The narrative I have just told about postmodernist history in relation to modernist and premodernist thought is, as all narratives are, a partial and extremely cleaned-up telling of a much messier reality. I told it as a narrative of three separate philosophical paradigms that occurred in chronological order and with causal relationships. However, I can simultaneously say that everything happened everywhere and all at once. As one simple example, postmodern thought appeared during what I have described as premodern times, as in the earlier example of using the Tao Te Ching to illustrate postmodernism. Further, as I will discuss shortly, modernist (and premodernist) views of the world are prominent in contemporary US engineering culture and its emphasis on optimization and improvement.
These inevitable oversimplifications in explanation are inescapable; they are a feature of language itself. Lather points out that “language is delineation, a strategic limitation of possible meanings. It frames; it brings into focus by that that which goes unremarked” (Lather, 1991, p. xix). The narrative I have just provided about postmodernism is one possible narrative among many, and it is one that provides traction towards engaging with this project on postmodern terms rather than more modernist philosophical assumptions that might otherwise be brought to bear by default. For instance, it is important to not simply conceptualize postmodernism as “a better and more recent form of modernism,” because the emphasis on constant improvements over time comes from a modernist rather than a postmodernist perspective.
This insight — that postmodernism was not “more optimized modernism” — was one that I personally struggled with in my early encounters with postmodernism as a student previously trained in the high-context expectations of engineering. After dutifully writing down postmodernist thought as a neat historical progression (similar to the one I wrote above), I realized that the portrayal itself was misaligned with the philosophy — that such a neat history was a hypocritical and modernist/structuralist portrayal of postmodernism, and that I didn’t know how to escape it. “Even the name ‘postmodernism’ suggests a progression from modernism,” I blogged in a frantic attempt to reconcile my knowledge into a single self-consistent system (Chua, 2013). When I took my complaints to Dr. Lather, she nodded. “Yes,” she replied. “Sit in the paradox, Mel” (Lather, 2013). Postmodern thinking is full of an intentional search and embrace of tension and paradox, much like the tradition of Zen koans; the intent is to shake readers out of their habitual ways of thinking, being, and making-sense.
A practice of tension and paradox means that postmodernism can never stand alone as a “pure” form of thought and an “untainted” philosophy that is separate from modernism. After all, a postmodernist perspective would interrogate the ideas of “purity” and “untaintedness” by saying such a thing is actually impossible, and that this impossibility is perhaps not even problematic. Postmodernism is not a clean break from the past; it is is a troubling and questioning and playful interrogation of it. It is not a rejection of meaning, but a practice that plays with the concept of meaning as never factual or final (Gergen, 1991).
One implication of this is that viewing engineering and engineering education as sites for postmodern paradigms and practices also means simultaneously seeing them as sites for non-postmodern paradigms and practices. Engineering is not “postmodern,” nor is it “non-postmodern” — it is both of these, and more, at the same time. The intent is not to have postmodern ideas in engineering replace the non-postmodern ones, as if doing so were an unequivocal upgrade — again, such a move would be antithetical to the postmodern perspective. Instead, postmodernism entangles with engineering education and encourages it to tinker with itself to see what happens.
Any postmodern practice must exist alongside other perspectives and practices, since the practice of critique is impossible without something to critique, and the practice of destabilization is impossible without structure to destabilize. As Jackson and Mazzei say in their preface to “Thinking with Theory,” “a recognition of the limits of our received practices does not mean that we reject such practices; instead, we work the limits (and limitations) of such practices” (2012, p. ix). Postmodernism simultaneously works with, within, and against other paradigms for thinking and being. The next section will explore the sorts of received philosophies and practices within engineering education qualitative research that a postmodern perspective could work with, within, and against.