Postmodernism: many truths and meanings (intersubjective, intertext, signs, signifiers, slippage)

August 17, 2016 – 11:53 pm

Continuing the “just write stuff and post it” flood. Because I can. And because someday I’ll be able to use these crappy drafts as examples for my own students, hospital all-caps “I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO HERE, BUT KEEP GOING!!!” notes and all.

The act of proliferation is frequently used in postmodernist thinking. When applied to the concepts of truth and meaning, proliferation decenters the notion of a single big-t Truth by playing with the idea of a multiplicity of little-t truths; it decenters the notion of a single big-m Meaning by playing with the idea of a multiplicity of little-m meanings. What would it mean to have many meanings and many truths? In probing the notions of truth and meaning, postmodernism does not mean to reject those notions — indeed, it would have nothing to work against if it did so. Rather, postmodernism seeks to question and interrogate what our assumptions about meaning and truth by exploring alternate possibilities for what they might be. It frames viewpoints as inevitably situated, partial, and perspectival.

Proliferation of perspectives on meaning and truth are a common practice within engineering education; they are a key concept in design thinking and exhibited in the practice of design reviews. [CITATION? FROM ROBIN'S CLASS?] A cross-disciplinary dataset of design review practice in educational settings (DTRS, 2015/2016?) exhibited both different student approaches to the same design task (mechanical engineering teams making a robotic fish, industrial design students sketching a chair for office use) and different faculty perspectives on the same student works (dance pieces made by science and engineering students). In a design review context, seeing a multiplicity of viewpoints and perspectives was an explicit goal, even if those perspectives might conflict; instead of being immediately framed as errors, perspectival conflicts became gifts and ways to flag intriguing areas for further exploration.

The word postmodern practice gives to this proliferation of perspectives is “intersubjectivity.” It refers to to the interactions between interpretations proposed by multiple people. For instance, a conversation between faculty members reflecting on a shared experience is intersubjective; although their interpretations of the experience may not ultimately converge, their interpretations will interact and change during the course of the discussion. To draw an even more specific example, the responses of a committee to a PhD dissertation in engineering education (such as the document you are presently reading) are intersubjective. Each committee member reading the proposal goes through the process of interpreting the document for themselves, but their interpretation interacts with the interpretations of the other committee members and the graduate student author. Based on these culturally-shaped interactions, the interpretations of particular community members may be accepted or rejected by each other member of the group.

Intersubjectivity is influenced by the different intertexts each member of the group is drawing from. The term “intertextual” refers to the interconnected nature of reality; it is a citational practice akin to the notion of scholarly texts referring to each other in APA style and footnotes. For instance, each engineered product is a “text” that refers to the many things that shaped and influenced it — a set of bookends might refer to the flatness, size, and heft of the books and shelves it is designed to sit among, as well as the material constraints of the manufacturing processes that shaped it, and the icon and gameplay from a popular video game its designer enjoyed. [IMAGE: PORTAL BOOKENDS] Extending this idea is the notion that all texts “always absorb and transform other texts” and “can be thought of as a tapestry of quotations, a mosaic of allusions”(Cavallaro, 2001, p. 60).

To borrow terminology from semiotics (Saussure, 1986), a intertextuality is created when the “signs” within a text (roughly: words, shapes, colors, movements, or whatever is being used as a reference to something else) point towards the “signifieds” in another text (roughly: meanings, interpretations). A postmodern view of texts is that they are collections of signs that “do not embody specific meanings or concepts” and only “become meaningful when they are decoded according to cultural conventions” (p. 15-16). In computer science terms, the signifier and signified can be loosely thought of as the pointer and the memory location, respectively; neither has an innate meaning on its own — it must be assigned one by the author, and its meaning draws from its relationships to other variables at play in the program.

Just as a pointer can be renamed and reallocated in a computer program, the link between signifier and signified is arbitrary, socially constructed, and forever shifting. Multiple signs might refer to the same signifier, as with synonyms. Similarly, one sign might refer to a variety of signifiers, depending on the context; for instance, two faculty members may use the signifier “curriculum” to refer to very different signifieds (loosely, “ideas” or “meanings.”) Even a single faculty member may use the word “curriculum” in more than one sense in the same sentence — to give one example, one can talk about the “[hidden, implicit] curriculum that happens alongside the [formal, explicit] curriculum.” (Anyon, YYYY)

It may be tempting to diagnose this as a problem of insufficiently precise language; if we had more words for “curriculum,” we would not need to repeat it to signify slightly different meanings. However, the repetition of the word “curriculum” is entwined with its representation; a sign obtains meaning only when it’s used in multiple contexts, since community adoption is what distinguishes a “nonsense” word from a “real” one. Because of this, when we speak, write, or use any other sign system such as language, we represent — re-present — our signifieds with signifiers that already exist, and the way we choose to do so can be illuminating to examine (Cavallaro, 2001, p. 39).

A postmodern approach to interrogating meanings and truths contributes a different perspective than a paradigm that seeks convergence on a single “objective” truth. Postmodernism works against the assumption of a “neutral point of view” from which one could represent, “fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible, without bias, all of the significant views that have been published by reliable sources on a topic.” Although the preceding description was drawn from Wikipedia’s article on its “Neutral Point of View” policy (2014), it mirrors a broader unspoken ideology that assumes such things as what qualifies as a “significant view” or “reliable source.” In contrast, the postmodern approach casts narrators and their narratives as “polyphonic texts that challenge dominant ideologies by articulating diverse discourses… thus resisting the notion of a unified viewpoint” (Cavallaro, 2001, p. 19). The postmodern perspective challenges the notion of objectivity and the assignment and privileging of particular opinions as truth. It asks: how did we come to privilege these things as significant views and reliable sources, and what other choices might we be able to make instead?

The notions of proliferating multiple truths and meanings in an intersubjective manner are reflected in other arenas adjacent to engineering and the experience of many engineers. For instance, in addition to the design review process, the notions of forking/branching and patching/merging in software development contribute to an intersubjective development practice. “Branching” and “forking” refer to when a software engineer creates a copy of a piece of code, so that multiple versions of the code can be developed in different directions at the same time; “patching” and “merging” refer to the process of proposing, then combining, multiple differing versions of a piece of code (perhaps created from an earlier branch/fork). The idea is to allow multiple variants of an idea to easily proliferate and reconverge, so a variety of perspectives and approaches can be tried without much overhead. A similar concept in modern physics is the notion of multiverses or parallel universes. These concepts also show up in popular books and films that deliberately present multiple conflicting narratives that don’t converge to a single neat “truth” — for instance, the narrator in “Life of Pi” tells several stories of how he survived a shipwreck, and the narrator in “Hero” offers several stories of how he defeated warriors who were a threat to the Emperor. From a postmodern perspective, conflicting truths, tensions, and linkages are sought as intriguing spaces to explore, rather than being treated as errors to be squashed.

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