Skip to main content

"Around" Postmodernism?

Thomas Csordas
Case Western Reserve University

It may be a bit soon to plan for after postmodernism, but sidestepping it or dodging around among postmodernism's decentered fragments and free-floating signifiers is a pursuit well worth engaging. In fact, I am quite willing to recognize the existence of a postmodern condition of culture. Still, such a recognition by no means requires adherence to the "ism" of the postmodern as a methodological stance equivalent to Marxism, evolutionism, constructionism, or relativism. Neither does it require adherence to postmodernism as a kind of named approach equivalent, in anthropology for example, to cultural ecology, psychoanalysis, symbolic anthropology, or cognitive science. Moreover, dealing with the fragmented and disjointed nature of contemporary cultural reality does not require the cultural analyst to produce a text which in its method or mode of composition mirrors that cultural reality. Thus, for example, postmodern conceptualization of multiply determined "subject positions" in the cultural terrain is quite valuable when placed in dialogue with the less postmodern issue of the kinds of experiencing subjects that might occupy those positions. Likewise, a postmodern concern with intertextuality as a tool for understanding cultural representations is especially valuable if at the same time we talk about intersubjectivity as a tool for understanding social existence as being-in-the-world.

I have been referring to my own methodological predisposition as cultural phenomenology, and I place a considerable premium on bodily experience or embodiment. Studies under the rubric of a cultural phenomenology that begins with embodiment do not claim to be about the body per se, but claim that culture and social life can be understood from the standpoint of embodiment as an existential condition which is the subjective source and intersubjective ground of experience. A principal concern is to synthesize the immediacy of embodied experience with the multiplicity of cultural meaning in which we are always and inevitably immersed. Of course there is a reason why I prefer "cultural phenomenology" to "phenomenology" pure and simple. First, it is not a branch of philosophy, although, to borrow a phrase from Bourdieu, it requires a kind of "fieldwork in philosophy." Second, the modifier is intended to anticipate objections such as the one made by Bourdieu that phenomenology does not recognize the epoche, a cornerstone of phenomenological method, itself to be a cultural act; or the one that presumes the preobjective reality with which phenomenological analysis begins is somehow to be understood as "precultural." Third, one hopes that a phenomenological concern with essences will less easily be mistaken for "essentialism" and instead be recognized as an impulse to capture the essence of the particular, in all its situatedness and specificity.

I am convinced that certain issues - religious experience, the interplay of gender and sexuality, the relation between biology and culture, the cultural study of science and technology - are privileged zones for development of a cultural phenomenology grounded in embodiment. These provide what Robert Merton has referred to as "strategic research materials" that empirically exhibit the phenomena of interest in particularly viid and accessible form. Indeed, a cultural phenomenology can probably only be fully worked out by grappling with such issues first. What matters most is the methodological starting point and the way questions are framed. It can be particularly useful to "poach" on areas already staked out be postmodern cultural analysis, such as science and technology studies. This is in fact what I am trying to do in the experimental paper I've posted on the conference web site, in which I approach computerized images of the human body from the standpoint of cultural phenomenology. The thrust in sidestepping postmodernism is that although much contemporary cultural analysis of such issues takes place in the mode of representation, with the methods of semiotics broadly conceived and in the paradigm of textuality, our understanding can be complemented and enriched by analysis in the mode of being-in-the-world, drawing on the methods of phenomenology and guided by the paradigm of embodiment. Highlighting the interplay between these interpretive poles is not the only problematic available, but it is certainly worth seeing where it can take us.


[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]