A Peter Wall Institute Exploratory Workshop: 16-18 May 2002

Organizers: Dr Graham Good (English) and Dr. Linda Siegel (Education)


What is (or was) Postmodernism? As a philosophy, a style, an attitude, it has dominated the culture of the last thirty years, and has had a substantial impact on many academic disciplines. Its core is a skepticism about the possibility of truth, an abandonment of the quest for foundations of knowledge, and a belief that knowledge is always in complicity or negotiation with power: reality is "socially constructed." Postmodernism is a politicization of all knowledge, including science, whose claims to objective accuracy are dismissed as a cover for ideological motives. In the realm of history, Postmodernism rejects "grand narratives" of human destiny, whether Christian, Marxist or Liberal, along with their structure of "origins" and ends," while inconsistently adopting its own favoured narratives of Imperialism and Patriarchy. In the arts, Postmodernism celebrates a playful eclecticism of style, picking, choosing and mixing motifs from any period or field or genre. Coherent subjectivity is rejected along with coherent objectivity: Postmodernism replaces the unified, autonomous self with a "site" of interacting forces and desires conditioned by society. Its anti-humanism rejects any notion of a universal human condition, and instead focuses on categories of identity like race, gender and sexuality. The Postmodern paradigm prefers transgression over boundaries, interdisciplinarity over disciplines, margins over centres, relational over intrinsic qualities, and ideology over ideas. "Multi-," "trans-," and "inter-" are its preferred prefixes. Poststructuralism is appropriately a term for its theoretical dimension, since it equates almost all structure with hierarchy and repression.

Critics of Postmodernism come from a variety of quarters, from conservative traditionalists, through liberal humanists to old-left Marxists, but also include unaffiliated individuals discontent with what has happened to their discipline, medium or institution.

There is also a wide range of proponents: for some, Postmodernism is a carnival of subversion of old fixities; for others it is a world view that corresponds to our phase of "late capitalism." For some, like Derrida, it means emancipation from unified structures into a free play of interpretation; for others, like Foucault, it means incarceration within the inescapable ideology of the present. Some advocates admit and even celebrate its contradictions. But there is one common factor in theses varied attitudes: rapid cultural change has always been a central part of how Postmodernism sees its own time. Yet the Postmodernist paradigm has itself been in place for a full generation. If it continues to dominate intellectual and cultural life for much longer, it will "call into question" its own tenet of rapid change.

What will, or what could, take its place in the new century? To answer this question, we need first of all to assess what has happened in the culture and in intellectual life under the hegemony of Postmodernism. What has improved and what has deteriorated? Then we need to reconstruct the situation as it existed before the advent of the Postmodernist paradigm in the 1970s, not in order to reinstate it, which would be impossible even if it were desirable, but in order to gain a different perspective on our situation and find what aspects of earlier traditions will enable us to move ahead. We need to look back to Modernity, Modernism and the "Enlightenment Project" against which Postmodernism crucially reacts, but also at Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, Postmodernismís selectively appropriated, supposedly counter-Enlightenment, masters. Is Postmodernism intellectually adequate to the current problems facing the world, or is it a hindrance in coming to terms with them, a kind of self-disabling of the intellect, a symptom instead of a solution? The urgent pressures of economic globalization, genetic modification of humans, animals and plants, ecological devastation, social breakdown and drug addiction, are surely bound to evoke an intellectual response that lies somewhere "beyond Postmodernism."

More information from the Workshop Website managed by Nonie Lesaux:

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MAY 16-18 2002



The aim of the workshop is to discuss the impact of Postmodernism in the last twenty to thirty years, both on academic disciplines and on the wider culture and society, and to speculate about what new developments might take the place of Postmodernism, both inside and outside the academy. The workshop will consist of five sessions concerned with specific topic areas as noted below, with some additional events to be arranged on the last day. Participants are invited to submit a short paper to be circulated in advance of the workshop, and these papers will form the basis of the discussion sessions.


Th 16 May

Opening Panel Discussion (public event): Dr Raymond Tallis, Dr Terry Eagleton, Dr Daphne Patai, Dr Harry Lipkin, Bu A106, 1--3 p.m.

First Session: Language and Communication 3.30--6 p.m.

Reception at Peter Wall Institute

Dinner at Green College

Fr 17 May

Second Session: Science and Philosophy 9.00 a.m.--12.00 p.m.

Third Session: Education and Literacy 2--5 p.m.

Dinner at Peter Wall Institute

Sat 18 May

Fourth Session: Politics and Law 9.00 a.m.--12.00 p.m.

Fifth Session: Art and Culture 1.30--4 p.m.

Tour of Postmodern Architecture in Downtown Area

Closing Restaurant Dinner (Aqua Riva)