In a recent blog post, Passing Thoughts on the Relationship Between Postmodern Nonsense and James’s Pluralism, J.Edward Hackett attempts to present a picture of Lyotard’s post-modernism as a type of “nonsense on stilts”. He declares that the aim of his post is to “illuminate how nonsensical it is while preserving the best of whatever it is that postmodernism offered us”. I think he fails to achieve this aim, but that he nonetheless raises the interesting question of the relation between postmodernism and pluralism.
If we take away the proper names (Lyotard, James) then I agree that “postmodernism” as usually understood can be criticised as being insufficiently pluralist. This is the theme of Bruno Latour’s big book AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE (2012), and already (in 2006) of Badiou’s LOGICS OF WORLDS. However, Lyotard cannot be confounded with the postmoderns, as he himself insisted. The only quote cited is Lyotard’s definition of postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives”. Hackett then goes on to cite William James’s pluralism as going beyond even Lyotardian postmodernism. This is an interesting point that needs to be developed. Here Hackett is in agreement with Bruno Latour, who also comes out in favour of Jamesian pluralism as against Lyotardian postmodernism.
However, Latour shares Lyotard’s incredulity towards the “subject”, which this post mobilises as if it were an unproblematic notion. Both Latour and Lyotard consider that most uses of the subject are meta-narrative in nature, i.e. as belonging to a foundationalist perspective. The appeal to an undifferentiated notion of “experience” is similarly suspect. Both Latour (empirical metaphysics) and Lyotard (post-modernism) want to expand the interpretation of experience, and so to pluralise it.
The difference between Lyotard’s and Latour’s perspective and Hackett’s is that they do not wish to use experience as a ground for pluralism, but to pluralise also experience itself, as never existing in a pure state, but as always taken up in and constituted by modes of existence (Latour) or régimes of phrase. How a philosophy based on James’s pluralism can provide the “widest interpretation given to experience possible” without engaging it in at least a semi-formalised set of qualitative categorisations is unclear. In his book Latour proposes 15 of such qualitative categorisations, called by him modes of “existence”, but which are equally modes of experience. This list of modes is not perfect, but it is at least a very useful instrument.
Lyotard was at pains to specify that the “post” of post-modernism is not a chronological notion at all, but rather refers to the self-reflexive re-writing of modernity. Thus the post-modern “incredulity” is not an absolute negation that leaves us with nothing, but a determinate negation of the fixity, universality, completeness, and normativity of notions that while potentially fruitful in specific uses are dangerous deformations when they are elevated to metanarrative status. Hackett insists that ideas have consequences but he does not analyse how these consequences are different when the ideas are embedded in concrete narratives and when they are abstracted into metanarratives.