Art and Representation: Contributions to Contemporary Aesthetics

By Ananta Ch. Sukla | Go to book overview

6

Postmodernism and Representation

HORACE LOCKWOOD FAIRLAMB


POST-METAPHYSICAL REPRESENTATION: THE LOST GROUND OF CRITIQUE?

One philosophical legacy that has proved especially vulnerable to postmodern skepticism is the representational model of knowledge, the view that true beliefs represent or correspond to reality. Once metaphysical essences and epistemological certainties are discredited, reality no longer offers foundational security. In its place, a variety of alternative views have become influential, including coherence and pragmatic theories of truth, social constructivist theories of reality, conventional theories of meaning, and cultural relativist theories of rationality. What unites each of these alternatives is the assumption that there is no uniquely proper foundation for knowledge and meaning to represent. Rather, knowledge and meaning can only be given contextually rational, pragmatically useful, and epistemically fallible justifications. When so emptied of ontological and epistemic privileges the representational notions of knowledge and meaning strike many as obsolete.

But the postmodern critique of foundations has proven ambiguous at best, and at worst self-contradictory. On the one hand, postmodern skeptics have dismissed foundational theory as impossible in principle, as well as too universalizing and imperialistic in intent. On the other hand, this view is itself negatively universalizing and therefore only seems to be assertible on the basis of a foundational theory strong enough to determine the conditions and limits of representation. No small quirk, this “performative contradiction” in postmodern anti-foundationism infects many of its strongest and most interesting claims.

Yet, the postmodern view of foundations is not the only alternative to the traditional view. One can grant, for instance, that traditional and modern foundational theories erred in their notions of essences, self-evident principles, abstract

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