Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833
This is the term created by Derrida that defines the basic premise of Postmodernism. It does not mean destruction, but rather it is a critique of the criteria of certainty, identity, and truth.
Derrida says that all communication is characterized by uncertainty because there is no definitive link between the signifier (a word) and the signified (the object to which the word refers). Once a text is written it ceases to have a meaning until a reader reads it. Derrida says that there is nothing but the text and that it is not possible to construe a meaning for a text using a reference to anything outside the text. The text has many internal meanings that are in conflict with themselves (called reflexivity or self-referential) and as a result there is no solid and guaranteed meaning to a text. The text is also controlled by what is not in it (referents outside the text are not a part of its meaning). The consequence of this position is that there can be no final meaning for any text, for as Derrida himself says, “texts are not to be read according to [any method] which would seek out a finished signified beneath a textual surface. Reading is transformational.”
He comments on issues of identity in Western civilization that derive from the reliance on binary oppositions. These are sets that establish a hierarchy that privileges the first over the second. He calls them “violent hierarchies,” and states that they give precedence (called centering) to the central term (the first) and they marginalize the remaining term. In a set “up/down” the implication is that “up” is more preferable and is better than “down.” In more significant ways the “centering” in the man/woman set establishes the first as the most important and marginalizes the second. This result has important ramifications in social constructs.
The last of these three concepts that he addresses is the nature of truth. Because he doubts the ability of language to convey any absolute meaning, there results an impossibility of language to establish a “transcendental universal” or a universal truth. It is this notion that is often misunderstood as a statement of his rejection of a God. Rather it is a statement that simple languages are incapable of identifying God linguistically.
One of the main outgrowths of Postmodernism is the disintegration of concepts that used to be taken for granted and assumed to be stable. These include the nature of language, the idea of knowledge, and the notion of a universal truth. The application of deconstruction to the understanding of language itself results in disintegration of that very language. Even these words are not stable in the sense that they cannot convey an unalterable message. The consequence of this is that once language is destabilized the resultant knowledge that comes from that language is no longer a stable product. The end result therefore is that there can be no universal truths upon which to base an understanding or a social construct.
In literary works, authors often disrupt expected time lines or change points of view and speakers in ways that disrupt and cause disintegration in the very literature they are writing. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon is a good example of this.
In contemporary entertainment, television in particular, there has been a disintegration of the line that separates reality from fiction. Recent fictional dramas have included responses to the terrorist attacks from September 11, 2001. In other television shows from the past twenty-five years, contemporaneous events have been included in the story lines. Discussions of the political and social events of the Nixon years were a mainstay of the show All in the Family and during the 1992 presidential campaign there was a generous use of material from the Murphy Brown Show in real political conversation. In these and other situations the reality/ fiction line was blurred significantly.
One major impact of Postmodernism on the structure of college and university courses is the introduction of multiculturalism and cultural studies programs. These are sometimes directly related to specific areas on the planet (Far Eastern studies, South American studies, or conglomerate areas like Pan-African studies) and sometimes to specificfocus groups (Gay/Lesbian studies, Women’s studies, Chicano studies). Often these are not limited by political concerns and boundaries but are economically and socially organized, a major concern expressed in the writings of Jameson, Eagleton, and other Marxist critics.
Another aspect of multiculturalism is combining specific interest areas into one area of study. This aspect of Postmodernism broadens the experiences of college students through the study of literature and history of peoples from other parts of the world. Classes whose structures combine sometimes disparate elements are found in these new departments. For example, a study of prisons and prison literature might be combined with literature from Third World countries under the broad label of Literature of the Oppressed. Cultural studies may also include topics like: Arab-American Studies, or Women in European Literature.