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Three Postmodern Concerns


Reinhard Düßel
Tamkang University (Taiwan, R.O.C.)

Tearing down walls as a project is hard to imagine. A prisoner tearing down the walls of a prison is doing so to build a life outside of the prison. Tearing down the prison walls is the concern, building a life out there is the project. The prisoner is occupied with that concern because she has that project. Otherwise she might just contemplate or decorate the prison walls. That would indicate another project, perhaps fighting against boredom. The fact that she is tearing down the walls shows that she is not only bored by the walls but deeply dissatisfied with them. That is something else.

It has been repeatedly pointed out that a definition of postmodernism that satisfies everyone may be hard to get. What is called postmodern or postmodernism is not the same in different contexts, disciplines and fields of action. However, all those different forms and concretizations of postmodernism are grouped together by a certain unhappiness with rigid structures or patterns. The concern of dissolving--deconstructing, carnivalizing--such structures or patterns is shared by all of them. I intentionally use the term concern here and not the term project. Again it seems to be hard to imagine that dissolving rigid structures should have become a project in so many different areas. Of course we could easily construct a narrative of general decline, confusion and loss of perspective to make sense of it. That would not lead anywhere. So we may better take the project of the above mentioned prisoner as a guiding metaphor: Given that we want to understand the current obsession with dissolving rigid structures in a form that leads anywhere (we do not have to do so, but doing so may be more fruitful), the postmodern project may not be seen as a "space clearing gesture" alone, but as the attempt of forming and building a life in a space not defined by rigid patterns and structures.

From here, dissolving such structures would have to be understood as a first concern of the postmodern project. Perhaps we could say that postmodernism in some areas somewhat got sidetracked by ritualizing that first concern instead of moving on. We might read that as a sign of temporary exhaustion. After investing all her energy into tearing down the prison walls, the gaze of the prisoner may be too exhausted to see that not every wall is a prison wall. Luckily, she is too exhausted as well to immediately translate that into action (It was not always like that. If we associate the rise of postmodernism to some extent with the sixties, we have to understand how the terrorist actionism of the seventies--above all in Germany and in Italy--is related to it. A painful question still to pursue).

If the postmodern project is what I assume it to be, there are at least two more concerns waiting for the former prisoner to go back on track again. To outline what I consider as a second concern of the postmodern project, I start from the discussion on objectivity in some of the messages (Mark Bickhard, Steve Rosen, Koichiro Matsuno) in our discussion.

Mark's point was that "absolute objectivity is impossible, but the search for deeper forms of invariance cannot be abandoned or reversed." Steve's impression was that this rather sounded "like the old Platonic tradition that came BEFORE postmodernism." Koichiro's attempt to reconcile both positions takes them, if I get that right, as somehow complementing each other like present perfect tense and present progressive tense. I a not trained in physics, so I do not want to comment on the examples given. As I see it, however, the argument here is not about physics. It is about finding a language that is able to articulate the space between rigidity and arbitrariness, between objectivity and "anything goes", between iron patterns and carnival.

In the Western tradition we have a language for stable and invariant structures and we have a language for the dissolution of such structures. Those languages--that either-or of stability and madness--we do have since very early on. There is, to use Nietzsche's shorthand, Apollo and there is Dionysios, there is logos and there is eros. The language of invariants is a language of separation. Invariants are separate from us, in front of us, independent of us. The language of dissolution is a language of unity and oneness. The collapse of invariants would correspond to the collapse of the distance between us and the universe, everything would become one and we would become one with everything. (That second language must not be confused with a language that tries to articulate the emergence or the becoming of fix structures. As long as the emergence or becoming is conceived as following invariant patterns, at least as some last and highest level, it belongs to the first language. If it is conceived as not doing so, we have a switch to the second language.)

The either-or of these two languages, forcing us to shift from the one to the other and back again, is not sufficient any more to cope with the situation that has been created by the first concern of postmodernism. Tied to that either-or we are forced to either ritualize the gesture of dissolution or to return to a language of invariant structures. We have, in other words, no other option than to understand our dissatisfaction with the ritualization of dissolution as an intention for such a return, even if we feel that actually we do not have that intention. The consequence of that situation can only be to take the either-or of those two languages itself as a problem. Exactly that, trying to get beyond (pace Dascal) that either-or, seems to be the second concern of the postmodern project. A concern that may lead beyond the postmodern condition in its present state.

What I am saying here is not new. Quite a few of the papers and specifics on the server are working on that second concern. The task would be working out a language of the in-between. For that purpose, terms or metaphors are necessary that allow us to locate a position between separation and unity, between rigid constraints and throwing the dice. The body is a metaphor or term for such a position, and the idea, practice, experience of responding is another one: When we are responding, we are aware that we are neither steered by rigid invariants nor just throwing the dice. Both are the extremes of a spectrum where responding is transformed into something else. We are aware as well that responding, what is taking place between those two extremes, is not always the same thing. That is why I use the term spectrum here. When we are responding, we are more or less subject to constraints and more or less throwing the dice, and that more or less can be infinitely different. Sometimes we nearly are just throwing the dice, but not really, and sometimes we nearly are subject to inescapable constraints, but not really. Those are again extremes, positions before responding is transformed into something else. Most of the time we are somewhere between those extremes, in a space of infinitely different possibilities.

That of course is a clumsy way of putting it. Trying to make that "more-or less" more sophisticated, I could speak of different degrees of participation. One extreme of the spectrum would then be zero degree participation, the other extreme a form of participation where the difference between the participating agent and what she is participating in is collapsing. That option would still be using metaphors of quantity instead of articulating qualities. Working out a language that replaces that clumsiness by other means, allowing us to articulate the different shades of that space of possibilities in qualitative terms, is what I consider as the second concern of the postmodern project.

Perhaps we could say that such a language would allow us to articulate different ratios of variance and invariance and of participation and non-participation. It would allow us to respond to the question whether or not there are invariant structures by making distinctions. There neither are invariant structures, we would then have to say, nor are there none. The either-or of that question is the product of an abstraction. That abstraction may be justified for particular purposes and in particular contexts, it must not be forgotten, however, that it is an abstraction (Based upon my experience of living and working in a Chinese environment for quite some time I would like to add that this abstraction may have a cultural dimension too. We probably can say that any culture is formed by certain foundational abstractions, and the abstraction I am discussing here is certainly one of the foundational abstractions of the Western tradition. I put all this in brackets because the distinction between East and West implied here is a very abstract one again, but I think that the cultural dimension is of some importance here).

The only place without anything that could be taken for a wall is the desert. Between the prison walls and the desert, there seems to be a whole landscape of possibilities. The (former) prisoner, too exhausted not to take any wall for a prison wall, may become aware of that landscape by developing the language of ratios I am suggesting here. For reasons of terminological convenience I call such a language an R-language or just RL.

The landscape metaphor has its limits. Speaking of a landscape of possibilities between inescapable constraints on the one hand and the arbitrariness of the desert on the other seems to suggest a system or constellation of invariants on a second level. That way of putting it further suggests the idea that RL was intended to describe or to map that constellation, shedding light on it, making it visible like a landscape that was in the dark before or visible only as a shadow. That cannot be meant. We must not reproduce on a second or any other level what we plan to avoid on the first level. More precisely: Of course we can try to reduce the abstraction I have been talking about gradually, thus working with levels that include invariances. Probably we even have to proceed that way. The spectrum RL tries to articulate, however, would then be the level where that abstraction finally has disappeared. With that I come to the third concern of the postmodern project.

Making use of RL would mean interpreting any given situation with respect to its position in a spectrum of different ratios between variance and invariance and participation and non-participation. It would mean locating the situation somewhere within that spectrum by articulating, as we could say, its particular R-profile (RP). A competent user of RL would master a vocabulary and a syntax to articulate such profiles, and she would be familiar with a certain variety of profiles that already have been articulated. Acquiring that familiarity would be part of learning RL. Without it, without an inventory of articulated RPs, of articulated locations within the spectrum, she could not use the language, because she could not be aware of the specific and probably unique profile characteristics of the situation she is facing. I am touching upon a point here that has been developed by Gadamer in his discussion of hermeneutic experience and recently--although I am not quite sure, I am still in the process of studying Professor Gendlin's work--by Gendlin. We cannot become aware of the new and the different if we are a blank sheet of paper. The more we have seen already, the more advanced our competence to be aware of the different, of the new, of what is specific to a given situation. That is not an automatism. So I should say more precisely: The more we have seen, the more advanced our competence of being aware of the new can be, but it does not have to be so. We are talking about a necessary condition here, not about a sufficient condition. The effect of having seen and experienced much can be the opposite too. It is possible too that we feel somehow suffocated, saturated with information, unable to take in anything else. There seem to be two forms of having and accumulating experiences. The first form is like storing up boxes in an empty room. At a certain point the room is full and nothing can be stored in it any more. According to a second form we have to assume an interplay between the size of that room and the process of storing boxes. We cannot exactly speak of an empty room here, because the dimensions of the space are defined within the process of accumulating experience. The more experience we have, the wider that space becomes. And that growing space must not be imagined like a junk of empty space on top of a space that is filled up. It is not a space in a formal or quantitative sense at all. It is a space of qualities between the qualities we have accumulated by and through experience. That is why experiencing qualities is not like storing up boxes. Any additional quality is opening up a space of differences between itself and the qualities that are already there, thus creating a new space of awareness for experiencing new qualities. Boxes are just locking up the room.

Applying this on the competence of using RL, we have to distinguish two forms of using that language. In a first form we accumulate a certain repertoire of RPs. From a certain point onwards we then begin to identify the RP of any given situation on the basis of that repertoire. If it is large enough, we probably are successful for some time, or even for a very long time. The world will feel like home again and one day we may begin to map that repertoire as a sort of ontology of the in-between. That form of using RL could not be seen as a competent way of using it. If we do not want to reproduce at some higher level what we decided to avoid at the lowest level, we have to assume that the RP of any given situation is unique. The spectrum RL tries to articulate, in other words, does not have the form of a finite repertoire at all. Acquiring the competence of using RL would therefore right from the beginning have to take care that a collapse of the growing repertoire of RPs into a closed repertoire does not happen. The accumulation of a repertoire of RPs as part of the process of learning RL must follow the second form of experience as sketched above. Any knew RP must be learned in such a way that it is creating a new space of awareness, which exactly is the space of difference between that new RP and the RPs that have been learned already.

That form of learning RPs, of acquiring a repertoire of RPs in a process that widens the space of awareness, is something that must be learned as well. What could that mean? What could it meant to learn that second form of experience in general, and what could it meant to learn acquiring a growing repertoire of RPs according to that form?

Within the first concern of the postmodern project one of the major topics is the deconstruction of the Cartesian subject. That subject, to use Ricoeur's phrase, discovers itself as another. In another terminology we could say that the subject discovers itself as an arbitrary closure. Far from being that lucid return from the other and through the other it meant to be, the subject discovers the other as an abyss within itself. The idea of closure requires a covering up of that abyss that is covered up again in order to make that abyss disappear completely. The deconstruction of the subject can be seen as the dissolution of that second covering up. With that, the subject as a closure becomes visible as the product of covering up the abyss of the other within. We must not overlook, however, that the metaphor of an abyss strictly belongs to the context of the first concern. We speak of an abyss if we want to show that a certain path is interrupted, does not lead where it is supposed to lead: in the present case that interrupted path is the way of the subject back to itself, the closure of the subject. Within the context of the first concern that closure counts as a rigid structure that is to be deconstructed and dissolved. All kinds of arguments resulting into the metaphor of an abyss--or its equivalents--fulfill that purpose. What interests me is to shift the insights provided by those arguments into a context that allows us to see whether they have any other potentials than to repeat again and again that the subject is the product of an arbitrary closure. I think the above question of what it would mean to learn the second form of experience is a context that allows us to translate the deconstruction of the subject into a concern that takes the deconstructed subject as a beginning and not only as an end and a disaster.

What appears as an interruption and an abyss in the perspective of a path returning from the other can be seen as a potential in a perspective concerned with the second form of experience. The point where the growing repertoire of RPs is collapsing into a finite--or closed--repertoire obviously is a point of return from the other. From that point onwards, the otherness of possible situations with respect to their RP has lost its sting. The slicing-up of the spectrum is taken to be completed. Whatever may happen, it is understood that it will find its place at one of those locations that already have been articulated. The deconstruction of the subject in all its forms tells us that such a closure can only be an arbitrary one. From here we have to understand the moment when the growing repertoire of RPs appears to be closed as the product of a double cover-up in the sense described above. There must be an abyss covered-up somehow and somewhere, and that first cover-up must be covered up again. Not only the abyss is made to disappear but the covering-up of the abyss too. This being so, we have to say that the closure of the repertoire of RPs is not just taking place. It is constructed, that is the result of a very complicated act, something we do. How that double cover-up is constructed remains to be explored. Probably it is not everywhere and not always constructed in the same way. I cannot pursue that further in the present context.

The question was what it would mean to learn acquiring a growing repertoire of RPs in such a way that the collapse of that repertoire into a closed and finite one does not happen. If that collapse does not happen at all but is constructed, to avoid that collapse cannot but mean to avoid constructing it. We are not constructing that collapse intentionally, however. Whatever we are doing when we are doing it, we think, while we are doing it, that we are doing something else. Because of the deconstruction of the subject we can know that we are doing it, but this does not mean that we are already aware when we are doing it. That awareness we have to develop and to cultivate. And that is what I consider as the third concern of the postmodern project: Cultivating the awareness towards our inclination and our strategies of constructing that closure.

Considering the dissolution of rigid patterns and structures, the construction of an RL and the cultivation of the awareness just discussed as the three concerns of the postmodern project, my usage of the term postmodern probably differs from the common usage of the term. Postmodernism as a program and general atmosphere may be seen in the first of those three concerns alone, including its ritualization. The two other concerns are post-modern ones in a non-terminological and non-programmatic sense. They just try to describe what we might consider as important if we do not take postmodernism in that terminological sense as some perennial endgame.

[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]