Libraries at University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Date of this Version



Library Philosophy and Practice 2012


How did we get into this anyway? "Defining" postmodernism

Q: What do you get when you cross a postmodernist with a Mafia boss?

A: Someone who will make you an offer that no one can understand!

(Cook, 2001(b), p. 18)

This is the attempt to define something which by its very nature avoids definition. Before we can speak of the influence postmodernism is having on library and information areas, we have to at least make the attempt to understand what postmodernism is. Several of these "definitions" are what postmodernism is not while others focus on what postmodernism seeks to be.

What it is not: the Enlightenment rationalistic tradition. Postmodernism is a critique of all that the Enlightenment stood for. Rationalism, logic, reason, and scientific method (to name a few), are questioned by postmodernists who throw the Enlightenment's entire presuppositions out the window. Deodato (2006) calls it a "critique of Enlightenment rationalism and universalism which emphasizes the role of underlying structures and power relationships in the construction of truth and knowledge" (p. 52).

Old methods of discovering truth and reality are questioned, as are those so-called "experts." Walter Truett Anderson (1991) calls it a threat to all existing constructions of reality, and people aren't going to like it. For many, the collapse of their belief system is the end of the world itself. This is a collapsing of our social roles as well as our concepts of personal identity. People go crazy when they don't know who they are. (pp. 26-27).

Kruk (2002), in a less-than-flattering view of postmodernism, says:

For post-modernists, grand questions about the nature of reality and our place in the universe are pointless. There is no Truth; there are only provisional statements that are neither valid nor invalid. Distinctions between good and evil, beautiful and ugly and true and false are not discernible any more. There are no good books and no bad books. No one has the authority to make such judgments. Consequently, there is no canon. No group of people can claim that they know what reality is. We apparently create meaning and do not discover it. Post-modernist librarians do not pay much attention to collection development. Books are to be read here and now because they will soon be superseded by new books. Books resemble newspapers in their ephemerality and unimportance. Reading is not a serious engagement and does not lead to the discovery of truth. It is rather like a distraction. (para. 20)

Despite his critique, Kruk's analysis seems to illustrate postmodernist themes very well. For the postmodernist, knowledge does not exist apart from human construction. We need a paradigm, a reality, a set of truths and creeds, so we create this "reality." Reality comes via our humans searching for some type of meaning, and we convey these myths and tales in our storytelling, and these limited local narratives differ from group to group. (Yoder, 2003, p. 383) Postmodernism ultimately has no final answer. There are no "universal" truths. When we have one conception of knowledge, another layer of thought is introduced. (Ibid, p. 385)

Postmodernism is not Positivism, a philosophy which arose in the 19th Century modernist era. As Flew (1984) defines it:

The term "positive" has here the sense of that which is given or laid down, that which has to be accepted as we find it and is not further explicable; the word is intended to convey a warning against the attempts of theology and metaphysics to go beyond the world given to observation in order to enquire into first causes and ultimate ends. All genuine human knowledge is contained within the boundaries of science…whatever answers cannot be answered by scientific methods we must be content to leave permanently unanswered. (p. 283)

Positivism traditionally pigeon-holed reality into what could be observed and "proven" through the Scientific Method and would not go beyond this boundary. Librarians were also pigeon-holed into two images. The first saw the librarian as expert of obscure facts they pull up instantly. Librarians even "get a kick" from fact-finding of the trivial, and get something like a drug-induced "high." (Radford, 1998, p. 409) Another model from positivism comes via the novel The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, which portrayed librarian monks as a bunch of OCD, all-powerful guardians. (Ibid) I guess we in the LIS world hate to admit it, but we know people such as these. Both images, according to Radford, are accurate depictions, but even more so are examples of positivism in that "knowledge, as contained in texts, constitutes an independent object that can be stored, classified, and arranged in an objective manner…in both accounts, the assumption and implicit acceptance of an objective view of knowledge is crucial to the understanding of the descriptions and the power they possess." (Ibid, p. 410)

The library is burdened with these images from positivism, and librarians are perceived as system-oriented rather than person-oriented. Library "science" in fact is viewed exactly as that: it "operates according to the ideals of the scientific method, the a priori principles that define the relationship between data and hypothesis… to provide a theoretical and rule-governed basis with which to make library practices more effective intermediaries…to develop general and a priori rules with which to build systems that permit efficient and accurate access to knowledge." (Ibid, pp.412-413) The library, burdened with this positivism worldview, has become known more for its structure and classification system than for its usefulness. We memorize Dewey numbers so we can speak a jargon no one else does, and then shake our heads at the ignorance of our patrons. Perhaps we are so proud of our structure and system so we can appear as experts. Maybe we view our classification as a neurosurgeon views the brain as their special area of expertise no one but them really understand. "In a predominantly positivistic conception, a library system is concerned with knowledge (its acquisition, coding, and retrieval) and only marginally concerned with users and their problems." (Ibid, p.413)

Postmodernism is not the Scientific Method. Foucault replaced the word "knowledge" for "knowledge claims" and questioned any behavior or thought "perceived as self-evident, natural, and unproblematic." (Ibid, p.416) Systems of study change through time and change the criteria by which something is observed. (Ibid, p.417) Whatever is considered scientific truth at the moment is based on whatever scientific system is dominating at that point in time. What we claim as truth is actually a product of the system we are using to determine truth at that given moment. One only has to imagine the truths of medicine using a medieval handbook to realize truth not only evolves (along with us) but also depends on the current criteria for study.

Rationality, objectivity, and universal truth are questioned and ultimately rejected. The Scientific Method is an incomplete science because the observer can never be a completely rational, objective individual who is free from subjectivity. Postmodernists question any "proven fact" coming out of the Scientific Method and consider it another flawed, biased, and inconclusive finding. An adequate conclusion is impossible because no one can speak of the world from an objective standpoint. (Stark, Stepanovich, Poppler, & Hopkins, 2008, p. 259)

As rationalism and scientific inquiry dominated the Enlightenment, so the rejection of such "truths" has dominated the thinking of postmodernism. We wrestle with the eternal questions of whether there is external truth and reality beyond us or whether we simply create these. Much of our Western society is based on the assumption that there is a truth beyond us and it is documented in literature and history. Ideas such as "Manifest Destiny," as well as other nationalistic, social, political, or religious ideals, tell of heroes who have been guided by an "invisible hand" to fulfill the wishes of a deity or the longings of a people.

"Whereas modernism has been characterized by the extension of human reason based upon (imperfect) theoretical understanding, postmodernism is characterized by diffidence about knowing anything and a lack of possibility for broad based effective change- a seeming abandonment of hope." (Buschman & Brosio, 2006, p. 411) Not only do we see the postmodern emphasis on the lack of knowing absolute truth, but there is also suspicion of those who do claim any kind of authority. Gergen (1991) in The Saturated Self puts it this way:

Where modernism prepared the way for the suspicion of authority…postmodernism finishes the coup de grace. For if the subject of knowledge is deconstructed, and telling cannot in principle be true or false, then all authoritative claims (and claims to authority) are placed in doubt. Scientists, elder statesmen, Supreme Court justices, ministers, rabbis, business leaders, medical doctors, psychiatrists, economists, professors…all those traditionally granted status as "knowing something" are brought into question…They are victims, like the rest of us, of communal tastes, values, and ideologies, all of which color the ways they understand the world. (p. 124)

Libraries were born in the modern world (roughly defined as 1750-1950), and could be called the "engine room of the project of modernity, with the librarian, both educator and technician, as a kind of enlightened mechanic." (Muddiman, 1999, p. 4) The public library is defined by the modern era and its industrialization, urbanization, and other movements. (Rasmussen and Jochumsen, 2007, pp. 45-46) This is why, it seems, the public library of today is wandering without a sense of direction. "The book is dead." "No it isn't." "The library should go all to cyberspace." "No, libraries need a physical presence." (Ibid, p. 46) Who are we and where are we going? We are leaving modernity behind, but do not know what is ahead.

Modern librarians are comfortable with stability, postmoderns are more comfortable with "fluidity in communication, organizational dynamics, and information seeking…Certainty is preferred by modern librarians; postmodern professionals tend to feel more comfortable with uncertainty. Modern scholars seek a degree of distance in interactions…postmodern professionals seek participation." (Frank, 2004, p. 415) Modernists favor design, totalization, the individual, and determinancy, while postmoderns are like chance, deconstruction, relationships, and interdeterminancy. (Ibid, pp. 415-416)

Postmodernism is not metanarratives. Metanarratives seek to classify all of life into one grand, over arching scheme. Whether they are religious, political, social, cultural, or gender-based, metanarratives frequently exclude "the other." "The other" is defined as those whose race, gender, religion, socio-economic status or other factor excludes them from the metanarrative. These are the "others" whose culture is exterminated by the "heroes" of history, or whose beliefs and culture simply die out. When one metanarrative becomes the norm of a culture, several of these smaller metanarratives are lost or obliterated. Those unjustly excluded from fair treatment, those called "the other," are subjects who suffer by those in power. (Buschman & Brosio, 2006, p. 410)

Engagement with the world forces us to become aware of more narratives, voices, worldviews, and realities making a metanarrative obsolete. Narratives come from many sources, as Cook (2001b, p. 23) describes, which involve the "other," or those who have a different race, class, gender, or sexual orientation different from the metanarrative. Metanarratives had incomplete views of social reality. Postmodern sees documents, text, discourses, etc. as only one aspect of reality, and one narrative among many so that nothing is neutral or objective (Deodato,2006, p. 54). "What was once perceived to be natural, self-evident, or just plain normal is revealed to be socially and culturally constructed and thus in need of deconstruction …" (Ibid).

Postmodernism focuses on "the other." It seeks to hear the lost voices of the marginalized and oppressed- whose mere existence proves metanarratives are a lie (Ibid, p. 53).

Deodato (2006) cites the work of Lyotard (1984) in describing postmodernism as "incredulity towards metanarratives." Metanarratives refer to any type of "sweeping explanations premised on some version of monolithic human experience" (Deodato, 2006, p.53). Postmodernists emphasize the many narratives that have survived over the course of human history, including those who aren't dead white males. (ibid.)

Postmodernism eschews metanarratives, those sweeping interpretations that totalize human experience in some monolithic way, whether it be capitalism, patriarchy, imperialism, the nation state, or the Western 'canon' in literature or philosophy- almost anything that reflects the past or present 'hegemony' of dead white males. For example…Western literature was, until recently, a vehicle for buttressing patriarchy or colonialism. In contrast, postmodernism seeks to emphasize the diversity of human experience by recovering marginalized voices in the face of such hegemony, and hence its emphasis across a whole range of academic disciplines on issues of gender, race, class, sexuality, and locality. (Cook, 2001b, p. 17)

The big metanarratives offer a distorted and incomplete view of human nature. The right-brain irrational and subjective disciplines which favor passion, imagination, sexuality, art, etc. (which are a major part of the human soul), were absent from the left-brain scientific rationalism in Enlightenment-based metanarratives. And they are all conspicuously absent from the archives, as they were deemed unimportant (Ibid).

Postmodernism is pluralism. Postmodernists seek to dismantle the power structures and systems that have placed people into the categories which created "the other," including persons of color, women, and gay men and lesbian women (Buschman & Brosio, 2006, p. 410). Walter Truett Anderson (1990) saw three emerging trends related to postmodernism: 1) an unregulated marketplace of belief systems for public consumption 2) a new polarization, and 3) globalization which spreads multiple belief systems. (p. 6) Of course this is not entirely a recent phenomenon, as conflicts over belief systems through the centuries led to crusades, inquisitions, and revolutions, as well as concepts of human rights and separation of church and state. But through all the bloodshed, people have gained the ability to make their own choices about reality. They in fact became consumers of reality who have the ability to create new realities for themselves. (p. 7) Humans create reality rather than find it, (Stark et al., 2008, pp. 261-262) and there is no "objective reality" to point to as both the observer and the observed are interdependent of each other. You cannot objectively study something when you yourself are another study.

Postmodernism is not Platonism. Platonists see the universe as intelligible and understandable through reason and language. Humans naturally seek and share beauty, truth, and good. Knowledge is different from opinion; truth and knowledge transcend culture. Libraries store and disseminate knowledge as well as store knowledge and truth. Lastly, the "primary concern of librarians is how to serve truth and not their political masters nor the multitude." (Kruk, 2002, para. 17)

A Platonist librarian builds a book collection not based on what a patron wants, but on a desire for discovering truth. Reading for mere entertainment is nonsense: the quest for the best in humanity is a far better goal. Only books that make people think are worth reading. (Ibid, p. 19)