PROBLEMS OF THEORY
The postmodern condition, then, calls into question what is perhaps the most fundamental assumption of traditional sociological theory: that society, more than having conceptual utility, constitutes an organic reality, an objective reality that coercively frames our considerations of social life. Society, so described, was viewed as constituting a continuing truth of our lives, against which competing claims for being a more true understanding of our lives can be judged (Denzin 1991). So much of our common training makes it difficult to accept that there is no one truth of society around which differently located perspectives may contest, but rather only a shared moment containing a plurality of articulated perspectives, each attempting to realize the full power of its version of reality.
The invoking of the concept of society and its interests, then, is almost always viewed as fraudulent from some points of view. This implicit intracultural relativism appears negative and, in a literal sense, endlessly committed to the “unmasking” or “debunking” of prior understandings. Such “negativity” in cultural criticism is not unique to our day. The unmasking of an existing understanding about the nature or meaning of given social phenomena has been a near constant thread in cultural criticism from the very beginnings of the modern era in the West. It was the particular hallmark of the creation of the social sciences in the nineteenth century. The negative or deconstructive aspects of much earlier work—Marx and Freud come to mind—also provoked accusations of cultural nihilism, accusations of facilitating the erosion of basic beliefs that were viewed in their day as necessary for the sustaining of everyday life.5
Science, which traditionally requires the practice of persistent skepticism, always promised a kind of nihilism, which is why its history of triumphs is also a chronicle of what were originally viewed as dangerous and demoralizing heresies. However, in recent times, the organized institutions of science have moved to a more central and authoritative social role. This ascendancy, after much early resistance, followed because it emerged in ways that were inseparable from modernity’s promise of continuous progress; science provided the direct imagery of continuous progress towards the collapsing of all truths into a single formula or password. During the interim, science offered an implicit promise that all previously outmoded or embarrassed “truths” or “understandings” would ultimately be replaced by other understandings that were certifiably more true, closer to ultimate truth. At the level of social science, this assurance generated a kind of conceptual incest where the “negative dialectic”, its deconstructive mode, appears to germinate a positive vision of the “new”. Such visions of the new often preceded the critique, serving as the inspiration for the critique of previous understandings and practices.6
What is so problematic for the contemporary cultural critic is that it has become far more difficult to move from the deconstructive mode to the constructive (or reconstructive) mode. The illuminations of contemporary social science are born tainted by the almost immediate recognition that, at their best, they may represent little more than “enlightened false consciousness” (Sloterdijk 1987). This “false consciousness” remains haunted by the awareness of the inevitability of having its own products subsequently proven “false”, not only when viewed from the elevations or descents of an unknowable future, but when viewed as the fractional interests that derive from distinct social locations. For possibly the first time, critique of the canon, once offered as a self-generated and universal heritage, calls into question the very concept of canon, which is increasingly seen as the strategic and contingent manipulations of factional interests. Both truth and beauty become objects of suspicion as we learn to ask, “Whose truth?” “Whose beauty?” “Serving what purpose?”
One of the major reasons for what currently appears as an unusual hyperdeconstructivity is that conventional social science—indeed, in the Popperian sense, science generally—is foremost among the targets of postmodern cultural criticism. For example, the “unmasking” and “debunking” implicit in the concept of latency, so fundamental to many genres of analysis, have themselves been accused of being little more than the “masking” and “bunking” that attend the rise of alternative or emergent forms of “mask” and “bunk”. “Society”, once viewed as an autonomous and coercive reality, becomes a questionable assumption, one suspected of serving narrow and, more importantly, temporary interests. It is as if society, once our “continent”, dissolved leaving an “archipelago” of distinct institutional spheres largely unregulated by any central purpose or universal value. Additionally, the criticism an earlier social science made of the insights of the humanities, a criticism that focused upon the inherent subject-centered biases of its modes of representing reality, is now being turned upon social science itself. As R. P.Blackmur noted:
We are condemned.. .to act, for the first time in history, out of the strength and weakness of the human imagination alone. It is not that imagination is different, but our relation to it; that we know it to be unreservedly human, immitigably worldly, utterly subject to our own control. We know its smallness.