Postmodernism and The Trail of the Floating Signifier

THEORIES OF THE POSTMODERN

From Mauss to Lévi-Strauss to Lacan, the Signifier Floated

The search for origins are always futile but the process often turns up interesting moments in time. For example, when did Postmodernism begin? The answer depends upon the place one looks. If one looks at art, one might ask did Postmodernism or the challenges to to the hegemony of Modernism being with Marcel Duchamp? With Neo-Dada? With Architecture? On the other hand, if one simples the search and asks something much more simple: when was the term first used, then it is possible to locate, not an artificial “beginning” but a gradual dawning that a shift had taken place. An idea is being expressed, a discourse is being formed when a term is coined. In 1998 Perry Anderson pointed out in The Origins of Postmodernism that the word “postmodernism” was coined, not in the cafés of Paris but in Spain, which, as he said, was also the origin of the term “modernism.” As Anderson wrote,

We owe the the coinage of “modernism” as an aesthetic moment to a Nicaraguan poet, writing in a Guatemalan journal, of a literary encounter in Peru. Rubén Darío’s initiation in 1890 of a self-conscious current that took the name of modernismo drew on successive French schools–romantic, parnassian, symbolist–for a “declaration of cultural independence” from Spain that set in motion an emancipation from the past of Spanish letters themselves, inthe chhort of the 1890s…So too the idea of a “postmodernism” first surfaced in the Hispanic inter-world of the 1930s, a generation before its appearance in England or America. It was..Frederico de Onis, who struck off the term postmodernismo. He used it to describe a conservative reflux within modernism, itself: one which sought refuge from its formidable lyrical challenge in a muted perfectionism of detail and ironic humour, whose most original feature was the newly authentic expression it afforded women..

The interesting detail in Anderson’s book is that the Spanish postmodernism was a reaction against the voices of women, for one of the major critiques of Postmodernism was the way in which the intellectuals pulled away from confronting authority except in the erudite world of theory. The fact that Postmodernism surfaced in the scholarly world as a word and as a practice at the same time as a political backlash against women and people of color and a marginalization of gays and lesbians broke out in America is a confluence that was probably entirely coincidental. As was pointed out in several of the earlier posts, the French and German writings that became part of “Postmodernism” were translated into English and were dispersed in a random fashion, often twenty years behind the original publication. That said, the impact of Postmodernism was to stop the forward motion of the arts, a movement that might have benefited women and other groups pushed to the edges and to bring back the canon of the great white males. So to play on the famous statement by Audra Lorde (1934-1992) “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”, the master’s tools were used to redirect attention towards the master’s house.

The pluralism celebrated in Postmodernism is not the pluralism of cultural expressions that were non-canonical; instead the Postmodern pluralism was more a cacophony of white male precursors in the arts and philosophy. The plural reiteration of the canon was inevitable, for, in order for one’s quote or appropriation cannot be understood if the borrowed motif is not recognized. Pushed to the sidelines, the works of the Other were also sidelined and were ineffective tools to undermine the older generation. Therefore, the Postmodern system of challenge and its condition of belatedness was self-defined as acknowledging the precursors–they had already thought it all, said it all, made it all–and there is now, in this post time, nothing left but muteness. In fact, lacking the engines of progress, Postmodern was very passive and resigned and like the politics of the eighties looked backwards.

Resigned to the idea that there was no way out of the prevailing capitalist system, accustomed to the work of art as being a commodity, Postmodernism made peace with the world of commodity fetishism and commercialism. Because of its proximity to mass culture and its acceptance of so-called low art, Postmodernism was a bridge between high art and life. Postmodernism erased hierarchies, opening the way for an acceptance of street art at the same level as, for example Robert Rauschenberg, who married art to life. The new ideal in Postmodernism was not elitism but difference–the free-floating signifiers, signifiers emancipated from the tyranny of the referent, both the sign and the signified. Signifiers become unconditioned by their supposed “place” in the structure. This pure play of difference is, as the Postmodern theorist, Richard Wolin, expressed it in his 1984-85 article in Telos, “Modernism vs. Postmodernism,” a liberation from the ideal of a rational and coherent ego, existing at the expense of the Other which it suppresses. Like Julia Kristeva, Wolin was interested in one of the two major elements that destabilized language: the subverting power of the semiotic or the unauthorized incursion of Otherness into language. But there is another destabilizing aspect to difference and that is the mobilized signifier which floats and in its arbitrary journeys also destabilized the structure.

In returning to the impossibility of finding origins, it is interesting to try to track back on terms and to revisit the mindset that gave rise to new ideas. Like the suppressed Other, the floating signifier is defined in terms of excess or surplus. The term “floating signifier” surfaced early in the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) in his work on Marcel Mauss (1872-1950). Mauss had written a significant book Essay sur le don (1923–24) which was not translated into English until 1954 and this book became the site where Lévi-Strauss would begin to rethink his approach to anthropology. The trail of the “floating signifiers” went back to the first part of the 20th century, a time where the concept of “primitivism” flourished and there was an avant-garde fascination for the exotic and Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) used sociology to examine tribal societies. While the Surrealists followed this Eurocentric trail of the apparently “irrational,” the nephew of Durkheim, Marcel Mauss amassed an unsurpassed body of knowledge about non-Western societies and cultures.

Mauss seems to have been a brilliant hoarder and collector and teacher who knew much but published little. However, his short essay, “The Gift,” would, thanks to the analysis of Lévi-Strauss, echo throughout French thought. According to Patrick Wilcken in Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Father of Modern Anthropology, it was Mauss who, after the death of his uncle, established the Institut d’enthnologie in 1926. Although in its time, this Institute was ahead of its time, by the 1940s, when Lévi-Strauss was lecturing there, French anthropology was sadly out of date. But Lévi-Stauss began to create a circle of French intellectuals who were working to rebuilt French scholarship after the war. He met Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) who was trying to recover from years of not writing in protest the the occupation. It is well established that it was Lévi-Stauss who introduced Lacan to the ideas of Jakobson, enabling Lacan to “return to Freud” through Ferdinand de Saussure and Structuralism. But first, how did Lévi-Stauss in the early 1940s ever put together Freud, Structuralism and Marcel Mauss?

The scholarly work of Lévi-Strauss had been interrupted by the Second World War and, being Jewish, he found safety in New York City in 1941. With his dissertation, “The Elementary Structures of Kinship” still undefended, he began teaching at the New School of Social Research where he was undoubtedly a colleague of the much more established scholar Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). But it would not be Arendt who would impact his later work; that individual would be Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), also an émigré from Russia via the Prague School. Jakobson, a far more senior and well-established scholar, taught at Columbia during those exile years and his theories on the structural analysis of language would have a foundational impact on Lévi-Strauss.

When Lévi-Strauss returned to Paris and resumed his scholarly life, he was able to both defend and to publish “The Elementary Structures of Kinship” in 1949, but already he could see that the methods he used to study kinship–organizational charts–were too limited and had reached a dead end. However, the book was a landmark and Jean-Paul Sartre made sure that it was introduced to the French intellectual scene in his journal, Les temps modernes. Simone de Beauvoir reviewed Les Structures élémenataires, opening with the famous line, “For a long time French sociology has been slumbering; Lévi-Strauss’s book, which marks it dazzling awakening must be hailed as a major event.” Lévi-Strauss had hoped that a man he considered to be his predecessor in this field, Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) would be his advisor, but when he had returned to Paris after the war, Mauss did not recognize him. The old scholar would leave behind a pile of unpublished works and apparently Lévi-Strauss felt some obligation to the legacy of a man who had once occupied a chair in the History of the Religions of Uncivilized Peoples.

Clearly, the unfinished rendezvous with Mauss and the ideas of Jakobson on Structuralism were on his mind when Lévi-Strauss was given the same (renamed) chair once occupied by Mauss at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and it is a this point that Lévi-Strauss moved away from the study of kinship to the study of religion as anthropology. In 1950 this change of direction was announced as it were with his publication of Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss. Lévi-Strauss re-read Mauss through the lens of Structuralism and in so doing laid out some of the basic concepts of Postmodernism. In this book Lévi-Strauss laid out three key points in introducing the writings of Mauss, explained by Christopher Johnson in his 2003 book, Claude-Lévi-Strauss: The Formative Years. According to Johnson, “structuralism seems to emerge as the logical point of conclusion of Mauss’s work.” Lévi-Strauss made three points: first that society was to be defined as symbolic systems, and second that these symbolic systems were modes of representations which existed at “deep-level” structures of the mind and this unconscious is revealed by structural linguistics. The third conclusion that Lévi-Strauss came to was an unexpected one: an idea of surplus of signification and a “floating signifier.”

The slippery term, “floating signifier,” was inspired by another slippery term used by Marcel Mauss, “mana.” In a gift society, the giving of the gift generates mana also called “hau” which indicate the power of the gift. Pierre Bourdieu would take this idea and translate it as “symbolic capital.” Mana is the excess or surplus meaning of the gift, which is not simply an object or service exchanged, it is part of a complete or total presentation, an expression of the entire culture. Therefore, by expressing the entire society, the gift, as part of a whole, functions metonymically. The giver, through the gift, has the power–through the surplus meaning of mana to move and change society due to the rich surplus symbolization of the gift. As Lévi-Strauss explained it, “The nature of society is to express itself symbolically in its customs and its institutions; normal modes of individual behavior are, on the contrary, never symbolic in themselves: they are the elements out of which a symbolic system, which can only be collective, builds itself.” In other words, symbolic systems are definitionally overdetermined.

This overdetermination comes from the way in which Lévi-Strauss conceived of the unconscious of language: if human beings have always been endowed with the a priori ability to symbolize, then as he explained, “..language can only have arisen all at once. Things cannot have begun to signify gradually..a shift occurred from a stage where nothing had meaning to another stage where everything had meaning…that radical change has no counterpart in the field of knowledge, which develops slowly and progressively…So there is a fundamental opposition, in the history of the human mind, between symbolism, which is characteristically discontinuous, and knowledge, characterized by continuity.”

Knowledge, as Lévi-Strauss explained it is able to keep signifiers and signifieds in check: “the work of equalizing of the signifier to fit the signified,” but symbolism is part of a “signifier-totality”..“he is at a loss to know how to allocate to a signified..There is always a non-equivalence or ‘inadequation’ between the two, a non-fit and over spill..So, in man’s efforts to understand the world, he always disposes of a surplus of signification..” Lévi-Strauss explains this surplus as “Supplementary ration” and links this surplus to “mana type” of symbolic thinking, which “represent nothing more or less than that floating signifier which is the disability of all finite thought “ to “staunch” or “control” it. He states that mana is the expression of a semantic function, whose role is to enable symbolic thinking “to operate despite the contradiction inherent in it.” Mana is structure in terms of antinomies–the gift is concrete but the system in which is operates is abstract. As a result, mana “is all of those things” because “it is none of those things” and therefore exists as “a symbol in its pure state,” meaning that “it would just be a zero symbolic value..a sign marking the necessity of a supplementary symbolic content over and above that which the signified already contains..”

Lévi-Strauss had an ambivalent attitude towards Les Structures élémenataires, much like an seasoned scholar would look back on the effort that formed a life’s work: with great affection but with a clear eye to its deficiencies. However, there was a key element in his analysis of kinship that inspired further interest in Sigmund Freud: his critique of Freud’s assertion of the incest taboo. It would be Jacques Derrida who would take up Lévi-Strauss’s discussion and find its inherent contradictions, but Lévi-Strauss approached Freud not so much in terms of his theories of a “cure” but in terms of his theories of the mind. In doing so, Lévi-Strauss combined anthropology and psychology and structuralism in an effort to make the symbolic actions of human beings make sense. The son of Ferdinand de Saussure, Raymond de Saussure (1894-1971) was a close associate. Saussure’s book La méthode psychanalytique had a preface written by Freud himself in 1922. Obviously, Saussure was the bridge between linguistics and psychology and Lévi-Strauss began to study the power of symbolic narratives told by shamans, using Freudian ideas of unconscious structures. This stage of Lévi-Strauss’s work would mature into his seminal work, Mythologies, but it would profoundly shape the ideas of Lacan in his own re-reading of Freud through structuralism: “The Mirror Stage.” In his article “Sociology before Linguistics: Lacan’s Debt to Durkheim,” Stephen Michelman, in the 1996 book, Disseminating Lacan, wrote,

“..I will maintain that the French tradition of sociology and social anthropology play the determinative role in the development of Lacan’s mature thought that it is not a theory of the sign but a new picture of the social that constitutes one of Lacan’s major contributions to analytic theory..” Michelman pointed out that Lacan seemed to have a general knowledge of the anthropological and sociological ideas of Dukheim, Malinowski, Frazer and Mauss, “..it is not until Lévi-Strauss’s programatic Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss (1950) that Lacan is able to appreciate–and begin to appropriate–the full scope and ambitions of the anthropologist’s approach. His passage from an “imaginary” to a “symbolic” conception of psychoanalytic action thus involves less any clinical or technical discovery than a gradual but momentous shift in perspective in regard to already established material: rather than any precise doctrine, Lévi-Strauss provides Lacan with a sociological framework…it is Lévi-Strauss’s polemical Introduction to Mauss that makes a lasting impression on Lacan.”

Lacan was able to appropriate Lévi-Strauss’s idea of the floating signifier as being a repository for the yet unnamed and un articulated and suggest that the floating signifier becomes a way for the child to control the entry into the symbolic order. For Lacan, the floating signifier is the “pure signifier” and in displacing the idea of mana as a pure signifier or as symbolic thinking itself, he is using the concept to explain that the child becomes socialized or enters the social through using language symbolically. Lacan, apparently concerned about these freely floating elements, stated that, at some point, they would have to fix themselves at some given points de capition, or signifying sites. Jacques Derrida, as discussed in another post, will have none of this idea of points de capition, and Jean-François Lyotard will also critique Lacan’s approach to the signifier. Indeed, Lacan introduced the bar to separate the signifier and the signified, putting the signifier on top to demonstrate its ascendency over that which is signified. Lacan completely destabilized the careful architecture of Structuralism, replacing it with some kind of mad math or algorithms.

The signifier floats to another signifier as the signified, below the bar slips and slides and floats below while the signifiers flow above. There is an endless relay or a chain of signifiers but there is no conceivable end to the activity of language. If the signifier and the signified merge–the flow is stopped–metaphor (sense) emerges (from non-sense) and meaning is fixed. However, the signified is metonymy and in contrast to the wholeness of the metaphor is the annihilating part, because, as Lacan asserted, going back to Lévi-Strauss, the signifier means nothing. As Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen explained in his 1991 book on Lacan, The Absolute Master, this kind of signifier is the symptom or the dream, not the prefabricated signifier already ready already in use. In layering the signifier and the signified, Lacan was also indebted to Saussure’s idea of the floating kingdoms of ideas and sounds that lie one on top of the other and produce signs. For Lacan, the signifiers and the signifieds, float and slide, and always, as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy explained in their 1973 book, The Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan, the signifier is the victim. Since the points de capition is only mythical, the endless movement becomes that of the making of language itself.

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

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

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Jacques Lacan: Historical Context

JACQUES-MARIE ÉMILE LACAN (1901 – 1981)

PART ONE: HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Among the most important philosophers of the post-war period was Jacques Lacan who lectured to a number of future Postmodern thinkers, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, all of whom sat in on his famous lectures. A careful reading of his lectures, the Écrits, followed by a careful reading of the ideas of his students reveals traces of his thought in their writings. Lacan became more widely known in America through his appearance at the now famous 1966 symposium at Johns Hopkins University. This symposium introduced European post-Freudian thinking, Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction to an American audience, but, because these lectures would not be published in English until 1970, it would be years before these seminal discussions would take root in the United States. In fact his last essays, concerning his now controversial interpretations of women and their position in psychological theory, were not translated until 1998.

Jacques Lacan was first and foremost the fulcrum through which many impulses of Postmodern thought were injected into a wide range of disciplines, from literary theory to feminist theory to Marxist theory to philosophy. The scatter-shot effect of his texts indicate the very complex construction of his widely influential books and lectures. One of the themes in Elizabeth Roudinesco elegantly laid out in her 1990 book, Jacques Lacan & Co: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985, Lacan’s entire career was certainly self-invention and re-invention and his re-take on Freudian theory was a bricolage re-construction.Born of a middle class Parisian family whose ordinariness he would take pains to hide, Lacan was, in many ways, a reinvented man by the time he entered into the still new medical field of psychoanalysis. For one seminal year, 1928-1929, he interned at the Infirmary for the Insane of the Police Prefecture under the colorful Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault, a specialist in “erotomania,” paranoia, and the draping and knotting of cloth. Clérambault held dramatic sway over his pupils and, believing in the power of the “gaze,” observed his patients, who were never allowed to talk with him, and based his conclusions on his observations.

It is important to understand that when Lacan began his independent professional career, he was part of a purely French take on psychoanalysis: from Clérambault’s reworking of Freud’s teacher, Jean-Martin Charcot to his own reworking of Clérambault (who accused his pupil of plagiarism). But this French foundation would be infused with more than a touch of alien German-ness. It is through his interest in Dada and then Surrealism that Lacan discovered the writings of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in the early 1930s, but, once again, it is important to note that Lacan came to Freud through late Surrealism and ideas of Salvador Dali (1904-1989) on paranoia. For Dali, seeing one thing and thinking (due to paranoia) that it is something else–different and threatening–is the equivalent of living in an hallucination.

Although Freud was alive and quite accessible in the 1930s, Lacan and the second generation of French psychoanalysts knew Freud through reading his books, and it was through Freud’s writings that Lacan learned of the “talking cure” or the “couch,” and of the importance of language. Clearly, the young doctor could see, first, that his field was changing and that with the demise of the teachers, the students could now assume leadership positions and that, second, there was nothing and no one preventing him from stepping forward with new ideas. Through sheer will and force of personality, Jacques Lacan took the lead in re-creating a new version of psychoanalysis. Lacan was not and would never be an originator or an innovator, instead his talent lay in a penchant for theatrical delivery and in drawing together numerous concepts, already in circulation and recombining and reinventing the already invented. His method as a teacher was to teach (dramatically) the work of others, especially Freud, filtered through his own re-interpretations, which then, in and of themselves, could become a distinct body of work in its own right.

If the first step towards a re-thinking of psychoanalysis was Freud, then the second step was Georg Hegel (1770-1831), but Lacan would absorb a very particular re-interpreting of Hegel. As a member of the generation of 1930, Lacan was influenced by Hegelian thought transmitted to the French through the 1933-34 lectures of Alexandre Kojève from 1933 to 1939. Although other work was discovered posthumously, Kojève’s most famous book was his Introduction à la lecture de Hegel (published in French in 1947 and in English in 1968). Because this book is a compendium of a series of lectures, the text is a bit oddly segmented but it presents the ideas of Georg Hegel in a succinct and comprehensible fashion. As philosopher Michael Roth recounted in his 1985 article, “A Problem of Recognition: Alexandre Kojève and the End of History,”

The center of Kojeve’s oeuvre is, and will remain, however, his book on Hegel. This interpretation, a collection of notes and texts assembled by Raymond Queneau, is gleaned from a seminar which was a hothouse for intellec- tual development: Raymond Aron, Georges Bataille, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eric Weil, Aron Gurwitsch, Gaston Fessard, Alexandre Koyré, Queneau, Andre Breton, and Jacques Lacan were among the auditors.

Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit introduced the notion of a dialectic between the self and the other and/or the master/slave. As Alexandre Kojève pointed out in his lectures, the desire for recognition, which leads to self-consciousness, is linked to the desire for the Other. As Michael Roth explained, “Human desire, properly so-called, has as its object another desire and not another thing.” What is significant about Kojève’s re-reading of Hegel through a Marxist filter is that by placing “desire” at the center of Hegelian thought, Kojève moved the desire for recognition (self-consciousness) out of Hegel’s theological (transcendental) time to Marx’s material time (class struggle as the basis for history itself). Then he substituted Hegelian being with the Being of Heidegger, in which Being or Dasein is achieved through the anticipation of death. So what beings in desire ends in death, all enfolded in a life lived in real historical time. Desire creates history and even time itself.

Lacan would take up the psychological implications of the One/the Other and sexualize the alterity or otherness between the self and the other. For Lacan, following Kojève, the emergence of individuality would revolve around Desire, which is always directed toward an/Other Desire, which is always deferred. Lacan also re-cast Marxism in that economy became a way to explain an “exchange” system of loss and gain, now connected to the ideas of Sigmund Freud. Unlike Freud, an original thinker, who labored alone, Lacan re-examined Freud by filtering him through other disciplines–anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss) and semiotics (Ferdinand de Saussure)–and focused on what is particularly human about the human mind. Rejecting Freud’s biology, which insisted that the workings of the mind was determined by the body, or to put it more bluntly, “anatomy is destiny,” and borrowing from Saussure, Lacan substituted nature for culture and biology for anthropology and sociology and claimed that the unconscious was structured by language, in other words by culture. As Lacan stated in Seminar XX:

…I am staying within the bounds of what I put forward when I say that the unconscious is structured like a language. I say like so as not to say – and I come back to this all the time – that the unconscious is structured by a language. The unconscious is structured like the assemblages in question in set theory, which are like letters…

Although Lacan had already presented his idea of the “mirror stage” in 1936, he did not announce his fabled Return to Freud until November 7, 1955 with the aim of dislodging the ego from its position of ascendancy and of dethroning consciousness. As Terry Gamel pointed out in his “Summary of Lacan’s ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,'” Lacan posited that the “mirror stage,” or how a child comes to literally “see” herself as a separate (conscious) individual, evolved through (trace of Dali’s ideas) “paranoiac knowledge,” or how we make sense of the world. By the 1950s, the interest in Freudian studies had declined in France. There was no psychoanalytic study in France until 1926 (remember Surrealism emerged a few years earlier), during the war, Freud had been rejected for being “German,” and many (Jewish) practitioners of Freud’s ideas were killed during World War II.

The post-war scene in French philosophy was dominated by Existentialism and its notion of the self as an actor with individual autonomy. But in 1963, Louis Althusser (1918-1990) revived Lacan by inviting him to bring his famous seminars to École normale supérièure from Sainte Anne Hôpital. At the hospital, Lacan had performed in the amphitheater from 1954 to 1964 as a spellbinding and prophetic leader: the kind of scholarly superstar that is unique to France. He claimed he made the unconscious manifest through his self-conscious style of performance. In keeping with what would later be called “postmodernism,” Lacan radically critiqued psychoanalysis by re-reading Freudian theory. In keeping with his linguistic take on Freud, Lacan asserted that the whole truth could never be spoken and that any perceived totality was imaginary.

Once he moved to the École, Lacan’s circle quickly expanded and included Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), author of Structural Anthropology to whom he owed some of his thinking on the role of culture in shaping the human mind. In addition, both Althusser and Lacan were re-thinking the philosophy of Karl Marx without reference to Hegel’s absolute and Freud without reference to the unified self/ego, respectively. But, as Elizabeth Roudinesco stated, the events of May 1968 transformed psychoanalysis from an academic enterprise to a psychoanalytic culture that was dedicated to social and political issues and to social criticism. These events of 1968 created a political community that changed the French intellectual psyche. In comparing Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) to those who came after him, one could now say he was the last Enlightenment philosopher and perhaps the last Modernist philosopher after Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), and that Lacan was the first Postmodernist in that he was one of the early re-writers and re-thinkers who also used bricolage to re-assemble a new take on old ideas.

To the generation of 1968, the theory of language as a discours engagé, meaning politically committed writings, had to be reappraised. Although a political uprising had begun spontaneously, the end result was a reassertion of power under an autocratic and dictatorial Charles de Gaulle. Discouraged by the collapse of oppositional forces—labor and students—French intellectuals began to manifest their refutation of the “classical” tradition, which stressed clarity above all, in French literature by deliberately writing with oblique political gestures. In other words, the new philosophers position themselves in a postmodern position of critique by re-reading and re-writing or re-newing the philosophy of Others, or to put it still another way, they overthrow or overwrite their precursors. One of the best books on this transformation of French thought, The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution was written by Richard Wolin, who explained,

As a result of the May events and their contact with the Maoists, French intellectuals bade adieu to the Jacobin-Leninsit authoritarian political model of which they had formerly been so enamored. They ceased behaving like mandarins and internalized the virtues of democratic humility. In May’s aftermath, they attuned themselves to new forms and modes of social struggle. Their post-May awareness concerning the injustices of top-down politics alerted them to the virtues of “society” and political struggle from below. In consequence French intellectual life was transformed. The Sartrean model of the engaged intellectual was upheld, but its content was totally reconfigured. Insights into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holds of power by flaunting timeless moral truths.

At all costs, totalitarian thinking or grand narratives must be avoided. The experiences of 1968 also explain the commingling of philosophy and other disciplines, especially with the arts. As with the Frankfurt School, political events brought about an interdisciplinary approach within philosophy. Lacan’s Seminar of 1969 reflected not only his long apprenticeship and absorption of multiple strains of pre-war intellectualism but also his post-war reactions to political upheaval. First, he stated his objections to the idea of totalization of knowledge and began a critique of the Hegelian idea of the Master, by pointing to what he termed the “hysteric” discourse of Socrates. Lacan blended the dialectic between question and answer with the circular and symbiotic relationship between the doctor and patient. The presumed role of the pupil/subordinate/hysteric who asked questions of the Master, demanding the Master’s answer, only brings the master and the hysteric into a symbiosis or a symbiotic or mutually dependent relationship. This entangled and self-enclosed discourse of universality is the discourse of the Master, implying a mastery of all disciplines.

The Master reinforces his Mastery through mystification of ideas and deliberate obscurantism of intellectual thought, which produces the non-mastery of the subordinated and bewildered students. In his rejection of Socratic thought and method, Lacan was echoing Friedrich Nietzsche (184401900), who saw Socrates as destroying the balance between Apollo (the rational) and Dionysius (the irrational). In his dialogues with his pupils, Socrates attempted to upset this balance to make logic (the rational) the primal mode of thought which should dominate (like the Master) the workings of the mind. It is not clear how Lacan, the “master” performer surrounded by students and disciples, avoided the position of the Master and the consequent mutual identification in his turn, but he was part of the post 1968 reconfiguration on the part of French intellectuals who took a subversive turn. The goal of the Postmodern enterprise was to question prevailing wisdom by critiquing the already said.

In the decades after this death, his possible upending of authority attracted a new commentary on and a new critique of Lacan himself by a younger generation. A more contemporary reading of Lacan would find a bias towards Eurocentrism and a phallocentric (male) perspective on the world. Although the “culture” of Freud and Lacan was a white European male culture, Post-colonial writers have found Lacan’s notions of Desire to be an important aspect of the colonial question of the relationship between the One and the Other. Since the seventies, many feminists debated both of these writers, while other feminists did not bother to do battle on a terrain that does not include women. Re-reading Jacques Lacan in the 21st century is a challenging enterprise and calls into question the relevance of Postmodern thinking to a world that has so clearly moved beyond the culture that formed Lacan. For women and for people of color, for people who are not heterosexual, Lacan is at best anachronistic. Yet it cannot be denied that the relevance of Lacan lies in his insights into how relationships of power shape the consciousness, bending it towards either dominance or submission: concepts that have profound political implications today.

The next four posts will discuss Lacan’s re-reading and re-writing of Sigmund Freud.

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

POSTMODERNISM: THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

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.

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

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