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Charles Lemert

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: April 18, 2000
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Postmodernism Is Not What You Think

Review Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Part of the Teaching Series
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, April 2000
"Fair Use" encouraged.
This review is of Charles Lemert's Postmodernism Is Not What You Think, Blackwell Publishers, 1997. ISBN: 1-55786-286-9 (pbk) Charles Lemert is a prominent social theorist, at Wesleyan University in Connecticutt. His review of what postmodernism is and isn't is clearly written and sensible, providing many of the answers to knee-jerk critics who seek to deny the cultural changes we face, and yet recognizing that postmodernism is as much "a way of understanding the world" as a "proper theory of culture." (Lemert, ibid, at p. 31.)

As we seek non-violent solutions to problems of structural violence, Lemert's discussions of social theory and postmodernism provide a means to grasp and synthesize the many explanations we are offered for whatever it is that is happening in our world. And he offers these explanations, like Craig Calhoun, without dogmatism and with a sense of guiding us between Scylla nad Charybdis.

Social Theory and Sociological Theory

Lemert draws a distinction between these two approaches much akin to the distinction between positivism and critical approaches. "Social theory is any theory of society or social life that distinguishes itself from scientific theories by its willingness to be critical as well as factual." (Ibid. at p. 24.) One way in which I see the possibility for theory to be critical as well as factual is to recognize the aesthetic component that has been so neglected in the age of positivism. Nag me, and I'll put up some of Marcuse's thoughts on this.

Lemert's emphasis on theory moving beyond "scientific theories" suggests that social theory is more than simply a watered down version of the theories of the hard sciences. Since sociology has had a difficult time in constructing its own identity within the competitive academy of the positivist environment, I think Lemert's approach offers us a way to see more deeply into the theory we seek to develop and the reinterpretation that may be requisite to that development, as Jonathan Lear reinterprets Freud's contributions to social theory.

Mediated Reality

Instead of describing a "break" with the modern, Lemert speaks of the juxtaposition of the modern and the mediated. Reality is mediated in the televisual society to the extent that it becomes hard to distinguish what is real, and what is the message of the real that we receive from the televisual mediation. This shift to mediated reality, so typical of the sound bites of today's economic and political reality, affects equally our social reality. (Michael, I think Gergen's Saturated Self would fit in neatly here.) And this shift to mediated reality may justify the "break" postulated by postmodernism. In any event, such a "break" justifies the definition Lemert gives to postmodernism. (Lemert, op. cit, passim.)

Lemert's Definition of Postmodernism

"It is pervasive experiences such as those we have had trhough exposure to televisual culture that lend plausibility to the idea fo postmodernism, and they lend it even when we are unable to provide a proper theory of the culture's effect on us. . . [S]ocial theories of the postmodern are not so much arguments from undesputed facts as representations of a way of understanding the world. . . . Postmodernism is the culture that takes seriously the breaking apart of the world, which, if this is what is happening, is clearly a question of just how hyperreal is reality? It is thereby a question to which evidence of a sort can be brought, if only to provoke one's thinking about what is going on."
(Lemert, op. cit., at p. 31)

As I understand it, Lemert is suggesting that social theory is not interested in, and cannot from the present vantage point, determine empirically whether there is a "break" between modernity and postmodernity. Calhoun also addresses this issue, and similarly finds that we cannot assess it, and need not do so. To say that I cannot make decisions on major social issues and the paths we are to take until I can measure the alternatives empirically is to reflect the positivist bias which sees all knowledge as "scientific knowledge" and all things as knowable, to excuse accountability on the epistemological grounds that one must gather more data until one can reduce uncertainty, and to avoid action in the interest of certainty.

Postmodernism is less willing than positivism to assert that we know what to do about major social issues. But postmodernism recognizes that we must act on reality as it is mediated, and as we can interpret it in this mediated world.

Is it more important that we describe the world accurately, from triangulated perspectives, to catch a glimpse of the multifaceted "real"? Or is it more important that we become aware of mediated reality as interdependent on the multifaceted "real," and as socially constructed through that interdependence?

In peacemaking, there must be the individual within seeking to authenticate itself non-violently in the midst of structural violence. But in peacemaking also, there is a mediated reality in which what Lear describes as the pre-individual drive of mass pscyhology provokes violence in the name of the non-violent. Witness the confrontations in "peaceful" protest against the IMF in Washington in April 2000.