A Great Paradigm is Knocking at the Door:That is Postmodernism
Dr. Govinda Raj Bhattarai
Professor of English
Department of English Education
Every teacher needs to be familiar with the issues that I am going to address in this essay: every teacher, educator, and every institution from primary to university levels of education and academic centers of all sorts.
The central motive for writing this paper is to draw from ‘postmodern’ philosophy and seek its application to English language teaching in the context of Nepal. It is high time we incorporated new values in our curriculums, especially in those of English Language teaching, ELT. English language, and so literature, is soaked in ‘contemporary world values’. We need to experience and feel the pace of these contemporary values and walk in consonance with them because time has changed dramatically and cyberspace has ‘flattened’ the world, to quote Friedman’s term, and global values have seeped into local cultures all over the world. Porous culture of the present day has permeated everywhere to horizons earlier unknown. All these phenomena are the characteristics of the postmodern period that has followed the post II war period of some five decades ago.
I am not going to quote definitions of postmodernism from “Grammatology”, or from “The Postmodern Condition: A Report of Knowledge” or from “The Postmodern Reader” or from “The Encyclopedia of Postmodernism” itself. In a brief article like this there is no room for pedantic ramblings on a subject that has already built a tremendous archive; it is so wide and diverse that sometimes it sounds unfathomable. Despite this, those of us concerned with ELT and more broadly, language teaching, should no longer remain ignorant of this all pervading paradigm shift, should look into the new values and find out if any aspects of postmodernism are applicable to our field, out of this all sweeping dimensions, and try to improve our career and profession by including these aspects. With this in mind, I would like to put my pen into paper by just referring to some major features and achievements of postmodernism that are relevant to teaching (which may apply to all teaching activities irrespective of subjects).
Before this let me relate my topic to the origin of this ‘philosophy’, to fields it has permeated and some distinctive marks that help us define the term. It was Jacques Derrida ( 1930 – 2004) whose seminal article “Structure, Sign and Play: In the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1967) attracted scholars’ attention towards a deep gap lying unnoticed between the structuralist tradition established by Saussurean school and the post II war situation that saw many changes in the existing values. This inspired and encouraged scholars to revisit the common philosophy of academics based on structuralism. This came to be known as postmodern move which challenged modernism, modernist principles and beliefs, which eventually gave way against the force of postmodern onslaught. Gradually scholars and thinkers of late twentieth century shifted their attention towards a new philosophy, a new paradigm in their respective fields. There are different angles of interpretation, standpoints or conditions of postmodern trend or. For instance, Jacques Derrida takes a philosophical standpoint. There are others, like Michel Brown, Jean Baudrillard, Rolland Barthes, Thomas Kuhn, Charles Jenks to name a few among hundreds of forerunners, who discuss psychoanalysis, political philosophy, literary theory, philosophy of science, and architecture, respectively. There are other great names people remember for their vigor and enthusiasm in interpreting music and dance, art and culture, anthropology, history and geography from postmodern perspectives. Ihab Hasan rightly thinks that this has formed a new movement, paradigm, or school: postmodernism.
I would like to refer to Hasan’s The Postmodern Turn (1987) to provide the readers a feel of how it has become all pervasive. Postmodernism attacked deep foundations of meaning, truth, its finality, classifications of objects and concepts and showed that a continuum of enigmatic existence may go on till the last moment, so one always fails to claim finality, all perfection. One should keep on experimenting with what exists and look for novelty and innovation. Such points may have deep impact on an innovative teacher. Not without good reasons have some claimed ‘death’ of many things and ideas such as history including the death of discourse (see, Collins and Skover). The term death has been used everywhere only to show a kind of departure and a sudden rupture felt in the existing practice and thought. It is not in the literal sense they say so, it is to indicate the suddenness of a great shift towards a new present almost disconnected to its rootedness or the past. So it was introduced as an anti foundational movement that has given a message that every foundation, even that of science, ever requires some kind of restructuring, remaking, rebuilding, and rethinking from age to age, and more so in a world controlled by machines like ours today. The inventions and innovations that occur today are beyond our imagination, and will continue to be so. Philosophical principles too are always reinventing and reshaping themselves, like the inventions in science. Values are changing fastest of all. Peoples’ interests, demands, aspirations and lifestyle have changed accordingly.
Naturally, Derridean philosophy stands against stagnant ideas and dogmatic principles. However I am not going to sound obscure by referring to Jacques Derrida the mastermind himself, nor great thinkers like Michael Foucault, Gilles Deleuz, Frederic Jameson, Luce Irigary, Zygmunt Bauman, Jean Baudrillard, Gayatri Spivack or more such philosophers who have helped in defining the scope of this new philosophy with zeal and fervor until the dawn of the 21st century. However “No jargons please” my heart speaks, and mind says no to a maze of debates. Those who are dead against pluralistic values and multiple perspectives on objects and truths and things are very adamant and even wish to denounce it as a new fangled thing that destroys the old values and leads us to nowhere. They don’t know that old things decay soon of their own accord, and progress demands a rapid pace for everything: reshaping and rebuilding, by deconstructing the old ones. ‘Deconstruction’ has therefore been considered as a central point that brings change in our perspectives.
Postmodernism has stood on the principle of journey to infinite, incompleteness and this is the stand it has taken for more than three decades. But I am going to put my pen into paper also to recount my experience of being with it and in it for the last two decades. However, mine has remained a different world of literature. I noticed the concept enter into Nepali literature in the last twenty-five years, though vaguely and hazily in the beginning. At present though, there are more than two dozen books published on theory and practice of it and many more are in making, some to defend it and others to denounce. Denouncing it is equated with an act of challenging time that does not go back nor does it remain stagnant. That is why, as Derrida thought, if you cannot get the final meaning, if it ever gets deferred and is different every moment, what is the point of sticking to a particular time or value that is claimed to be final and universal and will save humanity? We believe in transitory nature and transience, we believe in the new and ever changing experience and experiment, fragmentary nature of truth, we believe in relativity of truth, because no absolute truth does exist, it is in the eyes of the beholders that truth takes shape whether it be in the field of philosophy or chemistry or astronomy or child care, adult education or teaching and learning, or the production of learning materials from everyday and common matters to universal matters.
It is difficult to define the concept of postmodern, as it encompasses everything– from art to culture, and from feminism to curriculum. Different fields of knowledge and areas of study such as history, geography, literature, sports and music have postmodern features which are distinct from those with modernist perspectives. It is change in perspectives, a change of perspectives. The whole of perspectives of looking at truth and the world has changed today. It may sound sometimes too intricate to drive this point home, but I would like to show how our total perspectives need to be revised. I would like to refer to Hasan again from whose work I quoted above. He shows how what ‘modern’ world thought of as distance needs to be perceived as participation, purpose as play, signified as signifier, genre as text. Each of these moves requires serious discussion, interpretation and exemplification. When one goes deep into such abstract philosophical niceties, one is most likely to get lost. Therefore I like to suggest the readers to start at the beginning, go on building their knowledge, contemplate and try to find application accordingly.
The seminal ideas of postmodernism entered the mainstream with Jacques Derrida’s principles of deconstruction which got associated with post-structuralism and gradually to postmodernism in the field of philosophy. Likewise, in literature, John Barth proposed that the conventional modes of literary representation had been “used up,” which means everything has been exhausted before so he expounded these ideas in a seminal essay called “The Literature of Exhaustion” and in it Barth opined that Modern values had an ultimate goal and a final point, but postmodern stretches beyond confinement. Old rules, symbols, figures, devices have completely been exhausted so we need newer images, combinations, symbols, tools, perspectives and everything. In the field of architecture, ‘Jenkins’s architectural design’ is considered postmodern. If we look at music or painting or film or other sectors such as health, we can find pioneers who introduce postmodernism into these fields. It gives a sense of eternity, plurality or pluralism of objects ideas, and things, which is at the core of its principle. It rejects structural school of thought and language and classification. So looking at the world with postmodern perspective means looking at it as a centre less embodiment of multiplicity. The multiplicity exists, whether or not one accepts it, so in the words of Foucault, it is an all pervading condition of the world.
Postmodernism stands for pluralism– many ideas and opinions, many practices and tolerance among them. It naturally has many centers. How it forms knowledge is still in suspense and doubt. Postmodernism asks you not to trust the practices that you are following. Some truth may be lying hidden so the concept of absence is more important than presence. All inventions were absent until they were discovered to the state of presence. Postmodernism calls for a change in concept and behavior. It is a philosophy of alternatives from no choice. From binary classification, it has reached a state of multiple options.
How can we make use of postmodernist theory in an ELT class? Firstly, it says all knowledge is constructed not just given; all knowledge is invented or “constructed” in the minds of people, they say. This belief requires student centered teaching, student autonomy and more freedom.
It promotes and nurtures multiplicity so it applies for multicultural setting of the learner and equal respect and attention to all.
It explores new centers and therefore every student has equal opportunity to be honored– the handicapped, disable, deprived, backward and marginal and excluded. The teacher treats them equally on grounds of humanity. Students that form diverse picture in the class are assets to him or her.
Cyber culture is part of our life so technology will create virtual worlds and learning modes are changed abruptly and totally. Teacher education is incomplete without resorting to the use of technology (radio, Edusat, mobiles, ICT) etc. The electronic media has erased the geographical distance and historic time so the modes of teaching and ways of learning are tat tally different from what they used to be before. An English Language Teacher, like any other should be equipped with this Knowledge.
01 Nov 2010