Two Underappreciated French Postmodernists

I’m not a big fan of most philosophy that falls under the umbrella of “postmodernist.” There are two philosophers who I think offered valuable contributions to our quest to understand and improve society.

Jean-François Lyotard

French philosopher and sociologist, Lyotard (1924–1998) was a fierce critic of universalizing theories and “metanarratives” (narratives about narratives). He portrayed postmodernism as essentially antagonistic against modernism and as the savior of humanity against modernism. In his book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), he proclaimed that we have outgrown our need for metanarratives or grand narratives. Metanarratives are — grand totalizing theories and explanations about why everything is the way it is. Hegel, Marx, and structuralists (and perhaps even Foucault) all offered metanarratives. They are also found more subtlety in widespread assumptions like the idea that science will provide us with all knowledge. Lyotard claimed that people have lost faith in these grand narratives and are forced to find new, smaller narratives to address social issues. His idea is similar to Nietzsche’s idea that “God is dead.” The old stories are no longer believed, and society is now fractured as people search for knowledge and meaning.

For Lyotard, the fracturing of metanarratives is what postmodernism is. He took the post in postmodern very seriously. We are moving out of modernism. What we are moving into, Lyotard said, is the postmodern awareness that we are not all the same and that the grand narratives don’t describe most of us. We have become aware of our differences and are beginning to accept the reality of human diversity. The shift from modernity to postmodernity is a shift from metanarratives to micronarratives. To explain micronarratives, Lyotard uses Wittgenstein’s concept of language-games, though Lyotard prefers the term “phrase regimens”, which he uses to map society’s diversity. Human society is not the monoculture that is portrayed by the grand narratives. Society is a multiplicity of communities, and each community has its own language-game of the meanings and rules it has developed. The grand narrative of human progress and human emancipation favors the wealthy and powerful but does not offer progress and emancipation to all communities. Those communities have to develop their own understandings about the meanings of morality.

Lyotard’s postmodern theory of justice takes on how the loss of faith in grand narratives affects the narrative that morality is universal. Kant had encapsulated the view that for moral laws to be meaningful, they had to apply universally — the Categorical Imperative. Lyotard acknowledges this long-held view of moral laws and that the loss of grand narratives would seem to call morality itself into question. Issues of justice and injustice are concepts within language-games, and if language-games are diverse, reflecting social diversity, then the concepts of justice and injustice must also be diverse. Concepts of justice and injustice remain in postmodernity, but we now can see (should see) that injustice includes imposing the rules of one language-game onto another. Morality requires being aware of this threat of injustice.

Lyotard explains this threat of injustice through his term “differend,” coined in his 1983 book, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Differend is when the language-game of the dominant power structure denies other communities the language to express the injustices they experience. Lyotard’s prime example was Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson, who took the logically contradictory position that the only person who can legitimately testify to the existence of gas chambers is somebody who actually died in one. Faurisson was using this fallacious reasoning to negate discussion of the injustice of the Holocaust. Another example Lyotard gave was a court case in which the judge does not allow one party to state its case. The concept of the differend extends into more general social circumstances of language use within popular culture when victims of injustice lack the language to express their victimization. Here, Lyotard lays some groundwork for the later concept of “epistemic injustice” — the silencing and exclusion of people to the extent that their own understandings are distorted.

Lyotard explains how the differend deprives victims of language by rejecting the common notion that the meaning of a word or phrase is determined by that to which it refers. This notion is the pairing of signifier and signified we’ve seen in both pragmatism and analytical philosophy. Lyotard counters that the meaning of a phrase cannot be fixed by the reality of the signified. This is because reality does not conform to modernity’s narrative that reality is fixed and objective. Similar to Wittgenstein in his idea that the meanings of language come from its use, Lyotard says the meanings of phrases come from a set of complex interactions. Every phrase exists in a context, has a number of possible significations, a speaker/writer, and those to whom the phrase is addressed. There is a certain degree of play (in Derrida’s sense of “play”) for interpreting any phrase, so its meaning is ambiguous. Our various phrase regimens — knowing, describing, recounting, questioning, showing, ordering, and so on — have meanings and rules for linking phrases within the phrase regimens that cannot be wholly translated to other phrase regimens of discourse.

There is also a political dimension to the meaning of a word or phrase. A community in power can use the phrase regimen of a grand narrative to colonize and silence other communities. Colonialism is the perfect example, as are the many ways that the rich dictate meaning to the poor. In so doing, the community in power can silence discourse by using the ambiguity of meaning, thereby forcing its interpretation on others, denying diversity, and causing injustice. It is possible for people in different communities and phrase regimens to find links between their diverse rules and meanings, but this requires the willingness of all sides to do so.

Jean Baudrillard

Yet another French postmodern philosopher (France was the hotbed of postmodernism from the 1960s through the 1980s) was Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007). Baudrillard (bo-dree-AR) could be classified more as a social critic than as a philosopher. His philosophy was based on the life of signs and how technology affects people and society. In three books, The System of Objects (1968), The Consumer Society (1970), and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972), Baudrillard combined the philosophy of semiology with French sociologist Henri Lefebvre’s (1901–1991) critique of everyday life. Lefebvre (le-FEV), a Marxist, argued that capitalism had colonized everyday life and had turned it into a zone of consumption, pushing people to believe that they needed to relieve the boredom of everydayness through purchasing products or experiences. Lefebvre had also shown how space is a complex social construction based on social values, and he considered capitalism to be the dominant social value that produces social space.

Baudrillard thought that Lefebvre’s Marxist critique of the everyday life had some merit but was insufficient and needed to be enhanced by a theory of signs. Baudrillard accepted that signs are an integral part of society because they articulate meanings and are organized into systems of meaning. He saw that commodities should be characterized not strictly through their use and exchange value, as Marx had said, but by their “sign-value.” For example, the value of a luxury watch lies more in its sign-value as an expression of prestige, wealth, and style than in its “use-value” as a timekeeping device or its monetary exchange value. In everyday life, people purchase and display their commodities as much for their sign-value as for their use-value. This insight from Baudrillard is even more true now, decades later, as consumerism is increasingly dominated by the sign-values of brand loyalty and the need to be “on trend.”

Presaging developments in the early 2000s is Baudrillard’s notion of the “simulacra” and the “real.” He sees as fundamental to the rupture between modernity and postmodernity that modern societies are organized around commodities but that postmodern societies are organized around simulation and play. He laid out in his 1981 book, Simulation and Simulacra, that we are ruled by simulation. Identities and meanings are constructed by the appropriation of cultural signs — images, codes, and models — that determine how we view ourselves; how others view us; and, therefore, how we relate to each other. Baudrillard broke with the Marxist grand narrative that social class differentiated boundaries between people. That was true in modernity, but in the postmodern world, differentiation by class, gender, politics, economics, culture, and sexuality are imploding under the force of simulation. Baudrillard said that people have so much access to signs, which are exchanged so freely, that differences between groups collapse amid the dissolving social boundaries and structures on which society is built and on which social theory is focused.

Electronic media and digital technologies propel this transformation. They deliver a constant stream of signs and references to viewers without any consequences to them. For example, the top grossing film in 1980, the year Baudrillard was developing his theory, was The Empire Strikes Back. Millions watched the film, but none of it was real. The death and destruction on-screen had no consequences for the viewers, yet the images and signs of the film excited people into a state of what Baudrillard called “hyperreality,” in which entertainment provides experiences more intense and involving than the realities of everyday life. We see how common it is for people to identify themselves by their fandoms of television shows or music artists. From amusement parks, to shopping malls, to television shows, to video games, to social media, the images, codes, and models of hyperreality are more real to people than real life is. Real life is a desert compared to the fantasylands offered by simulation.

The postmodern person is awash in simulacra. Baudrillard defines the simulacrum as the truth that conceals that there is no truth; the simulacrum is true. Human society has always had signs that mediated reality for us — that’s what words are (hello, William). Now in the postmodern world, society has replaced reality with signs, and our human experience is a simulation composed of simulacra. Postmodern life is a procession of simulacra — all of culture’s images, codes, and models that construct our perceived reality — and our society is so saturated with simulacra that meaning is infinitely mutable to the point that meaning is now meaningless. Now, wait one moment and understand something important here. As I write this in 2021, people debate the effects of virtual reality, computer simulations, and deepfake videos. These are not what Baudrillard was talking about 40 years ago. He’s talking about the broader cultural forces of which these new simulation technologies are simply expressions.

Virtual reality is an extension of television and films, which immerse viewers in simulacra. Television at best shows us copies of reality. Watching television, we don’t see the U.S. president giving a speech; we see an image of that person. That’s not in itself problematic, but when the copy on screen is unfaithful to the underlying reality, it obscures what’s real. The image before us is what’s real for us. If the image is fictional, maybe a TV drama about a real U.S. president that has an actor pretending to be that person, it is a copy divergent from an original, even though it pretends to be a faithful copy. Then there’s the pure simulacrum — perhaps a TV show about an entirely fictional president. In these images, signs reflect other signs without any claim to reality. The simulacra of the president are what is real and become more familiar and real to viewers than the actual president. Sounds far-fetched? Well, a 2015 opinion poll found that the fictional president of the TV show, “The West Wing,” had a higher favorability rating than the actual U.S. president, Barack Obama.

Baudrillard’s notion of the simulacra isn’t just limited to the realm of entertainment. Their more pernicious appearances are in advertising and political propaganda. We are besieged by advertising, and Baudrillard is dead on in describing it as simulacra that at best pretend to be real but more often present a completely manufactured set of signs that is connected only to other signs. Advertising sells a fake world, a hyperreality in which things are better than everyday life; all you have to do is purchase what the simulacra are selling. Political propaganda similarly provides signs that are conjured up to seem to be connected with reality but are engineered to deceive. Today, some people talk about us living in a “post-truth” society. Baudrillard observed in the 1980s that simulacra have always existed. What differs now is that there is only the simulation, only copies of copies, and originality is a meaningless concept in our society.

On the one hand, it is almost eerie how Baudrillard’s ideas seem much more true now than when he proposed them. Baudrillard mentions the “ecstasy of communication,” a state in which a person has close instantaneous access to a plethora of information and images. In this state of ecstasy, a person becomes a pure screen. The person is pure absorption, a surface on which is shown an overexposed, transparent world of simulacra. Baudrillard expressed these thoughts before the Internet, before smartphones, before advanced video games.

On the other hand, it is easy to criticize Baudrillard’s claim that postmodernity would result in differentiation imploding as partly naive. He was correct that electronic media and digital technologies have brought about much easier sharing of cultural and intellectual ideas. Concepts of cultural identity and gender are more fluid than ever, but differentiation of categories of class and race are still sharply drawn.

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