In this part, I’m going to introduce some theories of language and epistemology (the study of the nature of knowledge), and I’m going to try really hard not to be too pompous or obscure. Let me say at the outset that I am coming at this subject from a background in literary theory, not necessarily philosophy, but then I don’t see a clear line between the two.
It’s tempting to define postmodernism simply as a rejection of “truth.” Indeed, Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton defines postmodernism as “the contemporary movement of thought which rejects totalities, universal values, grand historical narratives, solid foundations to human existence and the possibility of objective knowledge.” As such, he continues, postmodernism “is skeptical of truth, unity and progress, opposes what it sees as elitism in culture, tends toward cultural relativism, and celebrates pluralism, discontinuity and heterogeneity.“ This shorthand definition is more or less apt, but there are bigger issues afoot.
Let’s start with what most human beings would consider “common sense”: I exist as a person, and I perceive the world around me (obviously I’m skipping over a whole lot of philosophical thought, but this is an Internet post, after all). Fredric Jameson describes this as a “realistic epistemology, which conceives of representation as the reproduction, for subjectivity, of an objectivity that lies without it.” In other words, I am the subject, and what I perceive that isn’t “me” is objectively real. We assume, then, that we can know the truth about what we perceive.
An extension of this idea is that our perception of things can be communicated to others. Jameson explains that the “realistic” approach “projects a mirror theory of knowledge and art, whose fundamental evaluative categories are those of adequacy, accuracy, and Truth itself.” Thus, we judge language and art based on their ability to accurately or even adequately represent reality, or “Truth itself.” Scripture, for example, is language that is true in that, for believers, it represents the realities of the divine. For scriptural inerrantists, the language itself, being “God-breathed” (I love that term), is a perfect transmission of what God means to say.
In the same way, when humans communicate with each other, we think we can express objective reality (and even our subjective thoughts) adequately to each other. Thus, language is inextricably bound with how we perceive what is “real.” (I’ve just made a huge leap, but bear with me.) Very basically, we can consider language to be a system by which humans interpret what we perceive (that is, “things” only mean something when they are structured or transformed by language). For example, a dream is, properly speaking, a series of thoughts or images or feelings that we experience when we’re asleep. But dreams “mean” something only in context. For example, if I dream about a dog, it means something different than the same dream would mean to someone who was recently mauled by a pit bull.
In this same way, reality means something only in context, and that context is inescapably bound in with language and culture. As one scholar writes:
1) Nature and culture are not separate, but are the same thing, or to say it differently, inextricably, constitutively linked.
a) the contents of our mind (culture), the very way we think and what we think about, come from our brain’s interaction with the umbworld (nature). [He defines the “umbworld,” or nature, as the “human environment,” which is not only physical, but social.]
b) the contents of our mind (our culture) recursively act upon the umbworld constantly transforming it (i.e., nature), which in turn, transforms the contents of our mind (culture) which in turn transforms the umbworld (nature), and so on.
Note that I’m not distinguishing culture from language, but instead I’m suggesting that, taking Todd’s definition, the contents of our mind (speaking collectively as well as individually) are bound up, structured, and constantly transformed by language. So, taking another huge leap (I can do that, because this is my essay), we can say that language, culture, and nature are all “the same thing.” As Todd put it, language and culture inform how we think and feel (how we experience nature), and nature (the physical and social construct) recursively transforms language and culture. There is no distinct line between nature and culture (the contents of the mind are not separate from what is “out there”).
In a sense, language is what is “real” (that was a massive leap) because that’s all we have. But how does language work? Here we turn to Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who suggested the notion of the Sign as being “the basic unit of language.” This Sign is made up of two components: the signifier and the signified. I’m going to cheat a little and use dictionary definition (no, this isn’t a sacrament meeting talk), but I want to be as precise as possible. Merriam-Webster defines the signifier as “a symbol, sound, or image (as a word) that represents an underlying concept or meaning.” The signified, therefore, is “a concept or meaning as distinguished from the sign through which it is communicated.” Take, for example, the word “curelom.” The signifier could be either a written word, a spoken word, a picture, or a symbol representing the idea of a curelom. The signified is the concept or meaning of “curelom” (or any of the symbols or sounds meant to represent it). The signified is conceptual, not real (not that anyone thinks cureloms are real in any sense). As Saussure put it, “A sign is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a concept and a sound pattern” (note that Saussure originally defined the Sign in terms of oral speech, though it has since come to mean language of any kind).
For Saussure, language consisted of the system by which Signs are used together to create meaning. He conceived of language as being the intersection of two axes: the axis of Selection (metaphor) and the axis of combination (metonymy); see this drawing for a visual representation of these two axes. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Simply put, a word or Sign means something because it has been chosen out of all the other possible words or Signs and it has been placed in a particular place between other words or Signs. For example, let’s use a sentence from Karl Pilkington: “You never see an old man eating a Twix.” We understand what the word “man” means because it has been chosen from the infinite number of other possible words it could have been (dog, stocking, Kazakhstan, and so on) and because it has been placed in a particular place in the sentence as opposed to all the other possible places it could have been (and indeed all the other sentences it could have been in). For Saussure, then, meaning resides where the abstract rules of language (langue) are applied to a specific choice (selection and combination) of speech (parole).
Although Saussure was a linguist concerned with how language works, his work did much to shift the study of language and culture away from the “common sense” notions I mentioned earlier of language and perception as representing something real. In a wide variety of fields, from anthropology to psychology and literary theory, the focus turned to the systems of Signs that constituted the world. What is real became in some senses not something that you could know but rather that you made. As Hungarian literary theorist György Lukács put it, “Only when the core of existence stands revealed as a social process can existence be seen as the product, albeit the hitherto unconscious product, of human activity.”