The role of language from a postmodern point of view

Today I had the first meeting of my new course which is titled Some approaches to post-modern inquiry. I am quite curious to find out what postmodernism actually is and how I could use it while doing research. But to be really honest, I don’t believe that I will ever use it as it is so different from the methods we are used to follow.

So, back to my first class which actually was quite interesting. Our teacher gave a presentation about some core aspects of postmodernism and showed how postmodernism is different than the normal positivist way of looking to science. One of the interesting aspects of postmodernism is how language is viewed. This is different from the ‘normal, positivist’ view on language. From a postmodern perspective, language has a completely different role in the process of inquiry. In a modernist scientific perspective, we use words to represent the things we see as best as we can. However, according to Chia (2003, p. 127) “postmodernists argue that it is the structured nature of language that creates the impression that reality itself is stable, pre-organized and law-like in character.” While positivists use language to describe their universalistic theories about behaviour and events, postmodernists argue that language does not represent the stability in the world, but rather can be used to make the world seem stable. Language can be regarded as a system that is created by people; as a social construction itself (Gergen & Thatcherenkery, 2004). People who express their thoughts or observations are therefore not showing their individual rationality and making sure that we come one step closer to the truth, but are rather participating in a process of cultural action and are changing people’s understanding and actions. From a relational constructionist perspective, language mainly has a communicative role: we use it to communicate with each other and by doing this we construct our own reality via our relations.

Our teacher tried to show this changing role of language today by showing a work of Belgium painter René Magritte. The painting shows six completely normal objects, with beneath them six words. Although I don’t speak French fluently and don’t know what all the words that are used in the painting mean, I did immediately see that unlike you would expect, the words don’t match with the pictures. However, I could also imagine that someone who does not know any French at all, would from now on think that le Plafond is used to refer to a candle. In this sense I can see that language is a communicative tool, a system that is created by people without a direct link to the world it is sometimes assumed to represent.

As I liked this painting of Magritte, I looked for some more when I came home this afternoon. I feel like his painting La Tentative de l’Impossible also shows us something about the role of language. In this case however, the language is paint: just as we expect language to represent what is happening, we expect realistic paintings to be a mirror of reality. By painting himself while painting a woman that still misses one arm, Magritte shows that he as a painter does not mirror reality but rather creates it. Just as we use language to communicate and shape our believes, Magritte shows that painters use paint to show their ideas and shape the way people who view these paintings look at reality.

The use of language was just one of the characteristics of postmodernism we touched upon today. I will keep you informed about the things I read and learn in the coming weeks, so  hopefully you can also get an idea of what postmodernism actually is.

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2 Responses to The role of language from a postmodern point of view

  1. Arthur says:

    Hey Robin,

    nice that you’re following a course on postmodernism, I think it is really interesting and should be thaught in more university programs.
    With regard to language, I believe your point is also very well explained in this YouTube movie
    Good luck with the rest of your course!


    • this video has a rather narrow focus on languages… & talks about understanding the social construction of meanings… maybe a more modernist social science perspective is also implied..

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