Postmodernism, Language and Meaning: Power/Knowledge
The role language plays in shaping human
knowledge (and consciousness as a whole) forms much of the Postmodern attitudes toward
knowledge and our ability -- or inability -- as humans to
accurately understand things (including
Following is an outline of the basic linguistic premises and arguments guiding
much Postmodern theory.
Humans think in language. Yes, you are able to think
of images and sounds, but the realm of concepts (thoughts about complex
ideas like love, or God, or justice, morality, government etc.) exists in the realm of
words, language. If I ask you "what is love?" you must formulate and
express your answer in words -- you might get a "feeling", but the idea will
be formed in words.
Unlike math, human language is
inherently "messy"; it relies on arbitrary, flexible, inaccurate and
constantly changing relationships between signifiers (signs, words etc) and
the signified (the idea, thing itself etc. being represented by the
words). For example, in contrast to the simple, mathematical argument 2
+ 2 = 4, the single, simple word "love" has an infinite number of meanings
not only across different historical times and cultures, but even among
individuals within the same time and culture.
Another example would be the simple dictate
"Thou shalt not kill." Even within a single faith tradition
(Christianity, for example), believers cannot agree to the actual
of these four words. Even if the phrase is boiled down to the oldest
existing recorded version, scholars argue whether the text should read "No
Kill" or "No Murder." Beyond this, as it is clear the source (Old
Testament) condones certain types of killing (acts of war, as a penalty to
adultery etc.), it is difficult to determine what justifies "killing"; that
is, even among believers, there is no agreement concerning the
It is this inherent ambiguity built into all languages -- and thus human
consciousness -- that drives much Post Modern theory.
Point: Who's On
Language is culture;
sounds, words etc. are never purely objective: Different groups (cultures,
academic disciplines, countries, generations etc.) use different words to
signify different things; thus, all language itself is "contaminated"
by (influenced by, defined by) the entirety of a culture's collective
values: recall our lecture on all the
cultural baggage carried by the simple words
White/Black and how they relate to Ideology;
you may not be a racist, but your culture's language retains inherently
racist elements, and you are forced to not only communicate but think
using this racially charged system of symbols.
To return to our example of "love", your definition of the word was shaped
by your culture; what you think love actually is cannot exist in a
vacuum separate from the love songs, romantic films, religious sermons etc.
that you have heard concerning the nature of the concept "love".
Again, you may have innate love emotions, but the meaning that you make of
those feelings cannot exist separate from your cultural influences (or
To return to our example "Thou shalt not kill": we
find that different cultures define justified killing vs. murder quite
differently. Modern Catholics consider the death penalty murder, while most
American Protestants do not, and, of course, traditionally the Catholic
Church condoned the death penalty for a wide array of crimes that most
Americans would not (i.e. heresy).
Thus, Post Modern theory argues, the very definition of a simple
term like "to kill" or "to murder" never refers to a single concept;
concepts are rooted in cultural
is "tainted" by relations of power and bias -- that is, it is never as
objective as it first appears and, indeed, is incapable of representing
Conclusion: This inherent,
inescapable, nature of human thought and
language (that thought is language and language is faulty) makes it
impossible for humans to accurately grasp the nature of reality, or, more to
the point, for any speaker to escape his or her own cultural Ideology: language
itself, forces all thinking to remain Ideological.
This is complicated by the observation that
all knowledge is existential; in the most stark terms, there are "no innate
ideas" (ah, that idea that just keeps on giving). For this reason, we can observe that different cultures (using
different languages or "systems of thinking and communicating truths") evolve
different "knowledges" or beliefs.
Radical Post Modern theory, then, attacks Enlightenment Rationality (that is,
"science"), as just another Ideology, and therefore
no more objectively true than any given religion.
Basically, at this
point Locke's no innate ideas has finally collapsed in on itself.Implications of PoMo Theory
But even more radically, this suggests that:
Our very identities of what it means to be a
human being are intrinsically, inherently, "always already" shaped by our cultures. Why? Because cultures form languages,
languages shape thought, thought shapes our conception of who we are -- our
actual identities -- and thus there is no "self" that is separate from one's
own culture -- we can never de-contentextualize a person from his surroundings
-- we can never stand outside of or beyond our cultural contexts to identify
what is just cultural influence and what is our "true essence".