the tensions between ideas of the human condition as being ruled by fixed structures and the ideas that human beings are completely free. Post-structuralists indeterminacy entails the rejection of a belief in absolute truth and, accordingly, a rejection of the belief in unitary, autonomous selfhood. Post-Structuralism and Post-modernism has created a void and these modes of thought have given rise to moral relativism. Though the analysis if Foucault and Derrida are very accurate, these thinkers do not give any substantial theory to combat these crisis in language and in meaning, to them its not a crisis but a reality.

Thus Foucault following the footsteps of Nietzsche wrote archaeologies and genealogies of unconventional topics such as madness, Clinics, mental cells, prisons and sexuality. By writing such histories Foucault attempted to show how certain 'margins' were created by the language and power. He clearly demonstrated that 'truth' in such matters were a function of social status and politics, not the fact of the case. In his view complex differential power relationships extends to every aspect of our social, cultural and political lives. Foucault in his first book "Madness and Civilization" which has become a significant text of post-structuralism shows how madness was perceived through different periods in western history. Foucault describes how madness in 17th century was perceived for the first time as a social problem [Sarup, 1993].

There was quick shift in the thinking of society and madhouses were built, suddenly these people were being confined. Madness during the 19th century began to be categorized as a social failure. Foucault says that the asylum were not a free real of observation, diagnosis and therapeutics, it became a judicial space where one was accused, judged and condemned. Continuing with his method of analysis Foucault in his ground breaking work Discipline and Punish describes how the mad's, the vagabonds and criminals became a target of Panopticon. The concept of Panopticon is one of the fascinating concepts by Foucault. He says that modern disciplinary power has become a system of surveillance which is interiorized to the point that each person in his or her overseer. Foucault says that the transformation from monarchical power to disciplinary power has given rise to Panopticon. The Panopticon is a machine in which everyone is caught and which no one knows. As Foucault says "In modern society, our spaces are organized like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible" [Foucault, 1979]. Thus Foucault says that the method of surveillance used in modern prisons is used by modern state to execute and regulate its control of society

Discipline and punishment is one of the most important work of Foucault in which he present a history of modern penal system. Foucault gives a description of the birth of the modern prison system and seeks to analyze punishment in its social context. The notion of power is most important to Foucault's work; Foucault examines the changing power relations and claims that with it the different social aspects change too. Foucault begins his analysis of the prisons and punishment from the eighteenth century when torture and public execution was part of the criminal system. Punishment in these cases was ceremonial and directed at the prisoner's body, it was also a ritual with lot of audience and helped in reestablishing the authority and power of the kings. The eighteenth century saw many reformers of the punishment system but these reformers according to Foucault were not interested in the welfare of the prisoners but wanted to make power operate more efficiently. According to Foucault the way for the prison system is prepared by the developments of disciplines. Discipline is a series of techniques by which the body's operations can be controlled, according to Foucault it works by coercing and arranging the individual's movements and his experience, it has three elements, hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment and examination. Observation and the gaze are key instruments of power, by these processes and through the human sciences the notion of norm developed [Foucault, 1977].

Derrida's notion of deconstruction focuses on the binary opposition which is supposedly contained in language (good/evil truth/falsity etc.) Derrida argues that these distinctions are because of the traditional concept of the language and the superiority of the speech over writing. Derrida says that the concept of logocentrism carries itself an illusion according to which the meaning of the word has its origin in the structures of reality and hence makes the truth about the structure seem directly present in the mind. Derrida argued that this concept of logocentrism has resulted in a fixed way of thinking and a system of closure. The structuralists believed that language has a one to one relationship with reality, for example if I point to this monitor and say "monitor," I am using the structure of language to relate my concept of that physical object of a monitor. The word…

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