denpomo Notes on: Denzin, N. (1986) Postmodern Social Theory. Sociological Theory, 4, pp 194 – 204

Dave Harris

[A very thorough piece, mentioning lots of famous theorists, not only Lyotard and Baudrillard, but also 'Barthes, Lacan, Althusser, Lévi-Strauss, Derrida and Habermas'. Many unpursued implications for his own work, though, including his faith in emancipatory metanarratives, utopianism and his belief that his new approaches are NOT paralogy]

The aim is to relate these formulations to American social theory and also 'make social theory more alive to the current crises that grip the present world economic and cultural structures, (194), via the debate between Lyotard and Habermas

Recent American social theory has been dominated mostly by 'Collins, Alexander, Giddens and Habermas', while the field itself is characterised by dialogues between proponents of conflict theory, micro-structuralism, exchange theory, interactionism, ethno, functionalism, with background debate about Marx and Weber, and feminism. There are also attempts at 'grand, or synthetic theorising' [including Habermas and Giddens]. In general, there is a view of societies as totalities, linking micro and macro levels, developing a science of society, and a way of referring to conflict and crisis. This is accompanied with an 'undertheorising of language, the human subject, the mass media, commodity relations in the consumer society, and the legitimation crisis surrounding science, knowledge and power in the modern world' so we need to look at post-modernism.

Post-modernism is a form of theorising and a period in social thought. Its theoretical characteristics involve abandoning theorising in terms of grand systems and social totalities; a preoccupation with crises of legitimation experienced in modern media dominated by digital culture; a theoretical development going beyond all the earlier formulations including phenomenology and structuralism: a radical conceptualisation of language and pragmatism in Peirce [in Habermas certainly]; a critique of scientific knowledge and realism; a critique of the subject in social theory; return to the commodity as a central issue; 'a concern for the collapse of metanarratives (science, religion, art) in everyday life'; new images for social and the human subject; a distrust of reason and science as utopian. These applications turn on fields like architecture and art, in the USA, with different applications in Europe. Maximum impact was between the late 60s and the early or middle 70s.

Culture is seen as a set of myths produced by a communication system and thus no longer open '"realist" extensions of actual lived experiences' (195). Culture is a production and this must be deconstructed, traced back to activities of readers, audiences and authors. This implies the death of the subject, and also 'the loss of master narratives'. It focuses instead on consumers and the commodity. Since Foucault, there have been challenges to correspondence theories of truth, simple causal models and the idea of structural domination or determinism. Instead we have 'articulation, archaeological and genealogical studies of contemporary and historical structures and power'.

Baudrillard shows these characteristics and there are four key processes: the simulacrum, the mass media, the sign, communication. Simulacrum for him means the semblance of an image, but there is no original truth. Images and signs stand for objects in the everyday life world. We can see this in the progression of the simulacrum [in Simulations]. In the last stage 'the image bears no relation to any reality, e.g. Disneyland' [is this so, is it not that images are hyperreal rather than totally unconnected?]. There are corresponding social orders: feudal, with clear and simple signs, the Renaissance where the arbitrary sign appears for the first time, [blimey, sounds an awful lot like Guattari] a corresponding movement to a democratic political ideology which includes the simulation of value and prestige. In the industrial stage, signs no longer have to be counterfeited but can be mass produced making the problem of their origin and authenticity irrelevant, 'objects become un-differentiated simulacra... of one another'. In the industrial stage, there is also the 'mirror of production' where the use value of labour defines exchange value, and human beings become seen as moral producers. Marxism, however is an ideology, convincing human beings that they are alienated because they must sell their labour power, coding human experience in the classic terms of use and exchange value, and missing the symbolic significance of these terms. In the third stage 'the entire order of production is governed by operational simulation. This is the post-modern age' (196). We have the age of the hyperreal, with no basic reality to which objects and signs refer, as in Disneyland. Social organisation turns on the endless reproduction of the different sectors, combined with our constant effort to convince us that the social is real [not bad]

The mass media is the main agency of hyperreality reconciling contradictions and producing the 'illusion of reality and actuality' [this is 1986, but Denzin was still giving us the old hegemonic stuff on the mass media in 1996 ], and the illusion of a universal public opinion that excludes real communication. The sign operates as do commodities, with signifier and signified corresponding to exchange value and use value. There is now sign value and symbolic exchange. Ideology has invaded this very process to become a form, producing this commodity logic. Sign and commodity have become inseparable. Information is now what counts, it is signs that are now consumed, commodities now take on sign value — but all this is a form of hyperreal simulation. 'The pure object is a myth' (197). The logic of prestige and status governs exchange. All everyday objects become signs, conferring prestige and effort. Traditional marxist critiques of the political economy must be replaced by a grasp of the semiotics of experience and an analysis of sign structures.

Communication becomes dominated by fascination with the spectacle through the media, with other forms of social communication neutralised. This is 'a fantasy of communication' based on engineered audience participation. A mass emerges that is an differentiated, silent and immune to efforts by sociologists to grasp it, with no historical mission any more, fully complicit in the prestige economy. The public and the private have collapsed — the private has been invaded by the media. 'Individuals are no longer actors in their homes, but controllers of information terminals… receivers of information'. There is an overall 'obscenity of experience' (198) where are the most private events appear on the media, there are no secrets, personal information is widespread.

Chang says that this analysis shows how revolutionary ideology can be incorporated as in Marxism. There is a misleading apparent separation between semiotics and economics. The overall argument could be seen as an elaboration of early Frankfurt School on one-dimensionality, but brought up to date. It now challenges Habermas and the ideal speech act. Communication is now ecstatic but also empty, 'solitary narcissistic', lacking in properly intersubjectively shared meanings. Thus the post-modern individual can no longer limit his own being, play or stage himself, or produce himself in a mirror but becomes '"only a pure screen, switching centre for all the networks of influence"' [very like the dividual in Deleuze].

Moving on to Lyotard, one theme is to critique Habermas and Luhmann on the legitimation crisis and on the hope for a fully communicative social order. The crisis begins with scientific knowledge and its production. This will critique Habermas: it is a crisis of representation not communication. [Go back to the Intro by Jameson to Lyotard's book and see how this is laid out there -- the criss in representation affects positivism and realism, hardly characteristics of Habermas] His terms involve knowledge and legitimation; language games and post-modern science; the social bond in post-modernism; problems with Habermas; a discussion of what post-modernism actually is.

Capitalism is moved to a consumerist stage which has produced the media society, spectacle, bureaucracy and computerisation, and this has produced a legitimation crisis in science and technology. Grand narratives of the past turned on the belief that science could liberate humanity, and the belief there was a unity to all knowledge (the French and German models of the University). Systems theory also saw society as a totality. These myths have now collapsed and no one thinks they are possible. Instead the goal is to produce more knowledge and more information rather than claiming to reproduce objective reality with 'adequacy accuracy and truth'. Post-modern science is now preoccupied with language and theories of representation, leading to the dominance of things like linguistics in cybernetics, computer translation and so on. There are revolutions in scientific knowledge, catastrophe theory and a general awareness of instability. 'Science now legitimates itself through paralogy, or the production of knowledge which undermines previous understandings' and new pragmatic and limited narratives. The focus is not on reaching agreement, but undermining prior assumptions. We can see this in many fields, including the sociology of science, where the role of the critic is to suggest 'countertheoretical interpretation of a class of phenomenon' in order to generate new knowledge [just what Denzin claims to do -- hence his endless additions to various social justice issues].

As a result there are two performative criteria. The usual one highlights efficiency in production and performance, and is embedded in bureaucracy and government, but the second turns on paralogy and the ability to produce 'a permanent tendency towards scientific revolution'. These two can clash, and even post-modern science 'has been required to fit itself to the bureaucratic model of performance efficiency demanded by the larger system' (199).

Recent theories of philosophy and pragmatics can be incorporated, including Wittgenstein and Austin, because language games are now 'the model for post-modern science': since language itself is always a matter of unstable interactive exchange, we end with a 'conflictual, "agonistic" version of science and the social bond'.

Lyotard says there are both narrative and scientific types of knowledge, with similar language games. Narrative games rely on rules of competency which are 'promissory, performative, prescriptive', while scientific games 'rely upon denotative rules'. It is the former that correspond to taken for granted knowledge structures in everyday life [so this is the bit that Richardson gets even if a bit upside down]. Narrative knowledge includes myth, folklore, or ideology. Its language games are agnostic. It carries its own authority and 'absorbs the past into the present'. Scientific knowledge values denotation above all. Its influence operates through HE. It rejects narrative knowledge, as inferior, but narrative knowledge tolerates scientific knowledge.

This tension between narrative and scientific forms is apparent. Science also us to appeal to narrative if it wants to legitimate itself in public. There is a pragmatic invocation of authority in the state and the University, and a common myth that science is in the service of the people. Language games of narrative have invaded science and led to a search for metanarratives, but there is contemporary incredulity towards them, hence the crisis. Once science could equate itself with reason, but this is not now possible — 'the old orders of reason, tradition and consensus have declined'. (200)

Lyotard sees the social order as agonistic or conflictual, rejecting any model that legitimates system or consensus and denies any Habermasian  'partitioning of knowledge into positivist, technological, and critical reflexive categories': that just ignores computerised knowledge and its production and control by 'a composite layer of corporate classes'. A new form of social bond, therefore exists, not the total dissolution of the social bond as in Baudrillard. The self is located in a whole set of complex and mobile relations, 'at the centre of specific and multiple communication circuits or points', the result of multiple language games which affect the biography. Meanwhile digital society collects ever more information, again in the name of paralogy, but this will end in heterogeneity not new consensus.

This is a fundamental critique of Habermas and his belief in a collective universal subject seeking common emancipation through a universality found in language games. There will be no 'discourse towards consensus', only a new terroristic community, enforced consensus. The older models of society and science have been rejected, together with all old social theories. The social and society itself are now only 'low priority', with even social problems of less concern unless the system's performance is affected. There is a new form of humanity on offer, based on what technocrats decide societies need. Discourse can never become universal and thus go on to disrupt this system.

Habermas critiques post-modernity as something which is anti-modern, which weakens rationality. There is a crisis in communicative infrastructures [arising from systemic intrusion into the life world]. The old specialisation of substantive reason into science, plurality [?] and art did lead to enlightenment progress, with the original promise that art and science would reflect and control nature and thus produce emancipation. This belief is now under attack, and post-modernism is thus anti-Enlightenment — for them, the subject is decentred, self-expression is no longer possible, instrumental reason and the will to power are celebrated. Lyotard rejects these claims, saying that capitalist production still applies technical criteria even to art, and that to think otherwise is nostalgic. Post-modern art offers important challenges to the past, including 'realism'. [No problem with that for critical theorists, surely, they like the avant-garde, but not when it is commercialised]

So post-modernism for Lyotard is a reaction to the present, a valuable critique of the real and of existing representation. It celebrates the new and rejects nostalgia. It attempts to present the unrepresented, by giving primacy to the signifier. It challenges notions of the heroic subject and conventional language as unchanging. Modernism is consolatory, especially in its attempts to represent the sublime. Post-modernism celebrates the 'pain and discomfort' of the sublime to help us reflect on the present. It rejects traditional solutions on rules. It does not attempt to simplify reality but considers 'new allusions to the conceivable'. It is not about to try and reconstruct the totality or give into nostalgia. It 'urges a war on totalities, while it bears witness to the unrepresented or and activates the differences that exist in the social, cultural and historical realms of the everyday' (202).

[A summary of Lyotard ensues. Denzin prefers him to Baudrillard as offering some sort of hope?]. We 'need serious study and research', to find out the implications for everyday ordinary life. The 'man on the street' is now part of a global village and we need to see how this information circulates and affects the taken for granted. The whole issue of knowledge in post-modernism needs to be pursued and its relation with power and truth and the state.

What might we do 'in the near future'?. We should not attempt to salvage the early modern social theorists involving social totalities or the modernist subject. Post-modernism still values the subject, but attempts to place them in the present world that has changed so much in the last 40 years. We need to theorise 'language, the problematic subject' and reflect upon the 'grand narratives of the past that gave rise to sociology in the first place'. Much recent theory still stays within a positivistic paradigm while innovating, but we can see this as an attempt to move into the language game in the post-modern, paralogy. They need to be aware of these language games they are playing when they produce new theory or new readings. We need new frameworks to understand the post-modern situation. We must rethink all the old modernist theories [which include interactionism and ethnomethodology] and other approaches which work in terms of structural causation or society as totality. Instead we need something like Foucault — 'careful empirical study of specific discourse sites where power and knowledge structures interact so as to reproduce particular images of subjects and subjective experiences' (203) [start with universities!]  Lyotard and Baudrillard can be joined with Foucault [!] to offer a challenge to conventional theory 'better suited to the post modern period' [cf 'extended gramscianism']. Sociology needs to serve society but it has 'become swallowed up by the social'. We need to rethink to understand the current situation rather than rework classical and modernist theories which only 'risk final annihilation by the social'

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