Category Archives: Postmodernism

Getting Unstuck

When I checked my emails recently, I was very pleased to find an invitation to write for a brand-new criminal justice magazine. The target audience is police administrators and academy instructors – one of the target audiences for my book about writing police reports.

I immediately went to work on my first article for the magazine. I wrote drafts in my head while driving back and forth to dance lessons. I scribbled outlines and introductory paragraphs. I read some notes and research I’d stashed away.

Nothing clicked. Rats! I had many good ideas, but they didn’t flow. I couldn’t find a way to organize them in a logical progression.

Suddenly I had an idea. Instead of trying to write the article, I wrote an encouraging letter to myself describing (in glowing terms) the kind of article I wanted to write:

Notes for an article that was giving me trouble

Now I had something concrete to work with. I started drafting the article right away, and finished it the next morning.

The next day the editor sent me an acceptance letter and – as a bonus – a .pdf of the finished article to show me how it would look in the magazine. What a happy ending!

A light bulb symbolizes new ideas


There’s No Such Thing as Objectivity

Two days ago I wrote a post about some unofficial rules I’d made up. An old friend gently chided me because I’d said that the rules “worked great” for me. She thought I needed a more professional tone.

I emailed her that I’d checked the dictionary before publishing the post, and she was right: great indeed is an informal adverb. “Worked great” is too folksy for formal writing.

But here’s the thing: I don’t always feel like writing formally. And it’s not just that I hate pompous language: I also get tired of striving for objectivity.

Sometimes I want to discuss the mysterious pathways my thoughts have been taking…or exploring an idea in the context of my own life.

In the My Fair Lady article I just published, I talked about my thoughts and feelings several times:

On a recent trip to New York I bought a ticket for the Lincoln Center revival of My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe’s musical version of Pygmalion. My Fair Lady has always been special for me: it was my first Broadway play and my first encounter with Shaw. On the subway ride to Lincoln Center, I knew I was going to be seeing a superb production—but I also knew I was supporting an enterprise that would have appalled GBS.

When I first saw My Fair Lady in the early 1960’s, I was thrilled by the prospect of a Higgins-Doolittle wedding. But by 1992 my feelings had changed….I was sure Eliza would never marry Higgins, and by the time I’d bought my ticket for My Fair Lady in 2018, those convictions had deepened and hardened. Starting in October 2017, news outlets were flooded with #MeToo news stories about men who treated women as if they were less than human. I’d had some life experience of my own with male-female power struggles….

Our ideas about language are evolving. We used to think that you could ensure objectivity by carefully avoiding the words I, me, and my. Police officers were taught to write “this officer” instead of I. “The suspect was patted down” guaranteed that you were telling the truth; “I patted down the suspect” hinted that you were lying.

It was all nonsense, of course. Today (thanks in large part to the postmodern language theory) we’re recognizing that there’s no such thing as total objectivity. Avoiding the words I and me won’t turn a dishonest person into an honest one.

Every academic project involves opinions and decisions. Even choosing My Fair Lady as a topic involved a value judgment: I thought the play was important enough to be worth study.

Why not be honest about your values and opinions?

My larger point is that sometimes it’s okay to challenge the rules. That raises an important question: how do you know when you’re allowed to follow your own path?

The answer is that you don’t. If you’re a professional writer, it helps to study the publisher or journal you’re writing for. You can often get a sense of what they’re looking for and what rules they follow – and when it’s safe to break them.

But sometimes you just have to jump in. That involves admitting to yourself that you’re taking a risk, and deciding not to be disheartened if an experiment doesn’t work out for you.

Writing is always about you – your style, memories, experiences, values, beliefs, interests. Writing honestly is a way of honoring who you are. I encourage you to embrace the risks. And don’t forget to have fun!



Someone on Quora just asked some important questions about postmodernism. Do postmoderns really believe there’s no objective truth? Do they think human knowledge is always biased? What are some other academic follies from history?

Here’s my answer:

You’ve been misinformed. Of course there’s objective truth. But you’re right that information is always filtered through our personalities, experience, culture, and other factors.

Here’s one of my favorite quotations from Jacques Derrida: [“The] value of truth …is never contested or destroyed in my writings, but only reinscribed in larger, more stratified contexts” (Norris, Postmodernism 44-45).

My favorite example of postmodern thinking is our modern skepticism about once-hallowed institutions like the monarchy, government, and religion.

Postmoderns no longer believe in privileged institutions. We are skeptical about claims that church officials and government leaders have an exalted mandate. We realize that often they are conspiring (away from the public eye) to protect their own interests.

They sometimes use grand ideas to make us feel that they live in a rarefied atmosphere that the rest of us don’t understand, and for millennia they’ve gotten away with it.

Another example: feminism would be impossible without postmodernism. We have only very recently started to dismantle the ideology of male privilege.

My own interest in postmodernism focuses mostly on language. Again, we are much more skeptical about language than we used to be. For a long time people believed that philosophical and religious language were privileged and different from ordinary language. They didn’t use rhetorical tricks. They were a fast lane to truth. Again, that thinking is fading away.

You (and the rest of us!) have plenty of postmodernism in your head. Like water, it’s always there, and that means we’re not aware of it.

Don’t label it a folly. That’s not worthy of you.

Christopher Norris’s book Jacques Derrida is the best work I’ve ever read on postmodernism.

Or you might enjoy The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. (I’m sure she didn’t know she was writing a postmodern book!) Watch how she dismantles the ideology surrounding male/female roles. (She was a Marxist when she was in college, and the postmodern project of questioning exalted ideologies really begins with Marx.)

                    Betty Friedan


Accident or Collision?

If you’re a regular visitor to my blog, you know that I like to talk about the philosophical issues we run into when we use language.

But I sometimes talk to real-world writers (like police officers!) who wonder if all this theoretical stuff really matters. Postmodern language issues can seem far removed from everyday life.

But they’re not – and here’s an example. You may be aware that some jurisdictions have improved their procedures for dealing with vehicle accidents. The New York Police Department is a good example.

Some time ago, the NYPD instituted a number of changes in the way it investigates and documents vehicular crashes. Case in point: The word “accident” has been replaced with “collision.”

The reason? The word accident evokes something unfortunate that happened on its own. But the word collision suggests that something went wrong. It feels more like a police matter.

Paul Steely White is the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a cycling and pedestrian advocacy group. He said the changes constitute “a very significant step toward a safer, more humane city.”

Words matter! “An accident is when a meteor falls through your house and hits you in the head,” he said. “Collisions can be prevented.”

Words are more than just labels we stick onto things. They shape our thinking and help us make effective decisions – if we’re wise enough to think about them and make wise choices.

a collision



Last week I read an intriguing column by Heidi Stevens: Monica Lewinsky Has a Message We Need to Hear. Thanks in part to the #MeToo movement, views about sexual misconduct are beginning to shift. (You will remember that Monica Lewinsky was a White House intern whose affair with President Clinton triggered impeachment proceedings.)

Instead of quickly concluding that “It’s all her fault,” we’re beginning to hear more discussions about sexual predators and abuses of power. (See also Joyce Maynard’s reminiscence about her affair with J.D. Salinger in What Writing about my Abusive Relationship with J.D.Salinger Taught Me about Silencing Women’s Voices.)

Of course those ideas are nothing new. One of the best articles I ever read about sexual misconduct appeared in a 1991 article in Christian Century magazine: Soul Stealing: Power Relations in Pastoral Sexual Abuse by the Reverend Pamela Cooper-White. 

 *  *  *  *  *  *

I named today’s post #YouToo in order to make a point: stories don’t arrive with a built-in meaning. We all have the power create the meaning. (Yes, you too!)

I’m not talking about the nonsensical notion that a word or a narrative means whatever you want it to mean. I’m saying that life is mysterious and people are complicated. The meaning of an event can change as time passes – or as you move from one person’s perspective to another.

Sally remembers Grandma as a lovely person; her brother Greg thinks Grandma was mean. A marital dispute that felt like World War III looks silly years later – or we realize it was a harbinger of an inevitable breakup down the road.

Language doesn’t just record facts: it sorts and evaluates them, opening us up to new insights and fresh possibilities. Good writers make language choices that help this process along.

And that brings me to “Into the Clear,” a provocative 2000 New Yorker article about novelist Philip Roth, author of Portnoy’s Complaint. The author, David Remnick, recalled a 1998 conversation he had with Roth about the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton controversy:

Roth straightened and said, only half in jest, “Maybe [Clinton] should get on TV and talk frankly about adultery.” Maybe he could talk about the complexity of a long and difficult marriage, about frailty, and maybe he’d dare to ask if he is really so alone in his weaknesses. But there was, of course, no political sense in that.

Roth was right. Americans were eager to blame Lewinsky, or Clinton, or both. There was no “political sense” in exploring the forces that drove those two people into doing what they did.

But do we really have to be stuck there forever? Suppose Bill Clinton or Monica Lewinsky really had talked frankly about what led to the affair. We would have learned something.

That doesn’t mean we would have approved or excused what happened. I imagine it as taking a side step – and suddenly getting a whole new perspective. We’re adding to the meaning, not changing it. It’s an opportunity to dig into parts of the story we may have skipped over – and in that process we may gain understanding.

Perhaps we would even learn something about ourselves – about the forces in our own lives that sometimes trip us into abandoning our values, even if it’s just for a moment.

I am not asking you to reevaluate your opinion what Lewinsky and Clinton did (or what happened when Joyce Maynard lived with J.D. Salinger in 1972). But I am asking you to realize that language has the power to transform everything we know, think, and believe.

That doesn’t mean you have to do something big and serious. Language is fun (as every child babbling a string of nonsense words already knows!).

It does mean that language often offers us an opportunity to take that side step and discover a fresh perspective. We all need to make judgments about good-versus-bad and right-versus-wrong. But we can also ask questions that start with words like what, how, when, why, and what if. And we may come up with some amazing answers. Worth a try!

Philip Roth


How Language Solves Its Problems

Perhaps you were puzzled by the title of today’s post. Language doesn’t solve its own problems…does it?

Yes, it does. (Regular readers of this blog know that I’m talking about postmodernism – the idea that language is much more than an inert tool we can completely control.)

The world is always changing, and language has to keep up. It is – after all – the engine that keeps the world moving. (I really like that engine idea because it reminds us that language has its own momentum and drive.)

No matter how hard we try, we can’t control what language will decide to do. It’s stubbornly going to march along, taking us with it where it wants to go.

One example is the way English handled the loss of its gender-neutral pronoun a thousand years ago (the “singular they” issue). If someone from UPS is knocking on your door, and you don’t know if they’re male or female, you’re supposed to say, “He or she is here with your delivery.”

You’re not supposed to say, “They’re here with your delivery.” That popular usage is an example of the deterioration of English.

But if you do some research, you discover that the “singular they” has been around since the 14th century. Language solved the problem of the missing pronoun all by itself, even though English teachers don’t like the solution it came up with!

You would have a hard time finding a famous writer – from Caxton to Shakespeare to Shaw – who hasn’t used the “singular they.” I did it myself earlier in this post: “If someone is knocking on your door, and you don’t know if they’re male or female….”

When you start to look for ways that language solves its own problems without input from the experts, examples are everywhere.

I started thinking about this process during a discussion of quotation marks on Quora. Mike Gower told me about a British practice that’s totally new to me:

What seems to happen in everyday use in the UK is that double quotes are used for quoted speech, and single quotes for quoted text. That’s probably less of a formal rule than a habit that drifted in from the need to differentiate between quoted speech in fiction and quoted text.

Will that practice catch on in the US? It might – and maybe it already has. In the past year or so, I’ve noticed that Americans are starting to mix British ‘inverted commas’ and American “quotation marks,” and it’s been driving me crazy.

It never occurred to me that English was feeling the need to differentiate between a formal quotation and a conversation – and found a solution. (I may have to stop griping!) In twenty-five years, English textbooks may even be telling students to use quotation marks the way Mark described.

Here’s another example of how language adapted to meet a need. My English professors taught me to use quotation marks for titles of short works, like “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Italics were for full-length works, like The Da Vinci Code.

But you can also use italics to show what a fictional character is thinking. In a short story you might read about a young soldier who’s just seen an attractive woman and thinks: She’s the one. I’ve got to find an excuse to talk to her. I’ll ask if she knows where Curzon Street is.

Who knew you could use italics this way? Nobody told me in college.

I can’t resist giving you one more. We often decry texting because it allows abbreviations and phonetic spellings. But texting is developing its own subtleties.

We all know that punctuation is often omitted in texts, which tend to be casual and conversational. But beware. Picture this scenario: you text your girlfriend tat you’re cancelling tonight’s date because an old friend is in town, and he wants the two of you to go bowling. Here’s your girlfriend’s text response: 


That period would be standard English if you were writing a school essay or a business letter. But in this conversation it’s the equivalent of a hiss through gritted teeth. You’d better set up another time for that trip to the bowling alley – or start looking for another girlfriend! The period – that innocent punctuation mark we were introduced to in first grade – is becoming a weapon in the war of the sexes.

And so it goes. The world changes. Language sees a need and fills it, without so much as a by-your-leave. Who says that language doesn’t have power?

bowling pins


The Rest Room

If you decide to skip today’s post, I won’t blame you. It’s about…toilets.

I just read an extraordinary article (Prescriptive and Descriptive Labels, by Jorge Arango) about – yes – toilets. Arango doesn’t mention Derrida or postmodern language theory. But if you’re interested in language (his real topic), the article is worth reading.

Most of us naively think that naming is all about slapping labels onto things. Not true. Naming almost always involves something else as well: classifying things. It’s a subtle process, easily overlooked, that has colossal implications for how we think, how we relate to others, and how we live our lives.

Jorge Arango’s article is about choices for a public restroom door. Suppose you were opening a new business, and you were getting ready to put a sign on the restrooms. Instead of the traditional picture of a woman on one door, and a man on the other, you could do something different. One restroom door could have this picture:

toilet sign

And the other restroom door could have this picture:

toilet and urinal

Suddenly everything changes. Customers of both sexes have a choice – handy if it’s a busy time (the ladies’ room often has a line, while the men’s room often doesn’t).

This set-up (actually used in the coffeeshop of the building where Arango works) has some unexpected advantages. It eliminates arguments about which bathrooms transvestites and transgender persons should use. And it makes life easier for parents with young children of the opposite sex. Mom doesn’t feel quite right taking little Junior into the ladies’ room with her – but he’s not yet ready to cope with the men’s room by himself. And what father really wants to take a little girl into the men’s room with him?

It would also challenge us to re-examine some of our assumptions about everyday life. In the US, it’s almost unthinkable that a man would enter a woman’s rest room, and vice versa. But when I traveled in Mexico, I often visited restrooms with male attendants, and I quickly got used to it.

Of course there’s a reason this restroom arrangement doesn’t cause problems in the coffeeshop in Arango’s building: the restrooms are single-use only. But it is really inconceivable that a bigger public restroom couldn’t be designed with the urinals placed at – say – an angle so that women don’t have to look at them?

If you’ve hung in this far, I hope you’re starting to realize that my point isn’t about public restrooms at all. I’m trying to show that what you name something makes a difference. Replacing traditional Men/Women restroom signs with Toilet and Toilet + Urinal would generate some rethinking and might even lead to some changes in behavior.

That is what great writers do with words. The book I’m working on right now is going to have some examples of how Shaw played with words to shake up our thinking. Here’s one example, from Shaw’s play Major Barbara: How do you classify poverty? There are four possibilities:

  • a virtue (religious men and women take a vow of poverty)
  • an immutable fact of life (the Bible says “the poor we will always have with us”)
  • a product of laziness and other character defects
  • a crime against society

After you’ve read Shaw’s Preface to Major Barbara, you’ll never be able to say “the deserving poor” or “poor but honest” again. Those phrases – which fall trippingly from the tongues of so many people – will no longer make sense to you.

Great writers often make commonplace words and ideas suddenly seem shockingly different. Can you do that? You might have the makings of another Bernard Shaw in your soul.


Helen Keller

I just came across a wonderful New Yorker article about Helen Keller, the deaf-and-blind humanitarian. Of course I stopped what I was doing to read it. I was sure there’d be nothing new for me in the article – I’ve been fascinated by Keller all my life, and I’ve read the major biographies – but I plunged in anyway.

Turns out I was wrong. What I learned from reading it is that Keller (who died in 1968) was a postmodernist.

Keller was an amazing woman – and a controversial one. She had a goody-goody image that belied the tough woman she really was. (One example: she was a tireless crusader for eyedrops to be routinely given to infants to prevent syphilis-related blindness.)

Keller was most famous as a writer. She had a huge audience that inevitably included a number of critics and doubters. Everything she wrote, the skeptics said, was derivative. Because she was blind and deaf, her life experience was too limited to have generated the vivid descriptions and provocative ideas that filled her books.

If you’re a student of philosophy, you can hear an echo of Plato’s Phaedrus – the old speech vs. writing argument – in the complaints of those critics. Writing is bad because it’s secondhand and derivative. Only what we experience firsthand, in the present moment, is real.

It’s unlikely that Keller ever read anything by James Hillman or Jacques Derrida, but she firmly aligned themselves with them. “The bulk of the world’s knowledge is an imaginary construction,” she said. For Keller, history was “but a mode of imagining, of making us see civilizations that no longer appear upon the earth.”

Cynthia Ozick, author of the Keller article, adds, “Are we more than the sum of our senses? Does a picture—whatever strikes the retina—engender thought, or does thought create the picture?” Ozick reminds us that much of her knowledge comes not from our senses but from collective memory, heritage, and literature.

You – reading this – aspire to write. What that means is that you yearn to fly (just as Keller did when she figured out how to experience a world she’d never seen or heard). Imagination is the lens through which we experience life. We need to resist the forces that want to tie us down to the concrete reality of the here-and-now.

Today – right now – take the time to fly for a minute or two. And when it’s time to return to Earth, keep your wings handy. You’ll need them the next time you sit down to write.

Helen Keller, age 8, with teacher Annie Sullivan

Helen Keller, age 8, with teacher Annie Sullivan


A Slippery Sentence

What do you think of this sentence?

We were planning a shopping trip when Aunt Mary arrived.

It’s perfectly grammatical – but there’s a problem: It could have two meanings.

  • We planned our shopping trip around Aunt Mary’s arrival.
  • Aunt Mary’s arrival interrupted our shopping plans.

Language (as the postmoderns keep reminding us) is a slippery business. It’s always a good idea to ask someone else to read anything important you’ve written. An English degree isn’t required! We all use language all the time, and that means we all have expertise.

In the writing group I facilitate, I always recommend taking feedback seriously. If even one person sees an alternate meaning – or has trouble processing what you’ve written – consider revising what you’ve written. 



What’s a Mother?

A recent Carolyn Hax advice column triggered some thoughts about this mysterious, untameable tool called language that we all use every day.

A man asked Carolyn Hax for advice about a thorny family situation. Six years ago, he and his wife adopted a baby boy born to a teenage relative. The little boy, “Jake,” is doing great. He knows he was adopted but isn’t interested in learning more.

Three years ago, the couple’s other adopted child had a visit from her birth mother. Jake couldn’t understand what was going on and was terrified that his sister would be taken away.

Now Jake’s birth mother wants to visit him and start a relationship. The adoptive father doesn’t want to upset Jake – but also doesn’t want to be dishonest with him. The adoptive mother flatly refuses to allow Jake to meet his birth mother until he’s older.

When I read that letter, I was really grateful that I’m not an advice columnist! Carolyn Hax (of course) came through with some excellent advice and suggestions.

But my thoughts took off in a different direction. I started trying to figure out why “Jake” – a happy and secure little boy – had reacted so fearfully to the visit from his sister’s birth mother.

And what I decided is that there might be a hidden language issue here.

What is a mother? Life experience tells us there are many ways to become a mother: birth, adoption, a second marriage, foster care, and so on. But Jake knows only that “mother” means the woman who is the center of his young life. He depends on her for almost everything.

So what does it mean when a second woman appears, also labeled “mother”? To Jake, that experience must have been unfathomable. The only explanation he could come up with was that this new mother wanted to take his sister away. Isn’t that what his own mother would do?

It would help if Jake was old enough to understand the terms “birth mother” and “adoption” – but he’s not.

* * * * * * *

We like to think that language is something we can tame, control, and quantify – but it’s not, and we can’t. Our efforts will ultimately fail, and there’s a single word that explains why: imagination.

Language is not an inert system of symbols and sounds just waiting for us to do what we will. It is inextricably and mysteriously connected to the deepest parts of our brains and our souls. I’m talking – of course – about postmodernism.

While I was thinking about Jake and his fears this weekend, a little exchange from Shaw’s Pygmalion popped into my head. Henry Higgins, a professor of speech, is standing with a small group of theatergoers waiting for the rain to stop so they can go home. Pointing to a dirty young woman who’s selling flowers, Higgins starts a conversation with another man who’s waiting:

THE NOTE TAKER. You see this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party. I could even get her a place as lady’s maid or shop assistant, which requires better English.

THE FLOWER GIRL. What’s that you say?

I don’t know how anyone could quantify and label that little exchange. Higgins isn’t even talking directly to the flower girl – she’s eavesdropping. But his words cause a paradigm shift for her. Suddenly she sees possibilities that never existed for her before.

When Higgins throws a large amount of money into her flower basket, she doesn’t go on the expected spending spree. Instead she decides to return the money to Higgins – in exchange for speech lessons.

(If you’re curious about all this, I’ve written an article linking this exchange in Pygmalion with Sigmund Freud’s “talking cure” – a provocative term for Freud’s therapeutic method, is it not?)

Critics of postmodernism think it’s hilariously funny when people like me say that words resist being pinned down. But little Jake’s parents are discovering that “mother” is a far more complex word than they originally thought.

In the same way, all of us often have language encounters that shake us up, open new doors, and challenge us in ways we could never have expected. As Jacques Derrida famously said, “the problem of language has never been simply one problem among others.”