an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 13, Winter 2016/2017, ISSN 1552-5112                                                                                                            



Notes Towards a Distinction: On Postmodernism and Poststructuralism










It is almost a truism to say that postmodernism is indefinable. Whilst not necessarily true it certainly has a large degree of terminological plasticity, and frequently finds itself conflated with other terms (in this case poststructuralism). Whilst this is understandable, it is perhaps a mistake, so what I want to do is suggest a few lines of flight and points of comparison that might provide grounds for distinguishing the two terms. This isn’t intended to function as the sole way of understanding this topic, and I will (for the sake of brevity more than anything) skip over thinkers that some would consider being essential. As I said, I’m just trying to give one way of understanding these two ideas.


“Postmodern” as a term was not ‘coined by’ Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition (1979), but it was certainly the point at which it entered a broadly philosophical usage. Before Lyotard, it was generally used in art criticism, literary criticism and in relation to aesthetics, appearing sporadically throughout the early twentieth century in a variety of contexts. Then comes Lyotard’s (in)famous book and the quote which has appeared in countless undergraduate essays, that postmodernism is ‘incredulity toward meta-narrative.’ (What these quotes cut out is the first part of the sentence – which in full reads “Simplifying to the extreme; I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta-narratives.”)


However, before turning to Lyotard’s arguments, it is worth situating philosophical postmodernism as something that is both historically contingent and which has clear philosophical forerunners for which there are (at least) three figures who must be considered as essential – Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. The common understanding of postmodernism (detailed below) is that of something which has roots in the work of these three thinkers. For example, the notion of a kind of de-realized society is one Kierkegaard was familiar with, as in his Two Ages: A Literary Review (1846) he described modern society as a network of relations in which individuals are leveled into a kind of abstract phantom known as “the public.” This public, in contrast to the older forms of community, “never are and never can be united in an actual situation or organization.” Marx wrote extensively on the spectral, ghostly and abstracted qualities of capitalism whereby concrete objects lose their use-value and melt into the spectral realm of exchange-value. Workers cease to see themselves in their labour and become alienated from themselves – a key point in the postmodern worldview. In Nietzsche, (see for example Twilight of the Idols (1889)) we find that the “true world” becomes a superfluous idea or as he elegiacally puts it, ‘the last breath of a vaporising reality.’[1] This dissolution between the real and the apparent is a key theme to much later postmodernist writing and is suggested by Nietzsche’s first book The Birth of Tragedy (1872). Furthermore, in his 1874 essay “On the Uses and Disadvantage of History for Life” he would go on to argue that the life of a culture depended upon the ability to repeat a kind of unhistorical moment – a kind of forgetting, that is done alongside continuous historical development. For Nietzsche then, we cannot stand outside of history, and cannot conceive of the past times as stages on the way to the present. Or, in other words, ‘all of this has happened before, and will happen again.’


And so after that brief postmodern philosophical history, back to the famous quote… There are many reasons why this quote is as popular as it is – it is obvious, it is short, pithy and provides an immediate way into what is a rather conceptually dense idea. ‘Scepticism towards metanarratives’ allows for us to understand postmodernism as a kind of historical period marked by a lack of belief in any organising totality. Postmodernism is fragmentation, relativism, and, (if certain hot-takes from about 1990 to the present are to be believed) the collapse of all moral values into a kind of nihilism and abandonment of the concept of truth. This does a colossal disservice to Lyotard’s book, which was originally published as less a philosophy book and more a book on pedagogy. The subtitle was A Report on the Conditions of Knowledge and the book as a whole, drawing on Wittgenstein and speech act theory, sought to examine how the “language games” of science, art and literature had changed since the end of the nineteenth century. In short, in an increasingly technologized age, knowledge has become information – data that is encoded and decoded, transmitted, etc. As a result, what is necessary is a kind of pragmatics of communication whereby this information can be decoded and a kind of value judgment can be made. Crucially though, those that occupy the position of ‘judge’ are themselves caught within these same language games and thus the question inevitably becomes one of legitimation. And so, to quote Lyotard, “there is a strict interlinkage between the kind of language called science and the kind called ethics and politics.” Science is, in the modern age inextricably bound up in government and administration, given the large amounts of money and grand institutions required. (Any scientist who has applied for research funding will tell you this is inarguably true.)


In addition, Lyotard argues that science and philosophy have become increasingly disconnected from one another. Science sought to distinguish itself from old received forms of knowledge and philosophy, through what Lyotard calls the “dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth,” all of which, seek to legitimate science. Science however, plays the language game of denotation to the exclusion of all other discourses and thus displaces what we could term narrative knowledge – particularly meta-discourses like philosophy. In an era of technological sophistication, knowledge becomes a means not an end. Science is thus separated from philosophy, free to develop its own language game further but often unable to form a coherent narrative around issues such as ethics and morality. As Lyotard expresses it, lamenting “the ‘loss of meaning’ in postmodernity boils down to mourning the fact that knowledge is no longer principally narrative.” Instead what we have in the age of postmodernity are independent language games – no longer coherent narratives, but rather “clouds” of linguistic combinations through which the individual moves.


We move from position to position within each language game, skipping from sender, to addressee, to referent and so on. This too has its own impact on subjectivity – the individual as a coherent, singular “I” becomes a multitude, a heterogeneous combination of diverse subject-positions. (The anti-humanism of postmodernity is an essential part of the broader philosophical project but is one that for reasons of space, I shan’t go into here.) Lyotard would also be heavily influential to Baudrillard’s work on hyperreality. Baudrillard argued that the commodity is not simply an object with use-value for exchange but a commodity-sign. Culture as a whole is constituted through the flow of these images. As he put it in Simulacra and Simulation (1981), “we live everywhere in an aesthetic hallucination of reality.” Here then, we see both the reorganisation of society, along with the rethinking and reconstitution of traditional, or perhaps more accurately, Enlightenment notions of the individual.


The other grand text of philosophical postmodernism is Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) which, whilst agreeing with Baudrillard in part, differed on the ground of cause. Jameson defines postmodernity as a reorientation of the subject’s relationship to the spatial and temporal (Jameson readings of postmodern architecture make this point particularly well.) Fundamentally, Jameson argues that we are unable to “place” ourselves - and culture reflects this spatial and temporal dislocation. We are historically, culturally and even geographically, displaced by the engine of global, networked late capitalism. As a result, culture is marked by a cannibalisation of older styles, as well as dominated by forms of pastiche, and a nostalgia for history, in which history is not an object of representation but of stylistic connotation. This shift is, for Jameson, something which possesses a historical reality - expressive of the nature of our contemporary moment existing under late-stage global capitalism. Late-stage capitalism extends commodification into every aspect and realm of our social and personal lives, transforming the real into the image.


In short then, postmodernism could be understood as a particular historical period with concomitant philosophical practises marked by a response to modernism. In contrast, poststructuralism is a particular set of critical practises which have emerged at a certain historical moment. Postmodernity is the precondition of poststructuralism. To put it as simply as possible I would say that poststructuralism is a certain set of strategies for reading and writing texts or, in other words, poststructuralism is a set of theories around the relationship between humans and the practice of reproducing meanings.


However, first, some necessary context – to understand postmodernism we must look at modernity and so, to understand poststructuralism we must examine structuralism. In the most basic terms structuralism argues that human culture can be understood by means of a structure (most commonly language) that differs from concrete objects and abstract ideas - a “third order,” that mediates between the two (for more on this see Deleuze’s “How do we recognize structuralism?”) In literary terms then, structuralist analysis would aim to relate an individual text to a wider structure - genre for example or a universalised narrative model. Structuralism can, in a sense, be understood as an attempt to ground cultural, literary or philosophical analysis on more coherent “scientific” grounds. A good example of this is the work of Vladimir Propp, the Russian formalist who defined Russian folktales through a series of narrative functions, each of which were given a certain symbol. In short, Propp’s formalist criticism allows for the folktale to be represented as an equation (for more and to try this out, go here:


Structuralism can be seen as a response to phenomenology, where knowledge is based upon the knower – phenomena as it appears in the mind of an individual subject. For the structuralist, phenomenology is too arbitrary and insubstantial and thus rather than focus on individuals, a focus on language allows for more secure judgements to be made. But as the great Catherine Belsey points out, there is “the structuralist danger of collapsing all difference.” In the late 1950s and early 1960s there emerged a disparate group of academics (many of whom would reject the poststructuralist label) who sought to question the attempt to base foundational knowledge on either phenomenology or language. In contrast to structuralism, which sought to understand knowledge, poststructuralism sought to analyse how knowledge was produced. To do so, poststructuralism seeks to question the binary oppositions and hierarchies that underpin structuralist ideas – in the work of many, but most famously Jacques Derrida, these hierarchical binaries of presence/absence or voice/text are “deconstructed” as Derrida shows that the apparently “dominant” idea is subservient to the weaker of the pair. The only way in which meaning can be understood is to unpick the multiplicity of knowledge systems which produce this seemingly fixed singular meaning. Furthermore, one of the most compelling poststructuralist criticisms of structuralist thought is that underlying structures are conditioned and informed by both culture and history, and of course, both of these are open to biases, misunderstandings and misinterpretations. To understand an object or a text then, it is necessary to examine both the object itself and the various systems of knowledge which produce it. To put this in a more practical and less abstract sense, there is an important tension that poststructuralist theories explore and discern: firstly, consciousness is not simply the origin point of the language we speak, so much as the product of the meanings and images we learn and reproduce. At the same time, communication changes ALL THE TIME and we can intervene in these meanings and the norms our culture takes for granted.


In short then, perhaps the easiest way to understand this is to say that poststructuralism explores the tensions between ourselves and our language. Most of the time our language is (or seems) almost transparent. We ‘see through it’ concerned with not what it is, but what it can do for us. However, language is essential – it is how we navigate the world, it’s how we survive and it’s how we define who and what we are. Even the basic things we need, like food and shelter are not things we encounter outside of language. One of the basic features of poststructuralism is that the differences by which we navigate the world are not ‘givens’ but produced by the symbolizing systems we learn and interpret. We learn to communicate at such a young age that we assume language is something we see through to ‘real’ things, but importantly these things are not real but maybe completely imaginary. Perhaps we might say that ideas are the source of meaning but in reality, this operates the other way around.


In short, ideas are the effects of the meanings we learn and (constantly) reproduce. Thus, here we see the challenge of poststructuralism to our conception of how we make ourselves “meaning animals” Meaning is, as already mentioned, historically situated too – poststructuralism often gets tied to postmodernity so it’s worth thinking about ‘the modern.’ After all, modern history is perhaps the last 300 years; modern language, occurs around the last 5-600 years and modern art perhaps within the last 80 years or so. The poststructuralist challenge to modern ideas is itself a product of the last few decades. A very ‘modern’ idea in and of itself, right? Arguably then, ‘modern,’ as a term, has no positive content, but is defined simply by difference. ‘Modern’ is not ‘ancient’ or ‘medieval’ and so on. Even though ‘modern’ seems to have no positive content, we are able to use it, and know what we mean when we do. Saussure wrote in his Course in General Linguistics (1916), that “in language there are only differences without positive terms” and this becomes a key refrain of poststructuralist thinking explored in the work of thinkers such as Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva and many more. Living through postmodern neoliberal capitalism we must renegotiate the relationship between the subject, the world and language, and it this renegotiation that poststructuralism seeks to undertake. We often change how we think of ourselves, for as Catherine Belsey puts it in Postructuralism (2002), poststructuralism reveals that “we are…creatures of difference.”






an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 13, Winter 2016/2017, ISSN 1552-5112



[1] Editor’s note: Arguably, Jean Baudrillard would refer to the very same Nietzschean last breath, but as ‘paroxysm’ roughly one hundred years later. See the English translation Paroxysm (1998), translated from Le Paroxyste indifférent: Entretiens avec Philippe Petit (1997), for example.