The 'Post-' as Prefix in Popular Culture and the Social Sciences

Or the Coming of the 'Derridean Undecidables'

Essay, 2020
16 Pages, Grade: A



The gradual emergence of the ‘post-‘as prefix in the discourses of popular culture, academic enquiry and the social sciences have been overlooked and categorically neglected. Yet when encountered at a semantic level and part of morphological compounds such as post-colonial, post-modern, post-human or post-liberal [among others] one displays certain conservativeness with respect to its precise meaning(s) and semantic value(s) depending upon the free morpheme the post- adds itself to. This skepticism and semantic doubt is not external to the post-as-prefix but is inherent to its interior structure as an ‘undecidable’ belonging outside the logic of binary production. This essay would attempt to trace this post-as-prefix as a Derridean supplement [undecidable] that both adheres to and deviates from the semantic value of its root term, thereby displaying a double attitude of fidelity and infidelity towards it. It would further explain the ‘post-as-prefix‘, among other such supplemental bound morphemes [neo-, pan- or trans-] that indicate the coming of a new epoch in social, cultural and political spaces in the world, an epoch that reveals and revels in the true nature of the linguistic sign [as a supplement for the thing ], and subsequently the true movement of history and historical production.

[Key Terms; post-as-prefix. undecidable, supplement, double attitude, epoch]

Inside the academic discourse (and maybe even that of popular culture) there are very few functional spaces that are used today without having been critically evaluated as functional spaces in the first place. That is, in the last fifty to seventy five years, academic critical writing, especially in the liberal arts have tried its utmost best to redouble upon itself and understand that one instrument with which it enters the critical domain - language, or more precisely, writing.

Therefore to state that critical writing, as a consequence of such intellectual rigor, has become more self-reflexive, would be an understatement. Yet one particular linguistic formation(s) (this formation is both singular and multiple[1]) has more or less successfully evaded this critical scrutiny upon language and still exists as an ambiguous location, abstract and equivocal enough to make the reader or the listener cringe in apprehension and skepticism. This is the gradual, but noticeable and distinct emergence of the 'post-' as prefix[2].

Word formations such as ‘post-colonial’, ‘post-modern’, ‘post-romantic’ which (conventionally) both indicate historical attitudes and correspond to cultural movements such as ‘post-colonialism’, ‘post-modernism’ and ‘post-romanticism’ respectively, have disseminated over the last few decades, not only in the liberal arts academic discourse, but their circulation has sought out the somewhat related domains of artistic productions and practices such as cinema, art, media, theatre and literature. Yet this popularization of the linguistic appendage in the cultural scene has not contributed to its comprehensibility by any means or degree but has conversely added to it (and by it I mean both the prefix 'post-' and the word it chooses to attach itself to) layer upon layer of mystery and obscurity. This essay shall try to uncover the many mysteries that this linguistic import carries along with it, and peel off slowly and carefully, layer after layer, its accumulated sense of obscurity, secrecy and also unveil in the process, as we shall see henceforth, a considerable amount of conspiracy it is subject to.

Because this essay concerns itself with the nature and function of the affix 'post-', I shall try to defocus any kind of attention given to the root words while explaining or analyzing compound terms such as ‘post-colonialism’ or ‘post-structuralism’. Instead I shall try to emphasize upon the common denominator (as that is what relates to our study) present in these formations, both at the level of the visible sign and its semantic meaning. This initial reduction does by no means indicate that the study of the post-as-prefix surpasses the relative importance these root words (modern, colonial, romantic) possess, but because the respective significations of these terms have a different and divergent socio-political function it fails to serve the integral purpose of this essay, which is to show how the prefix 'post-', when added to these root words, alter what they mean, how they look and their internal stability as linguistic signs.

'Post-' is an appendage. That is, as a prefix, it has no independent existence as such (it is a bound morpheme), but its function, as is self evident, is to attach itself to other free morphemes - such as modern, colonial or human. Now this attachment, this 'addition', as stated above, occurs on two different levels - at the level of the visible (or the audible) sign or the signifier, and at the level of semantic meaning or the signified[3]. We shall first deal with the second influence, that is, how the appendage interacts with and subsequently influences the meaning of the free morpheme it attaches itself to, and then through its semantic interaction, trace this addition at the visible level of the signifier.

The "post-" as fidelity and infidelity

The most apparent alteration the post-as-prefix commits upon the meaning of the root word is twofold: it 'adds to' or 'extends' what the root word means and encapsulates (its functions and its principles), that is, it provides an ‘addition of signification’ to the root term, but alternatively and simultaneously, it 'goes against', or 'subtracts' [and hence divides: “rupture and a redoubling” (Writing 351)] through critique and reevaluation, what the sign had previously signified or referred to. This can be called the first law of the post-as-prefix: the law of simultaneous adherence and disjunction. I would like to simplify this assertion with an example.

I placed a jar in Tennessee,

And round it was, upon a hill.

It made the slovenly wilderness

Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,

And sprawled around, no longer wild.

The jar was round upon the ground

And tall and of a port in air. (Stevens 76)

The above lines are taken from Wallace Stevens' 1919 modernist poem The Anecdote of a Jar. What the poem signifies (at a literal and overt level) is the typical matter of the evolution of human consciousness and its corresponding project of transforming nature into culture, an issue that is perfectly (and historically) complemented by the emergence of the capitalist industry at the end of the nineteenth century and the incredible destruction of nature and natural resources during the First World War. Stevens mourns the death of nature in the poem and spiritually condemns the perpetrator: "the jar was gray and bare" (76).

While the modernist temper (of destruction and spiritual decay) remains quite visible in Stevens' verse, the sudden ending and the conviction with which it is made, "like nothing else in Tennessee" (76) reminds the reader of the hopelessness of the time and maybe even anticipates the end of poetry as such (as a natural and organic art form). But about half a century onwards, and Stevens' pessimism is proved wrong. Poetry survives, so does organicity and poetic rigor.


Is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.

I do it so it feels real.

I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.

It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.

It’s the theatrical (Plath 245)

Sylvia Plath's personal angst and nihilism in Lady Lazarus is definitely a borrowing from the modernist age. But here it is death and despair recollected with a post-modernist swagger if we may, a celebration of death, in death, and the accompanying theatricality of it. Plath's despair of her "skin/Bright as a Nazi lampshade…[and her] face a featureless, fine/Jew linen" (244), is not despairing at all: "I a smiling woman" (244). And her statement is not a cowering below the dictates of totalitarianism and institutionalized patriarchy (which had significant presence in the modern age) but a murderous rebellion against it. The post-modern poet here does not falter under the threat of dictatorship, authority and the cultural metanarrative of power, but reverses this very threat upon that particular tradition (modernism: the root word)

Herr God, Herr Lucifer


Beware (246)

Retrospectively, Lazarus' reincarnation is also the modern man's dumbfounded and completely misunderstood predicament in T. S. Elliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—

If one, settling a pillow by her head

Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;

That is not it, at all” (Eliot 16)

But in Lady Lazarus, there is no doubt or circumspection on the part of the poet, but a definite stand against false ideals. Eliot's overwhelming question in Prufrock has been answered and with the self-assurance of a subjective creed.

Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

And I eat men like air (Plath 247)

The post-modern therefore attains a split identity and signification. It relates back to the modernist attitude, retaining a partial sense of fidelity to it, especially with respect to inquiry into moral relativism, epistemological rethinking and the recreation of the natural into the cultural. But alternately it also discourages practices of moral subjectivism, contests epistemology with performativity[4] and deprivileges the nature/culture[5] binary.

We shall also see how this ‘double and partial’ attitudes of the post-as-prefix work in the same way (that it partially adheres to and partially defies the semantic value of the free morpheme it attaches itself to) with other such formations: post-human, post-colonial, post-capitalism.

1. Post-colonialism can be thought of as a critical response to the ideals of colonialism, both as a system of government (didactism, exploitation disguised as altruism, the civilizing mission and imperial conquest) and as an ideological worldview (the colonizer/colonized binary, Eurocentrism, Logocentrism[6]). [Yet] Although apparently (radically) different attitudes (with respect to race, culture, society, slavery, democracy), the theoretics of both deal with a wide range of common intersections: obsession with cultural difference and knowledge production, distribution of capital and raw materials and Hegel's master-slave narrative [among others].
2. The post-human which encompasses a varied number of sub-disciplines such as cybernetics[7], cyborg studies, machinism[8], artificial intelligence and the automaton, still persists with the image of the human subject, albeit only a virtual one. The post-human follows the model of the rational-civil self-realized man of the European Enlightenment, anticipated by Jean Jacques Rousseau: It enjoys the multitudinous rational quotient of Rousseau's civil ideal, but goes beyond the limits of the material human being [beyond its liabilities of flesh and blood].
3. Post-capitalism, although only a proposed alternative mode of production to the currency of capitalism, can be thought of as an extreme and evolutionary stage of capitalism itself, a stage of social and economic production that is not only superior in terms of efficiency and productivity but that which makes capitalism obsolete. Yet Peter Drucker's book The Post-Capitalist Society states that very much like late stage capitalism, knowledge rather than either labor or capital shall become the currency of wealth in a post-capitalist mode of economic production. (It shall inherit the free market economy of capitalism and completely sever any kind of trade boundaries to the extent of falling into anarchism or anarcho-syndicalism[9])

The post-as-prefix therefore not only brings into question the problem of tradition but also decenters the two possible ways of both thinking about it and responding to it: either through adherence or in the form of defiance. The post-as-prefix therefore exists (as part of the root term) in the borderline between fidelity and infidelity: it at once exhibits both and therefore commits to neither. [A repetition of the first law of the post-as-prefix: the law of fidelity/infidelity]


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The 'Post-' as Prefix in Popular Culture and the Social Sciences
Or the Coming of the 'Derridean Undecidables'
University of Calcutta  (Department of English, University of Calcutta)
MPhil in English Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Literary Theory, Post-structuralism, Jacques Derrida
Quote paper
Arindam Nandi (Author), 2020, The 'Post-' as Prefix in Popular Culture and the Social Sciences, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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