Toward Post-Postmodernism. About Alasdair Gray's "Glaswegians"

Term Paper, 2014

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Postmodern Thought

2. Postmodern Culture

3. Gray's Glaswegians

4. Bibliography


Despite often being described as the prototypical author of postmodern literature, in a letter to Dietmar Böhnke, Alasdair Gray has this to say about postmodernism,"Post modernism seems the creation of scholars acquiring a territory to lecture upon.”[1] —thus ridiculing his status as a postmodern writer. In this paper, I'll work closely with Gray's short story collection, Glaswegians, and will interpret whether it is modern, postmodern, or post-postmodern. To assist my determination, I will investigate the history of the postmodern, dividing it into its philosophical and cultural vocabularies. The result of my investigation and interpretation is that Glaswegians is a post-postmodern work because, despite the play with what could be called a postmodern elements, it provides the reader with answers to postmodern dilemmas and points to something “outside the text”.

1. Postmodern Thought

Where do we begin to determine what is meant by postmodernism? Certainly, a lot can be found by simply investigating the term. Post refers to afterward and so after modernism, but because the term is terminated by -modernism, it does not refer to something wholly different: it isn't a completely new era. It is an era still heavily influenced by the modern era.

But isn't every current era the modern era? Modernism is used to describe an era of thought, of action, of belief and of style. Placing this term in line with philosophical vocabularies, we think of Descartes as the founder of modern philosophy. In the cultural vocabularies, we think of the expansion of capitalism, the opposition of communism (or the other way around). English literature saw the modern period give rise to works by e.g. Joyce, Woolf and Faulkner—each of which sought to capture the inner lives of their characters, sought to expand the notion of language to encompass a stream-of- consciousness. German poetry saw the tension between thought and language situated in the foreground, with the dichotomy suspended and the gray area between presented by the works of e.g. Rilke. Anxiety, uncertainty, the absurd, all these terms have become typical modern motifs. Little did he know, Shakespeare created the modern man when he wrote Hamlet.

Postmodern is used today to describe a range of ideas, of dispositions and styles. In a recent article in the German Magazine, Hohe Luft, the following was said in regard to postmodernism, “Es ist dieser Angriff gegen die Metaphysik, gegen den Vorrang des Subjekts, gegen das Macht- und Herrschaftsdenken, der Heideggers französische Anhänger und die gesamte postmoderne Philosophie so elektrisiert hat. ”[2] We read that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger inspired a generation of French philosophers with his Dekonstruktion e.g. Derrida and Foucault to name a couple, who went on to develop a vocabulary referred to by almost everyone as poststructuralist, when not postmodern. This idea spread to the Angelo-Saxon space of reasons, exemplified in the works of the American philosopher Richard Rorty in Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature. But is there an underling thought binding these thinkers together? And if it exists, does it have any bearing on the culture, on literature?

Let's start a generation prior to the popular-founder of postmodern thought: with Heidegger's mentor Edmund Husserl. At the time Husserl was writing his first major work in philosophy, there was a debate concerning the nature of logic, whether it was merely a domain of psychology or a discipline in its own right. Husserl argued against the former, developing what could be called descriptive psychology, or phenomenology. Husserl believed his method could dissolve the difference between subject and object—a rather hefty claim.

A claim like this wasn't so radical in the 'modern' era. Sure, people would be skeptical, but it wasn't outrageous. Today anyone who claims to provide a theory, a The Theoiy of 'Everything, is either a cutting edge physicist, working with extra-dimensions in the complex plane, attempting to formulate a quantum conception of gravity or he won't be taken seriously by most academic circles, especially not by the general public.

Heidegger studies Husserl's Logische Untersuchungen and provides what he believes to be the path that Husserl had laid out before him. He calls his book Sein und Zeit. This philosophical giant starts with the basic phenomenological premise, beginning from everyday, first-person experience, and seeks to discover the necessary conditions for the human being in world, meanwhile not supposing anything to be the case, “Return to the matter itself! ”

What does Heidegger find along his journey? Among many other things, such as our authenticity is found in the horizon of thought while contemplating our inevitable death, that truth is merely an intersubjective notion,[3] that truth only exists to the degree that there are people seeking the truth, becoming dependent on interpretation, or more vague: truth is the act of uncovering which with each act covers up itself up,[4] like digging down to the bottom, with ever more earth piled on the other side by each shovel-full.

Whether you believe Heidegger on this point, whether you want to call him an obstructionist to philosophical thought, you have to give it to him: something about his work has been very convincing. As is well known, the French philosophers were heavily inspired by him and Rorty named him one of the three most important philosophers of his generation (along with Wittgenstein and Dewey). This is the point in history that I would like to claim gets the postmodern ball rolling. Here in the hands of Heidegger, it is merely a small block of ice but in sixty years, it will be an avalanche. Let's look at some of the effects.

Derrida takes up the notion of the metaphysical assumption that presence is the only meaningful existence, arguing that absence also has its place in meaning. He goes so far as to disrupt the modern notion of signifier and signified, claiming that meaning is generated by the arbitrary difference between the two aspects of the sign.[5] Thus the meaning of an expression becomes necessarily dependent on some prior difference, which is itself dependent on some other difference, and, guess what, it's turtles all the way down. As users of a language, we are caught up in the never ending scramble of meaning, doomed to never being able to use language to talk about language, only ever to speak in metaphors, never talking about what we're actually talking about.

In Rorty, this notion of interpretation takes on a positive, democratic, even humanitarian role. Since we cannot know for certain which of the vocabularies is the true vocabulary for describing our world, we are never led to any fundamental beliefs that would exclude some other culture, some other vocabulary from describing the world.[6] Instead we enter into a discussion, seeking to find the vocabulary that best corresponds to some pragmatic goal, which is, in turn, also discussed, debated, and, should everything go according to plan, agreed upon—while being (almost) certain that no single vocabulary is the true one.

Regardless of the side of the Atlantic you stand on, one thing is (almost) certain, there is no going back to truth with a capital T—there are truths, (lower case and in the plural) perhaps, but they are merely relative to a time and place, to a some purpose. (Newton's mechanic is still valid if I want merely to land a rocket on the moon.) Moreover, if we ever want to communicate anything meaningful then we have only language at our disposal, and if it's our goal to understand the nature of language, then we are going to (almost) certainly run into problems, because we will need to use language to understand language.

From the aspect of philosophy this is postmodernism: a continuation of the cultural uncertainty and anxiety concerning any meaning in the world, to the point of becoming (almost) relative about truth, becoming (almost) certain we can never escape our own vocabulary. Almost.

In the philosophical vocabularies, is there such a thing as the post-postmodern? If there is such a thing in the field of philosophy, it would have to show either one of two things. Either it would need to discover some truth with the capital T, (Not including, 'It is True that truth is relative.') or it would need to point to something 'outside the text', be able to speak of something outside of language with the use of language, making a claim at what that something is, and how that something is to be reached. The former could be viewed as a return to metaphysics, to the mystical past of idealism, and, despite being worth considering, not likely to be accepted. Which of these two is not without evil? Since the prospect of finding the Truth seems to be the most daunting, we look to the latter.

But how could we get around language? Hand signals? No, that's a kind of language in its own right. We would need to access something of a pure thinking before it is conceptualized in words, all the while, avoiding the trap of metaphysics. But if it cannot be conceptualized in words, how can we communicate it? It cannot. Not yet? But even if neuroscience finds a way to map the brain, discovers a method for transmitting qualia, this transmission will still be done via some form of sign manipulation, some form of 'language'. It looks like if something were found outside the text, we could move beyond postmodernism, but we would be doomed to never being able to communicate it.

But wait? - We can use language to talk about tables, chairs, people, cats, can't we? We can talk about the world around US, right? You get what I mean, when I say 'cat', don't you? I don't mean the symbol, I mean the animal. Sure, I'm using the word that refers to a concept that doesn't really exist in the world, containing my experience of all the cats in the world that I know of, have heard of etc—a concept that you have no access to, and when I say pronounce it, when I say 'cat', you think of your own concept, etc. etc., which, likewise, I have no access to, but in the end we understand each other, don't we? Understand that I mean, cat and not the word?

It's a clever trick. You almost had US fooled. You can dekonstrukt all you want, but we know what others mean when they say cat. We just need to put it into context; that means, real-life context of use, i.e. when it's about a real cat and not the word 'cat', and then we will be (almost) sure to know what it means (almost) every time. Though, you're first point demands consideration: What lies outside the text? And given there is something outside the text, what is it, and how can we access it?

2. Postmodern Culture

Now that we've dived into the sea of the philosophical discussion of the postmodern and emerged onto some sibilance of a harbor, let US examine the vocabularies referring to the postmodern as a cultural phenomenon. Our overview provides a survey of some of the main thinkers on the subject. We begin with Lyotard, move to Jameson, and deal with Hutcheon last. Our conclusion is that postmodern art can be best characterized by its propensity to play a game whose chief objective is to present the player with the paradoxes of identity but, like a game, postmodernism is separated by reality through the absence of a direct relation to the world outside the game—the moves and the response to the many different moves refer only to the game itself and not to the world. When someone fails and complains, we shout, Hey, it's only a game.

It was Lyotard who coined the idea that postmodern culture casts doubt on metanarratives and longs after its loss.[7] What he means by metanarratives are those whole-sale theories that tell the story of the world and mankind's place in it—think Hegel and Marx, Free Market Capitalism and Catholicism: big ideas that answer the daunting question, 'What is the meaning to it all?'

Every theory tells a story, has a narrative, and every narrative like those described goes over and beyond a single sphere of knowledge, targeting questions that be posited by both natural science and the humanities, attempting to cover every detail, hoping to halt any inquiry into the nature of reality, claiming with one stroke to have solved it all. Modern culture still believes in the possibility of reaching an ultimate goal, an ultimate end, the final telos that would explain everything, and postmodernism rejects such notions at the outset, disdaining any attempt at getting the whole picture.

But what gives postmodernism the confidence to claim that no theory will be able to express everything? There would need to be a reason a priori, why 'everything' could not be captured in one system.

This reason, we assume, is that every theory will necessarily, that is a priori, exhibit contradictions or not be complete. For a concrete example, consider Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem that states this about any system of semantics. That a system is necessarily contradictory is one of two possible conclusions. The other of two possible interpretations is, There are true propositions that can never be proven, which for the postmodernist is another way of saying the same.

And yet, the claim, There are no metanarratives, is itself a narrative that, although refraining from answer any deep questions about e.g. truth and language, does offer a quietus to the big questions. As such, the conception that postmodernism is defined as a skepticism toward metanarratives becomes a paradox—itself being a metanarrative: no longer a tenable position in cultural theory. That being said, Lyotard's is the first serious attempt at thinking about postmodern culture and continues to influence the discussion.

Working against the contention that postmodernism is merely a style, and not a cultural aspect in its own right, Jameson argues that postmodernism is product of late capitalism, or multinational capitalism, deserving its own claim at a cultural status. In his work, much time is dedicated to carving out a picture of the postmodern condition, propagated by the expansion of capital across national lines and the emergence of the dominance of consumer culture, but at the outset, Jameson focuses on architecture for a clear dividing line between the modern and the postmodern—but that is not to discredit other forms of art.


[1] Böhnke, Dietmar, Shades of Gray, in: Beyond Postmodemisn, Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin 2003. pp.255-268.

[2] Vasek, Thoman, “Ein Totalitärer Denker”, Hohe Luft, Ausgabe 6, 2014. 71-76. Print.

[3] Heidegger, Martin, Sein und Zeit, Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen, 2006. p.227

[4] Heidegger, Martin, Der Ursprung des Kunstwerks, Reclam Verlag, Stuttgart, 1960. p.53

[5] Derrida, Jacques, Grammatologie, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1970. pg. 105.

[6] Rorty, Richard, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton University Press, Princeton New Jersey, 1979. pg. 3 85

[7] Lyotard, Jean-Francois, The Postmodern Condition, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1984. pg.41.

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Toward Post-Postmodernism. About Alasdair Gray's "Glaswegians"
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John Dorsch (Author), 2014, Toward Post-Postmodernism. About Alasdair Gray's "Glaswegians", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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