The Hope of Postmodernism

My last blog post felt bleak, reflecting one response to a decentered system, but postmodernism also offers hope. Judith Butler, in her book “Undoing Gender”, consistently reinforces the hope that through the interplay and reconciliation of these tensions we can produce a more inclusive society. Postmodernism is the new seed - the pushing grass - that is breaking apart the worn concrete of past norms that defined what it means to be a family, a gender, a sex, and a human. It could not have taken root unless there were already cracks in the pavement.

Butler describes this tension as one between identity and non-identity within society. Resources in society are distributed according to a set of identity relationships – parent and child, doctor and patient, man and woman, master and slave – that define both the amount and the type of access that each identity is allowed. This structure, in which we swim from the moment that we are born until the moment that we die, can be called the discourse. It is neither bad nor good, but by nature of its identity relationships creates inequalities in allocation. Each discourse creates a type of society in which humans organize and express their relationships and a set of power structures around limited resources. Each discourse also defines the boundary of society, if tacitly, because nothing can be said from outside the context of the discourse.

Each person must adopt an identity in order to participate in society and access resources. A human must become a child to receive parental love; a human must become a patient to receive medical attention; a human must become a criminal to be imprisoned. Although we adopt some identities, such as opera singer, most of them are imposed upon us at birth, such as male or female. We learn to express ourselves through these identities as if learning to play an instrument or wear a mask, and the learning is so deep that the very question that these identities are not real seems unquestionable. And in actuality, they are not oppressive in themselves. How else could human society operation without such avenues for expression?

Yet too many of these identities are expressed as “us” or “them”, with one group representing the standard or norm, and the contrasting group representing the other, the unwanted. Foucault expressed this as the center of power creating its own shadow, but he simply meant that one cannot define male except in contrast to female, or doctor except in contrast to patient. One cannot create a norm without defining the deviation, and vice versa. These distorted reflections, sun and moon of each other, create the inherent tension of movement and force within a society. The goal of social and political activism has been to remove stigma from the identity of the other, such as “woman”, but often this required that the identity was reinforced as a way to bind people together to create social strength. Postmodernism asks us to step outside of the identities themselves, to think about way to express our humanity in new ways, and thus can often come into direct conflict with marginalized groups who have fought long and hard for political and social rights.

The true hope of postmodernism, at least in my opinion, is in its on the fringe. In every person there are unspoken desires – desires for new modes of family, different forms of love, and unexpected gender expressions. For the most part they are never expressed, and cannot be expressed, because there is not even a way of thinking about them without using the categories, the discourse, of society, which has already defined the boundary. Yet they exist, and in some individuals become so great that they must become find articulation, in spite of the danger such expression entails. Often these individuals are shunned and silenced, or labeled deranged, or simply murdered. Often, the current discourse insidiously incorporates the new expression into the current categories so that things can proceed as normal.  

But within each new form of expression is a seed that seeks to break apart the discourse and reveal our shared humanity underneath. The hope that postmodernism brings is the hope of re-humanization, of seeing through the discourse to the beating heart and unique awareness at the center of each identity.

In truth, it is no small hope.