Postmodernism with a Human Face

by Sarah de Sanctis

Around the end of March I attended an interesting conference called 'Prospects for a New Realism'. The project stemmed mainly from the idea, advocated by the Italian professor Maurizio Ferraris, that the postmodern has come to an end, and that we can celebrate the salvific arrival of a 'new realism'. But is it really so? Have we finally left the postmodern chapter behind? Have we found the way to a new realism?

I'm afraid the answer is no. For two reasons. The first is that new realism is not really new. If you type 'new realism' onto Google you'll find out that this label has been already used for an artistic movement developed by the French critic Pierre Restany in 1960, in the context of an avantgarde that, through its appropriation and its 'poetic recycling of urban, industrial and advertising reality' can be very well considered part of postmodernism itself. You might say that it's philosophy, not art, we're talking about here. But even if we stick to philosophical labels, new realism was a philosophical approach used in the early twentieth century by a group of US scholars who rejected Locke's dualism.

Moreover, we can leave the 'name' issue aside and focus on the specific perspective that this New Realism is championing, but the outcome will still be that new realism is not new at all. As Susan Haack pointed out, new realism in the sense of a 'post-postmodernism' realism has been around at least since the eighties. The Tanner Lectures that Umberto Eco gave in 1990 are a perfect example of this philosophical attitude. What was at issue then was the difference between interpretation and overinterpretation. That is to say: are all interpretations equally valid, as a reader-oriented theory would want it to be, or are there certain limits that need to be respected for an interpretation to work?

The postmodern view, inspired by Derrida, Paul De Man, J. Hillis Miller, and brought forward by Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty, implies that there can be an infinite number of equally correct readings of a given text. Words as such do not possess any meaning, it is the reader who endows them with one. Hence, there is no way to prove that a given interpretation is right or wrong. There is no 'hidden message' to be discovered. Eco, while expressing great sympathy for reader-friendly theories, posited that there are, still, certain boundaries that shouldn't be trespassed. The intentio lectoris is not omnipotent, and neither is the intentio auctoris (which still, in his opinion, deserves at least to be taken into account, for a historical understanding of the text if nothing else). The rules of the game are given by the intentio operis: you have to consider the text as a coherent entity. This idea is in fact very ancient, coming from Augustine, and it entails that a given reading of a text can be accepted only if supported by textual evidence. And this textual evidence needs to be provided with intellectual honesty: you can't take one useful sentence and completely ignore its context only because it serves your purpose.

Rorty's response to this was that textual coherence itself is given by the reader, and that we should substitute the quest for truth for that for usefulness, so that if I want to use Moby Dick to talk about, say, the exploitation of monkeys in the XIV century, I am absolutely free to do so. The example he used was that of a screwdriver: why should I only use it with screws? I can scratch my ear with it, or open a cardboard box with it, if I so please. Fair enough: but is this a proof that anything can be used for any purpose? Of course not, Eco – and I – would say. There are properties inherent to the screwdriver (or the text) that constitute the limits of what it can or cannot be used for.

You can easily see that Eco's position is that of a via media between an extreme postmodernism and common sense. And this is precisely what new realism is doing today: disproving the most daring postmodernist theses by returning to common sense. And this is the second reason why I think postmodernism is not dead: new realism, as I have shown, is not really new, but it's not really realism, either. It's not really realism in the sense that it does not entail a return to metaphysics or a quest for transcendence. The position held by this movement is that of a hybrid between realism and constructivism, not realism tout court.

The new realist criticism towards postmodernism is directed at two areas: epistemology and ethics. Epistemological claims are the easy bit. As John Searle put it, the postmodern idealistic view is not a serious threat anymore. 'You can't go to the moon and then wonder if there is a moon in the first place.'That there are no foundations to our episteme is, indeed, very hard to believe. What the postmodern view contended, through its rejection of correspondence, is that 'either past theories are false and we have finally arrived at the one true theory, or our own theories are likely to suffer a fate similar to those of past science, and hence are probably false and refer to nothing.'

Now, new realists do not question fallibility, nor do they question the postmodern assertion that our scientific inquiry is never neutral but always biased by our cultural environment, our needs, etc. What they do (rightly) question, though, is the idea that 'nothing counts as justification unless by reference to what we already accept, and […] there is no way to get outside our beliefs and our language so as to find some test other than coherence.'

Even if we accept that knowledge is forever bound to stay within the realm of language, surely we cannot see it as some randomly free-floating entity that is completely detached from the world and entirely self-referential (as posited by Quine and Rorty). How would prediction and scientific progress be possible then? Indeed, there seems to be way enough proof that there has been, in fact, a progressive accumulation of knowledge. As Ferraris put it, Rorty himself would certainly have preferred to be cured by a 2012 doctor rather than by Hippocrates.

As we have seen, to confute the epistemological claims by certain extremist exponents of postmodern philosophy is not particularly challenging and entails, once again, a return to common sense (or, in De Caro's words, 'a respect for the manifest image'). The hard part has to do with ethics. If, after postmodernism, we reject metanarratives, God, metaphysics, essentialism and so forth, then how can we possibly overcome moral relativism? How can we even talk of morals if we embrace the naturalist view that all reality is made up of 'mindless, meaningless particles'? An ethical urge of this kind was already present in Putnam's Realism with a Human Face, where he wrote that:

It may be that we will behave better if we become Rortians – we may be more tolerant, less prone to fall for various varieties of religious intolerance and political totalitarianism. If that is what is at stake, the issue is momentous indeed. But a fascist could very well agree with Rorty at a very abstract level – Mussolini, let us recall, supported pragmatism […] If our aim is tolerance and the open society, would it not be better to argue for these directly, rather than to hope that these will come as the byproduct of a change in our metaphysical picture?

A few steps have been taken by new realism in this direction, but, as you can predict, they are not yet very convincing and fully developed. Akeel Bilgrami uses Spinoza's conception of detached and engaged subject to prove that there must something in the world to make us engaged. Paul Boghossian turns to the loss of content, in the case of normative subject matter, that relativism entails (you can have a faultless disagreement if talking about Brussels sprouts or favourite colours, but when discussing morals this cannot happen, since it's the very content of morals that gets questioned and lost). Dieter Sturma returns to Kant and posits that ethical objectivity lies in the intrinsic properties of the normative prescriptions, on a formal level. Still, I believe that a return to ethics is the most promising (and most difficult) part of new realism, a part that finds an equivalent in literature.

As far as I know, there is no 'new realist literature' as such. Nonetheless, I think this philosophical current has been – and will be further – developed, somehow, in a literary form. I have already spoken about David Foster Wallace and his ability to blend postmodernism and realism. He seems to me to have done exactly what new realism is promoting: he has learned the postmodern lesson and used (masterly) its devices while returning, at the same time, to an 'earthly' literature, so to speak. He managed to write for the reader, in a way that was postmodern and yet understandable, so that we could go back to the literary experience of 'seeing things through someone else's eyes' – something that, in my view, constitutes the very basis of ethics.

DFW is not the only writer I have in mind. J. M. Coetzee seems to offer another example of literature that combines postmodernist techniques with realist, and ethical, aims. Far from being morally 'relativistic', Coetzee's novels seem to bring together the good bits of the postmodern (Rorty's solidarity, the fact that novels allow you to see things from someone else's perspective) with a good deal of commitment (the opposite of a postmodern 'ironical' detachment). Think of his ideas of human dignity, animal rights, racism, the colonial other and so on. These are all themes that are actively present in Coetzee's novels. Yet, a traditionally realist novel would not provide the right tool to deal efficiently with them.

Realism has never been comfortable with ideas. It could not be otherwise: realism is premised on the idea that ideas have no autonomous existence, can exist only in things. So when it needs to debate ideas, as here, realism is driven to invent situations – walks in the countryside, conversations – in which characters give voice to contending ideas and thereby in a certain sense embody them. The notion of embodying turns out to be pivotal.

In a traditional novel, the reader is lulled and made comfortable by the writer. Through the narrative pact, he enters a world of fiction that he accepts entirely, in what resembles, in fact, a dreamlike state. You don't question what you read. You just follow the plot and see where it takes you.

It is not a good idea to interrupt the narrative too often, since storytelling works by lulling the reader or listener into a dreamlike state in which the time and space of the real world fade away, superseded by the time and space of the fiction. Breaking into the dream draws attention to the constructedness of the story, and plays havoc with the realist illusion.

I don't have the space to analyse the whole of Coetzee's works in depth. But let's take his latest novel, Slow Man. What Coetzee does here is particularly refined. We start reading what looks like a well written but somehow conventional novel. We get lulled into a dreamlike state for a good third of the book. Some 'ethical issues' – regarding (among others) immigration, lousy medical assistance, the condition of elderly people – are confronted through letting us experience what the main character, Paul Rayment, experiences. Then, all of a sudden, a character enters the novel reciting the very start of the novel we have been reading. At this stage, we might feel uneasy, thinking that Coetzee is going to play the by now tedious postmodern game of 'meet-the-author'. But no. That would be too predictable, too postmodern.

The supposed author Coetzee introduces is Elizabeth Costello, someone that is just as fictional as Paul, being herself a character. This is made even clearer by the fact that she is a recurring character in Coetzee's novels. We are thus awakened from our dreamlike state, and our attention is called to the fictionality of what we are reading. Yet, this does not turn into an annoying metanarrative reflection. That's not what Coetzee is doing it for. We have been awakened only to be made attentive, so that we can actively respond to the ethical issues we are faced with.

Costello, in fact, far from remaining a metanarrative device, becomes part of the story, not only of the novel, but of Paul's story itself. It is a typical view of Coetzee's that we always see each other as characters in a story.

Were their two encounters, the first in the lift, the second on the sofa, episodes in the life-story not of Paul Rayment but of Marianna Popova? Of course there is a sense in which he is a passing character in the life of this Marianna or of anyone else whose path he crosses, just as Marianna and everyone else are passing characters in his. But is he a passing character in a more fundamental sense too: someone on whom the light falls all too briefly before it passes on?

Often, in Coetzee's novels, we see people – characters – in the desperate (but vain) attempt at gaining control over the narrative of their life. If we take this as the reassertion of the lack of metanarratives and the acknowledgement of the role of 'mere chance', it will be easy to see how postmodern this is. Yet, I think, there is more to it than that.

This device shows how we are compelled to think in terms of narrative. It also shows, though, how our narratives fail. One story, one perspective, is not enough. This is why Slow Man is made up of three 'failed' narratives: Coetzee, who fails at writing a traditional novel, Costello, who fails at writing Paul's story, and Paul, who fails at telling his own story (think of the numerous cases of failed writings in the book, such as Costello's diary or Paul's letters). Yet the novel, as a whole, works. Why is this so?

I can't help but see a link here with certain new realist claims. Stekeler-Weithofer believes that we do have to give up the idea of an absolute knowledge (an absolute narrative), but not knowledge as such. What we have to go beyond, in his opinion, is the idea of an I-knowledge. We have to adopt a WE-knowledge, instead: only through a Bakhtinian dialogue can we rescue the real. Translated in literary-ethical terms, we have to abandon our single perspective and engage in dialogue. We need to understand that we are the main characters in our story, but only figurants in others. And yet we must not follow Rorty and abandon the whole project, rather we must help each other turn our failed single narratives into a greater (but not meta) narrative that works.

Markus Gabriel, with his meta-metaphysical nihilism, has brilliantly argued that there are different modes of existence that are all real, only they cannot be subdued under 'one true description of the world', as Putnam would put it. There are different domains, different possible descriptions, which have to be made with different tools. And this, I think, is precisely what Coetzee is doing in Slow Man and other novels: using different (modernist, postmodernist, realist) techniques to represent the real.

So, if my understanding of new realism as a 'coming down to earth' from certain philosophical speculations is correct, it will allow – without discarding what postmodernism taught us – a return to the real and to the real necessity of ethics, and it will surely bring a healthy shot in the arm of literature, following the bright examples of David Foster Wallace and J.M. Coetzee.



1 '60/90. Trente ans de Nouveau Réalisme', La Différence, 1990, p. 76.
2 Umberto Eco, Interpretazione e sovriterpretazione, p. 79.
3 What I mean here is a metaphysical realism according to which things possess an invariant nature that knowledge is the universally valid representation of.
4 I am reporting the words he used at the 'Prospects for a New Realism' conference.
5 D. Vaden House, Without God or His Doubles. Realism, Relativism and Rorty, p. 17.
6 Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, p. 178.
7 Maurizio Ferraris, Manifesto del nuovo realismo, p .57.
8 Hilary Putnam, Realism with a Human Face, pp. 24-25.
9 By faultless disagreement I refer to Max Kölbel's definition, according to which 'when two thinkers disagree on a non-objective matter of opinion it is possible that neither of them has made a mistake or is at fault.'
10 I refer again to the professors' interventions at the 'Prospects for a New Realism' conference.
11 I am aware that this sounds like a cliché, but (and I am sure Foster Wallace would agree with me) there is often a good deal of truth in clichés.
12 J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello. Eight Lessons (London: Vintage, 2004), p. 9.
13 Ibid. p. 16.
14 Coetzee, Slow Man, p. 118.
15 Also, think of Paul's photographs and their easy manipulation. I think they, too, can be considered as a failed attempt at representing reality.
16 Very briefly, Markus Garbriel's theory stems from the argument from facticity: namely, if we agree that, at least, 'there is something', then there is at least one absolute fact, that is true anyway, namely the fact that there is something. He then combines this with ontological realism, according to which to exist is to belong to a certain domain. The world has a complicated structure, so you shouldn't link ontology with metaphysics, trying to find the underlying structure of the universe. He advocates plurivocity, while maintaining that we can talk about how things really are. Only, they are not in one single way.



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