Language, Culture, and Philosophy


How do words mean? How is meaning constructed? These seemingly innocent questions are lethal to the entire edifice of knowledge. If we imagine knowledge, not as wisdom, but as an architecture of writing, then the foundation of “truth” is undermined. The question becomes not what do we know but how do we write? If philosophy in the nineteenth century was about ideas, then philosophy in the twentieth century was about language or linguistics. We live in the aftermath of this “Linguistic Turn.”

This “turn” away from ideas and towards language meant that words, not things, would be examined in terms of how words, put together into speech acts and discourse, acquire meaning. Which philosopher marks this “turn,” when and where this “turn” took place depends upon which account is read and which definition of “linguistic turn” is used. Some have contended that German mathematician and philosopher, Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege, others think that the “turn” was British (or Anglo-Austrian) and was the work of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Perhaps it is best to think not in terms of “first” but in terms of the significance of what is a change in direction. As Richard Rorty said,

The picture of ancient and medieval philosophy as concerned with things, the philosophy of the seventeen through the nineteenth century as concerned with ideas, and the enlightened contemporary philosophical scene with words has considerable plausibility.

The linguistic turn is a concern about how language allows speech and under what linguistic conditions meaning is constructed. In other words, philosophy becomes fused with literary theory and knowledge become examined as the result of a social/cultural structure. The turn towards the study of the arts, visual and literary, through linguistic philosophy started with concerns with logic (analytic philosophy) and semiotics (the study of signs).

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

After this death, the students of Saussure recreated his lectures and published them as Cours de linguistique générale (1916). This act of devotion brought their teacher’s radical reconsiderations of the way in which meaning is formed. Saussure made a distinction between langue, that is the system, the institution, rules and norms, and parole, which is the actual manifestation of the system in speech, and writing. The philosopher made the distinction between rule and behavior and noted that meaning is bound up in this system of relationships and differences. Language is composed of a network of established significations and relativism is checked by a competent reader who has a sense of what one is reading towards. Langue is a Metadiscourse and parole is a specific text, and structuralism attempted to find and establish an almost scientific approach to de-coding signs and finding their meanings.

Postmodernism and Poststructuralism will specifically deny the basic precepts of Structuralism–its reliance on rules, its search for meaning and its bi-polar structure. Language is the rule and speech is the behavior. The system itself is synchronic as a functional whole and diachronic in its inevitable historical evolution. Saussure and his followers concentrated on the synchronic study of language that is examining the system as a whole as an abstract structure. The diachronic structure was left to others as this aspect of the structure changed with historical changes and was relative and ceaselessly in flux.

The Saussarian system is constructed on the basis of binary oppositions, which Saussure declared to be inherent in the language as a habit of thought that allowed any culture to order and sort out a vast heterogeneous field of elements into distinctions and differences. Structuralism, as a mode of analysis, studies signs within this network of relations. Meaning is bound up within a system of relationships based upon difference and relativism or individual interpretation/solipsism is checked by cultural competency or a sense of what one is reading towards.

Language competence is the ability to represent within a system of norms and rules. This system is one of relations and oppositions in which elements are defined in formal and differential terms. The units of language are modes of a series of differences or functional contrasts. These binary oppositions are inherent in language and this relational identity or dependent identity is crucial to language. For the signifier to express meaning, the signifier must differ from other signifiers and these differences are essential for the signs to work. The linguistic system can be defined as the place of the sign, which acquires meaning only within the system of differences.

Semiotics or semiology seeks the grounds of signifying processes. Structuralism is important because it does NOT seek the truth. There is no truth; there is no human subject. There are only codes or sign systems and it is these structures that produce meaning. Meaning is arbitrary and there is on necessary connection between these structures and “reality”. The revolution of semiotics is the undoing of the common sense link between the word and the thing. The “thing” can be “named” anything and can mean anything. Language, therefore, is not a window on reality, nor is it a mirror. Language is merely a network of signification. Furthermore, knowledge is structured by the systems of code. The structuralist discourse is a method designed to master and explain language and to create a universal grammar of narration.

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914)

Peirce proposed a topology of signs organized into the icon, the index, and the sign, which is the combination of the significant and the signifié or of form and meaning. That the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary is one of the central insights of Structuralism. The arbitrariness of the mechanics that create the sign upsets the ancient notion that words were imbued with the qualities of their referent. Words and things become detached, and things can be known only through words, which in turn can function only within a system and only in terms of their differences. Peirce separated icons from signs by pointing out that icons are based upon actual resemblance, rather than arbitrary relationships, such as a portrait resembling the subject: a one to one relation.

These indexical signs are also mythic and change within the conventions of knowledge and the linguist reads these indices within this system of conventions. According to Peirce, all signs consist of a significant, which is the form, and of a significance, which is the meaning of the sign. All signs are fundamentally incomplete. The significance of one sign cannot be grasped by examining the sign on its own. Any sign acquires meaning only within a network of relations that presents an interpretant in the form of another sign. The sign’s meaning is developed within the system of language and the meaning is manifested through the use of the sign.

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2000)

In Structural Anthropology (1958), this French scientist combined anthropology with linguistics, understanding signs to be combination of the signifier and the signified and as forms that were fundamentally incomplete. The signifier cannot be directly grasped but can be understood only in the form of another sign and meaning is determined through this development. All cultural phenomena are signs read by the inhabitants of the culture, but these inhabitants cannot function as subjects because meaning is bound up within the conventional structure. It has been said that Structuralism is Kantian thought without the transcendental subject or without to reasoning and rational human mind actively interpreting and creating reality. The Kantian subject is dissolved and becomes a passive, unwitting object upon which the linguistic system operates at will. The structural analysis refuses to consider a notion of “self” identified with consciousness and does not seek for external causes that make the “subject” as the explanatory cause.

Any object (even human objects) is defined/structured by its place in the system, but unlike form this structure has no content. Content itself is a logical organization and is the same nature as form. Form is only a way of organizing the particular structures that make up content; and meaning is only the effect of logical, intellectual structures by which the mind orders experiences. Following Kant, Lévi-Strauss proposed that the mind imposes form on raw materials and creates myth, which are forms of concrete logic composed of bundles of relations or sets of items. Organized in terms of binary oppositions–dark and light, good and evil–myths explain or reduce the often-frightening contradictions in the real world.

Carl Jung (1875-1961)

Carl Jung united Freud and Structuralism into his concept of the “Collective Unconscious.” He recognized Freud’s concept of the dream but asserted that the unconscious remained unconscious. Although Jung understood that “dream-work” was an active process that included actions of displacement, condensation, symbolization and so on, he disagreed with Freud’s notion that these actions were actions of censorship. For Jung, dreams did not deceive but express. Dream thinking was simply an “older mode of thought” and the interpretation of dreams will show that the meanings are bound up in recognizable form. Dreams are like plays, they dramatize through plots and culminate in a climax. The manifest content of dreams, therefore, is drama. The latent content can be uncovered through free association, for dreams are self-portrayals in symbolic form. Dreams have a creative role to play in the total human psyche and are linked to the dreamer’s life.

Both Jung and Freud considered mind and body to be linked. For Jung the psyche functioned in terms of archetypes that are inscribed in the body and are genetically transmitted. These archetypes are unconscious pre-dispositions. In the Kantian sense, archetypes are a priori conditions for actual experience, or, to put it another way, archetypes organize experiences. Archetypes are models or primordial types or ideas that act as originals or exemplars. Jung was talking about cognitive structures that were congenital structures that produced patterns of behavior.

The image, which is symbolic, is the functional form of this system and can be described as a typical situation into which energy is released. Image approaches instinct. Symbols manifested in images necessarily emerge from archetypes which, being universal, are part of the collective unconscious. It is not so much that we can read each other’s symbols but that we can read the instinct to make symbols. Once these symbols are decoded, the archetypal foundation of these forms will be revealed.

Freud and Jung corresponded but disagreed on what determined the nature of the human psyche but they were part of a philosophical mindset that sought to set out what Jean-François Lyotard would call a “grand narrative.” For Freud the engine of his grand narrative was sexual energy, for Jung the engine was the organizational capacities of archetypes. Also writing philosophy during this period was Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), a Neo-Kantian philosopher and Kantian interpreter, who would bring a number of these ideas together into his three volume (1923-29), Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, which incorporates art as a language of symbolic forms that had to be interpreted.

Cassirer worked with Aby Warburg (1866-1929) and Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) at the University of Hamburg. These three scholars were the Hamburg School and were interested in the historical evolution of “symbolic forms.” Warburg applied the notion of psychological archetypes of art and searched for recurring images and recurring symbols that returned eternally in art as symptoms of the unconscious. Panofsky applied the notion of the Kantian mind actively constructing culture to works of art and attempted to read art according to the teachings of structuralism, especially that of Saussure whom he had read.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Sigmund Freud, Part Three

SIGMUND FREUD (1856 – 1939)



The only access the psychoanalyst has to his or her patient is the words of that patient who undergoes the “talking cure.” Sigmund Freud believed in simply listening to and interpreting the structure of the language used by his clients and was engaged in what we would call linguistic forensics. The meaning of cultural objects, from the most private of dreams to the most public of commodities can be understood only within a network of relations that are structured in a very particular fashion. For Freud, the structure is universal and the relations among the words (or things) are dependent upon the cultural network. In other words, his dreamers and patients in Vienna might have different dream symbols than those in London but the structure of the minds that produced the dreams was as universal as the traumas that were the root cause of anxiety and neurosis.

One of the most important revelations of the theories of both Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud is the way in which the mechanisms of the human mind work to substitute that which is desired but not permitted with a substitute—a speech act or an object or an action. The result is a kind of deflection, the desire is redirected and can be reified. In other words, anxiety or neurosis or trauma can be projected onto an inanimate object. For example, through the processes of exchange, a work of art can be altered from an object to a reified desire. Marx described this process of reification (fetishization) in these terms:

…we get a fetish form of capital, and the conception of fetish capital…It is the capacity of money, or of a commodity, to expand its own value independently of reproduction – which is a mystification of capital in its most flagrant form. For vulgar political economy, which seeks to represent capital as an independent source of value, of value creation, this form is naturally a veritable find. a form in which the source of profit is no longer discernible, and in which the result of the capitalist process of production – divorced from the process – acquires an independent existence.

The Unconscious is a buried city, like Rome, made of strata of anxieties and traumas, causing the “Rome neurosis,” which must be uncovered by the analyst/archaeologist. Internal conflicts between the opposing libidinal forces or basic human instincts and social controls of these impulses cause human unhappiness or neurosis. Civilization was created but at a price, built on painful “substitute-formations.” We cannot have what we want; we cannot do what we want; we cannot say what we want: our deepest needs must be sublimated and something more socially accepted must be substituted.

Freud’s early training was in Paris with the great doctor Jean-Martin Charcot who studied “hysteria” or acting out among female patients. He was also familiar with the symptoms revealed by traumatized victims of the Great War. The individuals observed by Freud showed the mind’s power to protect itself and to reveal itself and he sought the deepest layers buried beneath the more powerful mechanisms of repression. Suppressed traumas, which cause “hysteria,” or blocked discharges, or distorted and disguised expression of the original trauma are somewhere in the back of the mind. Hidden in the unconscious mind is a memory or trace of the traumatic and scarring experiences that are so painful that the conscious mind will not allow them to surface. But surface they do, but in unexpected and highly coded ways, usually not recognized as expressions of repressed pain.

According to Freud, the result of these unexpressed traumas are redirected and rerouted eruptions called “symptoms” that show up uncontrollably as jokes, “slips” of the tongue, expressed outwardly as language through mechanisms such as “denying the truth” or Verneinung. A cruel joke is not funny; it is a form of verbal assault. A slip of the tongue reveals the true content of the mind. To use the word “not,” as in, “I don’t mean to hurt you…” is to deny the truth: “I really want to hurt you” in order to suppress (badly) the true intent of the speaker. Freud called these psychic slips “parapraxes.”

Other means of the discharge or display of symptoms would include dreams, the actual process of production and transformation of the buried traces of the trauma into a rebus. Dream-work can produce dreams and free-association can produce conversational clues that lead the subject through the “talking cure” conducted by the analyst. In the process of investigating the structure of the symptoms, the sources of the trauma is uncovered in what Freud called the “return of the repressed.” This “return” is not always either healthy or redemptive, much less enabled by a reputable psychoanalyst.

Most people are merely caught up in helpless repetition, a ritual reenactment of the trauma that becomes a compulsion. The actual trauma is never visible but is apparent in its structure of repetition or return. The symptoms of the trauma can be witnessed as a trace. The memory is reenacted as “fixation”, “condensation”, displacement”, distortion”, “disguise”, identification” and “projection”—all Freudian symptoms of the original repression. The original repression, according to Freud, is sexual and he explained this primal trauma as the Oedipal Complex.

The sexual instinct is powerful psychic energy and is a force of nature that must be controlled in order for society to function appropriately. The connection between the mind and body is the original trauma, the separation of the child from its original object of desire, the mother. The result of this separation or splitting is a complex, called “Oedipal” for the male and “Electra” for the female. The trauma is a necessary condition for socialization but entry into human society comes at a high price: a lifetime of pain due to the repression of desire until maturity is reached through the resolution of the Oedipal complex.

In opening the dyadic relationship or what Freud called “The Family Romance,” with the mother to include the father, the subject is subjected to the law of the patriarchy or the superego that will ruthlessly punish incest or any other violation of taboos or laws. What began as a natural love and desire for the mother is socialized and banned and the resulting pain and shame imprinted onto the young body is repressed into the unconscious, which will not allow this trauma to be expressed. The result of this primal repression is the dream, which is an expression of forbidden desire. The child understood the fear better than s/he understood the desire and for the rest of her life, desire will be tainted with fear and shame, rendering normal human interaction redolent with unnamable anxieties and needs. The original desire will never be met.

These unfilled desires will play themselves out for the rest of the human being’s life in dreams. But even here, there is no freedom of expression for censorship is always at work. These powerfully charged memories would not be expressed, as they are infantile sexual wishes that can be satisfied only by dream-work. These forbidden dream-thoughts are latent content of dreams that are made into dream-stories through dream-work. These infantile desires are remembered through mechanisms such as condensation that is composite figures or structures that manifests itself as correspondence. Another mechanism is displacement; as elements are replaced through a chain of associations for disguise that surface as dream images. This representability is a rebus or picture puzzle or ideogram that organizes the dream into a comprehensive narrative.

Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud would be among the last of the philosophers to be concerned with the interaction of philosophy with society. In contrast to earlier philosophers who were concerned with politics, Nietzsche and Freud were primarily observers and interpreters of their own times. They were more concerned with how human beings could survive and function within their society than in intervening and changing the world, like Marx. In many ways, the two can be read in tandem: Nietzsche who sketched out the psychology of modern society and Freud who proceeded to diagnose that culture. Even though both were men of their times, their works became newly relevant to a new generation, called Postmodernists.

Nietzsche would become, like Duchamp, a posthumous “Father of Postmodernism.” As Nietzsche once said, “I want to be right not for today or tomorrow but for the millennia”. There are those who would argue that Nietzsche has succeeded. Nietzsche argued for the primal force of the Will to Power over the “grand narratives” of Hegel and Marx, and although his ideas were similar to his precursors in that there is always the assumption of an “engine” that drives the system, where that engine is Nothingness or Desire or Power or Will, he became the point of departure for the Postmodernists. The appeal of Nietzsche is his radical extension of Enlightenment skepticism and doubt into existential nihilism. A new generation of skeptics would pick up where Nietzsche left off and apply the concept of ambiguity to the foundation of human knowledge: language.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


Sigmund Freud, Part Two

SIGMUND FREUD (1856 – 1939)



The “psyche” was a term borrowed from Plato who had used the term as designated the “soul,” but for Sigmund Freud, the psyche was composed of energies or basic instincts. These instincts are simple and powerful: life and death, Eros and thantos, libido and constancy. Libido is blind energy (remember Schopenhauer) that needs to be properly directed. Thantos is destructive and aggressive and seeks death. They are governed by cathexis, or the urging forces, and anti-cathexis or the checking forces. The instincts are constantly trying to assert themselves while the forces that attempt to frustrate them are referred to as inner inhibitions. This constant frustration stands in the way of the pleasure principle and can be a useful and efficient operation of the reality principle, such as the delaying of gratification. Frustration can get out of hand and the privation can be too great and the mind needs always to be in balance.

The opposing forces of the mind cause a conflict that need to be resolved. The conscious mind is alert to danger and the ego understands that anxiety is a response to danger that is translated into a feeling of fear. These fears can be quite real and very relevant. Reality anxiety is a useful response to real danger in the real world. On the hand, healthy anxieties can also become unhealthy. Neurotic anxiety can be a fear of an uncontrollable urge and moral anxiety is the conscience in action, controlling these urges through feelings of guilt and shame. Neurotic anxiety can become overdeveloped as a free-floating apprehension that becomes an irrational fear or a phobia. The panic reaction is a sign the psyche is out of balance. The source of the imbalance is located in the unconscious and it is the role of the psychoanalyst is to locate the cause of the effect or “symptom.” Here at the point of the Symptom is where Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud come together.

The symptom as a social rather than a medical concept that was developed in Marxian theory and is linked to the psychological concept of “fetish.” The fetish is a symptom, not so much of a specific desire, but the signifier of the structure of desire or of how desire is structured within the capitalist system that produces commodities for consumers. For Freud, the symptom is psychotic and manifests itself in dreams. The unconscious mind processes all that the conscious mind has repressed and has then buried those forbidden desires in the unconscious mind and these repressions manifest themselves, in a twisted and symbolic fashion, through dreams. As Freud wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900, translated into English in 1913),

The dream-content is, as it were, presented in hieroglyphics, whose symbols must be translated, one by one, into the language of the dream-thoughts. It would of course, be incorrect to attempt to read these symbols in accordance with their values as pictures, instead of in accordance with their meaning as symbols. For instance, I have before me a picture – puzzle (rebus) – a house, upon whose roof there is a boat; then a single letter; then a running figure, whose head has been omitted, and so on. As a critic I might be tempted to judge this composition and its elements to be nonsensical. A boat is out of place on the roof of a house, and a headless man cannot run; the man, too, is larger than the house, and if the whole thing is meant to represent a landscape the single letters have no right in it, since they do not occur in nature. A correct judgment of the picture-puzzle is possible only if I make no such objections to the whole and its parts, and if, on the contrary, I take the trouble to replace each image by a syllable or word which it may represent by virtue of some allusion or relation. The words thus put together are no longer meaningless, but might constitute the most beautiful and pregnant aphorism.

“Dreams,” according to Freud, were the “Royal Road to the Unconscious.” The unconscious is also divided into two parts: the pre-conscious, consisting of experiences that can be called up at will, rather like the way one accesses long un-used files in a computer and the unconscious proper which is inaccessible to the conscious mind. The unconscious proper is a strong opposing force, located deep in the buried and repressed libido. The unconscious hides and protects its secrets so well that these “secrets” are inaccessible and undiscoverable. The secrets, or repressed material, will manifest themselves in the highly disguised forms of dreams.

For Freud, dreams are both manifest and latent. A manifest dream is the dream an individual remembers but the content seems strange and bizarre. The latent aspect of the dream can be compared to a photographic process: an individual is exposed to a traumatic event and this event is imprinted upon his mental landscape, like a latent image on a photographic plate. But what is “developed” is a metaphor which has coded the event/message into a series of images that must be decoded.

Dreams are disguised (coded) as visual and verbal metaphors but their latent content cannot simply be translated with the hope of revealing “secrets”. The truth of the psychic suppression of “true” needs, as in the real meaning of the fetish, lies in the way the dream is structured. This structure is the rebus, which works its way as a dream. It is not the dream; it is not the fetish, but the “dream work”—the process that is significant.

For Freud, dreams are manifested in language, which are spoken by the person being analyzed and these words are metaphors and must be translated. But this is not to imply that dreams are simply another language. Dreams are, in fact, unrelated to normal communication and are emanations from that which has been pushed down into the “primary processes”. The work of dreams or “dream-work” is significant is that it is divided into three operations. There is the manifest dream content; there is the latent dream content and the unconscious desire that is attached to the dream. Freud insisted on distinguishing between the manifest and the latent content of the dream and it is possible to think of unconscious (repressed) desire as the mechanism that mediates between that which is manifest (that which language can express) and that which is latent (that which takes on a particular form dictated by dream work. As Freud said,

At bottom, dreams are nothing other than a particular form of thinking made possible by the condition of the state of sleep. It is the dream-work which creates that form, and it alone is the essence of dreaming—the explanation of its particular nature. The form is important, not the content; the work is significant not the subject matter which is submitted to the dream-work. We see the same process in Marx. It is not be pure chance that a commodity becomes a fetish. The fetish, like the dream, is a symptom of the way in which a network of relations has functioned. Social relations have functioned in such a way as to transfer abstract value to commodities and turning these commodities into fetishes. The operation of transformation can take place because the commodity or product has become alienated from any conceivable maker and thus is free-floating, like anxiety, within a system that will and must pin it down and give it another meaning.

This other meaning is reified or objectified in the commodity or thing which has a psychological meaning imposed upon it. Marx is aware of this operation, which means that the meaning that is imposed is already present in society and this meaning has acquired meaning already within a matrix of social relations. Marx is baffled by the fetish as he is with other mechanisms of capitalism. He seems to be also aware that something is amiss within his system of dialectical materialism, a psychoanalytic element that his system cannot take into account. He reacts to this anarchic element by using words, such as “mystery” and “magic” and “mystification” over and over to describe what should be pragmatic and material effects of capitalism. The fetish and the dream are symptoms of free-floating desire that has fixed itself upon objects already considered by society to be likely candidates for fetishization. Structuralist philosophy will express these concepts in terms of linguistic theory.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Sigmund Freud, Part One

SIGMUND FREUD (1856 – 1939)



Freud died in exile in London from tongue and throat cancer, brought on from his longtime habit of smoking some twenty cigars a day. He had left his native Vienna reluctantly, as he also suffered from a bit of agoraphobia, under threat from the occupying Nazi regime that was determined to kill all Jews, regardless of how famous they were. Freud was on the list of those destined for extermination but was persuaded to find safety. His sisters refused to leave, stayed behind, and died in the camps. Freud also died, in agony, without ever having seen the city that was the metaphor for his newly conceptualized theory of the human mind—psychoanalysis. That city was Rome, buried, like the human mind under many layers of the past. The analyst, like the archaeologist, was expected to excavate the mind, to dig beneath the encrustations of memory to relocate the source of the disturbance. Psychoanalysis is a science of investigation.

Although Freud did not invent the science of the human mind, he was certainly the most eloquent, insightful, and poetic of those who attempted to chart the terrain of human thought. Like Charles Darwin, who came before him, Freud managed to pull together a number of preexisting ideas into a coherent framework that struck a cord with the public. Like Darwin, Freud would be used and misused, understood and misunderstood. His ideas would be pragamatized and medicalized in practical America. The Nazis would simply dismiss his writings as “Jewish” and burn them in bonfires. His ideas would be turned into literature in France under Jacques Lacan. And his ideas would be deemed “sexist” by a new generation of women in philosophy who, as feminist scholars, criticized his male-centric philosophy.

Contemporary science and current events may have disproved many of Freud’s suggestions, but his basic insights remain as provocative today as they did one hundred years ago. Nietzsche would have noted that Freud only reflected the temper of his own time and a contemporary historian would caution against judging Freud anachronistically. Instead, his many books, Civilization and Its Discontents, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Pschopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Three Essays on a Theory of Sexuality (1905), Totem and Taboo (1913), Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), The Ego and the Id (1923), Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety (1926), need to be read as literature and as a writer who conveyed some of the “truths” of his own time. His insistent gendering of all human activities only reflected the obsessive gendering of society at the end of the nineteenth century as a possible reaction to the need to keep women “in their place” when faced with the demands of the First Wave of Feminism.

Typical of his era, Freud conceptualized the human mind as dynamic, as a living organism, and utilized a biological model of becoming and evolution. Equally in keeping with the mindset of the century, Freud visualized the mind as being divided between two parts, the conscious, and the unconscious. The conscious mind is that which is familiar and that which is accessible, both to the individual and to those around her. The conscious mind, according to Karl Marx, has been formed in a matrix that is social. For Freud, this mind is formed elsewhere—in another time and place, in childhood—through a series of infantile traumas that caused part of that mind to go underground, as it were, to become that which is called the “unconscious”. The unconscious mind is the central concept of Freudian thought.

Both Marx and Freud are Modernist model builders and their thinking is architectonic. Marx used the metaphor of the base and superstructure, a building in which the base is the mode of production, the economy, and the superstructure, the many rooms, is education, government, the arts, and so on. Freud imagined the mind as a divided form, split into thirds: id, ego and super ego as well as the conscious, pre-conscious, and unconscious. Although it seems to be like Marx’s base with the conscious mind as a sort of mental superstructure, the unconscious mind is deeply hidden and well defended. In contrast, Marx’s base and superstructure were in a constant state of dialectical interaction. Freud works less with a dialectical structure and constructs a depth model—one penetrates from above, seeking to locate and to interpret that which is hidden beneath.

Both philosophers seek the truth and have faith that truth will be revealed when that which conceals truth is removed. What follows is recover—social recovery or psychic recovery to health and balance. For Marx, ideology is the “false consciousness” which conceals the true purposes of the ruling classes. Moreover, ideology is more than lies; ideology is very the structure of the consciousness that leads members of society to collude with the interests of the ruling power. In other words, what is of interest is not the specific aspects of the “falsity” but the structure of thought that make false consciousness possible and effective. For Freud, the truth of the unconscious is also embedded in a structure that has its own topography.

The Freudian personality is organized in three parts: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. This split mind is the result of Civilization, which is mastery over nature, or the ungoverned human being. The cause of this mental fracturing was what Freud called “the Oedipal complex (in men) (the Electra complex in women) a trauma suffered in childhood when a child is separated from his first love object, his mother by his father, from whom he fears castration. As Richard Wollheim explained it in his 1971 book Sigmund Freud,

…the indissoluble connection of the superego with the Oedipus complex accounts for the remarkable intransigence of morality and its comparative imperviousness to reason. Rooted as it is in what Freud had called the “infantile neurosis,” it shares in the backward-looking character that we have already seen to be of the essence of the neurosis itself.

In his seminal late work of 1930, Civilization and its Discontents, located the cause of “neurosis” or “discontent” in the state of “civilization.” Freud asked a simple question: why are we so unhappy? The answer is that for humans to come together in a civilized state, repression of the most basic instincts was necessary, resulting in sublimation of basic instincts. These instincts are “instincts” and “basic” due to necessity. In order to survive, humans had to be aggressive, but in a social setting, the law forbids aggression. The resulting conflict between the repression of these instincts is a neurosis of guilt and conflict.

Writing during a decade of social upheaval, Freud noted that these instincts are either rechanneled or redirected or simply ruthlessly disciplined by the ruling forces of society. Unknowingly between two wars, the Great War still fresh in his memory, the philosopher seemed to sense the conflicts to come. He stated,

What a potent obstacle to civilization aggressiveness must be, if the defence against it can cause as much unhappiness as aggressiveness itself! ‘Natural’ ethics, as it is called, has nothing to offer here except the narcissistic satisfaction of being able to think oneself better than others. At this point the ethics based on religion introduces its promises of a better after-life. But so long as virtue is not rewarded here on earth, ethics will, I fancy, preach in vain. I too think it quite certain that a real change in the relations of human beings to possessions would be of more help in this direction than any ethical commands; but the recognition of this fact among socialists has been obscured and made useless for practical purposes by a fresh idealistic misconception of human nature.

Writing about the same time, Nietzsche also saw civilization as causing human dis-ease and alienation. With Freud, these ruling forces were internalized as the Superego, which controlled the Id, or the defiant instincts, always threatening to reemerge and disrupt civilized life. Squeezed in-between the childish Id and the parental Superego, is the Ego, the disciplined adult mind that fights for mental health, balance and harmony. That conscious mind has become, over time, a city like Rome, one part visible and functioning openly and the part being covered with layers of repressed instincts, called the psyche. For his entire career, Freud sought to alleviate the psychic pain of humans. The question was how to get behind the mind’s defenses and to reach the buried layers of the psyche.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


African-American Art: The Harlem Renaissance


The Harlem Renaissance

To ask the question: what is African-American art? is to ask what is American art? America is a nation of immigrants. The only “American” culture is that of the Native Americans and, ironically, as was pointed out earlier, this is the most marginalized of artistic expressions in America. From the nineteenth century, scholars—completely ignoring the Native Americans—pointed out that there was no such thing as an “indigenous” American culture and that American art and literature and music were all based upon European forms and precedents. In the twenty-first century, scholars are more inclusive and speak of hybrid cultures or hyphenated art.

The Chicano and Mexican-American artists based their art on precedents from Mexico and Central America. The Asians who came to the United States from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and India also arrived with their unique sensibilities. Likewise, African-American artists, descended from slaves kidnapped out of Africa, brought the culture of African tribes to America. These African forms of literature, art and music had no ties to Europe or America or Asia. It would be fair to say that “American” art is an amalgam of four continents. It would also be fair to to point out that when cultural elements though of as quintessential “American” art are listed, the origin is, in fact African.

Black culture produced several unique genres of literature, such as the slave narrative, the sermons from the African-American churches, and, of course, the Blues, the source of gospel music and jazz. Today, many people would agree that the music that is “American” is rock ‘n’ roll and jazz and hip hop, the food that is “American” is barbeque, fried chicken, and “soul food”—all of African origin. Ironically this specifically American culture developed the result of the forced slavery and segregation of the Africans who were taken from their homelands and brought to a strange new land. Even after the abolition of slavery, African-Americans were denied equality of any kind and any demands for the rights of citizenship met with violence on the part of whites.

In exchange for peace and in self-defense, Blacks withdrew from whites and formed their own separate institutions and social groups. Here, in isolation, African-Americans could be themselves, sing their own songs, maintain their African roots, make their own speeches, expressing their sense of shared struggle through sermons in the churches. While some sensitive whites were able to recognize the original qualities of African-American culture, others refused to believe that Blacks were capable of making art. Many European philosophers, including Kant and Hegel, insisted that Africans had no culture, no art forms, and were, therefore, not human, for only a fully realized human being was capable of producing art.

While the Southern churches were centers for music-making, that region of the country—an armed camp imposing white will upon the blacks by terror—had little to offer the African-Americans outside of their own marginalized culture. By the end of the nineteenth century, faced with a web of Jim Crow prohibitions, Blacks began to migrate north and one of the key destinations was New York City and the neighborhood of Harlem. In her brilliant 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson lays out a frightening historical account of “escapes’ from the South to a place of refuge in Northern cities. African-Americans were needed for their cheap labor and were not “allowed” to leave the South and were kept in their place by both legal and illegal means, much like the old slave culture. Those who managed to make it to a city like Chicago or Los Angeles or New York were brave, determined and willing to risk their lives for the American dream.

The African American artist, Jacob Lawrence, produced a remarkable suite of paintings on The Great Migration (1940-1), an exodus from the segregationist South that continued until the 1960s—fifty years to northern and western destinations. Using simple blocks of strong color, Lawrence combined figuration with Cubism to tell a visual story that is paralleled by the history later recounted by Wilkerson, a story of persecution and hardship, ending with fulfillment. Giving an account of an extreme level of segregation and lives lived in daily fear in the South, African Americans existed in near complete isolation. Wilkinson pointed out that many of these escapees had never voted, had never spoken to a white person and had never left the place of their birth. This historical background of racism in relation to the phenomenon called the “Harlem Renaissance”—the sudden flowering of art, music, poetry, literature, political philosophy in the legendary New York neighborhood—is significant because the “renaissance” was an extraordinary accomplishment from the children and grandchildren of slaves.

Understanding the incredible deprivations endured by African-Americans in the South makes the art made in Harlem more meaningful, not just in terms of paintings or sculpture, but more importantly in terms of a flowering of a glowing human-ness. The Harlem Renaissance was an attempt of African-Americans to refute the charge, leveled by whites, of being “less than human” by giving the production of culture as much importance as economic success and entry into a middle class life. To be an artist was to be a human. Being an artist requires a strong sense of self and a healthy ego, qualities not permitted for African-Americans in the South where they were indoctrinated with the propaganda that they were “inferior” in every way. And yet, once they had put distance between segregation and the closed racist society, African-Americans began to write, recount their own history, develop their own philosophy; they started to sing, to dance, to make music, to express themselves through the visual arts.

During this era important Black philosophers and cultural observers began to write seriously about what the philosopher, W. E. B. DuBois, called “the soul of black folks.” The black “soul,” DuBois stated, was divided into a “double consciousness:” on one hand, the Black was an African with the heritage of slavery, oppression, and struggle; and on the other hand, the Black was an American with all the hopes and dreams that characterized the society. The hyphenated term “African-American” reflects that dichotomy, that divided identity that has created the original art we call “American.” Many of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance practiced their craft under difficult conditions. The visual artists were supported by well-meaning but slightly condescending white patrons who disappeared with economic hard times. The musical artists performed for white patrons at venues such as the Cotton Club, where no African-Americans were allowed, except as entertainers.

Like Native Americans, African Americans, from the time of the Harlem Renaissance, confronted white art forms and were faced with a decision that white artists never had to consider. If an African-American artist appropriated “white art,” did she give up her own cultural identity in a quest to become accepted simply as an “artist?” Was she selling out? If, on the other hand, an African-American artist maintained and developed the survivals of African culture, did he risk being marginalized as a “Black artist?” Would his art ever be seen as “art?” These questions faced the artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Painting as a form of “fine art,” was not part of an African heritage, like the music—jazz, blues, gospel—or the slave culture, like the soul food. African sculpture, however, was part of the tribal heritage and was celebrated by the European artists of the early twentieth century, who appropriated African art forms and made them their own.

For the African-American artist of the Harlem Renaissance, the appropriation would be reversed: Western style easel painting was used by Blacks to make statements that were specifically African-American. In doing so, the artists signaled by their adherence to painting both an assimilation of white art forms and a desire to use them to preserve and develop their own modes of expression. The easel painters of the Harlem Renaissance used painting to develop African motifs, such as Lois Mailou Jones, or to show life in Harlem, such as Palmer Hayden, or the culture of New Orleans, such as Archibald Motley. Similarly, sculptor, Richmond Barthe, used Greco-Roman forms to celebrate African life.

The hybrid art of African Americans is hybrid because these artists are, first and foremost “American” and are part of the larger American society. “African” is a statement of pride and distinction and expressions of “African-ness” are American-style survivals of tribal culture, a culture from which they have been separated for centuries. The result, as with all American art, all of which is hybrid, is a rich mixture of histories and traditions and inheritances. One of the most famous works of visual art of the Harlem Renaissance were the murals of the New York Public Library branch in Harlem. These murals, telling the story of Africans who came as slaves to America and suffered and endured and final triumphed, were the masterworks of Aaron Douglas.

However, the Harlem Renaissance was part of the jazz age, the Prohibition, and was dependent upon a prosperous bubble economy. After the Crash on Wall Street in 1929, the Great Depression devastated all of America and, as usual, the African-Americans were especially hard hit. America did not recover from the collapse of the economy until World War jump-started the stalled economy and offered hope, once again, to African-Americans. The photographer who recorded the Harlem Renaissance, its people and its places, James Van Der Zee, lived long enough to photograph the second coming of African-American art when he made a portrait to the Puerto-Rican-Haitian-American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


Postmodern Architects

The Masters of Postmodernism

Postmodern architecture is a generational Oedipal act of rebellion against the Modernist fathers. Beginning with early criticisms of Modernist destruction of traditional cities, from the 1970s a genuine rebellion broke out among younger architects. The new generation systematically broke all the rules laid down by their predecessors—idealism was replaced by cynicism and irony, originality was superseded by a return to history, and a pure meaning born of visual unity was wiped away by the multi vocalism of allegory, as buildings designed by historical analogy began to dot the landscape.

One of the first acts of provocation came from none other than one of the Modernist masters, Philip Johnson. In a perverse act that some called “betrayal,” the architect of the famous Glass House (1949) in New Canaan, Connecticut, mashed styles and periods together in the AT&T Building—now the Sony Building—of 1978-84. Rising above New York City, the AT&T Building was topped by a faux crown fashioned after the top of a cabinet by the 18th century designer, Thomas Chippendale. As is typical of Postmodern art, the building required and even demanded a knowledgable viewer to understand the inside jokes written across the facade. The mixture of styles was an affront to Modernist purity, but Chippendale himself made furniture that was hybrid and allegorical: “classical” and “Queen Anne,” which would be called “Federalist” in New York. The broken pediment was a Baroque comment on the Greek pediment on temples transplanted from architecture by Chippendale who propped his “high boy” (haut bois) on curved cabriolet legs (pilotis for furniture) antithetical to pure classicism. The stories of the AT&T Building resemble the drawers of a cabinet or the shelves in a Chippendale bookcase. The resulting building was sixty odd layers of ironic allusions to the history of architecture and design, an act of architectural bricolage. It caused a sensation.

Just as Philip Johnson referred back to a previous period of quotation, Charles Moore followed with the Piazza d’Italia (1976-79) in New Orleans which commented on Roman architecture which, was in and of itself, a pastiche of Greek and local Tuscan styles. The key trope of Moore’s “piazza” is the fact that Roman architecture was based on façade or a cladding of the structure to disguise construction—also a rejection of Modernism’s assertion of form. The Piazza is also a nod to Hollywood which uses fake fronts, stage sets, for the Piazza is not a set of buildings but a grouping of façades that jumble together architectural components and materials all of which allude to imperial architecture. Originally conceived of as a piece of “destination architecture” by a “star architect,” (starchitect) the Piazza was not popular with the locals and quickly fell into disrepair as the unstable materials altered or were vandalized, after its opening in 1978. In 2004 this famous piece by the late architect was restored by Ronald C. Filson of Tulane University.

It is perhaps Michael Graves whose works have been the most iconic and most recognizably “Postmodern.” His style is marked by a flat and linear effect, as if the façades of his buildings are drawings cut out of balsa wood, like an architectural model. The Portland Public Service Building (1982) is typical of his Postmodern “classicism,” with small windows, surface patterns and strong pops of color, especially terra cotta. But despite the iconic building in Portland, Graves is part of a group of architects, loyal to Modernism, known as the “Whites.” While it is hard to imagine Graves and the Late (Lingering) Modernist architect, Richard Meier, the “Whites” are distinguished from the “Grays,” led by Robert Venturi who take their inspirations from the built environment of the vernacular landscape. Because the structure is decorated with motifs that quote Classicism and Art Deco and refers to the practice of architecture, its history and its theories, the term “pastiche” sums up the Portland building by Graves.

It is important to note that the high point of Postmodern architecture coincided with a period of wealth and extravagance, particularly in the corporate culture. Like the International Style, Postmodern architecture quickly became equated with corporate arrogance and greed. These were expensive buildings, utilizing hard to maintain precious materials, and the architects allowed theories to override practicality and the insistence upon allegorical designs that combined architectural elements from various periods often overwhelmed function. It is best to think of these buildings as large works of art, needing the same care and conservation as any artistic creation. For example the architect Frank Gehry, who is neither Modernist nor Postmodernist, comes less from the world of architecture and more from the world of art. In Los Angeles, he was close to the artists of the city and his buildings resemble sculptures made out of titanium.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Disney Hall in Los Angeles are explosions in metal, sprawling aggressively in peaks and valleys that shine in the sun and shimmer in rain. These fragile buildings are “signature” works, as recognizable as Dan Flavin’s florescent bulbs, and, like it is impossible to throw paint on the floor without being “Pollock,” Gehry “owns” titanium. Although this architect is not “Postmodern” in the sense of piling allegorical references upon a building which becomes an “emblem” of “architecture,” Gehry could not have built his signature creations in any other era. Neither could Peter Eisenman have made the move from academic theories on architecture if had the culture not been willing to embrace innovative ideas. In fact both he and Gehry are included, along with Rem Koolhaus, Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, and Coop Himmelblau, in a group of Deconstructivist architects who Deconstruct the Constructivist architecture of the Russian Avant-Garde.

The great architectural theorist, Mark Wigley, defined Deconstruction (taken from ideas of Jacques Derrida) in architecture as locating “inherent dilemmas within buildings….The demonstrative architect puts the pure forms of the architectural tradition on the couch and identifies the symptoms of a repressed impurity. The impurity is drawn to the surface by a combination of gentle coaxing and the violent torture: the form is interrogated.” The most famous example of such architecture is Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center of Visual Arts (1983-89) on the campus of Ohio University in Columbus. The building is an ironic commentary on the Modernist grid and on the grid system, based in turn on Roman town planning, that was used by the American government to map the midwest and lay out its towns and cities. The grid for the city and the grid for the university were deliberately misaligned by Eisenman by 12 1/2 degrees. So it is here, at the site of an armory that was demolished after a devastating fire in 1958, that two historic grids inadvertently come together but do not join seamlessly.

The Wexner Center with its skewed gridded building is sited at the point of disjuncture and memory. The shape but not the function of the armory was disinterred from its fiery grave and sliced in half, split by time and space out of joint. The vaguely castle like shape in faux red brick is surrounded by a building that is a grid that de-defines enclosure and yet must contain the double buildings—the museum and the library. Pure white, without straight lines, full of stops and starts, suspended columns, unfinished lines, the building is a dizzying deconstruction of Modernist rectitude and the quintessential example of Deconstruction in Postmodernism in architecture. Indeed, Charles Jencks describes the building as a negation of the assumptions of architecture: a “not-entrance” past a “not-excavated” “not-armory” and through a “not-doorway” and towards “non-columns” and “non-pilasters”–all of which are evidence of “absent-presence.” Welcome to Postmodernism.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

From Mannerism to Postmodernism in Architecture

Mannerism and Symbolism in Architecture

Robert Venturi began his famous book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, with a “gentle manifesto” for what he called “Nonstraightforward Architecture.” The young architect stated,

I like complexity and contradiction in architecture in architecture. I do not like the incoherence or arbitrariness of incompetent architecture nor the precious intricacies of picturesqueness or expressionism. Instead, I speak of a complex and contradictory architecture based on the richness and ambiguity of modern experience, including that experience which is inherent in art….Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture. I like elements that are hybrid rather than “pure,” compromising rather than “clean,” distorted rather than “straightforward,” ambiguous rather than “articulated,” perverse as well as impersonal, being as well as “interesting,” convention rather than “designed,” accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than simple, vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear. I am for messy vitality over obvious unity. I include non sequitur and and proclaim the duality. I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning; for the implicit function as well as the explicit function. I prefer “both-and” to “either-or,” black and white and sometimes gray to black or white. A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning and combinations of focus: its space and its elements become readable and workable in serval ways at once…More is not less.

It is necessary to quote this opening passage at length because it is one of the earliest statements about what would be called Postmodernism in America and because it would form the basis for the definition of Postmodernism later fashioned by the architectural writer, Charles Jencks. In addition many aspects of his “manifesto” would find their way into the basic elements of Postmodern thought. Although Venturi declared that he was not a Postmodern architect—and as a pioneer, he could not be—his playful approach to re-examining Modernist architecture would change the thinking of an entire generation. His book, published in 1966, reflects the slow process his thinking had gone through during the five years he spent designing a small modest house for his mother, Vanna Venturi. Architectural historian, Vincent Scully, called this book the most important book on architecture since Le Corbusier’s Towards an Architecture (1923).

If Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture is his verbal manifesto, then the famous Mother’s House (1963) was his physical manifesto, demanding a change in architectural thinking. In his introduction to Mother’s House. The Evolution of Vanna Venturi’s House in Chestnut Hill, Frederick Schwartz noted that architectural students at the nearby University of Pennsylvania were warned by their professors to not visit this radical house. However, not only did they come, but Venturi also won a Gold Metal for this opening salvo against Modernism. If this house is a challenge to Modernist purism in architecture than it is instructive to compare it to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Both houses set alone on a small lot, a grass lawn, rimmed with trees, announcing each as a work of art. While the Villa is clearly a new and modern design that was a “machine for living,” Mother’s House was based on an old and familiar prototype—or a combination of traditions.

As he describes it, Venturi was seeking a combination of “essence” and “classicism.” The essential house or dwelling is an enclosure as evoked by the plain salt-box New England shape and the peaked roof. The classicism of the house is its split or divided pediment which interrupts while retains the classicism. Some of the playfulness comes from his desire to defy the elders of his profession—he returns windows to their original source, as holes in a wall and he repainted the stucco house from a taupe gray to a green to make the house blend in with nature, because Marcel Breuer would never do. And in the worst infamy of all, Venturi added moldings—from the unfunctional arch to the decorations around the windows—ornamentation. While symmetrical the exterior and interior have elements of asymmetry, from mismatched windows from a staircase hidden behind a door. Today this private home is a place of pilgrimage for architects seeking the source of Postmodernism.

Another iconic work of Postmodern architecture was designed around the same time as Venturi was working towards his final version of Mother’s House and that was the Sydney Opera House, which was not opened until 1973, a decade after the architect, Jorn Utzon. This building, an engineering marvel, was also a display of visual “double-coding,” a term coined by Charles Jencks to indicate that the visual forms of Postmodern architecture had codes, meanings, that had multiple meanings. The two sail-shaped, triple layered roofs of the Opera House refer to the Sydney Harbor and the ships that sail for pleasure in front of the famous building. The code for “sails,” “sea,” and even of vaults which capture the sound of the music are local and specific, rather than being universal forms favored by Modernist architecture. Although some wits have equated the layers or shells to a ménage à trios of mating turtles, the Sydney Opera House can, in Venturi language, be called a “Duck.”

Venturi confronted Modernism with his famous “duck” and “decorated shed” comparison put forward in his 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas. The “Duck,” inspired by a duck shaped structure on Long Island, is the Modernist building, which is a symbol of Modernism and of the machine. The Decorated Shed is a generic building that symbolizes nothing but enclosure or “shed” in which its actual function is designated by signage. That signage is symbolic but frankly so, for Venturi maintains that although Modernist architects deny it, all architecture, even theirs, is symbolic. When Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown and Steve Izenour visited Las Vegas, the town was full of “Sheds” Decorated with neon signs, designating them as casinos. But, interestingly, today Las Vegas is comprised of “Ducks:” a pyramid, an Eiffel Tower, a Venice, a Statue of Liberty and so on–an entire gaggle of ducks marching up and down the main highway.

The years following the publication of Learning from Las Vegas were the first years of acknowledged and frankly Postmodern works of architecture. One of the most successful works of Postmodern destination architecture was the Centre Georges Pompidou (1972-75) in the Beaubourg district of Paris. One of the grand projects of the post-war era, the museum for contemporary art celebrated technology. The architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano turned the building inside out, like a sweater, and displayed the seams or the technology that makes the building work. The conduits and pipes are on the outside and the outside is on the inside. Scaffolding permanently surrounds the building and, also on the outside, a clear tube escalator, a “people mover,” elevates the audience from one level to the other. The pipes on the exterior are color in codes for hidden functions: red for elevators, blue for air, yellow for electricity and green for water. The Beaubourg has been embraced by the Parisians and visitors, with the large sloping cobblestone courtyard becoming a theater for performance and street artists.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]




The Historical Context of Postmodernism, Part Two


Part Two

Defining Postmodernism is a difficult process. Even though it is now fashionable to declare Postmodernism as “dead” or “over,” one should proceed with caution before burying the body. Unlike Modernism, which emerged from the Enlightenment hundreds of years ago, Postmodern ideas are essentially a mid century phenomenon, meaning that the entire body of knowledge is only sixty odd years old. We do not yet have the kind of historical perspective on Postmodernism that allows a single compact definition. Postmodernism was not just an academic event, the purview of ivory tower academics, it was also a cultural event that expanded beyond its European origins to the new global society.

The intellectuals, for all their removed condition, predicted with astonishing perception the impact of Postmodernism upon society. It should be emphasized that one of the first and most significant elucidators of Postmodernism, Jean-François Lyotard wrote his diagnosis in response to technological changes and how the computerized societies of the twentieth century have impacted the legitimation of knowledge. The Report was commissioned in the late 1970s by the Conseil des Universités of the Quebec government in order to assess the confluence of computer technology, science and knowledge—how in this new age was knowledge be formed? Lyotard’s answers would be not only precise but prophetic.

As Lyotard stated,

I will use the term modem to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the her- meneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.

He continued,

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodem as incredulity toward meranarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in rum presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the mctanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds; most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it.

Although Lyotard correctly pointed to the end of the “metanarrative,” or the one overarching tale that explains everything, this metanarrative had spawned metanarratives for each intellectual, social, political and cultural field. The metanarrative implies as “master narrative,” or an idea that masters both nature and culture. One of the first tasks of Postmodern thinkers was to interrogate and dismantle the metanarrataive of the Enlightenment. In philosophy, this reexamination consisted of re-reading and re-writing the entire philosophical project of the eighteenth century. In art, the metanarrative was called “Modernism” and referred to a particular aspect of art, called avant-garde, that stemmed from the painting of Édouard Manet and the urban culture in Paris.

This metanarrative, like all metanarratives, was only as strong as what it excluded and what forms of art making were pushed aside to make room for a seamless story. As previous posts pointed out, the metanarrative of Modernism began to break down in the mid 1950s as new ideas about what art could be began to be exhibited. Neo-Dada and Pop Art and Minimal Art and Conceptual Art and Feminist Art and Pluralism all contained elements or aspects of Postmodernism and contributed to the demise of Modernism.

The art world did not systematically begin to examine Postmodern theory until the 1980s when it became obvious that the succession of movements and “isms” had ceased. Clearly, the idea that art evolves in one singular straight line was no longer tenable. Once authority had been questioned and it was evident that there was no single ruling intellectual or artistic force, Modernism was replaced by Postmodernism. It is important to understand that the art world comprehension of Postmodernism was somewhat limited and crude. Postmodernism was understood as an old-fashioned dialectic (one of the models questioned by Postmodern thinkers) as an oppositional force to Modernism.

Modernism was based upon a set of social, political and philosophical assumptions which were embedded in the Enlightenment. These assumptions were essentially optimistic: human beings would improve as they elevated themselves politically and economically through social equality. People, ordinary people, could come together and govern themselves for their mutual benefit. As history moved forward, now that they were in charge of their own destinies, people would also progress morally and ethically.

History proved this optimistic hypothesis to be wrong. Far from improving humanity, modern technology merely allowed people to kill each other more efficiently. After the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the mood after (or “post”) the war was pessimistic. It was clear that a line had been crossed and that an era had come to an end. Humanity had revealed itself to be fatally flawed and trust in the good will of people had been lost. Although the sense of failure and disillusionment had yet to be named, Modernism had come to an end in the rubble and terror “after Auschwitz.”

The optimistic and progressive metanarrative of Modernism hid another assumption: that everyone agreed that the social and political principles of the Enlightenment were superior to all other philosophical systems. The Enlightenment was Eurocentric, secular, and, in favoring “progress,” left tradition behind, but not all societies agreed with this forward thrust into the “modern.” The Second World War shattered the illusion that there could be one objective truth, the truth of the science and philosophy of the Enlightenment. The only truth was that there was no truth.

Germany refused the onrush to the modern and substituted social hysteria and cultural subjectivity for scientific thinking. The Myth of the Third Reich was an alternative “truth”–the Nazi narrative of the way the world should be. Japan also rejected the Eurocentric extension of power into Asia and substituted its own cultural imperatives for the Enlightenment principles of progress. Twenty years after the Second World War, the nations of the Middle East also rejected modernity and its insistence on gender and class equality and enlightened secularism. In other words, the metanarrative of the Enlightenment which purported to be based on the objective and provable truth of science would be met with a refusal to accept that imposed imperative. In the post-war period, it became clear that subjectivity or local narratives had dislodged the certainty of the eighteenth century and “post” modern doubt was dominant.

The Enlightenment itself was a belief system—it substituted a belief in religion with a belief in human reason. Faced with the extremes of historical conditions, the powers of the human intellect had broken down, revealing the dark side of the mind as the European culture descended into an irrational madness. It is important to note that Postmodernism was a European invention and not an American one because it was Europe that experienced the worst effects of the Second World War. Instead of creating a continent of free people, the War had cut Europe in half, condemning the eastern nations to lives of autocratic arbitrary rule.

In the free zone, the Cold War stifled real political and social progress. In the west, the forces of the status quo had a firm hold but there were those who hoped for change. By the 1960s, idealism evaporated after the uneasy Spring of student uprisings and the reassertion of dogmatic authority, and the European intellectuals simply lost their belief in the revolutionary process that should had led to greater emancipation. Once the grand idée was dead, unity was impossible and philosophers sheltered themselves into small conclaves of thought. This disunity signified and end of “meaning” as a singular belief system. The permanent modernist revolution gave way to a Postmodern critique of the Enlightenment as if to find out how the culture could have gone so far astray from its initial promise.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

The Historical Context of Postmodernism, Part One


Part One

Writing in the second volume of his important book, A Study of History, Arnold Toynbee attempted to describe the moment/s in which the “Modern” ended and the “Post-Modern” began. He asserted, although Europeans and “North Americans” were unaware of what was happening, that the Modern Age was winding down in “the aftermath of the General War of 1792-1815.” Toynbee was referring to the period between the French Revolution and the final fall of Napoléon. It was during these decades that the Age of Reason was refuted by the Age of Terror, total war, and democracy and equality were delayed by a ruthless dictator bent on ruling Europe. These years of irrational and regressive political actions were also precisely the years that, in art history, marked the end of Neo-Classicalism and the establishment of Romanticism. Toynbee wrote that “…the Modern Age of Western History had been wound up only to inaugurate a Post-Modern Age pregnant with tragic experiences.” In referring to the well-to-do economic beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution and the political winners of the the Enlightenment, he continued, “They were imagining that, for their benefit a sane, safe, satisfactory Modern Life had miraculously come to stay in a suddenly inaugurated timeless present.” Toynbee wrote that the privileged of this Modern society were somehow able to overlook the continued inequalities. The historian described a kind of willful blindness to the fact that, in a modern age, monarchies and colonialism and imperialism simply could not continue and “must be borne away, sooner or later, by Time’s ‘ever-rolling stream.'” The Late Modern Age (1675-1875), according to Toynbee, “is one of the great Ages of Faith—Faith in Progress and in Human Perfectibility…A Faith that has lived three hundred years dies hard…” the historian asserted, adding that this Faith took “a knock-out blow in A.D. 1914.” His tone and style of writing is decidedly old fashioned, an attempt to look into the soul of twenty three civilizations to understand their rise and fall. One of the last of the historians who were were ambitious enough to delve into a broad sweep of historical forces, Toynbee’s approach favored the spiritual or moral (or psychological) forces of history. For example, he indicted the moral failure of American democracy and the European refusal to deal fairly with the proletariat or the poor and lower classes. Toynbee’s twelve volume history was published between 1934 and 1961 and was abridged in the early 1950s into two volumes. However, by the time of the completion of the long publication process, his style of history had gone out of vogue and attacks on his approach damaged his reputation. And yet, Toynbee presented a cogent and insightful analysis of how the Age of Faith gave way to the Post-Modern time of disillusion. By the end of the Second World War the damage to the Faith in Reason was irreparable. It was only after the final war was over and the Western world contemplated the smoldering ruins that the extent of the loss in Faith became clear. Modernism or the Modern Age was historically linked to the Enlightenment and its doctrines of human perfection through the forces of reason, its hopes of political equality and its drive towards Progress. Reason replaced Faith and Culture replaced Nature. The Modern period was marked by a new desire to cultivate and master Nature and this sense that nature could be controlled came to characterize Modernism. In the early decades, technology seemed to be a miracle which transformed an entire continent from an agrarian one into a site of industry and manufacture. It would take over one hundred years for the price of the Industrial Revolution and the relentless impetus of technology to be fully realized—the pollution of the water and air, the toll on human beings, and the spoliation of nature itself. The idea that rational thinking would lead to inhumane rationalism did not occur to the Enlightenment philosophers whose task was not to foretell futures but to replace God with philosophy. But the German (Nazi) use of logic, reason and rational thinking had lethal consequences. Given the appropriate technology, the human being could take the place of God with the powers of life and death—even to the extent of attempted extermination of an entire people. Philosophers have traced the logical consequences of scientific farming, selective breeding of animals, urban planning, and the hierarchical ordering of people according to skin color, to the ultimate act of rationalization, the Holocaust. After the Second World War, the Frankfurt School, an important precursor to Post-Modernist theory, would claim that the Enlightenment brought only darkness. “How was it possible to write poetry “after Auschwitz?” asked Theodor Adorno of artists. It seems to be the task of the Postmodern generation to ponder the problem of the monstrous potential of limitless inhumanity in an age of absolute disillusionment and cynicism. Postmodernism arrived as a mind set at the same time the international culture awaited another millennium. The war ended with the losers–Germany and Japan–becoming the economic victors and the military winners–England and France–losing status and empires and self-respect. Once again, exhausted, decimated and destroyed, Italy was lost in the shuffle. America and Russia took on the respective roles of Good and Evil as Western and Eastern Europe faced each other in a long ideological war of threat and counter-threat, a chess game of never-enacted virtual reality, a simulacrum of ultimate annihilation by apocalyptic weapons, build, cherished but never launched. The Cold War, ending only with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, was played out between neo-imperialist Euro-American powers in theaters of color–Algeria, Korea, Viet Nam, exotic locales where nasty little wars could be carried out without inconveniencing the Superpowers at home.

The French Connection

What is remarkable about the post-war period is the extent to which American and European powers continued the same policies of empire and imperialism and inequality without regard to ethics of morality—after Toynbee had spent decades describing these very conditions as the reasons why cultures failed. If the Modern Age failed and gave way to the Post-Modern with the beginning of the First World War, then, by the end of the conflict filled century a consciousness arose of something that could be called in a self-conscious way “Postmodernism,” of the state of being in the Post-Modern Age. The awareness of the cultural condition of “Postmodernism” could be separated from “Postmodernity,” which is a more specific concept. Postmodernity is a social and cultural state characterized by globalization and computer-based technology. That said, it is convenient to point out that Postmodernism, as a time period, played out in two different arenas, Europe and America. For America, 1968 was a year of assassinations—Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King—and all the cultural leaders of change were wiped away. For America, the sixties were over and were followed by an age of self-indulgence and disco. For Europe, that year was one of revolutions and uprisings, none more notorious than that in Paris, the events called “May ’68.” In his recent book The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (2010), Richard Wolin described the rise and fall of the Marxist student and worker attempt to change France during a hot spring month. The time of revolution, long predicted by Marxist theory, had finally come—the masses had risen up, but, like most modern revolutions, this one lacked leaders and a coherent agenda. While everyone gave up, went home and accepted the reimposition of the status quo, the long term impact of “May ’68” played itself out among the scholars and intellectuals. As Wolin expressed it, “By the time the dust had cleared, many of France’s leading intellectuals—Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, the Tel Quel group—had been swept up in this giddy left-wing political vortex.” According to Wolin, the revolution that wasn’t

…had a strangely beneficial on French intellectuals, curing this mandarin caste of its residual elitism and thereby helping to promote a new, more modest, and democratic cultural sensibility, for in the aftermath of the aftermath of the May revolt, when Maoism had reached its zenith, French intellectuals learned to follow as well as to lead. Much of this development was captured by Foucault’s felicitous coinage: the specific intellectual had supplanted the universal intellectual. In a further nuance of twist, the democratic intellectual would replace the vanguard intellectual…

Founded in 1960, Tel Quel, both a publication and a group of leading intellectuals, including, Jean-louis Baudry, Pierre Boulez, Claude Cabantous, Hubert Damisch, Marc Devade, Jean-Joseph Goux, Denis Hollier, Julie Kristeva, Marcelin Pleynet, Jean Ricardou, Jacquelin Risset, Denis Roche, Pierre Rottenberg, Jean-Louis Schefer, Phillipe Sollers, Paule Thévenin, Jean Thibaudou, submitted a statement in the summer of 1968. They issued the following statement, We believe it necessary to call to mind the following points:

  1. we are not “philosophers,” “savants,” or “writers” according to the representative definitions admitted by a society whose material functioning and consequent theory of knowledge we attack;
  2. this theory of language, subjugated by the metaphysical category of expressivity, seems to us to constitute one of the ideological keys to the current situation, in that disastrous complicities between the worst reactionary conservatism and baseless revolutionism are able to “spontaneously” reveal themselves here;
  3. we believe that the signifying activity of a given historical phase constitutes a decisive determinant of the transformative possibilities of that phase. The subordination of this specific level, the abandonment and the negation of its effects on consciousness and change, always coincides with an overdetermined regression by the state of things en acte, reinforcing themselves by means of local contestation;
  4. it thus seems indispensable to us to affirm that the recognition of a theoretical break and of the ensemble of irreducible differences in action — in praxis — that we support is of a kind to carry the social revolution to its real accomplishment in the order of its languages;
  5. consequently, the construction of a theory drawn from the textual practice that we must develop seems to us susceptible of avoiding the repetitive impasses of “engagé” discourse — the very model of a teleological-transcendental humanist and psychologist mystification, accomplice of the definitive obscurantism of the bourgeois state;
  6. in keeping with its complex mode of production of Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time, this construction should be part of and be brought to bear on the critical integration of the most elaborated practices (philosophy, linguistics, semiology, psychoanalysis, “literature,” history of science);
  7. any ideological undertaking that doesn’t present itself today in an advanced theoretical form, and that contents itself with regrouping under eclectic or sentimental denominations individual activities that are barely political, appears to us to be counter-revolutionary insofar as it objectively fails to recognize the class struggle as something to pursue and reactivate.

Although the scholarly trend towards the intellectual postmodern project was well underway before Summer 1968, the stance of Tel Quel mirrored the changing social structure of French society. Founded in response to the Algerian war by a young men under the age of thirty, Tel Quel evolved from an apolitical literary review to an enterprise parallel to the seizure of art writing by the artists in New York, part of what was called in Paris, the “war of the reviews.” In contrast to the New York artists who merely wanted to explain their own art, the Tel Quel writers were deliberately avant-garde or what is called the engaged or activist intellectual—the public intellectual who deliberately courted controversy. This is a cultural role that simply did not and does not exist in America. The review was named Tel Quel after a 1943 book of poetry by Paul Valéry whose lectures at the Collège de France impacted Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Paul de Man, and other French intellectuals who changed the face of “theory.” This literary review sought to separate “literature” from its isolated position of being a “fine art” or a creative enterprise and to join literature to a social activity. As Daniell Marx-Scouras pointed out in her book, Cultural Politics of Tel Quel. Literature and the Left in the Wake of Engagement (1996), “This new interest in semiotics and psychoanalysis led to a reevaluation of language, which was no longer viewed as a mere instrument or decoration but rather as a sign and a truth.” She continued, “…the preoccupation with language during the late 1950s and early 1960s was, in effect, a political gesture.” Marx-Scouras quoted Roland Barthes, a frequent contributor to Tel Quel as saying, “The origin of semiology was political to me.”

The Postmodern philosophers in Paris began the process of interrogating the canonical writings of the Enlightenment, from Rousseau to Freud. Jacques Lacan’s project of rewriting and rethinking the project of Sigmund Freud from a linguistic point of view. Indeed, the Postmodern reexamination of Modern philosophy was an interesting intersection of literary theory and philosophical thinking in which philosophy was considered as language. This linguistic turn appeared early, before “May ’68” with the formation of theories of “intertextuality” from Julia Kristeva and the first flurries of “deconstruction” from Jacques Derrida which appeared in Tel Quel.

In History of Poetics and Intertextuality (2008) Marko Juvan described the emergence of a phenomenon called “Theory” which rejected the notion of an aesthetic sphere for literature. He stated, Theory pushed aside Existentialism, Neo-Marxism and Structuralism. As Jovan stated,

Theory experienced a fashionable flowering among American scholars and then everywhere that globalization penetrated with its cultural industry and intellectual market on one hand, and local resistance against it on the other. In France, Theory originally took shape as a radically critical, often explicitly politicized, transdisciplinary, eclectic and daringly speculative discourse that problematized prevailing ideas, stereotypes, assumptions, and values on which traditional learning and common sense rested…Theory pretentiously offered new and would-be universal explanations of the subject and its location by weaving together concepts from linguistics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, history, mathematics, analytical philosophy, heideggerianism and Phenomenology.

In the year 1966, Deconstruction was “announced,” not in Paris, but in Baltimore, with a presentation by Jacques Derrida at a conference on Structuralism at Johns Hopkins. In “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences,” in which he critiqued the structuralist philosophy of Claude Lévi-Strauss. By the end of the 1960s, Structuralism, a literary theory that used a “close reading” to analyze texts, was upended and Modernism in the arts had run their course. In the beginning of the 1970s, what would be called “Postmodern” ideas began to wend their way across the Atlantic.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


Simone de Beauvoir, “The Second Sex,” 1949


One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.

Longtime companion to Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir was the other half of France’s glamour couple of the Left Bank. Both philosophers were arguably brilliant and both took up pre-exiting ideas and brought them into the late Twentieth Century. The Second Sex (1949) by de Beauvoir brings up the age-old “woman question” yet again. Asserting that a woman is not born but made, de Beauvoir turned the assumption that women were determined by their “natures” on its head. Writing in the face of a near universal acceptance of the dictum of Sigmund Freud that the anatomy of women was their destiny, de Beauvoir countered his “nature” with her “culture.”

In order to replace The Second Sex as an essential expression of existentialism is not to take the book out of women’s studies but to reassert its role in philosophy. The pieces of her life informed her writing, which took place in the immediate post-war period, a time still heavy with the realization of the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem” or the problem of the Other. In addition, Beauvoir attended lectures by Lacan and by Claude Lévi-Strauss and, on a visit to America in 1947, she was exposed to racism. In contrast to Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre who took a universalist taken on the “subject,” Beauvoir’s very comprehensive volume demonstrated the very real effects of what it means to establish a philosophical and theoretical and sociological order in which the One opposes itself to the Other.

Simone de Beauvoir undertook the unprecedented task of writing a book about women, something a man would never do—there was no need to write a book about men because all books were about men.Opposed to “essentialism”, the writer asked, “Are there women, really”? She asserted that the social and functional answer was that a woman is a womb, meaning that all cultures since the dawn of time had defined women in terms of procreation. Given that this is the case, then women are “less than human” and thus have no lives, much less identity or history. And yet women have lived and their lives have been determined by their biology and by what society decided to make of this biology.

According to Beauvoir, the male is “human,” positive and neutral, and the common use of the term “man” is used to designate humanity. Women represent only the negative and are defined by limiting criteria or the particular. She is defined “relative to” a man. She is not autonomous. The woman is always wrong, not just different but negative in the sense that she is not “right” because she is not male. She is imprisoned in her own (inadequate and defective) body and is understood only in terms of her uterus and ovaries. She is defined simply as “Sex” in that she appears to the male only as a sexual being and once her sexual duty, that is, her reproductive duty, is done, she is incidental and inessential.

Thus he is the Subject, he is the Absolute; she is the Object, the Other. To be the Other is not simply being “othered”. To be the Other is to be so excluded, so outside the realm of discourse, that the other is inexpressible, falling beyond the scope of discourse into formlessness. The only language available to “explain” women is man-made language that expresses maleness. The question is how to insert the female into the body of discourse and to retake language so that a new term “the Mistress Bedroom” could penetrate the culture and become as dominant a term as “the Master Bedroom”. If language is gendered male, how does the female speak? Language condemns the Other to a speech of absurdity. As a result, practically, the only language available to “explain” women is man-made language that expresses maleness. As Beauvoir wrote, reject the notions of the eternal feminine, the black soul, or the Jewish character is not to deny that there are today jews, blacks, or women; the denial is not a liberation for those concerned but an inauthentic flight…The category of the Other is as original as consciousness itself. The duality between Self and Other can be found in the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies; this division did not always fall into the category of the division of the sexes, it was not based on ay empirical given..”

Beauvoir traced the concept of the Other back to primordial consciousness. The Self and the Other is an ancient expression of duality. Groups create themselves as the One by setting up another tribe as the Other. But in the limited paleolithic world of tribes, it seems that the primal groups were male and female and that sexism is the first act of discrimination. As Claude Lévi-Strauss pointed out in Les Structures Élémentaires de la Parenté,

Passage from the state of nature to the state of culture is marked by man’s ability to view biological relations as a series of contests, duality, alteration, opposition, and symmetry, whether under definite or vague forms, constitutive not so much phenomena to be explained as fundamental and immediately given data of serial reality.

For the male, there is no one else to have “biological relations” with other than the female. Lévi-Strauss implicitly understood “man” to be male, not female. It is the male who “viewed” these relations and therefore it must the the male who set the terms of “duality, alteration, opposition,” etc. In perceiving women to be opposed or the Other to the man, men put themselves in charge. De Beauvoir asked why was it that women did not dispute male sovereignty?

She stated that women have always been subordinated to men because they did not bring about a change in status or position. The oppression of women is so absolute it seems a historical fact because it is without historical fact. Even if women wanted to assert themselves, they lack the means for organization. Isolated, women cannot communicate with one another. Put together, they are thrown into a condition of competition and begin to identify with male goals. Thanks to the social practice of “exchanging women” among men, women are dispersed from father to husband and are attached to male residences and their social standing is aligned with men. Consumed by the male world, women have no past, no history, no religion and no solidarity and thus no group identity.

The invisible oppression of women as Other cannot be compared to other oppressions. The bonds that unite her to her oppressor is not comparable to any other situation. Men and women must come together to continue the human race. Driven together by instinct, they must mate and in order to organize a society men and women must come together to raise the offspring. However, once society formed, a social hierarchy formed and women were designated as the Other, although means of the primal subordination women remains unclear. Beauvoir asserts that the division or the segregation of human sexes is a biological fact not an event in human history.

Nevertheless the results of this division are real: nowhere is woman equal to man and everywhere the economic sector is divided into two castes and the entire political and economic world belongs to men. Therefore for a woman to renounce a man or men, she would renounce all the advantages conferred upon her—indirectly—as an associate of the ruling caste. Although women have the possibility of renouncing these privileges, there are similarities between their lot and that of African-Americans. Women are kept separate and not equal, and their lives are governed by Jim Crow type laws. The Master wants to keep both in their “place” and to keep them in a situation of inferiority. Beauvoir stated (predicted) that men regarded the equality of women to be a threat and their emancipation would menace the dominance of men who dread female competition.

The question is how to insert the female into the body of discourse and to retake language so that a new term “the Mistress Bedroom” could penetrate the culture and become as dominant a term as “the Master Bedroom”. If language is gendered male, how does the female speak? According to Robin Lackoff’s critique in Language and a Woman’s Place, Language condemns the Other to a speech of absurdity.Although men feel that women have no place in “their” world, men never doubt their rights to this world in its entirety. The subordination of women serves the needs of both sexes. Women are “protected” by men and are kept out of the game. Their exclusion allows any man to feel superior to any woman. The Second Sex was an examination of the mechanisms whereby women are “made.” De Beauvoir thematically examined the lives of (European) women from birth to old age, always discussing their life time situation in relation to the dominance by men. Men can be written about as autonomous human begins; women can be written about only as appendages to the male.

In the post-War stress on a return to “normalcy”, that is the return of women to the home, any political, social, or economic needs of the “The Second Sex” would be overlooked. Just as Beauvoir would be overshadowed by her more famous companion, the lives of women were always incidental and contingent to their roles designated by society. As the women who found freedom during the war years when men were away did not forget their “liberation,” times began to change. Simone de Beauvoir’s book on The Second Sex would proved to be more relevant in later years than Sartre’s work. Her insightful book laid the ground for theories post-War feminism and anticipated the Postmodern assertion that humans are socially constructed and that all gender roles are artificial constructs.

The Second Sex was an examination of the mechanisms whereby women are “made.” Beauvoir thematically examined the lives of (European) women from birth to old age, always discussing their situation in relation to the dominance by men. In the post-War stress on a return to “normalcy”, that is the return of women to the home, any political, social, or economic needs of the “The Second Sex” would be overlooked, just as Beauvoir would be overshadowed by her companion. But times would change, as the women who found freedom during the war years when men were away did not forget their “liberation.” Beauvoir book would proved to be more relevant in later years than Sartre’s work would prove to be. Her book would lay the ground for post-War feminism.

Despite the slow gains in women’s “liberation”, the writing of Simone de Beauvoir proved its accuracy. Not all women welcomed knowledge about themselves or their oppression or wanted liberation. The Woman’s Movement encountered a great deal of on-going opposition from women as well as men. The Equal Rights Amendment would be defeated. Abortion clinics would become sites of murder, harassment, and terrorism. Women would encounter the notorious “glass ceiling” which allowed them to teach in a classroom but not to preside in a board room. Cultural conservatism and male control was reasserted when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Affirmative action was stalled; and the white male backlash against women began. For women and people of color, it was one step forward and two steps back. Indeed, in her own lifetime, Beauvoir would be challenged on all fronts–most surprisingly from an inpatient younger generation of women. Although she lived long enough to be part of the French feminism of the seventies and the eighties, she did not live long enough to see the struggle continue and start to show real results.

Today, sixty years after the publication of The Second Sex and thirty years after the resurgence of a conservative agenda in America and Europe, the struggle to free the Second Sex from its Otherness continues. Post 2010 in the United States ushered in an unprecedented number of political efforts, mostly successful, to pass laws that take constitutional rights away from women, who are still regarded mainly as a womb. Equally unprecedented have been uncounted and unreported sexual assaults and rapes of women in the armed forces and those crimes that have been reported have rarely been prosecuted must less have the predators been brought to justice. There are days when one wonders if we have not reverted to those dark days when Beauvoir was trying to write women back into Existentialism and back into meaningful existence. And then there are other days when it is possible to see powerful women standing up for the rights of women, women with political power and social prominence, women who have made the propositions of Simone de Beauvoir come true: women are made, yes, and today they make themselves.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]