If any single concept dominates discourse about postmodernism, with the possible exception of “discourse” itself, it is the concept of pluralism. What we have been slow to incorporate in our discourses is that pluralism permeates all aspects of life; it is not merely a matter of ideas or intellectual fashions, but a pluralism of human experience. The very tendency of contemporary social science theory has been to create abstract formalisms that obscure this pluralism of experience, as such theories seek to discover transcendent uniformities in the “socio” logics and “psycho” logics of behavior.
Varieties of humans, especially varieties of individual characteristics, abilities, or potentials, have always been present, though perhaps never in such abundance, as the explosive growth of populations provides more of each possible kind and as the growth in the density of circuits of communication makes it more difficult to evade recognition. In paradigmatic societies, as described above, ideology and experience coalesce in the reproduction of social life because both derive from the same history of continuing practice; it is as if they are already pretested within histories of usage. It is in such settings that sociological theory should find optimum confirmation; and, for that very reason, individuals in such settings rarely feel required to create their own sociological inquiry.
Paradigmatic social orders take the larger variety of human capacities or histories and transform them into a smaller number of possible outcomes or transform most of existing diversity into non-consequential variations. This production of conformity is largely facilitated by the slowness and fearfulness of change. In contrast, postparadigmatic (or postmodern) social orders, where change becomes normalized, operate in reverse, as identical points of origin give rise to many different outcomes and, moreover, where identical outcomes can be recognized as the product of a diversity of origins. The postparadigmatic social experience, even when occasioning identical experiences, seems less capable of inspiring a corresponding sense of solidarity or collective identification. Where reports of patterned behavior persist, such patterns tend to describe aggregates and rarely cohesive groups. In other words, part, but not all, of the pluralism of the postmodern world is the increased significance or empowering of individual differences both genetic and contextual.
The modern world created the conditions that in turn created individuals as significant actors in their own right. Individual narratives are rarely synonymous with the narrative of some larger collectivity. Moreover, constraint, even when uniform and widespread, tends to be experienced individually rather than collectively. Paradigmatic settings offer us the self as other; their version of a self is one fully dominated by tribal or collective identifications. It is a relationship that many disturbed by the experiences of postmodernity seek to simulate as a refuge. In contrast, the experience of the modern world gives rise to the self for the other, where even the most fundamental of reciprocities are subject to negotiation, where the individual learns “to give in order to get”, where the individual learns to purchase security with conformity. This is typified by Freud’s observation that the child approaches significant social development when it learns to “smile when it is not happy”. Elias extends Freud’s observation to include the possibility of the potential postmodern response within the very experience of the modern.
Only gradually do the children of internally differentiated societies learn to smile without feeling. And then it seems to human beings that their real self is imprisoned within them and exists without relation at all to other people.
(Elias 1984, cited by Honneth and Joas 1988:120.)
The postmodern experience, then, occasions the self for itself, the response of those who have no choice but to manage the increasing diversity and density of interpersonal and intrapsychic dialogues; where many individuals learn not only to stage their own lives, but to “stage direct” numerous changes of scenes and acts.
Traditional social settings require loyalty as the basis of conformity—the legend of patriarchy in its purest form. Modern societies occasioned the invention of love (of other)—the oedipal family creates bonds of inescapable paranoia. And, finally, the effect of the postmodern is to have (self-)love consume loyalty; where, in a very significant way, many can be said to have been “born to shop” and “be shopped”.7
In the modern social world, little is more disturbing than repetitive irregularities for which no comprehensive explanation can be established. The initial charge of social science was to normalize such deviance, to bring it within the dominance or conceptual boundaries of the normal (Cohen 1985). This was a task that grew increasingly difficult as the modern social world tended to increase heterogeneity in the production of conformity, as well as in the production of deviance.
Abstraction in social science theory, as well as in other cultural institutions, such as art and architecture, was the dominant response to an ever-increasing individuating and diversifying of what were previously common activities. As abstract art could accommodate diverse and temporary settings or sites, as the international style of building, even with a postmodern facade, could shelter an enormous diversity of activities, social science concepts struggled to achieve an immunity to the specifics of history and locale.8
It is possible that individuals adapt to the individuating postmodern experience more easily than the institutions within which they exist. As we often know more than we can express as knowing, we often adapt to complexities we have great difficulty in conceptualizing. This may be particularly true of organized science and its anomic division of labor, which followed increases in the scope of information with an equally substantial increase in the number of available scientific workers. Diversified and isolated spaces of theories and substantive interests increase, and, in time, abstractions from social life become the coercive guides to the study of social life.
This enforced specialization inevitably leads to the treatment of specific attributes or behaviors as if they were “nouns” instead of “adjectives”, as specifically situated, contingent attributes become objects of study and subjects of theorizing in their own right. A common interest creates a common self – referencing audience, self-certifying expertise, as well as a shared structure of rewards. Concern for familial relationships gives rise to the pursuit of “the family”, concern for race relationships gives rise to the study of “intergroup relationships”, concern for sexual behaviors gives rise to “the homosexual” and, mostly as an afterthought, “the heterosexual”.
A definition, implicitly a theory, inherently and dangerously essentializes the particular objects of concern. For this there may be no alternative. The nature of language, more than the nature of life, imposes the risk of essentializing upon all efforts at arriving at a shared understanding. This essentializing masks variability in two distinct ways. The first is typified by a quest for a singular cause of all who fall into some common category, as in the recently advertised search for a “gay” gene. The second is an indifference to changing contexts, encouraging us to view such categories of behavior in ways in which they appear to maintain some constant essence, such as assuming that same-gender sexual contacts in Periclean Athens share some essential identity with such behavior occurring today It is in this fashion that essentializing, in its several meanings, creates the “normal”, even where the “normal” is viewed with suspicion.
Once the normal is constructed, its explanation organizes our understanding of all other variations by moving us to conceive of all other outcomes as violations or variations of the logic of the normal. The power of the normal is its ability both to establish “difference” and, then, to disguise “difference” by transforming it either into “variation” or “deviance”. In doing so, all instances falling within a category become understandable in terms of the contours of some instances. Differences within a conceptualized category are rarely to be seen as requiring different explanations, but only as variations of an already established “theme”.9 This process of developing explanations is particularly irresistible when we start the process with already defined and differentially evaluated outcomes, that is, when there is a pre-existing commitment to what at the moment is defined as the normal.
The pressures that create the tyranny of the normal are evident in the subsequent creation of the normal deviant, which represent explanations of categories or sub-categories of deviants, conceptually “victimizing” deviants by ordering them in terms of a double homogenization: the inevitable homogenization that accompanies the construction of the normal and then that of the construction of normal deviance. As the postmodernization of social life moves forward, the pluralization of experience and the pluralization of the ways in which specific individuals incorporate experience have a double effect upon the future of social theory. First, the ability of theory-based categories, and the seemingly more concrete variable labels derived from them, to encompass significant homogeneities must diminish. This accounts for the inability of the collective research effort to increase substantially the ability to account for variance, despite decades of investment in talent, money, and the development of increasingly complex analytic techniques. However, this “failure” of accountability is only, in a restrictive sense, a problem of theory or methodologies. Rather it reflects a problem of social life and a problem of social theory in social life.
Second, there is the possibility that challenges posed by the pluralization of experience tend to create different, and possibly new, architectures of the self that are different from those implicit in most inherited theory. The latter possibility suggests that continuity in the development of theory, currently so positively valued, can also be viewed as a dangerous seduction.
In highly pluralized contexts, the very attempt at general theory, even a general theory of relatively specific social phenomena, may be condemned to banal abstraction or limited empirical validity and, in any case, must occasion recognized and unrecognized essentialisms. This is why so much of what
appears as postmodern social science, whose very initiating premise is the recognition of the dangers and dangerous uses of essentialistic thinking, appears so negative.
Note, for example, the essentializing characteristics involved in the employment of such terms as “modern” and “postmodern” or “paradigmatic” and “postparadigmatic”. Further, even as one invokes the term “postmodern”, it is hard not to acknowledge how much of social life— indeed, how much of one’s own experience of the contemporary world—is describable in the characteristics of the most traditional of social orders and, if not such characteristics, then the desire for experiences associated with the feel of traditional social orders.
One critical sense of the idea of postmodernism is that history can no longer be seen as an unfolding, but as a constant turning in upon itself. The very term “the history of the present” reminds us that transformations of the present inevitably bring with them corresponding transformations of the past. There may be no immediately available representations that can reflect the image of a fluid, multilayered, pluralized world, one where our heightened awareness of the overdetermined character of all social life makes equally apparent its continuing under-determination, its unfinished character.
In this pluralized context, it is not enough that competing versions of social life are available. A pluralization of social theory cannot adequately describe the pluralization of social life. Nor is some common ground they all might share necessarily an insightful source of understanding; the residua of shared agreement that Mannheim (1936) expected, when he held that a “science of politics” could emerge from a residuum of shared agreement occurring among fractional class interests, has yielded little, little beyond the banal. The unresolved dialectics of multiple theories may provide the best context for deepening our understanding of the dialectics of social life at anyone point in time. Unfortunately, within our current anomic division of labor, this is precisely what so rarely happens, as the adherents of each theoretical perspective seem to occupy their own space, addressing their own audience, while busily aggrandizing available resources in their own narrow self-interest.
The requirement of theory in this postmodem context is not, as has been proposed by the first wave of postmodem critics, the devaluing of empirical methods, but the revaluing of theory or at least an abandonment of formal theory, an abandonment of seeking for the overarching generalization. Methodologies of all types are critical; they are our ways of seeing and occasions for discussion or thinking out loud about the world. They become obstructive when they become occasions for transpiring the specifics of research into wastelands of essentialized concepts of “theoretical relevance”.
There is good reason to consider a reversal of the recent practice of perhaps overvaluing a self-conscious link between theory (understanding) and research (description) (Merton 1957) and the encouraging of a greater distancing of the two. While acknowledging that theory and research will inevitably contextualize each other, it may not be desirable that either wholly specify or limit the other.
This might preserve the potential of each to simultaneously inspire and embarrass the other. Such distancing provides for encouragement to try to understand what we cannot fully measure, and, perhaps more importantly, to attempt to measure (observe) what we do not wholly understand.
This reciprocal freeing of each kind of effort is itself facilitated by abandoning a kind of pluralized autotelism that science’s anomic division of labor has encouraged; an autotelism that encourages us to speak of progress in each branch and sub-specialty of the social sciences as if each provided, by itself, measures of its own significance. It may also require an abandonment of the existing tendency to seek the perfection of both theory and methodology, as is implicit in the establishment of these concerns as distinct and privileged callings. In honoring these as distinct and elevated positions, we recreate and celebrate in our own practice the very alienative, hierarchical and self-exploitative relationships that describe the larger social order where implicit theories, including—or especially—of the sexual, tend to shape practice.10
What follows is not a comprehensive survey of sexual behavior. This is not because “the data are not yet in”. No such data are likely to appear. Nor is it a comprehensive theory offering explanation of all of sexuality’s manifestations or all the behaviors currently recognized as possessing sexual meaning. Perhaps the best that can be offered at present is theory as a conceptual apparatus that confronts its own uncertainties and seeks its unseen biases and shifting parameters as are inevitable in a context of continuing rapid change and heightened pluralization.
Theories are also autobiographical statements, their authors are both witnesses and subjects of change. But the same may be said of you, the reader, and what you will make of these texts.