No Exit, No Resolution: Reflections on Postmodernism, Trauma, and Narratives
This is an essay I wrote in the Spring of 2013 regarding narrative therapy and postmodernism. Ironically many of the movie quotes, ontological questions, and insistence on questioning status quos seems quite relevant in 2021.
The term “postmodernism” can refer to many different things ranging from art to politics. Postmodernism also has connotations with philosophical and social movements. The concentration of this essay is to examine the social sphere of the philosophical notion of postmodernism. It is, then, to say that the philosophical and social distributions of postmodernism are intimately connected. The first part of this essay will examine the precursor to postmodernism, “modernism”, as well as some of the movement’s weaknesses or shortcomings. The following will also address some of the social effects of interrogating meta and personal influences. This essay asserts that we as a society and as individual persons are not, nor can we be, prepared for the “discursive construction” that embodies the heart of postmodernism. In fact, it may well be in our best interest not to be. A case will also be made against postmodernism and how it has been enacted within the world. Furthermore, I postulate that we exist within a unique state of trauma, perhaps post-trauma, in which our memories, narratives, and confidants are called into question from every angle. Nevertheless, The World and our worlds have not stopped or been enacted upon retroactively. Rather, we continue working, living, and being in a nameless age; a narrative with an innumerable amount of blank pages left to fill. So, it would seem, that somewhere between catharsis and oblivion, at the intersection of nowhere and everything, it is very probable that something quite therapeutic occurs.
The term “post-modern” can be taken into many different contexts. However, for the purposes of this essay, the term “postmodernism” will by and large refer to the psychological and social implications of the political and philosophical movements that occur under the category of being “post modern”; that is, coming after the “modern” era. Postmodernism is not something that is easy to define. By its very nature, it is intended not to be defined or contained within a definition or categorical capsule. One cannot rightly say that s/he is or that someone else is not a postmodernist for the simple fact that doing so is a blasphemous hypocrisy against the intentions of postmodernism as a whole. Furthermore, attaching a definition to the phrase “postmodern” (in the context above) is merely an action of trading one set of canonical ideals for another. Therefore, the only adequate depiction one can give of postmodernism is simply that it comes after (yet somewhat attached to) the “modern” age.
Modernism and the Case Against
The “Modern Age” is widely considered to have its roots in the scientific and industrial revolutions. Aylesworth, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, states that “the later nineteenth century is the age of modernity as an achieved reality, where science and technology, including networks of mass communication and transportation, reshape human perceptions” (2012, Section 1 Paragraph 2). In a sense then, modernism caused a distressing discourse in its own right when laid against the precursor eras that emphasized otherworldly and religious as that which perceptions were derived from. “The modern public, in contrast to ancient and medieval communities, is a creation of the press…” (Aylesworth, 2012, Section 1 Paragraph 2).
Aylesworth (2012) uses Kierkegaard’s description that “modern society (is) a network of relations in which individuals are leveled into an abstract phantom known as the ‘the public’” (Section 1 Paragraph 2). Thus, this begins the criticism of modernism. In which, Aylesworth also states that modernists suffer the consequence of de-realization. “De-realization affects both the subject and the objects of experience, such that their sense of identity, constancy, and substance is upset or dissolved” (Aylesworth, 2012, Section 1 Paragraph 2).
During the same, later, part of the nineteenth century, “postmodernism” began to take hold, though without the namesake as such. For example, Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, published in English in 1983, “saw in the capitalism money system an axiomatic of abstract quantities that keeps moving further and further in the direction of the deterritorialization of the socius, which is to say that capital is inherently schizophrenic” (Aylesworth, 2012, Section 4 Paragraph 7). From the same reading of Aylesworth, one can gather that modernist emphasis on production is, in turn, quite problematic. In other words, “capital” needs re-languaged to something other than liquidation and equation of wealth to money.
Michel Foucault “… explains mental illness in terms of alienation … and claims that bourgeois society produces it” (Gutting, 2006, p.297). Here we have the exclamation that capitalism’s beloved upper-middle-class is breeding dis-ease and alienation. Class warfare, apparently, knows no bounds. Gutting (2006) also cites Foucault as stating that “the quest for freedom is diverted into a series of illusory liberations from repression” (p.159). Again, there is a sense that the drive for capital, and (allowed) ability to do so, provides the guise of opportunity but within specified constraints. In Foucault’s line of thinking, then, one can be fairly certain that capitalism has traded repression for a cleverly disguised oppression. For example, the United States economic system is not purely capitalist in its incarnation. It is a hybrid capitalist system with a socialist safety net dubbed as a “balance of power.”
Rollo May (Dodson, n.d.) presented an idea that “We’re experiencing a loss of what it means to be an individual — in the face of collectivist mass-movements in education, communication, technology, entertainment, etc” (Chapter 2). Furthermore, Eric Dodson’s (n.d.) notes on the subject summarize by stating “Life (is) devoted to being a cog in the machine of marketeering and commodity sales…” (Chapter 2). Is this the zenith of capitalism?
Interrogation of Social Effects
Postmodernism introduces a constant state of questioning and investigation. In particular, modernism comes under specific scrutiny. One of the more prolific standpoints of Postmodern thought is the social effects of such movements. However, this is not specific to Modernism. Each wave of our historical “eras” seems to crest and break, rise and fall. They begin with a time of acceleration, acceptance, and candor. As naturally as “the next great thing” arises; it is just as natural for a criticism or critique to develop not long after. These particular movements throughout history have profound social effects in terms of ideologies, philosophies, and psychology. The specific social effects of the Modern era that become challenged by postmodernism are status-quo archetypes and individual paradigms. However, the process of investing has social and psychological effects of its own which should also come under investigation. Part of the “duty” of postmodernism is to not let itself become an exception to its scrutiny.
Creating Spaces for Potential Growth
What this investigation and questioning does is create space. Often this space is the fertile proving ground for uncertainty and anxiety. However, the potential growth cannot be had without the creation of space to do so. Sometimes this space is created willingly as in the case
of postmodern effects of postmodernism. Most frequently it is not though. Rather, it is a side-effect of social and psychological questioning. For instance, when the monuments of socially constructed paradigms begin to crumble there are opening created; either for repairs of the current archetype or construction of something new. Laurence Fishburne’s character Morpheus presents an interesting proposition in the 1999 film The Matrix. “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes” (Fishburne & Watchowski).
In the movie the corresponding character, Neo, chooses the red pill. This is an interesting concept to consider. If we were given the opportunity to continue living under our previous pretenses, influences and paradigms or have the proverbial veil pulled away; which would we chose? We can then metaphorically insert modernism as the “blue pill” in which we take what we’re given and do what we can with it; and postmodernism as the “red pill” which will accent all previous shortcomings. I suspect that there would be a number of people who are content to continue as they were and prefer the safety and security of the blue pill. I also postulate that a far greater number of people would contend that they do not want to live under a lie and “only want the truth.” Selfishness and arrogance are oft to blame in this decision though. It becomes easy to consider the ramifications of the blue pill because we have already been living them. Selfishness and arrogance in our assumption that we can know “the Truth” is a modernist view from its very inception. Be that as it may, the consequences of such a decision to “see how deep the rabbit hole goes” are rarely considered.
In terms of “creating space for growth”, the red pill will do so. The unraveling and untangling of our issues can often be a terrifying (in its uncertainty) and painful experience. It is all too easy to forget that “growth” produces an seemingly unnatural and certainly uncomfortable
stretching of boundaries, be they biological or philosophical. In spite of the pain, however, growth allow for new developments and a deepening understanding of current opponents. The
constraints of expectations (socially speaking) are loosened but the urgency and cost of responsibility heightens. There is amazing potential for the projection of the human predicament, but in metaphysics (as in physics) change has a cost. Change costs energy, in one form or another.
Are We Prepared for Discursive Deconstruction ?
I suspect that in our current age we are all too willing to enthusiastically reach for the proverbial red pill and by equal measure, ill prepared for its consequences. In a sense, there is no FDA warning on the red pill that states “You want the truth?… Are you sure?” The word “discursive” is defined in Webster’s New World Dictionary as “wandering from one topic to another; rambling” (Agnes, 2002, p.160). Should we take the red pill and embrace postmodernism with open arms, we have lost something valuable in the sense of confident security found in modernist values and beliefs. We exists in a constant state of flux and our social systems are no different. The cost of pliability is safety. Certainly the ability to move from one topic to another and freedom to “ramble” as long or as briefly as we choose is an enticing proposition. However, as the character Vincent in the film Gattaca points out, “We had everything except desire” (Hawke & Nicole).
Deconstruction is something that goes hand-in-hand with discourse in the postmodern sense. Discourse means 1) analyze rigorously, 2) to take apart; disassemble (Agnes, 2002, p.179). It is important to be mindful that postmodern deconstruction does not only “disassemble” the negative aspects of modernism but also its positives as well. It then becomes apparent that postmodernism elicits far more than it explains. Many questions are raised and few (if any) answers arise. Furthermore an anxiety develops out of postmodernism in the sense that “Anxiety is a threat to something in the ‘core or essence’ of one’s personality… Anxiety is apprehension cued off by a threat to some value which the person holds essential” (Daniels, 2005, Section D2). Daniels (2005) continues to say that “Neurotic anxiety occurs when inability to cope adequately with threat is subjective — is due not to objective weakness but to inner psychological patterns and conflicts which prevent the individual from using his powers” (Section D6). Of course, postmodernism is not solely to blame for this anxiety and neurosis. Perhaps it is only to blame in as far as highlighting or making apparent the fall out of modernism.
One of the most profound critiques of postmodernists comes from Jurgen Habermas’s 1987 The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity in which he writes that many postmodernists ‘commit a performative contradiction in their critiques of modernism by employing concepts and methods that only modern reason can provide” (Aylesworth, 2012, Section 9 Paragraph 1). While this critique is certainly valid it is more a criticism of how postmodernism has been enacted rather than its theoretical concepts. The error, then, lies on behalf of the practitioners.
In the philosophical sphere there is an issue of self-referentiality among postmodernists. Essentially, one’s self becomes the authority on how discourse should occur. Habermas comments on this as well. “Whoever transposes the radical critique of reason into the domain of rhetoric in order to blunt the paradox of self-referentiality, also dulls the sword of the critique against reason itself” (Aylesworth, 2012, Section 9 Paragraph 2). This issue is also present in postmodern psychology and social context as well. Change and motivations to do so were discussed previously. However, “… self-change is motivated by self-consistency (i.e., the degree to which the individual requires elements within their self-concepts to be congruent)” (Webb & Jobson, 2011, p.104).
Dodson’s (n.d.) summary of Rollo May notes that “There are two prevailing distortions of the meaning of freedom: 1) The ‘full freedom assumption’, in which there are (or should be) no limits, no boundaries, no rules, etc. 1a) it is not consistent with reality — hence it’s a fundamentally dishonest posture. 1b) it generates an infantile, self-absorbed attitude that in turn tends to generate separating and alienating dynamics — which ultimately impede social evolution and improvement…” (Chapter 12). I find these statements to be relevant in the case against postmodernism. The fact of the matter is that there are influences and constraints which we operate under; capitalism and socialism merely pre-define them. It is a fundamental fallacy to state that “There are no rules” is the only rule. It is also presumptuous for postmodernism to assume that freedom equals selfishness and will lead to a degrading alienation. Humans are excruciatingly resilient. It is also ignorant to suppose that deconstruction without reconstruction is without consequence, consequences we have yet to decide if they are “worth it.” At the occurrence of re-construction the error has been committed. New values have been postulated to replace the former and the only thing changed is the namesake of the modalities and social constructs.
It is also interesting that Foucault proposed that idleness is rebellion (Gutting, 2006, p.57) but modernism is still continuing to elicit reaction from postmodernism. Nevertheless, Habermas concedes that “… the focus of debate should be upon modernity as it is realized in social practices and institutions, rather than upon theories of cognition or formal linguistics” (Aylesworth, 2012, Section 9 Paragraph 3). At the bottom of this “grinding battle” there is not a “versus” argument. There is an insistence for change and desire for development. Postmodernism, in fact, owes a great deal to modernism. We owe everything to our histories and our experiences of perception and phenomena. Perhaps modernism carries more social blame than it should. Of course, the constructs of the time are imperfect, but is that to say that they were not an improvement upon the previous? I can only hope that a hundred years from now we’ll look back and wonder how foolish this “postmodernism” business was… and a century after that repeat the process.
Foucault reassures us of the pressing importance of these issues. He states that “no political issue is more significant than how the person is defined and how one’s relationship to one’s self is organized” (Gutting, 2006, p.154). But I regress, “I was never more certain of how far away I was from my goal than when I was standing right beside it” (Hawke & Niccol).
Persistence of Memory and State of Trauma
“The 20th Century is characterized by disunity and traumatic change. Hence the culture is marked by many inconsistencies and contradictions, which are reflected as contradictions in the psychological patterns of the individuals in the culture” (Daniels, 2005, Section J6). Indeed, the 20th century was one of change and disunity, however, it is not enough to say that inconsistencies and political polarities are to blame for the alleged traumatization. Daniels (2005) references Rollo May’s belief that “the trauma of our culture involves a threatening of the basic patterns on which the culture itself has depended for security” (Section J6). However, his “traumatic” occurrence is nothing now to history. The the dawn of a new predominant way of thinking edges the majority share from that of the old, we have a similar situation. Daniels also describes the “chief characteristic of the last half of the nineteenth century (as) the breaking up of personality into fragments” (2005, Section J4). Daniels states that this fragmentation is a symptom of the “emotional, psychological, and spiritual disintegration occurring in… almost every aspect of the late nineteenth-century culture (2005, Section J4). As such, we are all predisposed to psychological suffering. We are already traumatized at the inception of belief construction and self awareness.
The ontological discourse of trauma seems to be the greatest common factor of comorbidity among suffering in that all suffering is divisible by a sort of self-separation. In philosophical terms, there is a dissonance between one’s being and time. Modernity’s epistemological inquiry was aided by the accelerants of industry and technology to create a hyper-driven neo-modernism in the 21st century. What then is the counter? What follows post-post-modernism? To gain some insight into this, perhaps we need to look at our histories, not in a linear factual way, but in a way of what the history of history means.
History changes how stories are written as well as that content that goes into them. Foucault writes that “… the lived experienced time of the responsible agent is too firmly entrenched; it is to use more comfortable terms, an essential ingredient in our human condition. As exhibited in our ability to recount and follow narratives, this experience lies at the heart of of what we call ‘history’” (Gutting, 2006, p.46). History, then, is much more intrinsically motivated that may have previously been thought. It’s reliance on the referentiality of the object to the subject (not the other way around) becomes the difference between being a story and recounting one. Narratives are used in personal, both inter- and intra-, relationship to thread connections between our experiences and what we know, believe, have done, and will do. Clearly, the past gives context to the present and projection to the future. I suspect that this “projection” does not have to be a “binding fate”; but rather a mathematical anticipation based on previous experiences and probability. One should also consider, though, that memories are not consistent or placid, they are subject to change. This consideration depicts memories more like “life as persistently recalled” rather than a concrete recording.
We tell stories of narratives and live lives that we cannot imagine being able to recount every detail off. Perhaps this is a sort of impending trauma in it’s own right. “Imagine, logophobia (initially) as a fear of the sheer excess of discourse, its hypertrophic existence not in some far off wilderness as a kind of anarchy that threatens from every effort of speaking or the will to truth” (Gutting, 2006, p.359). With this insight from Foucault, I am inclined to believe that at the present time we are simultaneously suffering from a neurotic fear of excessive discourse and a social, political, and personal need for it. It seems as if we have spent the last fifty years or so dangling on the edge of a turning point uncertain if we should commit of if it’s too late to turn back. Webb and Jobson (2011) state that “characteristically, turning points are culturally expected transitional events that provide self-definition or change in self-definition through role change… the perception of the trauma event as a turning point together with the requirement for an ‘internal consistency of the life story’ results in the role of the trauma victim or survivor becoming a salient and important component of identity” (p.104). This allows us to transition between what has been discussed on trauma and change. There is a delicate combustible and delicate balancing act of that odd combination of fear and curiosity. Perhaps we are in the process of moving beyond postmodernism into something completely new. Will the coming age be defined by its precursor as well? Or will it bear a rightful plea of silence? Daniels (2005) writes that “We live at the end of an era. The age that began with the Renaissance, born out of the twilight of the Middle Ages, is now at a close. The era that emphasized rationalism and individualism is suffering an inner and outer transformation; and there are as of yet only dim harbingers, only partly conscious, of what the new age will be” (Section J2). Perhaps “postmodern” is only a namesake for the transition to a truly post modern and (now) post-traumatic state of being. There is nowhere to go but further and deeper. “This is how I did it Anton: I never saved anything for the swim back” (Hawke & Niccol, 1997).
What becomes of us then as we tire of the swim but are “too far to turn back”? What can we hope and dream of for our future? Aylesworth (2012) suggests that there is a danger that we are doomed for “sterile nihilism” (Section 1 Paragraph 4). The danger is two-tiered. There is the danger of life devoted to being a cog in a machine, and there is life as an oblivious apathetic. Somewhere in the middle is my best guess at where the future lies. Part of the reason supporting that neither one of these models will dominantly prevail is that “human will always begins with a ‘no’, a stand against the social environment. this ‘no’ is a protest against a world we did not make, and is an assertion of oneself in the endeavor to remold and reform the world” (Daniels, 2005, Section I1). Hence, our will to the future is one of despite the past; but as Daniel’s reflection of May points out, it begins with a ‘no.’ Another potential threat to our intrapersonal coherence is that deconstruction, by its very nature, creates an ambivalence between who “we are” and who we “wish we could be.” The segregation between our dreams and our practical lives is deepened as we become more uncertain of outcomes. The film Vanilla Sky illustrates this point quite well when the character “David” laments that “My dreams are a cruel joke. They taunt me. Even in my dreams I’m an idiot… who knows he’s about to wake up to reality. If I could only avoid sleep. But I can’t. I try to tell myself what to dream. I try to dream that I am flying. Something free. It never works…” (Cruise & Crowe, 2001).
The danger of idolatry in dreaming is not exclusive to postmodern thought either. Aylesworth (2012) comments on Deluze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, writing that “Furthermore, the Oedipus concept in psychoanalysis, they say, institutes a theater of desire in which the psyche is embedded in a family drama closed off from the extra-familial and extra-psychic forces at work in society. They characterized these forces as ‘desiring machines’ whose function is to connect, disconnect, and reconnect with one another without meaning or intention” (Section 4 Paragraph 5). Here we see psychoanalysis as a construct embedded within modernist thought. Psychoanalysis is a past-oriented approach where my suggestion for living in the context of the past is taken to the extreme as if to say that we owe everything to the past. As pointed out by Aylesworth, by way of Deluze and Guattari, such a methodology ignores the power and importance of current operating conditions and real-time influences and specificities.
The past is also not “re-authored” as the future become present and the present comes to pass. Rather a new chapter begins. In the metaphor of a narrative, a new chapter is more than a “clean sheet” to work with, a new chapter allows the receiver of the story (whether it is the author or someone else) to digest the previous information before embarking on the next series of events. Lyotard writes “I define postmodern as incredulity toward meta-narratives” (Aylesworth, 2012, Section 2 Paragraph 3). It is Lyotard’s suggestion, then, that our lives and their corresponding narratives become radically individualized. This is not too extreme of a thought as much as it is a matter-of-fact statement. Despite whatever “meta-narratives” arise in our culture, they do not “re-author” our individual narratives; although they can impact their evolution in terms of a “social desirability effect.” As our choices are made the story expands, evolves, and continues. Our metaphysical narrative differs from a penned narrative in that we are never aware of its inception nor its conclusion. We can, however, become aware of its evolution; not in a linear sense but in an expanding and deepening of detail and breadth. Rather than re-writing the beginning of our stories or trying to force “an ending that fits”, I suggest we write our narratives as they come; a living documentation of what is and let the fall out be as it may.
There is also a persistence of individualism in this narrative train of thought. Jean-Pierre Vernant writes that “the individual corresponds to biography, a genre based on the life of a single character, in contrast to epic or historical narrative…” (Gutting, 2006, p.135). Again, the importance of individualizing one’s life story is seen, even in the terminology used to claim ownership… “one’s.” Vernant also states that “when the individual uses the first person to express himself and, speaking in his own name, enunciates certain features that make him a unique being” (Gutting, 2006, p.135). From this excerpt we can better understand how confining history and language can be. Methods of communication and proverbial notation confine narration of life to letters and punctuation. However, the occurrence and depth of substance lie within the spaces and parentheses (Gutting, 2006, p.366). Foucault (Gutting, 2006) surmises that “the phenomenological project continually resolves itself, before our eyes, into a description — empirical despite itself — of actual experience, and into an ontology of the unthought that automatically short-circuits the primacy of the ‘I-Think’” (p.91). This illustrates an earlier point that we are unaware of the inception of our existence and creation of our existence contrary to Descartes proposition that “thinking” is the conditional preface of existence. Comprehension of awareness, then, may be more to the point. “Man can only know the world, and himself, from his point of view as a living, working, and talking being — that is, in so much as he ‘already exists’” (Gutting, 2006, p.187).
No Exit : The Therapy of Uncertainty and Opportunity
Foucault “embraced Kant’s definition of Ausgang, an exit or way out, because it corresponded to the central concern of his work, the need to escape those prisons of thought and action that shape our politics, our ethics, our relations to ourselves” (Gutting, 2006, p.160). I propose, then, that we are living in an age that is without or beyond a name. We are living with the fallout of a combustion between modernism and postmodernism. The Ausgang, or output, created by the confliction of the two has produced a state that neither can confine by their method of communication or theoretical appendices. Perhaps we have been traumatized by the forceful hand of modernity but we certainly suffered, and continue to suffer, with the (sometimes unsolicited) liberation of postmodernism.
“Phenomenological reflection is inseparable from psychological study. In order to understand the nature of experience, one must offer a descriptive characterization of the embodied experience of particular subjects” (Gutting, 2006, p.287). This quote from Foucault highlights the connection between philosophy and psychology. The particular interest of this essay is to specifically point to the area of that bridge which deals with social psychology and phenomenological-existential philosophy by vehicle of postmodernism. Though philosophy and psychology do not always “play nicely”, as with modernism and postmodernism, the still “play.” “Psychology is merely a thin skin on the surface of the ethical world in which modern man seeks his truth — and loses it” (Gutting, 2006, p.301).
For all the trauma and suffering to potentially be imposed by uncertainty, there seems to be something quite cathartic about opportunity. I suspect that, in turn, catharsis is quite therapeutic. I propose that there is no resolution to our struggle, not that there is no room for improvement or that specific issues cannot find remedy, but that we (as humans) are wired for suffering. We make all kinds of machines to serve ourselves, mechanical or psychological, spiritual or social and political. Machines inevitably break and there comes a time when we must do without or with what lies in the midst of “the no” before repairs or “revised editions” take hold. In the time of “no” our will is invoked to make a profession of agency. The dream of the machine is questioned, perhaps even lost, when “service repairs” are required. Call the machines what you will (hope, God, capital, wealth, zen, collective consciousness, etc…) but none of them stand alone forever.
This essay has been rife with movie quotations. That is not an action out of academic negligence but with the specific intention of illustrating the power that stories (movies) have over their own and other narratives. The “moral” of this particular story (essay) is one with a bit of irony in that a reference to the film Vanilla Sky delivers the point I wish to address: “I want a real life… I don’t want to dream any longer” (Cruise & Crowe, 2001). That is to say that I suggest we abandon the “dreams” of our ideologies and look very closely (perhaps even harshly) at what is actually occurring in our lives with a mindset of authentic ownership and inspired motivation for understanding. That is, in fact, something very therapeutic. Alas, I cannot claim any validity for my suppositions and suggestions but I can only offer that “There’s no certainty — only opportunity” (Weaving & Wachowski, 2005).
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