Marella asked:

While pragmatists would argue that how we construe the world is an outcome of social construction, they would also point to how an ontologically real external reality intervenes and imposes pragmatic limits on our discursive analyses… if you wanted to test this in relation to window glass, and we strongly advise you not to do this, you could try stepping through a window without opening it first and see if the postmodernist freeplay of signifiers allows you to remain unharmed!

Is this a legitimate critique of postmodernist views? Why?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Marella, I think this is a caricature of postmodernist views. It is the same as concluding from George Berkeley’s immaterialism that a person can stand in front of a bus and not be run over-on the grounds that it is only an idea. Berkley’s Immaterialism is an alternative take on how we understand ontology I.e. that it is immaterial and not problematic materialism.

So, as I understand it, Post Modernists would not advocate an ‘immaterialism’ where signifiers are substituted for ideas. They would not be averse to maintaining that there is a reality ‘behind’ the signifiers or, that signifiers are subject to change and modification. Signifiers are the mode in which ‘reality’ is understood and articulated-what Michel Foucault called the ‘irreducibility of consciousness’. This does not mean signifiers exist in suspended isolation; signifiers can be altered, modified or rejected due to the activity of other human and social forces. They are grounded in social practices-forms of life- and not free floating – thereby inviting the often made charge of relativism.

For Michel Foucault, signifiers would be part of ‘discursive regimes’. These are very much ‘real’ as they determine how human beings are categorised, instilled with norms and live their lives accordingly. In the ever present interests of freedom, the regimes are to be analysed and challenged.

For Jean-Francois Lyotard signifiers would be inherent to language. Different language games can come into conflict with each other or simply not be understood. Thus the signifiers of money, of finance, would meet opposition to the signifiers held by an ‘Occupy’ movement. They would be incommensurable with each other. Lyotard terms this situation a ‘differand’. If any solution is sought, it is to find new ways of communicating involving new or modified signifiers that can do ‘justice’ to both sides.

So signifiers are very real for Postmodernism.