Academic journal article Arena Journal

‘Language Can Not Encompass Being’ 1: Poststructuralism and Postmodernism

Academic journal article Arena Journal

‘Language Can Not Encompass Being’ 1: Poststructuralism and Postmodernism

Article excerpt

Writing in 2016, it's sometimes hard to believe the influence that poststructuralist and postmodernist 'theory' had on university and intellectual culture in the 1980s and 1990s. Virtually every humanities and social-science department (and even some science departments) either adopted or at the very least was forced to confront the body of work of half a dozen (mainly) French thinkers and the English-speaking colleagues who took up the implications of their work. In the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, 'theory' was deeply polarizing - either the high point of intellectual virtuosity, the voice of a new politics or a nihilistic assault on Western culture. English and Philosophy departments fractured or split entirely, newly formed cultural-studies journals enthusiastically applied theory's insights to the quotidian world, academic publication expanded massively. Outside the academy, theory2 was often denounced in the mainstream media as being meaningless jargon or politically dangerous, or both at the same time, while the theorists themselves retained a cult status both inside and outside the academy.

The reasons for the rise of theory are complex and multifaceted - the lure of intellectual difficulty, exoticism, the hint of a radical politics that connected with the new Left and social movements from the 1960s, an ability to bring sophisticated analysis to an expanding world of popular culture, and so on. And while the subsequent decline of theory from its high point can be attributed to the inevitable waning of intellectual fashion and the death of the seminal thinkers, there are other issues in play. The decline of many of the departments that housed 'theory' - indeed the decline of humanities and social sciences generally within universities - as part of the increasing commodification of education is as much a contributor to the waning of theory's influence as anything else. Indeed the increased emphasis on instrumental forms of legitimation (cultures of audit) for universities has meant that modes of knowledge that adopt a culturally interpretative (let alone critical) role have been marginalized within the academy.3 Ironically, the collapse of the traditional university and the role of knowledge as a means of cultural interpretation was a consequence of the expanded role of intellectual/knowledge production - a process that, from the perspective of Arena writers, formed a key component of the background of 'theory'.

Beyond this, the once 'radical' insights of postmodernism and poststructuralism (at least in their more commonly received form) have become normalized in a highly mediated consumer society. Pronouncements about the slippery status of the author, the text, the flexible and transient status of subjectivity or sexuality no longer seem cutting edge in an age of social media, global digital culture, mash-ups and the like. If the complex intellectual engagements of high theory have been shelved to a large extent, the 'sensibility' that theory depicted, albeit in a higher register, remains - the decentred, heterogeneous, transitory frames through which we have come to see culture and identity have become ubiquitous, almost to the point of banality. Indeed, this banality masks the operation of power and new modes of oppression, and it was this dimension of theory - often ignored in the race to embrace its emancipatory possibilities - that Arena writers were keen to emphasize. In doing so they went beyond more simplistic accounts of theory as equally progressive/regressive to locate a more profound transformation of which theory was symptomatic, but for which it was unable to fully account.4

Arena engaged with the political and social implications of postmodernism and poststructuralism consistently from the early 1980s; a number of substantial articles on figures such as Baudrillard, Derrida, Lyotard and Haraway were produced by the editors, alongside other articles that engaged with theory and its relationship to the university, architecture, literature and elements of popular culture. …

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