Author’s note: There are already some excellent books and websites devoted to explaining postmodernism*, so I thought rather than try to condense a very complex topic into a few paragraphs, I would share with you a problem that I’m currently working through, and show you how I’m trying to use postmodernism to open doors to thinking otherwise about my own work.
You can read more from Professor David A. Nicholls on ParaDoxa.
It would be reasonable to argue that every entity, thing, form, or substance can only be said to be moving because it moves in relation to something else.
But the idea of movement — in the Western scientific sense, at least — implies that there is also a static state from which movement departs. The static state is the referent from which movement can be said to occur.
The idea of movement … implies that there is also a static state from which movement departs.
But this immediately creates a problem, because for an entity to be static, it must be both spatially and temporally immobile. In other words, it must be frozen in space and time in relation to everything else around it.
But, can anything ever be like this? Or is this just a convenient allusion to make it easier to explain how things ‘appear’?
I certainly recognise this image of a static body in healthcare. My professional training showed me images of anatomical bodies and physiological processes that seemed entirely static. “Here is the adductor longus muscle, and it attaches here and here… This is a fact and it never changes.” Even when we explicitly studied movement as students, it was always made up of static bodies moving in a series, like the galloping horses in Eadweard Muybridge photographs.
The lesson I was taught as a physiotherapist was that the body was a static ‘thing’, with fixed structures and a stable identity. Movement followed. You needed a body first before you could have movement, and when the structural elements failed, movement went awry. Function followed form. Bodies begat movement, never the other way around.
We reassert the same static image of things when we talk about almost everything in healthcare, from identity to the body, ground-force reactions to named emotions. We even have a specific word for this linguistic ossification: homeostasis.
Now, I can appreciate the inherent logic in trying to keep things simple by breaking them down into component parts, and giving everything a sense of stability. It makes it much easier to convey what things are and how they might interact when they appear to stand still for a minute. But there are two big problems with this: 1) it gives the illusion that this is how things are in reality, when they actually aren’t, and 2), it’s a pain when you come to practice your craft in the real world, because nothing in healthcare, or in life in general, is ever static.
The static illusion can never work because, philosophically speaking, if entity #1 could even itself be frozen in space and time, so also must entity #2, and #3, and #4, and so on. Because if any one entity moves, everything else will be moving in relation to it. Which means that entity #1 can’t be said to be static after all.
And this principle applies spatially and temporally. So even if an entity could be said to be standing still in space, it’s never standing still in time. The past, present, and future are always in constant motion relative to each other and everything that they contain.
Legacies of the Enlightenment
So, if our present concept of movement as a deviation from stasis is misleading, is there a better way to think about it? Postmodern philosophers like Gilles Deleuze say there is, which is why he and others have made movement one of the central problems in their philosophy.
Broadly put, postmodern philosophers argue that Western approaches have long misunderstood movement, space and time, and that this has played out in the way we organise our lives, our ways of thinking, and even commonplace notions like identity and autonomy.
Our misguided beliefs about the structure and relation between entities stem from a long historical tradition of transcendentalism.
Our misguided beliefs about the structure and relation between entities stem from a long historical tradition of transcendentalism — of imaging another domain for which this world and this time refers.
Plato imagined that there was an ideal form of everything in the cosmos, and the world we experienced first-hand was merely a copy, at times more accurate than at other times.
Different religious faiths are also often transcendental because they believe that God(s) exist in heaven, nirvana, or some other cosmic realm, and the task of humanity is to live a life worthy of entry into this good place after death.
century ‘structural’ philosophers like Karl Marx and Ferdinand de Saussure were transcendental because they believed that the hidden hand of social structures like language and economics governed human existence.
And Enlightenment science has always been transcendental too, because it argues that there are natural truths at work transcending the world, and that only the rigorous application of science will apprehend them.
My training in Western biomedicine taught me that there were facts about this body that could only be gleaned through the objective, value-neutral, and depersonalised study of the applied sciences. And so I studied anatomy, physiology, pathology, and diagnostics so that I could acquire the dispassionate gaze of the scientist, and uncover the natural laws that governed the health and wellbeing of all bodies, irrespective of colour or creed.
Scientific rigour and reason were needed because the (capital-T) Truth of the body was simply not there before our hands and eyes. It was elusive. Our senses deceived us.
But as well as fixing bodies in space, Enlightenment beliefs also give us a mistaken view of time.
Like God, nature, identity, Platonic ideal forms, the unconscious, the self, society, virtue, and other transcendental ideals, access to the real body was denied by our innate biases and subjective beliefs. Only rigorous scientific inquiry was our best hope if we wanted to approximate the universal laws that governed the body’s form and function.
But as well as fixing bodies in space, Enlightenment beliefs also give us a mistaken view of time.
The view of time put forward in most Western philosophies since the Enlightenment is that time is linear, with moments taking up adjacent spaces on a line running from the past, through the present, to the future.
But as Henri Bergson showed, this makes little sense, because for a new moment to succeed the one before, it must hold on to something of the previous moment’s ‘essence’ in order for events to appear to flow (and not produce random chaos at every instant). So the ‘past’ moment is always somewhat present in the ‘present’, and each moment can never be said to be isolated from the one before, or the one that follows.
Similarly, Zeno’s Paradox teaches us that the present moment can never be truly isolated because ‘now’ is always infinitely divisible. So there is never really a ‘present moment’ to anchor our measurements to.
Without being able to isolate a specific moment, there can be no static zero point either, from which all movement starts. So, in the first place, there is no first place, and movement — in the linear spatial sense at least — can never be said to ever really occur.
Our only conclusion must therefore be that everything is always already in motion. There is no beginning or end, only movement.
What we need, then, is a philosophy that is adequate to understand a world that is in constant motion; where past, present, and future are folded into one-another, where traditional transcendental binaries like those between fact and fiction, body and mind, stasis and movement, human and non-human, heaven and hell, nature and culture, good and bad, and so on, dissolve away.
Enter the postmodernists
Today’s postmodernisms probably have their origins in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. When Nietzsche famously declared that God was dead and that we had killed him, he was not celebrating science overcoming the superstitions of religion, but rather mourning the way science had removed the myths and wonder from our world and replaced it with reason; a supposedly ‘superior’ reason that had also conjured up the machine gun, the atom bomb, and the gas chamber.
The existentialists of the early 20th
century echoed this by turning around the classic modernist question of how we should live (i.e. what rules should we follow to be good humans), with the question of how could we live? Faced with all of these horrors of scientific modernism, the existentialists asked how could we live with the radical gift of reason, when the only hope reason gave us was cold truth. Without the mythologies of heaven, salvation, or an afterlife, what purpose did it serve for human beings to even be here? Freedom, they believed, held the key: not the solipsistic freedom of the solitary man in possession of the ‘truth’ about the world, but the paradoxical freedom that came only when others were also free: a freedom borne not from separation, but relation.
Without the mythologies of heaven, salvation, or an afterlife, what purpose did it serve for human beings to even be here?
At the same time, linguists like Ferdinand de Saussure began to tug at the threads of reason itself, showing that the language we used to signify things in the world did not universally signify anything at all, but that words only acquired meaning in relation to all of the other words that surrounded them (their synchronic meaning), and the shifting patterns of language use over time (its diachronic meaning). Words, de Saussure argued, were not static, and only meant something because of their relation to other things. Words, like bodies, are always in motion.
Freud added to this coming postmodernism by revealing the unconscious acting upon us, rupturing, even more, our faith in our consciousness as the source of our reason, autonomy, and free choice.
And then in the 1960s, things exploded, particularly after the student protests in Paris in 1968. An entire generation of postmodernists emerged from that period and gave birth to the many strands of postmodernism that exist today. Some of the main protagonists have been thinkers like Georgio Agamben, Roland Barthes, Georges Batailles, Rosi Braidotti, Judith Butler, Georges Canguilhem, Guy Debord, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Raymond Geuss, Frédéric Gros, Luce Irigaray, Jean-François Lyotard, Erin Manning, Brian Massumi, Raymond Ruyer, Gilbert Simondon, Paul Virilio, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro.
So what are some of the basic tenets of postmodernism?
The rejection of transcendence and the belief, instead, that there is only immanence**;
Scepticism towards any philosophy or belief system that promotes a single, universal view of how things ‘are’ (there is no transcendental truth, God, ideal form, fixed identity, or any other stable concept ‘out there’ governing the universe, so we should be sceptical of anyone who tells us that there is);
Nothing is ever static, everything is always in constant motion, so we can never talk about what it means to ‘be’ a human, what something ‘is’, or feel confident in any illusion about the fixed identity of things;
Time is not something we should map as a line or set of spatial coordinates (this turns time into a spatial concept, what the Greeks called Chronos). Instead, we need a temporal concept of time; time that flows (what the Greeks called Aion and Henri Bergson preferred to call duration).
Everything is always in relation to other things, spatially and temporally;
Postmodernism rejects the belief that our task is discovery (i.e. the search for the world ‘beyond’) in favour of creation and emergence.
There’s a common myth about postmodernism that it is about deconstruction and celebrating chaos. This is understandable given that it puts to the sword many of the basic principles about how the world really works that have been taught to us since childhood. But reach beyond a naïve reading of the subject and you will find that postmodernism is anything but nihilistic. In fact, to my mind, postmodernism is an escape from the nihilism of transcendentalism; an escape from the belief that our world is subject to rules defined by a realm beyond our grasp.
To my mind, postmodernism is an escape … from the belief that our world is subject to rules defined by a realm beyond our grasp.
And there’s one other aspect of postmodernism that has become increasingly important in recent years that, I believe, makes it all the more urgent and necessary, and that is the problem of human hubris.
Our posthuman future
One of the most recent off-shoots of postmodernism has been the concept of posthumanism.
This does not refer to the ‘end’ of human existence, nor to the kind of sickening cryogenic techno-fantasy of transhumanists. Rather, it’s about an attempt to ‘flatten’ the ontological supremacy that humans gave themselves after the Enlightenment.
Recall that the Enlightenment replaced a theocentric (God-centred) world of superstitions and beliefs in a supreme being, with an anthropocentric (human-centred) world in which human beings ruled over all things: animals, plants, and inorganic matter.
Human sentience, consciousness, and self-awareness gave us science, and science gave us modernity.
And people have used this dividend in remarkable ways: inventing the wheel, democracy, antibiotics, and semiconductors.
But human beings have also shown remarkable hubris. Not only using animals, plants, and the world’s material resources for our own flourishing — taking us to the brink of a climate catastrophe — but also using other human beings for our own ends, inventing war and genocide, holocaust and enslavement along the way.
Posthumanism takes all of the tenets of postmodernism, and applies them to this problem, imagining an ontology in which humans do not sit astride everything else in the cosmos, but are given the same ontological ‘weight’ as other entities.
These are exciting times in postmodern philosophy, which is turning the old Enlightenment question of how we should live on its head, asking how we might live.
Certainly there’s some destruction involved, but as Jean Baudrillard said, “Nothing is wholly obvious without becoming enigmatic. Reality itself is too obvious to be true”.
Vive la revoluçion.
For good measure, here is another ‘physiotherapy’ problem that I would argue demands a postmodern/posthuman response.
Physiotherapists define their professional identity in part because of their special skills with therapeutic touch. But what is therapeutic touch? This excerpt comes from a recent article I wrote trying to tackle this question from a Deleuzian perspective;
‘If a leaf falls from a tree in autumn and, by decaying, feeds the soil, can we say that this is an act of therapeutic touch? If not, why not? Because therapeutic touch only applies to humans, we might say. But is this true? Surely, it is therapeutic when our pet dog senses some unhappiness in us and rests its head on our knee? Ah yes, but does the dog intend to act therapeutically? Surely, for touch to be therapeutic, it must be intentional? However, is this also true? Don’t many acts of therapy happen when we touch someone without us knowing or intending their effects? So if we cannot think of therapeutic touch as exclusively human or intentional, is there anything — beyond the obvious differences in kind — that differentiates a massage technique like petrissage from a leaf falling from a tree? In other words, are they different ontologically? And why does this matter?’ (Nicholls, 2022).
In simple terms, if we reserve the concept of therapeutic touch only for human therapy, then we need new language for the kinds of therapeutic practices going on in the rest of the cosmos all of the time. And we need an ontology that’s adequate for all of this, not just the parts of the world that are ‘for us’. Perhaps the first step will be creating new concepts, new language, new logics for those things we have long taken-for-granted? In the case of physiotherapy, that would mean throwing out movement and touch and starting again. Time will tell.
Nicholls, D.A. (2022). How Do You Touch an Impossible Thing. Frontiers in
Rehabilitation Science, 3: 934698.
Nicholls, D.A. (2017). The End of Physiotherapy. Routledge.
Nicholls, D.A. (2022). Physiotherapy Otherwise. Tuwhera Open Access.
Nicholls, David A.: The End of Physiotherapy.
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* I would heartily recommend Stephen West’s long-running podcast series
Philosophize This. There are some
excellent explanations of the work of postmodern philosophers like
Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida there.
** Immanence is a philosophy of emergence in the encounter, unmediated by pre-existing structures or objects, enduring permanence, prior fixed ideas like identity and being, or notions of a linear, static past, present or future. Gilles Deleuze’s entire philosophy is concerned, in many ways, with the development of a philosophy of immanence. But because it develops concepts that are alien to people used to transcendental philosophies, there is no escaping the fact that his work are hard to read. Get beyond the opacity of the language, however, and Deleuze’s ideas may be some of the most radical creations in the history of philosophical thought.
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David A. Nicholls writes on ParaDoxa and is a Professor at the School of Clinical Sciences at AUT University in Auckland, New Zealand. He is a physiotherapist, lecturer, researcher and writer, with a passion for critical thinking in and around the physical therapies. He is the founder of the Critical Physiotherapy Network. He has published more than 35 peer-reviewed articles and 17 book chapters. The End of Physiotherapy – the first book-length critical history of physiotherapy – was published by Routledge in 2017.