Friday, October 2, 2009

219. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 19 -- Tradition

Lyotard's work is characterised by a persistent opposition to universals, meta-narratives, and generality. He is fiercely critical of many of the 'universalist' claims of the Enlightenment, and several of his works serve to undermine the fundamental principles that generate these broad claims. . .

Most famously, in La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge) (1979), he proposes what he calls an extreme simplification of the "postmodern" as an 'incredulity towards meta-narratives'. These meta-narratives - sometimes 'grand narratives' - are grand, large-scale theories and philosophies of the world, such as the progress of history, the knowability of everything by science, and the possibility of absolute freedom. Lyotard argues that we have ceased to believe that narratives of this kind are adequate to represent and contain us all. We have become alert to difference, diversity, the incompatibility of our aspirations, beliefs and desires, and for that reason postmodernity is characterised by an abundance of micronarratives. For this concept Lyotard draws from the notion of 'language-games' found in the work of Wittgenstein. From Jean-Francois Lyotard, Wikipedia.
Postmodernism amounts to a generalized scepticism (or cynicism) about the whole idea of disinterested, truth-seeking enquiry; whereas deconstruction is a critical probing and analysis of the presuppositions behind it. Christopher Norris ("Two Cheers for Cultural Studies," in Interrogating Cultural Studies:Theory, Politics and Practice, 2003, p. 90).
So what does it mean when these two formidable idea-systems collide? What can it mean to deconstruct post-modernism? Is such a thing even possible?

As I see it, Lyotard's original conception makes a great deal of sense. In the 1970's we had reached a point where too many were struggling to produce grand unifying schemes that could account for everything while history was moving in multiple directions at once and such accounts seemed increasingly academic and pointless. Very unfortunately, however, what began as a healthy and long overdue "incredulity towards meta-narratives" soon became what can only be described as a ruthlessly puritanical inquisition, and a very nasty one at that. Somehow, Derrida's extremely sophisticated, far more radical, but at the same time balanced, cautious and circumspect, notion of "deconstruction" became hopelessly confused with an equally misleading and rigid notion of postmodernism, to the point that they became, as far as the academic world was concerned, practically interchangeable synonyms for a relentless process of "demystification," aka "debunking," the same process that led us to the now pervasive revisionist model that has literally taken over and is now smothering the social sciences, from archaeology to anthropology and yes, even ethnomusicology, where it is practically forbidden to generalize about anything beyond the most trivial aspects of musical culture and comparative research beyond any but the most narrowly conceived boundaries has become almost unthinkable.

What it means to deconstruct such a "condition" is first of all to remind ourselves that deconstruction itself is not by any means the same as demystification or debunking. So, first of all, we need to distinguish the extremely complex, intricate, and ultimately impossible (Derrida's word, not mine) task of teasing out the presuppositions that have enabled any particular construct to construct itself from the all too easy temptation to simply dismiss such a construct as "essentialist," "reductive," "reified," etc. It may well be all of these things. But it is foolhardy to assume that we can purge such problematic elements from any meaningful thought process, even our own. What is necessary, as I see it, is to put all these things into perspective, to try to understand what sort of demand they are attempting to satisfy, and finally to put our own biases into perspective as well, so we can properly appreciate what can be accomplished by even the most problematically constructed constructs, even as we struggle to "deconstruct" them, i.e., understand the human infrastructures that precipitated their construction in the first place, along with the habitus (or if you prefer, "traditions") that have caused them to be perpetuated even after the original conditions no longer exist.

Whew. That was quite a sentence!

Here is what Father Shebesta had to say about the origins of the pygmies, back in 1936, one year before I was born:
The question of the origin of the pygmies is a very interesting one owing to the fact that racially and culturally they have absolutely nothing in common with the negroes. Are we to regard them as aborigines of the Ituri Forest, or have they come originally from some other quarter of the world? . . .

Could the pygmies, as we see them to-day, have at any period in former times have lived in the open plain, or were they originally forest dwellers? The answer is pretty obvious. They were forest-dwellers from the very outset. . .

As the child clings to its mother's breast, so does the pygmy cling to the environment which supplies him with his daily food. He cannot obtain the food by cultivating plants or by rearing animals -- he must pick up food wheresoever he finds it. He is a freebooter -- a child of nature, while the negro is a breeder of animals and a grower of plants. . .(Revisiting My Pygmy Hosts, pp. 77-79).
Well, clearly this is an idealization, an essentialization, an attempt to construct the pygmies as living fossils of the African forests, no? In "deconstructing" Shebesta we would want to look into his background, his status as a missionary, his mission as a missionary, his bias as a representative of "The West," of colonialism, etc., his need, as a product of the "Western" intellectual tradition, to formulate a grand narrative to explain something he doesn't really understand. Before we judge him, however, let's continue, because he has more to say:
If we assumed that the pygmies migrated into the forest from some other zone from which they brought their culture along with them they must have shed that culture in the course of time and developed a new one more in keeping with the environment of the forest. Such an assumption is, however, highly improbable, and there is nothing to support it. It is far more reasonable to suppose that under such circumstances they would have adhered to the culture of their forefathers. In short, they would have done as the negroes did when they went to live in the forest. The negroes introduced agriculture into the forest.

There remains the possibility that the pygmies were nomad hunters of the steppes, that they were driven back into the depths of the forest, and that they there adapted their congenital instinct for hunting and for rambling to their new environment. But this assumption is negatived by the fact that the entire stretch of the central African virgin forest from Lake Albert to the Atlantic Ocean is inhabited by pygmies, and that they are in their element in the virgin forest only and nowhere outside its boundaries. Thus no matter from what angle we look at the problem we cannot get away from the fact that pygmy culture is in keeping with the environment of the forest, that it originated in the forest, and that it is a very ancient culture, which has in its main features remained unchanged throughout the ages (ibid., pp. 79-80).
(to be continued . . . )

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