There’s a lot to discover in postmodern thought. Really. It gets a bad rap in certain circles, but good postmodern thought reveals the timbers of an invisible house in which we all live. It makes patent the occult structures of society that constrain our options often without our knowledge.
Which is why it bothers me when I run across passages like this:
“Ten years ago it seemed possible to destroy language through language: to destroy language which normalizes and controls by cutting that language. Nonsense would attack the empire-making (empirical) empire of language, the prisons of meaning. But this nonsense, since it depended on sense, simply pointed back to the normalizing institutions … Thus, an attack on the institutions of prison via language would demand the use of language or languages which aren’t acceptable, which are forbidden.” – Tactical Readings: Feminist Postmodernism in the Novels of Kathy Acker and Angela Carter (2002)
My first response was, “no shit.” Any satirist or stand-up comedian worth his salt could have told you that, let alone any philosopher after Frege. How naive (or ignorant) do you have to be to think that would ever work?
[Side note: I started college in 1992, the exact time referenced in the opening line of the passage. There was a lot of fashionable nonsense floating around then, and not just in the humanities. Chaos theory — the suspicion that there was a secret order hidden in disorder — was all the rage in mathematics.]
Then there’s the sing-songy, juvenile wordplay that hints at — but doesn’t quite explicitly claim — a relationship between similar sounding words: empire and empirical.
The word empire comes from the Latin imperium, or absolute authority, which itself is derived from the verb imperare or “to command.”
Empirical on the other hand is the descriptive form of the noun empiric, which means someone who works from experience (rather than abstraction or theory). It comes from the Greek empeirikos, which has the same meaning and derives from empeiria — “experience.”
Two different words. Two completely different origins. That they sound similar in English is happenstance, not evidence of some secret concordance.
But the worst part of the passage — by far — is the assertion that certain languages and modes of thought are out of bounds, are FORBIDDEN. I’m sorry, but there is no higher expression of anti-intellectualism.
I consider myself both postmodernist and feminist (well, intersectionist really), although those words refer to such diverse sets of views, I’m not sure either means much on its own anymore. Qualifiers are required, as is caution.
Any -ism is a pair of prism-lensed glasses. You carry a whole set but you only pull them out when the world appears distorted. Those who wear them all the time are, frankly, insufferable.
I believe the highest human aim is understanding — of ourselves, of the world, of each other — and for that we need to communicate. And to communicate, we need symbols with an established common meaning. How else can we share and learn? Grunts and gibberish?
I don’t see words as “prisons of meaning.” In fact, linguistics is the study of change, and poets — the masters of words — don’t sit in coffee shops complaining about the dictionary as if it were some great fascist tome and an expansive vocabulary did nothing but imprison the free thoughts of women! They understand that a concateny of words isn’t a beaded shackle. It is, like life, a kaleidoscope of possibility.