Postmodernism in Praxis: Society of the Post-Hegemon
April 19, 2001

            Discursive analyses have a tendency to examine lines of demarcation between individuals or groups, and, as a result, focus on distinct cultural differences that create any given pattern within the discourse.  While cultural similarities can be problematized, disparities within cultural discourse more directly lead to breakdowns in communication between discursive agents, and these breakdowns are indicative, in the same way as canaries are in mineshafts, of deeper cultural antagonisms.  In societies where there are organic barriers to intercultural cohesion, such as race, gender, and class, individuals develop traditions that establish normative ways in which to interact with one another.[1]  Behavior outside these normative boundaries leads to breakdowns within the discourse that can be explained as a result of specific occurrences.  In societies where barriers are blurred or do not exist, the behavior of discursive agents is governed outside of any established tradition, and analyses thereof have to be constructed after the new models these societies provide.  The postmodern condition, for that reason, is problematic in that it creates a necessity for multivalent readings of discourse patterns within a society of collapsed boundaries.  Zygmunt Bauman explains postmodernity as "marked by a view of the human world as irreducibly and irrevocably pluralistic, split into a multitude of sovereign units and sites of authority, with no horizontal or vertical order, either in actuality or in potency" (35).  In postmodernity, every agent is a palimpsest of another, every culture inclusive of every other, and every individual or group defines itself as both self and other, seeing within others itself and within itself others.[2]  This polysemism is the essence of postmodernism, it seems, for it allows for multivalent readings. A new discourse, a terrible ontogenic beauty, is thus born, which readily lends itself to, as it is created by, advances in discursive technologies that generate an uncontrollable growth of interpretive ontologies. 

            While the postmodern condition has derived primarily through developments in information technologies, there is a difference between its intimations and those of the emerging cyberculture that has grown out of it.  Derrida’s claim of “il n’y a pas hors de texte” means that “anything we can possibly know is a text; the only thing a text can refer us to in our effort to grasp its meaning is another text; nothing we can possibly know of may claim a status better, more solid, or in any other way different from that of the text” (Bauman 130).  More than a text, Derrida's claim points to a hypertext.  If everything can be textualized, then everything can be read and interpreted through the gauze of the gender, race and class distinctions of the agent, or the reader.  Textualization,[3] therefore, is independent of the reader since it is something outside of the reader, since it is something that bears within its being multiple interpretive meanings outside of its static transmission.  The text, though, is relatively three-dimensional, meaning it has a form that exists within a particular time and place.  A discourse, on the other hand, is independent of temporal and spatial considerations, and, furthermore, a discourse is entirely dependent upon the reader, or group of readers.  Discourses are a form of cyberspace, defined by William Gibson in Neuromancer as "a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators in every nation…a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system" (Kellner 309).  Kellner argues these are no longer hallucinatory, but I would disagree.  It is the hallucination, the mirage of presence at the point of absence, that creates the imagined community[4] of which its discourse, something known as cyberculture, is comprised.  Bauman describes this phenomenon as the development of tribal allegiances in which "tribal politics entails the creation of tribes as imagined communities.  Unlike the premodern communities the modern powers set about uprooting, postmodern tribes exist in no other form but the symbolically manifested commitment of their members” (198).  This commitment is gauged through discourse.  Cyberculture, as a result, goes beyond the text, beyond the hypertext, qualifying Derrida’s maxim to something beyond the postmodern, to the posthuman “il n’y a plus que discours."

A discourse, simply, though problematically, defined, is a context of situation in which reality is negotiated between any given individual or group and an other, whether within or outside of the self.[5]  Realities that are not negotiated with others, that are, in fact, imposed upon others, are hegemonic.  British cultural criticism defines “hegemony theory [as that which] involved both analysis of current systems of domination and the ways that specific political groups achieved hegemonic power…and the delineation of counterhegemonic forces, groups, and ideas that could contest and overturn the existing hegemony” (Kellner 31).  All discourses, therefore, require qualifying human[6] agents who can create contexts of situation between them and the surrounding world, and these agents negotiate in one way or another with each other for power.  The process of this negotiation is a discourse; each agent of negotiation independent of the other is a text.  The difference between a text and a discourse is similar to the distinction Melody makes between information and communication, where he writes

The functioning of any society depends upon information, and the efficient and effective communication of it among society's members.  Information is generally interpreted as a 'stock' concept, a store of knowledge and values.  Communication is a 'flow' concept, reflecting the process of transmission and exchange of knowledge and values, which itself creates information influencing knowledge and values.  'Information' and 'communication' provide different analytical perspectives on essentially the same phenomena.  An examination of the information characteristics of any society must focus on its communication characteristics.  (255) 

That these communication characteristics are pragmatic and therefore must follow rules of discourse theory is evidenced in an anecdote related by Paulo Freire, who writes of an incident in which a peasant once argued that the world would cease to exist were there no humans to define it.  Likewise, outside of discourse, there would still be texts, but there would be no one to say, “This is a discourse.”  Without an active defining agent, discourses would not exist in the sense that there would be no one to create them, and herein lies the crux of my theory on this: Discourses are temporary social constructs through which the fragmented self images of postmodernity emerge as negotiations between participants.  Because they are reader/agent-oriented and hold within them the power of self-subversion, they are representative of both normalized and political modes of dialogic interactions with the world, which is what Bauman means when he writes that  “people on the whole do not know what they are doing and why they are doing it” (124).  Negotiations between participants are therefore problematized through the creation of any dynamic discursive space, the implication being that the individual textuality of any discursive participants is exponentially transmogrified when cubed with an other.  It is not exactly like a cancer, though, in that cancer cells replicate themselves in infinitem, reproducing cloned copies of themselves only.  Discursive growth replicates itself like cancer but adapts at the same time to the changing conditions of the surrounding world so that every new discourse has grown beyond its social interactions with the old and is better equipped to handle future ones.

Part of this intrasection within human textuality lies within the fact that humans are linguistic constructs.  We speak, therefore, we are.  In addition to being construed by language, humans are constructs of their gender, race and class origins, which make them socially constructed as well.  It could also be argued that humans are constructions of geographic, cultural and other such theories of determinism even though we create, through speech, the communities in which we live, and in the postmodern world most of those communities are not bound by geography or culture but by interest level in which we engage in what Benedict Anderson calls an 'imagined community.'[7]  The evidence for this linguistic determinism lies in the denominating factor within us, the fact that we have marked and unmarked modes of discursive activity.  Unmarked language is normalized speech.  For a man to say to another man, for instance, "Let's go back to my hotel and get a drink in the lounge," is unmarked as an invitation to talk while the same statement to a woman is unmarked as an invitation for sex.  To mark language is to take it out of its normal context of situation.  To say, "My secretary?  He went to lunch," or "The surgeon is out, and she won't be back till later," is to mark by gender, just as other statements might mark by race (e.g., Asians in literature departments) or class (truckers with huge stock portfolios). Marked language, therefore, shows a particular social understanding that necessitates the marking, and competent agents engender that social understanding through any given discourse.  Incompetent agents are those that do not understand or fulfill the obligations of any given discourse, and these we consider as socially inept because they have created a discourse in which they cannot function.

Discursive creation, then, is an act of agency.  As an agent, I create a new discourse whenever I negotiate reality with another entity.  Usually, that reality that I negotiate will find its starting point from within my own cultural biases.[8]  Bauman states that “the ideology of culture represents the world as consisting of human beings who are what they are taught.” (3-4). What reality will ensue, therefore, is dependent upon that process of negotiation, and that process is rooted in my text, which means that it does not necessarily have to be verbal.  If I, as a black man, approach a white woman in a lonely parking lot at night while heading to my car, I have created a discourse without even speaking that is different from the discourse that would have been created had I been a white woman of similar socio-economic appearance.  In either case, the agents are the texts--how they read one another is the discourse.  Now, to fast-forward through postmodernity to what it has made possible in cyberculture, the discourse patterns change qualitatively because the texts do not read each other in virtual space the same way they read one another in physical space.  Online, the body is cybertext in addition to its being hypertext and text.  That means that online, the body is not a social construct, but a psycho-construct.  The body is generated from the ideal instead of the real and is read as unmarked, as normalized and denominated.  My argument against Melody's assertion that

If history has taught us anything it is that new technologies will not solve old social problems.  They may significantly change power relations in society in favour of those who control and benefit from the new technologies.  But there is no magic embodied in new technologies that will suddenly transform the nature of social and institutional relations in beneficial ways.  In fact, new problems usually are created.  (254-5)

is comprised in Mark Poster's idea that

In each case the computer mediates the relation of author and reader, altering the basic conditions of the enunciation and reception of meaning.  Electronic writing continues the tendency begun with handwriting and print: it permits the removal of the author from the text, increases the distance, both spatial and temporal, of author from the reader and augments the problem of the interpretation of texts.  (184) 

New problems are usually created with any new technology, but that does not mean that old problems find no solutions and that social and institutional relations are not to some degree transformed.  The white woman in a lonely chat room, for instance, assumes that the man with whom she is speaking is white.  She even assumes his gender on the basis of the name he has chosen for himself and might even assume his age as comparable with her own.  She is not seeing him, but the ideal reflection of herself within his text.  She is seeing what she desires to see, like any reader of a literary text who imagines the characters to look a certain way and the events to take place in a certain kind of setting.  Cyberculture, therefore, generates its own texts through the generative texts of the agents themselves, and the (de)nominated discourse is accordingly transformed.

A postmodern discursive analysis is problematic because of the ambiguity of the text in the same way that discursive analyses within cyberculture are difficult to generate.  This is because “the phenomena and discourses of the postmodern are constantly changing, becoming more complex, requiring new mappings and analyses to chart their trajectories” (Kellner 46).  No universal standards, therefore, can be applied.  "Without universal standards," Bauman illustrates, "the problem of the postmodern world is not how to globalize superior culture, but how to secure communication and mutual understanding between cultures" (102). Faced with the physical representation of the text, the agent has no way of analyzing the discourse between them outside of her internal frames of reference, which project, like in cyberculture, her own image of reality upon the text she encounters.[9]  Her reading, then, establishes the discourse.  At the same time, the reading being done upon her by the other also establishes the discourse.  It is possible, then, that two competing discourses are created during any given negotiation between agents, and the ability of those discourses to reconcile themselves to one another, i.e., their ability to create pragmatic competency, depends upon the context of situation in which those discourses meet.  So, if the agent was a text before she was transformed into a discourse upon her meeting with the other, then the reconciling of her discourse with that of the other creates a hyperdiscourse in which both agents begin to see the other through the eyes of the other and not through the eyes of the self.  The slang term for this is 'making it real,' which simply means de-normalizing the encounter or nominating the discourse in order to deconstruct it for what it really is.  The ability to do this, though, takes effort, and it involves the agent's going through a process of incompetency and ineptitude.  For that reason, face-to-face encounters do not lend themselves well to the closing of cultural divides.  No one wants to seem like a fool negotiating reality with some entity that she cannot understand, and today's multivalent world makes such encounters more problematic because traditional stereotypes of the other no longer seem to serve as barometers of our attitudes.  Cyberculture, however, posits itself as a true offspring of postmodernity in that it holds within it the potential to serve as a bridge from the self-side to the other-side of the real world, enabling us to see our selves as other in a better effort to see the other as self.

            It is through the generation of critical agency that hegemonic ascendancy is placed in check.  Kellner sees the cultural representations of society "as a contested terrain reproducing on the cultural level the fundamental conflicts within society rather than as an instrument of domination” (101-2).  This terrain is contested through discourse, which creates in its negotiated space multiple realms of choice.  There can be no central hegemonic force in a world where pluralism and choice are dominant, and Bauman has shown that “the distinctly postmodern ethical problematic arises primarily from two crucial features of the postmodern condition: pluralism of authority, and the centrality of choice in the self-constitution of postmodern agents” (201).  Ultimately, when we engage the world, we are really engaging ourselves within the world we create through the engagement, and this is why postmodernity works, for the hypertext has no center outside of its agency and every agent acts as the centre at any given time in its exercise of agency.  It is not that we cease to recognize the hegemony of a given other that creates the postmodern condition but that we cease to regard its relevance to our own lives as we progress on the generative inscription of our own discourses.  

Bibliography

Bauman, Zygmunt.  Intimations of Postmodernity.  New York: Routledge, 1992. 

Kellner, Douglas.  Media Culture: Cultural Studies, identity and politics between the modern and the postmodern.  New York: Routledge, 1995. 

Melody, William.  "Electronic Networks, Social Relations and the Changing Structure of Knowledge."  Communication Theory Today.  Ed. by David Crowley and David Mitchell.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994: 254-73. 

Poster, Mark.  "The Mode of Information and Postmodernity."  Communication Theory Today.  Ed. by David Crowley and David Mitchell.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994: 173-92.

[1] "In a mass-mediated image culture, it is representations that help constitute an individual’s view of the world, sense of personal identity and gender, playing out of style and lifestyle, and socio-political thought and action.  Ideology is thus as much a process of representation, figure, image, and rhetoric as it is of discourse and ideas"  (Kellner 60).

[2] In George Steiner's "In a post culture," he writes, ‘the concept of postmodern culture is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron.  Culture is about hierarchy, discernment and evaluation; postmodernity, on the contrary, is about flattening of hierarchies, absence of discretion, and equivalence.  Postmodernity, in other words, is a post-cultural condition’" (Bauman 34).

[3] Kellner describes texts as that which should "in the post-structuralist view…be read as the expression of a multiplicity of voices rather than as the enunciation of one single ideological voice which is then to be specified and attacked.  Texts thus require multivalent readings, and a set of critical or textual strategies that will unfold their contradictions, contestatory marginal elements, and structured silences.  These strategies include analyzing how, for example, the margins of texts might be as significant as the center in conveying ideological positions, or how the margins of a text might deconstruct ideological positions affirmed in the text by contradicting or undercutting them, or how what is left unsaid is as important as what is actually said" (112).

[4] Bauman adds to this that “Postmodernity…is for the thinking person also the age of community: of the lust for community, search for community, invention of community, imagining community” (134).

[5] As Foucault writes concerning discursive formations: "One can show how any particular object of discourse finds in it its place and law of emergence; if one can show that it may give birth simultaneously or successively to mutually exclusive objects, without having to modify itself" (Bauman 70).

[6] It might be possible to expand this idea to include all non-human sentient beings in that animals do interact with their environment, but I make the distinction here by observing that they do not produce reflective texts that define themselves culturally from others within the same or different species.  Plants, a step beyond the animal kingdom, also interact with their environment but, again, outside of human terms.  The beauty of a discourse, though, is that it holds within it the ability to either prove or disprove this.

[7] Bauman explains this as follows: "Communities are imagined: belief in their presence is their only brick and mortar, and imputation of importance their only source of authority.  An imagined community acquires the right to approve or disapprove in the consequence of the decision of the approval-seeking individual to invest it with the arbitrating power and to agree to be bound by the arbitration (though, of course, the reverse order must be believed to be the case to make the whole thing work).  By itself, an imagined community would have no resources to enforce its arbitration in the case of the grant of authority being withdrawn; it would not even have the institutionalized agency capable of reaching the decision in the case under arbitration…What it lacks in stability and institutionalized continuity, it more than compensates for with the overwhelming affective commitment of its self-appointed 'members'" (xix).

[8] “Ideology assumes that ‘I’ am the norm, that everyone is like me, that anything different or other is not normal.  For ideology, however, the ‘I,’ the position from which ideology speaks, is that of (usually) white male, Western, middle- or upper-class subject positions, of positions that see other races, classes, groups, and gender as secondary, derivative, inferior, and subservient.  Ideology thus differentiates and separates groups into dominant/subordinate and superior/inferior, producing hierarchies and rankings that serve the interests of ruling powers and elites” (Kellner 61).

[9] Again, Bauman: "The ethical paradox of the postmodern condition is that it restores to agents the fullness of moral choice and responsibility while simultaneously depriving them of the comfort of the universal guidance that modern self-confidence once promised.  Ethical tasks of individuals grow while the socially produced resources to fulfill them shrink.  Moral responsibility comes together with the loneliness of moral choice" (xxii).