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Blog: Humanist Voices

cavemanIs the colloquial idiom "comparing apples to oranges" an appropriate way to talk about what Postmodernism actually put forward? Is it possible to talk about multiplicity, diversity, and plurality without falling into the chaos and relativism that most people perceive Postmodernism to be?

In Part I, I started to describe what Anglo-European Humanism (which, I believe, is largely the basis of Humanism in Minnesota) and Postmodernism share. Briefly, the common ground is that both ascribe concepts, principles, beliefs, and values to human constructions. Very early in The Will to Power (first publication by his sister in 1901), Nietzsche says: "All the values by means of which we have tried so far to render the world estimable for ourselves...are, psychologically considered, the results of certain perspectives of utility, designed to maintain and increase human constructs of domination—and they have been falsely projected into the essence of things" (see The Will to Power edited by Walter Kaufmann, 1968, pp. 13-14). In Part I, I described these human constructs; in the future, I will discuss utility and domination.

I had an idea of what I wanted to offer in Part II but abandoned it in favor of paying attention to a couple of comments on Part I. Both comments convey an apparently immovable perception, no matter the number and nature of evidence/description/example offered about it, that Postmodernism promotes 'anything goes.' This phrase is variously interpreted to imply that Postmodernism promotes formlessness, chaos, life as random and, by implication, without the structures that humanists value, and ultimately, without a basis in Reason.

That this idea of Postmodernism stubbornly persists compels me to address it. You know the saying "comparing apples to oranges"? It signifies that apples are inherently different from oranges and cannot be compared on an even or similar basis, right? Well, imagine pineapples, mangoes, pomegranates, grapes, bananas, peach, apples, get the idea. A peach is called that because it is different from all the others, and in fact, is named a peach because it is not a banana or a mango. So in the saying "apples and oranges," apples are defined in contra-distinction to oranges; they are seen as inherently dissimilar but they are dissimilar only when juxtaposed.

The multiplicity of fruits may seem like a frivolous analogy to the plethora of political, cultural, economic concepts that seem to be included in a grab-bag of choices, the 'everything goes' that Postmodernism signifies to many. My point in the example of the apples and oranges is that names and values are assigned to a thing not because there is something perceived to be inherent in the thing itself but because it can be named/valued in relation to, and distinction from, some other things.

The contribution of Postmodernisms (in the plural, because there are diverse forms under this label) is that humans make meaning by defining things, ideas, identities in relation to each other, and that meaning is not inherent in a thing itself. I tried to convey the notion of identities in relation to each other through the examples of fruits. But humans and their political and sociocultural concepts are hardly fruits since the expression and implementation of these concepts have greater consequences on the spectrum from positive to negative. The concept of 'Man' and its significance is only meaningful in relation to the implicit or explicit presence of some concept of 'Woman' and vice versa. 'Democracy' gains its value in contra-distinction from political structures that are not democratic. 'Pain' has meaning only in relation to 'Pleasure'. The 'things' do not have to be binaries either—'white' gains its significance only in relation to 'black' or 'brown' or any other color.

So yes, things break loose in the chaos and tumult after the World Wars and in the aftermath of the Cold War and anti-colonial independence struggles. These global political, economic, and cultural conditions, especially post-1960s, produce a plurality of perspectives. These multiplicities, postmodernists argue, were always present beneath singular and dominant structures (nations, empires, patriarchies, etc.). In the breaking loose (what appears as a falling apart) post-1960s, these multiplicities are more visible and audible. But this multiplicity is not a random assortment of ideas or items launched into a free-for-all choice-making. Political, cultural, social, and other forms of power-struggles create the structures in which we make certain choices.

Given the relational nature of identities as I've said above, however, postmodernisms are not saying 'anything goes' (that it's a grab-bag, a free-for-all). In fact, these various postmodernisms agree that meanings are historically fluid and (also because) they are contingent, i.e., based in cultural, economic, political, social, and other ideological contexts. Humanists reading this might balk at this approach because it challenges directly a sacred tenet in Humanism (all kinds)—that there are transcendent and eternal values that abide over time and space, and are in those senses, supra-historical and can be manifested anywhere and everywhere, in the same ways, regardless of context.

Aha, is it true that the transcendent universalisms that Humanists hold dear makes them squint (wince? grimace?) at the Postmodern proposition that things are not only multiple, significant only in relation to other things, but are contextual and fluid? Is it possible that Peace has no inherent meaning in itself (as Nietszche would say), is meaningful only in relation to the absence of it, and that there are multiple definitions of Peace that change over time and space? Are there some Humanists that would consider the notion that singularities that are seen as universal values—Peace, Reason, Equality, Compassion, Objectivity, Democracy, Secularism—are only meaningful in dialectical tension with their alter-natives and that they are contextually created as well as change in interpretation over time and space? Just like Violence, Totalitarianism, and Hierarchy are and do?

Postmodernists of every stripe (see some examples at the end of this post) would say that the plethora of available and constructed ideas do not exist in an environment where 'anything goes' –not only are things defined in relation to each other and that they are thus fundamentally inter-connected. Moreover, these plural phenomena are held in tension by challenging and contesting each other to gain subscribers and dominance in the material world of politics and culture. In other words, struggles for power define the grounds on which ideas, in the plural, take shape. I mean, the Humanists of Minnesota association already recognizes this issue of contestation for power, that values vie for 'followers' and accrue validity and force by the number of 'likes.' Redefining our values to reflect their contextual significance may draw more, and more diverse, peoples. Would you say that, in this regard, Humanism in Minnesota is just indulging in a free-for-all and an 'anything goes' attitude? I bet not!

I started by attempting to describe how Postmodernism is more nuanced than is implied in the perception of it as 'anything goes.' I end by offering the possibility that understanding those nuances may help Humanism here in Minnesota go in new directions. Basically, Humanism/humanists here in Minnesota may have to contemplate the possibility of negotiating between its faith in disembodied and transcendent singularities (Reason, Progress, Greater Good) and palpably present pluralities, contextually changing, and contested versions of the same. Can you? Should you? Would you? Will you?

Some readings:

Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction by Christopher Butler

Introducing Postmodernism: A Graphic Guide by Richard Appignanesi and Chris Garratt

The Will to Power by Friedrich Nietzsche (treatise by German white, male-bodied, relatively stable economically, philosopher)

Power/Knowledge: Selected Essays by Michel Foucault (essays by French white, male-bodied, relatively stable economically, philosopher)

Woman, Native, Other by Trinh Minh-ha (essays by Vietnamese-American, female-bodied, anthropologist-filmmaker)

Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks (essays by African-American, female-bodied, cultural critic/philosopher)

Dictee by Theresa Cha (semi-memoir by Korean transnational, female-bodied, writer/artist)


The Tao and the Logos: Literary Hermeneutics, East and West by Longxi Zhang (essays by male-bodied, Chinese academic and philosopher)

-Sonita Sarker



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Sonita Sarker


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