Reflect on this last sentence in as many words as necessary to form your own judgement.
‘One cannot say the world is socially constructed and say there are misrepresentations.’
“Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable.” – J.-F. Lyotard
How to read this sentence? And how to analyse it? I could consider all different approaches in ‘looking’ at it: considering semiotics and sign and symbolic meaning of words (Saussure, Peirce, Barthes), the discourse of meaning derived or differed from language, text prior speech or vice versa (Deleuze), a de-construction of sentences and/or words as constituted of ideology and power (Foucault). Or considering intertextual context, layers of different meaning, collaged in a post-modern way, a pastiche. I could also reflect on this sentence as irony, a joke, a ready-made of différance (Derrida). I also can take it from a phenomenological perspective, as real experience of appearances (Husserl, Heidegger). Or to go back to Plato who will be a main aspect for my upcoming assignment essay and consider the sentence from a superior enlightened knowledge perspective, of pure inside on reality, as a philosophical interrogation? Or just as common sense? But I also could answer this question from my purely personal perspective based on my own experiences and joined with some ‘real’ examples.
Or perhaps just take it as it is, an assumption by the author of a paradox and saying whether I agree or not and why.
These questions and struggle as an introduction tells me more about the post-modern relativist complexity of not seeing one perspective easily. I can say I am not a constructivist and what I am saying is never false. I can say I am right and still be wrong – what matters.
But this is not an exercise of being right of wrong, nor a TV game show like ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’. It is rather an exercise to address my critical thinking, questioning beliefs and assumptions, and perhaps aspects of ideology and power.
In this context I will reflect in critical thinking a such in context of Postmodernism and Constructivism before deep diving into the question and pull up arguments pro and con, a position of Advocatus Diaboli (devil’s advocate) i.e. presenting the pros first and than the cons, all together will lead into my own ‘position statement’.
“Meaning is the effect of the trace of the other that appears in the selfsame” – Jacques Derrida
A social constructed world means it is based on socially agreed conventions. Searle coined the term institutional facts as the assignment of functions of power to social facts, a recursive process, that are eventually going back to ‘brute facts’. Brute physical and natural facts that do not rely on human interventions or representations. (Searle, 1996)
The short answer: The paradox of representation of Perspective in art
Linear perspective is considered an human invention, a constructed social fact. It conveys a persuasive convention (assignment of a function of power) of depicting the true external reality.
The denial that this social construction is a mis-representation of reality is just the perspective that there might by other viewpoints more true or less wrong. It builds around a notion of illusion as deception, an example of power structures and repression.
Post-structuralism considers the social convention of linear perspective an illusion, a copy of an image on the world, a mere sign inferring to other signs. Never able to reach ‘true reality’.
A realist viewpoint would enforce the notion that the depicted scene, based on the convention of perspective, is supporting a recognition of the scene for the viewer.
The mis-representation through representational systems is constructed but also true. The statement from the exercise is wrong. – quod erat demonstrandum (q.e.d )
(with reference to Belsey, 2002, p.102)
The long answer: Advocatus diaboli on stage
A logical analysis of the sentence through reversal of the first and second part:
‘One cannot say the world is socially constructed and say there are misrepresentations’
=> The first part is true (subjective opinion), the second part is true (to mis-represent something)
=> the combination assumed to be false
- ‘One can say the world is socially constructed and say there are true representations.’
=> The first part can be true (hypothesis), the second is not true (hypothesis of subjective nature of representation)
=> the combination can be not be true
- ‘One can say the world is socially constructed and not say there are misrepresentations.’
=> The first part can be true (hypothesis), the second part is true (logically, equals to say ‘there are representations’)
=> the combination can be true
What does it tell me? The negation of the initial statement, assumingely not true, can deliver a true or not true statements. I just feel that I am not going anywhere with that approach.
Why the sentence ‘One cannot say the world is socially constructed and say there are misrepresentations’ is true
- Constructions means relativism (Lyotard, Foucault)
- To vote for true representations means a reference to external facts, a realist position in contrast to a constructivist position
- Social construction is relational and self-referential by nature of language. Meaning is a result of speech (Deleuze). Absolute truth does not exist
- Communication and understanding is based on social agreement and social intentionality (Searle – institutional facts, epistemologically objective, e.g screwdriver is a screwdriver)
- Cultural, moral, and social frameworks are placing signifiers into a context of mediated meaning. Thus there is not really an independent meaning of the self.
- Knowledge and truth are relational between other semiotic ideas (Saussure, Barthes). Therefore, there is neither a true nor a false representation, only representations as recursive signs in an endless semiosis.
The relativism of social constructions are relational constructs that provide meaning through social agreements. Without a reference to external reality and truth, communication and understanding are only possible through common sense and social agreements.
The notion of misrepresentation is intrinsically assuming a truth as objective fact e.g a sign adheres always the same signification. For example, one cannot say that a screwdriver is not a screwdriver, or to phrase it differently, one can say so based on ones power of speech but it does not add further meaning to it. A semiotic view of language as sign, defers meaning to other signs, resulting in an endless semiosis where there is not any longer the possibility for false representations, only for placing meaning in wrong context e.g. using english word in french culture as language as cultural constructs differ. Moreover, the contextual cultural frameworks place the self and the individual meaning into relation to others.
To conclude, one can say that a misrepresentation is a mis-understanding of constructed representations.
Why the sentence ‘One cannot say the world is socially constructed and say there are misrepresentations’ is not true
- Mis-representation is as well a re-presentation of one viewpoint, semantically self-referential and thus not true
- Construction does not equal arbitrariness
- The rejection of meta-narratives (Lyotard) and ‘the death of author’ (Barthes) are not sufficient criteria to reject the right of divergent views and mini-narratives of an individual
- Society lives from dissensus not consensus (Lyotard), to deny the right even for rejecting mis-interpretations assumes a consensus of what a constructivist should do (Belsey, 2002, p.96)
- Society is constituted of a common sense reality and subjective realities (Berger, Luckmann, 1967)
- Postmodern affirms the inaccessibility of truth at the level of the signifier (Belsey, 2002, p.102)
- The value of heterogeneity and divergent thinking is subject to ‘paralogy’ (Lyotard), a form of reasoning that breaks with the rules or invents news ones (Belsey, 2002, p.99)
- Knowledge and truth are referential to external objects (Peirce, Plato). Therefore, a representation, a sign can be falsified with a reference to a wrong object. (Belsey, 2002, p.99)
Representations are subjective expressions of a perceived reality. The notion of an existing misrepresentation is assuming that a representation can be true. Representation is considering one referential viewpoint. Postmodernity affirms the inaccessibility of truth. Therefore, the concept of mis-representations per se is deceiving.
Nevertheless, it does not mean that all constructed meanings and signifiers are arbitrary. This is mainly based on the concept of social construction itself. Within a discourse of difference, divergent and relativist meanings, and the existence of various viewpoints, socially agreed ‘facts’, agreed signification of symbols e.g. words, and a common sense allows for communication and understanding. Society as such holds the difference together. It is build on dissensus, and through that, also paradoxical opinions do have a right of being. Lyotard expresses this through ‘paralogy’ as a form of reasoning that breaks with the rules and invents new ones.
The dualist nature of a constructed self through others as expressed by Derrida is constituting the paradox of subjective meaning. Meaning is constituted through language and speech. Here the concept of construction itself is placed under discussion.
To conclude, a sceptical point of view should not cloud a solid reasoning unbiased of moral judgements, preconceived beliefs or constructed assumptions.
- Belsey, C. (2002) Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction, Very short introductions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Berger, P. L. and Luckmann, T. (1967) The social construction of reality: a treatise in the sociology of knowledge, 1991 ed. London,: Penguin
- Butler, C. (2002) Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
- Colebrook, C. (2002) Gilles Deleuze, Routledge Critical Thinkers. London; New York: Routledge.>
- Lane, R. J. (2009) Jean Baudrillard, Routledge Critical Thinkers, 2nd ed. London; New York: Routledge.
- Lyotard, J.-F. (2003) ‘Introduction to The Postmodern Condition‘, in: Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (eds.) Art in Theory, 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas Malden, MA; Oxford, UK; Victoria, AUS: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 1122-1123. VIIIC.
- Nelson, R. S. and Shiff, R. (2003) Critical Terms for Art History, 2nd rev ed ed. Edited by Nelson, R. S. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Royle, N. (2003) Jacques Derrida, Routledge Critical Thinkers. London; New York: Routledge
- Searle, J. R. (1996) The construction of social reality, Penguin philosophy. London: Penguin.