Essentialism as an element of postmodernist discourse

In August 2012, I spent time writing blog posts about a book by the historian Peter Burke dealing with the role of cultural theory in the study of history.

I was interested to learn, in the foreword or introduction to the book, that Peter Burke had began his study of this topic when he was asked to teach a course dealing with cultural theory. It’s always of interest to learn how people got started, or fell into, their careers.

Burke’s discussion of postmodernist theory happened to tie in well with the conclusions I had reached in my own reading about the claims that were associated with postmodernism, at the time when it was a topic of conversation among academics.

My impression has been that postmodernism, as a concept, has had limited traction. It appears to me to have a quality of circularity about it – a quality of talking in circles, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. The manner in which essentialism came to be used as a pejorative term is an instance of how this talking in circles has occurred.

We can say that what everything comes down to is the capturing of the essence of things. Capturing of the essence is a form of essentialism. This was something that postmodernists, as they called themselves, took great issue with.

They opposed essentialism, and that served as their particular essentialism.

Blurbs capture one or another essence of a thing

To make things brief, if you wish to communicate something, you need to create blurbs. You need to create political slogans, you need to say things in a few words. You need to say things in a way that people will readily understand.

This is what brand images are about. This is what brands are about.

In creating the essence, the point, as I see it, is to go with the evidence. Going with blurbs, and with slogans, works whether you go with the evidence are not, up to a certain point. This has to do with how the brain works. It’s something that is the outcome of human evolutionary biology.

Instrumental reason is a key part of the human experience. It’s something that is at the heart of what we call it essentialism, it’s at the heart of a blurb, it’s at the heart of political slogan. It’s part of how evolutionary biology has brought us to this point in the here and now, as a human species.

So the argument, by advocates of postmodernism – the argument against what they have defined as essentialism – is that the essence that has been extracted from the larger reality does not correspond to the larger reality.

That is, the rhetoric at times does not correspond to the reality. So in a sense we can say seeking the reality is the name of the game, but it’s easy to mistake the rhetoric – the blurb, or the brand – for the reality.

Or, to put it another way, as Elvis remarked: “The image is one thing and the human being is another.”

The reality, we can add, is difficult to describe without engaging in circularity, by which I refer to talking in circles, by which I refer to the limitations of sense making within the confines of language.

A category of case studies, with regard to attempts at sense making, concerns Zen Buddhist tales of enlightenment, or stories of enlightenment or revelation in any religion.

My own preference, with regard to the sense making project is to go, to the extent it is possible, with 1) a useful and adequate analytic framework, 2) evidence that is corroborated from multiple, reliable sources, and 3) the backstory.


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