How to Speak and Write Postmodern

 by Stephen Katz, Associate Professor, Sociology
    Trent University,  Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

Postmodernism has been the buzzword in academia for the last
decade. Books, journal articles, conference themes and university
courses have resounded to the debates about postmodernism that focus
on the uniqueness of our times, where computerization, the global
economy and the media have irrevocably transformed all forms of
social engagement.  As a professor of sociology who teaches about
culture, I include myself in this environment. Indeed, I have a
great interest in postmodernism both as an intellectual movement and
as a practical problem.  In my experience there seems to be a gulf
between those who see the postmodern turn as a neo-conservative
reupholstering of the same old corporate trappings, and those who
see it as a long overdue break with modernist doctrines in
education, aesthetics and politics.  Of course there are all kinds
of positions in between, depending upon how one sorts out the
optimum route into the next millennium.

However, I think the real gulf is not so much positional as
linguistic. Posture can be as important as politics when it comes to
the intelligentsia. In other words, it may be less important whether
or not you like postmodernism than whether or not you can speak and
write postmodernism.  Perhaps you would like to join in conversation
with your local mandarins of cultural theory and all-purpose deep
thinking, but you don't know what to say.  Or, when you do
contribute something you consider relevant, even insightful, you get
ignored or looked at with pity.  Here is a quick guide, then, to
speaking and writing postmodern.

First, you need to remember that plainly expressed language is out
of the question.  It is too realist, modernist and obvious.
Postmodern language requires that one uses play, parody and
indeterminacy as critical techniques to point this out.  Often this
is quite a difficult requirement, so obscurity is a
well-acknowledged substitute.  For example, let's imagine you want
to say something like, ``We should listen to the views of people
outside of Western society in order to learn about the cultural
biases that affect us''.  This is honest but dull.  Take the word
``views''. Postmodernspeak would change that to ``voices'', or better,
``vocalities'', or even better, ``multivocalities''.  Add an adjective
like ``intertextual'', and you're covered.  ``People outside'' is also
too plain.  How about ``postcolonial others''?  To speak postmodern
properly one must master a bevy of biases besides the familiar
racism, sexism, ageism, etc.   For example, phallogocentricism 
(male-centredness combined with rationalistic forms of binary logic).

Finally ``affect us'' sounds
like plaid pajamas.  Use more obscure verbs and phrases, like
``mediate our identities''.  So, the final statement should say, ``We
should listen to the intertextual, multivocalities of postcolonial
others outside of Western culture in order to learn about the
phallogocentric biases that mediate our identities''.  Now you're
talking postmodern!

 Sometimes you might be in a hurry and won't have the time to muster
even the minimum number of postmodern synonyms and neologisms needed
to avoid public disgrace.  Remember, saying the wrong thing is
acceptable if you say it the right way.  This brings me to a second
important strategy in speaking postmodern, which is to use as many
suffixes, prefixes, hyphens, slashes, underlinings and anything else
your computer (an absolute must to write postmodern) can dish out.
You can make a quick reference chart to avoid time delays.  Make
three columns.  In column A put your prefixes; post-, hyper-, pre-,
de-, dis-, re-, ex-, and counter-.  In column B go your suffixes and
related endings; -ism, -itis, -iality, -ation, -itivity, and
-tricity.  In column C add a series of well-respected names that
make for impressive adjectives or schools of thought, for example,
Barthes (Barthesian), Foucault (Foucauldian, Foucauldianism),
Derrida (Derridean, Derrideanism).

 Now for the test.  You want to say or write something like,
``Contemporary buildings are alienating''.  This is a good thought,
but, of course, a non-starter. You wouldn't even get offered a
second round of crackers and cheese at a conference reception with
such a line.  In fact, after saying this, you might get asked to
stay and clean up the crackers and cheese after the reception.  Go
to your three columns.  First, the prefix.  Pre- is useful, as is
post-, or several prefixes at once is terrific.  Rather than
``contemporary building''", be creative.  ``The Pre/post/spatialities
of counter-architectural hyper-contemporaneity'' is promising.  You
would have to drop the weak and dated term ``alienating'' with some
well suffixed words from column B.  How about ``antisociality'', or be
more postmodern and introduce ambiguity with the linked phrase,

Now, go to column C and grab a few names whose work everyone will
agree is important and hardly anyone has had the time or the
inclination to read. Continental European theorists are best when in
doubt.  I recommend the sociologist Jean Baudrillard since he has
written a great deal of difficult material about postmodern space.
Don't forget to make some mention of gender.  Finally, add a few
smoothing out words to tie the whole garbled mess together and don't
forget to pack in the hyphens, slashes and parentheses.  What do you
get?  ``Pre/post/spacialities of counter-architectural
hyper-contemporaneity (re)commits us to an ambivalent
recurrentiality of antisociality/seductivity, one enunciated in a
de/gendered-Baudrillardian discourse of granulated subjectivity''.
You should be able to hear a postindustrial pin drop on the
retrocultural floor.

 At some point someone may actually ask you what you're talking
about.  This risk faces all those who would speak postmodern and
must be carefully avoided.  You must always give the questioner the
impression that they have missed the point, and so send another
verbose salvo of postmodernspeak in their direction as a
``simplification'' or ``clarification'' of your original statement.  If
that doesn't work, you might be left with the terribly modernist
thought of, ``I don't know''.  Don't worry, just say, ``The instability
of your question leaves me with several contradictorily layered
responses whose interconnectivity cannot express the logocentric
coherency you seek.  I can only say that reality is more uneven and
its (mis)representations more untrustworthy than we have time here
to explore''.  Any more questions?  No, then pass the cheese and

{Posted to by Andrew C Bulhak on 20
June 1995, found in news:alt.postmodern. - It is also reprinted in "The
Truth About the Truth" (Putnam, $13.95, 1995)}  


UPDATE from the "Economist" of November 30th 1996, page 90:


A sentence from Roy Bhaskar's "Plato etc: The Problems of Philosophy
and their Resolution" (Verso; 267 pages: $19.00) has won the Bad
Writing Contest sponsored by "Philosophy and Literature", a journal
published by Hohns Hopkins University Press.  It begins:

  Indeed dialectical critical realism may be seen under the aspect
  of Foucauldian strategic reversal---of the unholy trinity of
  Parmenidean/Platonic/Aristotelean provenance; of the 
  Cartesian-Lockean-Humean-Kantian paradigm, of
  foundationalisms (in practice, fideistic foundationalisms) and 
  irrationalisms (in practice, capricious exercises of will-to-power
  or some other ideologically and/or psychosomatically buried source)
  new and old alike; of the primordial failing of western philosophy,
  ontological monovalence, and its close ally, the epistemic fallacy
  within its ontic dual; of the analytic....

The sentence contains 55 more words, but is harder to follow after
this point.

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