Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction; by Christopher Butler

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  1. Just finished this book, Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction, by Christopher Butler.

    Postmodernism has always seemed rather obscure to me, probably because so much of the writing of postmodern thinkers is so abstruse.

    This little gem of a book, however, nails it as a clear and perspicuous introduction. It even pokes fun at a particular sample of writing that was so abstruse as to win the “annual Bad Writing Contest promoted by the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature (from Homi Bhabha’s much referred to The Location of Culture):

    If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline, soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities and classification can be seen as the desperate effort to ‘normalise’ normally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality” (9-10)

    One of the best things that Postmodernism has given us is, I think, the reliance on cultural analyses, as seen for example in the “cultural studies” approach to religious literacy, as discussed in my HESP publication Which Islam? Basically, it has reminded us to consider other perspectives, to see that every “history” is written by someone, ie, is a narrative from a particular perspective, that “truth” is often relative. However, it is essential to note that, as the author points out,

    “Postmodernist relativism needn’t mean that anything goes, or that faction and fiction are the same as history. What it does mean is that we should be more sceptically aware, more relativist about, more attentive to, the theoretical assumptions which support the narratives produced by all historians.” (35)

    Postmodernism can certainly take relativism too far. For one thing, it is doomed to be internally inconsistent always in its insistence that one can never really know the truth about anything because all that is available are various and contradictory narratives that each give a different and equally valid version of the truth. The reason for this “crippling contradiction,” in the words of the author, is that

    “if anyone says that everything is ‘really’ just constituted by a deceiving image, and not by reality, how does he or she know? They presuppose the very distinctions they attack.” (118)

    If you have ever wondered “what is postmodernism, anyway?” and have time for a quick 127-page read (or listen), then this book might be for you!

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