X: Social thought. Conversations with the original personalities who are rethinking the way our society and institutions work. With your host, Michael Phillips.

What is postmodernism? And what does it mean for our contemporary life?


Michael Phillips (MP): Our guest today is Kenneth Gergen. He's ?Mustin Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College, author of Saturated Self and numerous other distinguished works. I'm your host, Michael Phillips. Welcome to Social Thought, Dr.ÝGergen.

KENNETH GERGEN: Thank you, Michael.

MP: The concept of postmodernism is widespread and I think, more than anyone else, you have put this in a contemporary framework. What is it?

KENNETH GERGEN: What is postmodernism? Huh! Well, you don't begin with small questions. There's no easy, succinct answer, and it would be silly to do that because the term now has become multipli-encoded by different communities and there are different takes on what we could mean by that. But, let me try to say a little bit about the way I understand it, and I think probably the best thing to do is to look at it by historical contrast, that is to ask ourselves in particular, What are the kinds of traditions that we inherit this time of the twentieth century? What is our background? What have we been through? What do we carry with us every day in terms of languages, in terms of habits, and perspective, and institutions? For me, it's been most elucidating to at least look at the last century or century and a half, first of all to see the strong emphasis on, let's say in the nineteenth century, on romanticism as a discourse, as a way of life, as a set of institutions, and the way in which romanticism has given way within the twentieth century to something that we call cultural modernism, which I think it's proper to look at as really feeding off enlightened, the Enlightenment, in terms of its major emphases. But if you look at romanticism in terms of let's say its conception of the individual, conception of the person as one who had some sort of deep interior, some secret set of resources that were locked away, beyond consciousness often, beyond immediate grasp, which were furnished by Nature perhaps, which gave one a fundamental reservoir of let's say good things, spirits, inspiration, genius, or perhaps evil things, as in the Freudian case of id impulses, evil impulses, let's say Edgar Allen Poe's work, to which we can look at as a source of passion or of deep commitment. And the way in which all of that kind of language, and art, and music, and so on, have given way in the present century to a much more real-world, in quotes, emphasis on material, on rationality, on good decision making, on autonomous agents who scan the world for information and who make reasonable estimates based on that information about the way life should be conducted. And you can trace that let's say in the academy from a strong concern let's say in the nineteenth century with metaphysics, with a spiritual value, and the way in which all that kind of teaching has been replaced by the natural sciences now, which become a mainstay, the social sciences, which we scarcely had at the turn of the century and now which are a dominant mainstay in institutions, and I could go on and on with that, to talk about architecture and dance and so on, but let me simply move to the postmodern. Now, it seems to me, and in terms of a conception of the person, that we have become is aware of earlier conception as discourse, as points of view, as peculiarly Western, shifting into what you might call a relativistic view of life, so that there, so that having any view of the person, myself, my family, my nation, is a stance in a conversation. It is one way of viewing it, and not necessarily the right one. Indeed, the very idea of a right one, a correct one, a real one, the perspective that captures the truth becomes suspect. In effect, we move into a period of an enormous relativism with respect to fact, to value, to ways of life. And, if anything, I would say it's that kind of relativism which marks, or at least is one marker, of the postmodern mood.

MP: How would you expand modern so that we know where the borders are with romantic and the post period?

KENNETH GERGEN: Let's look at modernism, again, as I would see it, many others do too, as an inheritance from the Enlightenment, from the emphasis on rationality, on objectivity, on individuality, that is, the person, the single person, who is the unit of let's say, the major unit of social life, who is autonomous and who makes decisions based on information given. And that becomes in the twentieth century now writ out largely as the scientific perspective, the perspective which says that we can devote to the world with rationality and observation in our pocket, or at least guiding our actions. We can generate knowledge about all the fundamental aspects of the universe and, based on that knowledge, we can move forward in a progressive way. We can build larger and more effective institutions of every sort. There is nothing that we can't conquer, and I think "conquer" is an important word here. There are no boundaries to what we can know and therefore there's a possibility for infinite progress. Modernism is a period in which you can simply scratch everything that happened before in a sense, that everything that up until the twentieth century is simply largely folklore and then we move into sort a scientific perspective in which today's truths give way to tomorrow's improved truth. So everything is up for sale in terms of wanting to generate increasing progress, increasing efficacy, increasing control over life. So, in effect, romanticism seems an aberration, almost a neurotic aberration. That anybody should do something for passion, for God's sake, because they feel it, I mean they're looked at as peculiar in the modernist sense. Now, one of the main divisions then between modernism and postmodernism is where that whole optimistic sense of a future as controlled by a rationality and observation, continuous progress, becomes suspect, where you simply fail to believe any longer in that kind of world where we can simply do better and better through science, or through rationality, and that there is a single way of looking at things, a single manner of treating them, which is going to lead to some kind of universal improvement.

MP: I wanted to also get the sense of universality, of the human being, as part of modernism. Because you have both the clinical science and Jung, two perspectives on a universal human.

KENNETH GERGEN: Well, I think, again you don't want to make such strong divisions between these various ?groups. I mean all perspectives, some of them borrow pieces of others, and romanticism shared with modernism, in many respects, a sense of the universal. In romanticism let's say a sense of universal values, that there must be universal human values, as a part of nature. And in modernism that there must be one truth, and one way of going about seeking truth, that is, the scientific mode of operation with essentially a universal procedure. Physics is not simply a folklore of the West, physics is true for every culture, for all times, it's universal, trans-historical, established theory lodged in the nature of the real. And I think, again, with postmodernism, any claims to universality become suspicious, become, are seen as possibly Western, possibly imperialistic, possibly self-serving, and a closing down of the multiplicity of voices that one ought to respect from the globe.

MP: There's also a notion of self in very biological terms. The mind is in the brain. The brain is accessible through clinical psychology observing the way rats perceive the world.

KENNETH GERGEN: Yes. Psychology in the twentieth century has been very much, by and large, very much committed to this view, that is, that psychology will reveal the basic or fundamental processes of thought, of emotion, of motivation, and so on, will reveal the nature of mental illness, and the nature of cure, and those conceptions will be essentially universal. That is, minds, because, as you say, are locked in bodies and bodies are universally similar, then it must be that anything that's discovered about the mind is as universal as anything discovered about the body. I mean that's the sort of mindset we have developed in going into this, that it shared through, with ninety percent of contemporary psychology in the United States in any case. And all that becomes now thrown into question. Psychology, not only in terms of its concepts, no only in terms of its thoughts about let's say emotion, become suspect, the very concepts become suspect, as we realize that there are many other cultures that don't have the concept of emotion, and certainly don't have our concept of emotion. What do we do with that? Say that theirs are wrong? that they've missed, somehow misconstrued the nature of emotions and the Western concepts are right? I mean that seems to ?privilege us ?greatly. It's not only to question of the content, it's also the question the whole methodology, the whole methodology of observing people and making, forming hypotheses and testing hypotheses, as the only way of understanding others.

MP: In the book, you do make a point of the fact that our ideas of emotion and passion are very distinctly ours. I think we'd do well to give some examples of how far off we are from other societies.

KENNETH GERGEN: Well, in the book I use the material from several anthropologists. There's a book by ?Katherine ?Lutz which I like especially, called Unnatural Emotion, in which she does an ethnography of group called the ?Iffiluk, in the South Seas, and an analysis of what we would call their emotional language. And it simply has nothing to do with ours. It is entirely different vocabulary, it's used for different purposes, it has a different function within that society. And you can't translate it. You can't simply translate it in our terms. And it's a very interesting and significant impasse that you reach there when you realize that they, that they aren't simply feeling the same way we do, with a whole different view of what feeling would be. And it's elucidating, to me.

MP: How would a listener recognize the postmodern part of the self? I know you see it even more in students, but where do we see it?

KENNETH GERGEN: Well, let's try it by contrast again for a minute. Let's take the sort of romanticist view, which would be the sense of having a deep commitment to a way of life, to a cause, a passion, a sense of destiny, a calling, and all these kind of romanticist ways of talking about ourselves and constructing our lives. And contrast that with let's say a quintessential modernist way, which would be "I've got to generate as much information about my skills and my capacities so that I can decide what profession I should go into, where my particular skills can play a role which will allow me to get ahead, to increasingly advance within the corporation or whatever, or even in academics, where I can publish papers and become tenured and gain greater credibility in the field" and so on. Whereas a postmodern view, which would be much more relativizing, which would draw from these discourses, that is, they may be part of the resources that you need to get on in the day-to-day life, you don't just abandon those discourses. But you may add some others. You may add a piece on zen meditation, New Age mysticism. You may add some vernaculars from other ethnic groups. And simply move through life constantly drawing from this set of repositories with no special sense of direction, no special aim, no one guiding sense of what is to be achieved, either in terms of destiny or in terms of progress .................. modernism speaking. Let's use the metaphor of surfing, because it has a double meaning here. Surfing in the sense of TV surfing, where you take your switcher and you simply move around all thirty-five channels, as a metaphor for life, but also surfing in the sense of surfboards, where you may catch a wave, and you may roll with it for a while, and it's fantastic, and you may be dumped off. And then you catch another wave, and it's a different kind of a wave. Each moment is kind of a way, here and now, with my resources and with you and us together, ............ ?aesthetic here, but that's at least one sort of rough characterization I would make.

MP: This is Social Thought, I'm Michael Phillips, and our guest today is Kenneth Gergen. He's a ?Mustin Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College, author most recently of Saturated Self as well as numerous other distinguished works. An ordinary person has a mixture of all these parts. They might talk about finding the perfect man, which is romantic. They might be concerned both about deducing the next step on their rÈsumÈ, which is modern. They may also be concerned about exactly the proper development of their children, which is modern. But they may go to the Gap and just say, "Well, if I wear this, put on this, the manner of public clothes or these very bright clothes, I'll be a different person at the party I'm going to tonight." Where are we going to move with the developmental notion? that seems so dominant at this time of the century? That as we get older, we're becoming better, deeper, wiser.

KENNETH GERGEN: Well, you can look at that I think in several levels. For example, in terms of a culture, in terms of Is it getting better in terms of the nation's economy and the growth of knowledge? Are these things improving? Development is usually accompanied by a sense of kind of moving in a positive direction. Now, I think with modernism there's a strong emphasis on continued growth, that is, development becomes a very attractive view, that there are possibilities for infinite improvement. But I think, as I said, with the postmodernism, that idea becomes suspect. That is, you realize that what is improvement from one standpoint is perhaps deterioration or oppression from another standpoint, and that every increment in, let's say in knowledge or the economy or the number of televisions we have in our households, or whatever your standard, is also a deterioration of some kind, it is moving backward at least on some other account and possibly multiple accounts, and particularly if you look at it in terms of our awareness of the environment. Development has been the death of the environment in many respects. The development of industry, the development of the economy, the development of new homesites, and so on, all of this means the environment suffers, ?basically. I think that's one of the most telling examples. Now, with human development, it's a slightly different, we have a slightly different sense, because, the problem we've inherited is that we have looked at development in the sense of, in humans, as being something which only moves from birth to middle adulthood. The growth narrative has been primarily one which honors only let's say the first fifty years of life, and our story on development at that point is that you no longer develop, at least as we see it in the Western culture, you're deteriorating after about fifty, fifty-five, it's kind of downhill, that's the picture we've painted of people. And one of the nice parts for me of postmodernism, you can reconceptualize, aging. You can reconstruct it as something else. You don't have to honor that sort of Western modernist notion of development which is largely tuned to what you can produce for the economy, what you can produce for science. But you can develop ideas of let's say wisdom, which would allow you to honor old age in a way let's say that the Eastern cultures can do. And that's another, there's a sort of slightly different take there, in terms of a psychological concept of development.

MP: Well, postmodern would allow you to also be silly and frivolous as you get older, which is, the Japanese sort of look forward to when the burdens of corporate life are taken off. They return to a childhood.

KENNETH GERGEN: Yeah, well, I think those, again I see this most distinctly in the young, who simply grow up living postmodern. I mean they don't come into the university and sort of take courses, politically correct courses, and come out postmodern. Rather, they already are basically relativists and moving in multiple directions by the time they get to the college. And I think part of that is the sense that you can afford to be, take those silly parts or the childish parts and keep them as part of your repertoire, that would only be normal, would allow that at any time, don't wait 'til old age. Allow that to be there for your whole life.

MP: As a society, we are, the governors of the society, the members of Congress, are modernists. We're stuck there. And, it'll be another twenty or thirty years before the dominant individuals in the society are the postmodern people, with the postmodern selves. What type of problems are we gonna suffer in this next twenty years? Because, from a modern point of view, the postmodern person almost doesn't exist. They are superficial, trivial, without any sense of understanding or wisdom.

KENNETH GERGEN: Mm hmm. Yeah, it's an interesting issue. What's fascinating to me is that you can begin to see in Clinton the possible beginnings of a postmodern presidency. Let me again make the contrast. That is, the romanticist president would be the man, and I think that's important, of deep character and conviction who would lead, who would be charismatic and would lead the people in a certain direction, who would be inspiring to the people and move them forward. Now, we've, even though we sort of long for that, nostalgically, that kind of person also at this point, given the past fifty years, was looked at as largely dangerous, possibly a demagogue, operating on the basis of passion as opposed to reason, deliberation. Now in the modernist period, we, another kind of individual has become ?valued. One is, one who has command of the relevant facts, who has a rationale which is a theory which he or she can defend, about the nature of let's say the economy, policies. That is, it's being a good administrator, in command of the facts and with a convincing rationality. Now that's also singular voiced in the sense that you are committed to a particular rational view of let's say the way the economy should run. Now, with Clinton, the interesting thing to me is that he is the first president I can see who is distinctly multivocal, that he isn't committing himself to a single unified rationality which he follows through and either wins or loses, that he's much more open to contrary voices and then to the possibility of integrating them into a policy may shift over time, the sense being that, if we're living in a pluralist society, and if I myself understand things in a variety of different ways, then the very idea of a single-minded commitment, a single rationality, is not only parochial, but it's imperialistic in a way. So, as I watch him, he seems much more open to talking with people, whether they be local people or academics or lawyers, I mean he just, he's all over the map drinking in voices, and policies will shift over time. He'll give a little, take a little, move this way and see what public opinion will do, move that way. And it looks, in terms of our old-fashioned perspective, that he has no line, that he's not a committed individual, that he seems to be wishy-washy. Now, that whole idea of wishy-washy comes out of an earlier way of thinking about these problems. So he gets some flak for this sort of procedure. These I think are not the signs of somebody who is weak, but the signs of one who is trying to work in a pluralistic manner who is open to the variety of voices and realizes that you can't simply bully it through. So, in a sense of he may be the beginnings of a new model, for what a politician would be like.

MP: There are many implications of postmodern. One is, that you see especially at Swarthmore with a very broad range of domains that students can study, Does the postmodern era eliminate the existing curricular boundaries?

KENNETH GERGEN: Hmm. Well, from my perspective, yes, it would, at least as being a sacred boundary. We inherit in the academy ideas of disciplines, of fields, and they're each built around something which they consider their domain of study. So that psychology has a domain of study which is different supposedly from sociology or anthropology or biology, and biology is supposed to be different from chemistry, physics. And we are housed in different buildings and have different curricula and we don't talk to each other very much. Now, from the postmodern perspective, to build a discipline around an object to study is to presume that there are, that there is only one view of the object, that is that there are simply objects of study or domains of study that are simply there in nature and build methods and rationalities and theories around those particular objects and domains. But when you realize that whatever you're calling an object or domain is already constructed by language, and there are many, many ways of looking at it, then it doesn't make sense any longer to make strong distinctions among fields, that is, we may wish to look at X as biology, we may also look at it as chemistry, we can also take a spiritual view of it, we could also take a literary view of it or a poetic view of it. I mean, these are all simply stances. And what stance you take, well, let's say that each stance will allow you to do certain things and prohibit you from doing others. So that to limit them is to artificially delimit what it is we can do with our world and ourselves. I mean what you want to do then is to open up the discourses so that they can begin to commingle to some extent, so we can build new perspectives, so that you can build new ways of going about what it is we're doing in our world. To enable disciplines to communicate with each other and to have a possibility for their being disciplines for a time, for a period when it's, when there's something fresh and interesting and exciting which draws people together, for example, ecology, which now draws from a variety of disciplines, it's not part of the traditional disciplinary set, but right now, at this point in our history, it's tremendously exciting and you have to work very hard to get programs in ecology even fashioned. Feminism is another one. You have to work very hard to get that as part of a way of going about seeing the world. And what I'd like very much to see, I think this is called for, is the possibility that you could have coalitions like this which would give way at some point, to other coalitions, that you wouldn't try to establish these once and for all so these are going to be parts of the establishment and put 'em in buildings or make 'em permanent, but we're going to consider rather the possibility for sites of conversation, sites of interchange, which could shift as concerns in the society, the academy, and world more generally shift.

MP: Thank you for being with us, Dr.ÝGergen. This is Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought, our guest was Kenneth Gergen, ?Mustin Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College. His most recent book, Saturated Self, is by Basic Books, available since 1991.