Postmodernism did not mean that all values were equal, just that I couldn't defend the ones I held on the basis of any one-size-fits-all
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Did you notice the quote from Lynn Hoffman above? I liked that comment. Here's what it means to me:
I can imagine no way of stating an ethical principle so that it has no imaginable exception. How about: Thou shalt not kill? Well, what if the person you are killing is about to destroy a group of toddlers?
I believe you will find people who claim to be postmodern arguing for their beliefs as much as anyone. It is part of postmodern conversation to do so. But some of us have come to feel that these beliefs, these values, cannot be put in language so that there are no exceptions. There is, therefore, no one-size-fits-all universal principle that these postmoderns believe in. That's how I think, and, apparently, it is how Lynn Hoffman thinks, too.
For your information, Lynn Hoffman has written a new book, which I hope to review here in the next issue or so. It is called
I recommend you get a copy. (You can do so through Amazon by clicking the above link.) I recommend this because, if you don't happen to know already, Lynn Hoffman is a particularly engaging writer and, moreover, she gives us close up looks at famous people and they way they work.
Let me put it this way: Hoffman is a poet who tells us vivid stories about the way a very wide range of family therapists work. You can expect to be able to imagine the process, and the history of the process, in remarkable detail.
I want to recommend Ken Gergen's new book and provide you with this bit of summary and review. The new book is called:
If you click on the title, it will take you to the Amazon page where you can buy the book.
But, first, perhaps, you'd like to hear a little about it. It's a book of readings by Kenneth Gergen, the author who is, probably more than anyone else, identified with "social constructionism" in the field of psychology, today. I will quote and comment on a few selected passages starting with the introduction and then I'll provide you with the table of contents.
On p.3, Gergen tells us that new forms of therapy work, community
building, and research have been influenced by social constructionism.
Then he tells us:
Rather than preach to the already convinced , Gergen tells us
that he wants to have dialogue with the unconvinced. Who are the unconvinced?
Critics, for example, who seem to feel that social constructionism
paints a picture of science that :
The book of readings Gergen presents us is intended to grapple with these problems. This reminds me of a remark recently made to me by Glenn Larner, that the question now for many postmoderns is how to learn to speak the language of those who would differ with us. I said much the same thing in a chapter I recently published in a book edited by Sloan, Critical Psychology, so there are a number of us who feel, today, that postmodern and social constructionist thinkers need to be concerned, at this point, in developing ways to talk with those who see things differently.
Or, as Gergen puts it, we need to learn to speak the tongue of our critics.
How do we do this? Looking ahead to chapter one I see the first
recommendation that Gergen makes: First, he notices that "realists"
are often key critics of social constructionism. Then, he points
out that social constructionists often use the language of realism to justify
their non-reaalist philosophy. And, at the same time, realist often
use the language of social constructionism to justify their own realist
philosophy. There is not only sense in this way of thinking, in my
view, but considerable humor. Let me show you. Here's
an imaginary dialogue between a social constructionist I'll call "SC" and
a realist I'll call "R" just for short:
If you know something about these two schools of thought, you are slapped with this paradox: Each school is arguing for the advantages of its own theory by using the argument from the opposing theory! It is a little like a Christian saying Christianity is right because it's Jewish while a Jew arguing that Judaism is right because it's Christian.
Crazy making? Not really, says Gergen, because:
This, so he explains,
This theme, sidestepping the senselessness of mutual blame, is a subject that Gergen has contributed to before. If you like his ideas, and I do, then I suggest you not only read the last book that I have reviewed here, but two of his other recent books:
invitation to Social Construction
Great reads, all of them. Just right for those of us trying to maneuver around this postmodern corner.
Now, I said I would give you the table of contents for Gergen's new book. let me end this review, then, by giving you the TOC for Gergen's new book,
Social constructionism in Context
Part 1: Social Constructionism and the Human Sciences
Part II: Social Construction and Societal Practice
Part III: Social Construction and Cultural Context
I have decided that the 09/11 experience qualifies for what Lyotard called "an event".
What's an "event"? In Lyotard's sense of the term? It is
something that happens that changes everything. After the "Event",
Bill Readings tells us, nothing will ever be the same again.
The Event displaces the frame we use to view the world. It changes
the way we think about what is good and what is bad. It creates a
conceptual revolution. "Death" is an example that Lyotard gives us
of an "event". Once someone close to you dies, nothing is quite the
same again . Lyotard tells us the event
And Lyotard says,
Events need to be talked about. They need to be processed and studied and pondered, and events resist anyone confining them in the prison of a single point of view. This is because we are speechless after the event and our way to understand it can only emerge (at lest in postmodern circles) once various viewpoints are articulated.
But, if different viewpoints enter into the conversation, eventually, people learn how to talk about the event and to cast the crisis that happens into descriptive phrases that feel credible.
How does this work? Of course, the process is not entirely spelled out by Lyotard -- otherwise he would be an authority, telling us how to do things -- not very postmodern. However, Lyotard does ponder the conversational process that makes it possible to talk about the event, and I have pieced together an account of this process from various sources -- just to give us an an overview.
To deal with the event, Lyotard suggests postmoderns begin by pointing to the event with words that call it to our attention (i.e., he calls these "ostensive phrases"). Then, postmoderns wait for a credible account of the event to emerge in the conversational process. This credible account, Lyotard says, is the one that claims that everything cannot be seen, at least not right away. The speaker or writer, "if he or she is credible, it is [only] insofar as he or she has not seen everything, but has only seen as an aspect. He or she is not absolutely credible" 
But what if the people who claim to know have seen the event with their very own eyes? Does that make their account of The Event more credible? Is there anyway to have authority over the event?
No, Lyotard tells us. "[E]ither you were not there, [in which case] you cannot bear witness; or else you were there, and you cannot bear witness about everything [that happened]." 
Postmodernism is not merely the skepticism that says events are just stories. It is the attempt to rethink events, and to rethink them rigorously. It is a "retelling" of the event.
This postmodern retelling does not reduce, events to a single story . This retelling of the event involves several opposing stories that compete side by side without claiming they tell the whole story. Such a conversation is more likely to happen, it seems, in a postmodern culture because conversationalists there eventually learn to tolerate the incommensurable (or irreconcilable)  in their accounts. And, these opposing points of view do not bind themselves in consensus. That is, do not melt into a seamless whole. Instead the individual selves in that conversation lose their ego, recognize they need each other to talk, and become a node in the conversational process . It is a process in which all can be winners .
But this is not all. Events in postmodernity are discussed with pagan voices, that is voices that recognize no authoritative statement as to what happened, voices (people) that figure things out with their minds and hearts. This means that pagan conversations are full of diverse points and they are often expressed with the heat of the moment. But even so, says Lyotard, these pagan voices eventually learn not to be barbaric  or insulting . The good reply, Lyotard explains, in a postmodern conversation is not a trading of insults but something that breaks out of the paradigm.
Does this mean that Lyotard thinks there are right answers that people eventually find? No correct perspectives, for example, for oppressive status quo?
That is controversial, but I would argue that Lyotard has something else in mind. His philosophy is not a new way to overcome oppression, and it is not a traditional voice either.
Lyotard holds, like Foucault before him, that the two extremes of a
political continuum make each other possible in a democracy. Each
extreme may have a different rhetoric, but they are, nevertheless , are
two sides of the same coin. They could not exist without each other.
For example, he explained, if an American Democrat is elected President
on the basis Democratic rhetoric suggesting we need more social programs,
we can be sure that the candidate, once he becomes President will need
to move policy towards the right of the platform he used to become elected.
The same goes for the right-wing Republican. All political parties
sound more radical than they will be. They all speak from a radical
perspective and then drift the center once elected, thus becoming much
So, what does this mean for us on PMTH? It means, if I am interpreting Lyotard aptly, that we postmoderns will have to learn to be inventive and clever enough to think our way out of our confusions and our disagreements. In the end, mutual insult is not satisfying.
Sound like Gergen to you? Me, too. Of course, that is just my perspective on things, and I am just telling you what I learn from reading Lyotard, which may be completely mistaken. Still, that is how I read Lyotard, and now you have some of my sources that seem to me to tell me that this is what he says.
Readings, Bill. (1991) Introducing Lyotard. London: New York., p.57
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The 09/11 crisis became an event in the Lyotardian sense of that word, not merely because of what happened on that fateful day, dramatic though it was, but because of what happened afterwards. What happened was that the western world became spooked enough, nervous enough, that even innocent occasions that would have passed without notice before began to stand out and yell "danger" and "be careful." It has become quite inconvenient.
What happened after 09/11 that was event making was probably the anthrax scare. Although only a few people became sick, and only a handful of those people died, the scare was made alarming not because of the carnage but because of pranksters everywhere that jarred so many people's nerves..
Two experiences on PMTH brought the event of Anthrax Scare home.
One was the experience of PMTHer, Don Smith.
A week or so ago, Smith told PMTH his story, and before I go on with my
article on the Event, let me interrupt myself to give you Don Smith's
story of his "brush with terror." It is in his own words.
On October 31st I received a letter, apparently from Argentina, [a letter] that [seemed suspicious in view of the anthrax scare]. It was addressed with my last name first as if the address was copied from a phone book. The postage stamps and [their] cancellation seemed authentic and the envelope was unusual as you might expect a foreign envelope to be. There, of course, was no return address.
We placed the unopened letter in a baggy, sealed it and called the police. They sent a hazardous substance expert to our home and he took the unopened letter to his vehicle, opened it, [found a] picture of bin Laden [in it] and tested powder [that was contained in the envelope, which] tested negative. [The police then ] told us that the test had a 96% reliability and that he would take the envelope to the FBI who would have it lab tested for more reliable results. We would get the results in 24 to 48 hours. He also said that he had been on hundreds of these calls since 9/11 and that this was the only one that he considered a serious threat because of the circumstances.
The next day, after researching on the internet, this is what I concluded:
Inhalation anthrax treatment is most effective if initiated during the incubation period. Infection spreads rapidly once the symptoms are recognized. Those infected with anthrax may not show symptoms until as late as seven days after exposure. In those who have been infected with inhalation anthrax, waiting this long for symptoms to be exhibited before starting treatment is especially risky.
[My research also indicated that] a British embassy received a letter like mine with white powder, field-tested the powder and it tested negative. However, while the powder was being lab tested, all who had come in contact with the letter were given medical attention.
In addition, I discovered a recently published federal government policy, a part of which follows: (Underlined emphasis mine)
"The exposure circumstances are the most important factors that direct decisions about prophylactics. Persons with an exposure or contact with an item or environment known, or suspected to be contaminated with B. anthracis---regardless of laboratory tests results--should be offered anti microbial prophylaxis."
Notice that the above states that those suspected to be contaminated should be treated. I realize that the word "suspected" is open to interpretation but in my case I thought it wise to err on the safe side.
Given the above, I thought it might be wise to consult my doctor. He called our county health department and was given a procedure for dealing with possible anthrax exposure. He didn't read the procedure to me but he said that the policy was to not start treatment until there was a case of known exposure. I found this unsettling under the circumstances.
What I had hoped for from the consultation was a discussion of the pro's and con's of starting treatment before the nature of the substance was known for certain. I expected to be told that there are side effects from the antibody and I expected to be able to make my own decision about treatment based on the information. As far as I know, the medicine is not in short supply and treatment, once begun, could easily have been discontinued once the results of the more reliable lab test were known to be negative.
I called the health office and had a lengthy and heated discussion about their policy. I was told that the reason treatment was only recommended for known exposure rather than for suspicion of exposure, was that mass use of the drugs could result in eventual resistance to anthrax treatment. That was not a satisfactory reason to me in my circumstances.
I then tried in vain to find out where the lab test was being conducted so that I could assure that the test was being given a priority. Since the substance was removed from my home on Wednesday, October 31st, I believed that the test results could have been given to me before the weekend and I wanted to make sure the test was progressing. It seems that my concern was warranted because I wasn't informed of the negative results until Monday, November 5th, four and one half days after the substance was taken from my home.
During those 108 hours, I was refused treatment based on local government
policy and I was not kept informed of the test progress even though I had
previously been told the test was to take from 24 to 48 hours. .I
suppose I could have found someone to administer treatment if I had tried
hard enough but I was not hysterical. I just wanted to be well informed
and act accordingly.
Well, if Don Smith's "brush with terror " wasn't alarming enough, we had someone else on PMTH who was spooked, too.
George Spears, who lives within walking distance of ground zero in New York, developed the flu last month. And, with all the talk of anthrax he wondered if he might need an anthrax test. So, he walked himself down to the Bellevue Emergency Room at midnight one night, asking to be looked at by a doctor, and, perhaps, be given a nasal swab to see if he had been exposed to the deadly spores.
But Spears was not tested. He was told to "go home and if the symptoms get worse to come back." And, as Spears pointed out, as with the case of a few people who have died recently, this kind of waiting could be a death sentence. Spears said, "All I could think of in my state of fear was how America has given it's safety away to all these foreign resident doctors. Also, every cab driver in NYC practically, is a Pakistani.... You don't know friend or foe. " In other words, Spears was trapped in the anxiety nearly all of us felt as we watched the giant world trade center towers tumble down to the ground like poorly stacked blocks.
Katherine Levine responded sympathetically
to Spears. Levine said
The problem is not just that the United States was attacked by foreign outlaws, sweeping through the skies to ignite towers of steel and then depositing poison in our mail as an afterthought. We don't know who deposited the anthrax, but the problem that confronted Don Smith was the problem of pranksters everywhere, Pranksters seem to have made a sport of other people's fear.
Don Smith's story (above) receiving a phony anthrax letter with bin Laden's picture in it, is not an isolated story. Policing agencies everywhere are burdened with a ton of hoaxes. (For example click here, or here.) and, for every hoax, there is a hoax victim like our Don Smith. Dealing, perhaps, with their own fear by terrifying others, these prankster contribute to the way we are turning the World Trade Center catastrophe into a Lyotardian event, that changes everything.
And these hoaxes continue in spite of the pranksters being sentenced for five years or ten years hard prison time. Even children are getting into it, driving the other students and their parents into heightened alarm. It is even the case that one prosecutor was forced out of office because of sending an Anthrax hoax letter to a friend. No wonder the authorities have a hard time responding appropriately to an reasonably anxious subject! No wonder Don Smith and George Spears did not find cooperative doctors. The doctors that would help us are exhausted by all the checking out of pranks.
So, don't be surprised if you get a hoax anthrax letter. And, if you happen to get one, know that almost all are someone's awful joke. Probably the best solution for any of us at that point would be to go the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) advisory page. There can be comfort in numbers, too. Remember you are not alone. Even though most of us still have not received one of these pranks, we are aware of them, feeling their horror.
This, I think, is what Lyotard meant by "an Event", it's a real
event, even though much of it is built on pranks. Even a letter now
with a funny address Even if the powder inside is just talcum powder, the
sleepless night when the authorities turn you away are quite real.
We have talked our heads off on PMTH during this last month. We are so prolific that even I have not been able to keep up. A few people have left due to being overwhelmed with the sheer number and length of our flying notes.
But just as many joined us, maybe more. The main reason that people joined was to watch a reading of Lyotard's key book, The Postmodern Condition. In a few months, after we have finished this short but very dense book, I hope to get some summary, or perhaps several summaries, of the text online for you to see.
But, in the meantime, we have what I am calling "independent readers".
These are people who are reading the book passage by passage and summarizing,
paraphrasing, and free associating to what they read. Readings like
this have been provided to date by yours truly (Lois
Also, our old friend Lee Nichols has come back to join us, writing cool notes and asking us to talk about how we relate to religious issues in therapy (a topic just getting started). We have been debating, too, as to whether religion kept some people from violent aggressions or whether it caused (others?) to do so. There were different points of view. Some pointed to the problems with religon, or organized religion (as did Joe Pfeffer and Tony Michael Roberts ) in promoting violence with slogans like "God's on our side." And others such as Judy Weintruab talked about the way in which religious spirituality can help people overcome their weaknesses, and Tom Conran seemed to see things the same way. It seems to me that George Spears and myself sat on the fence, going this way and that, in our best postmodern clothes.
We also talked about gender. Do women exercise all the power in relationships? Leaving men helpless through the allure of gender charm? And, on the other hand, are the token women in Bonn good for women's rights, or bad, given that they set up identities and fail to let women make their own way. There were a wide range of opinon here on these matters although there was some tendency for opinion to be divided along gender lines.
Val Lewis . Arlene Giodano and myself even chatted as to whether soy was a gender related food. (Soy, you know, is purported to gcontain estrogen.)
And, finally, Jerry Shaffer and myself have launched a conversation on a topic that I think is simply key: Are there regions of everyday language that are inconsistent with each other? Either we will grab the golden ring with this one, or end up baffling ourselves and everyone else.
That was some of the things we talked about last month.
Growing old can be pleasure? Well, social constructionists Ken and Mary Gergen argue that it can be. Read their newsletter for ideas and inspiration for turning aging into something positive.
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