What is postmodernism and what does it have to do with therapy, anyway?

An interview with Lois Shawver


Maybe, like thousands of other therapists, you have heard of and even read what are considered core postmodern therapy texts. And maybe you still struggle to put into a neat sentence your understanding of what it's all about. But, being tongue-tied on the matter could be more a function of the difficulty postmodernists themselves have in clearly defining what they're about than your ignorance. In this exclusive interview, Lois Shawver, the owner of the highly active Postmodern Therapies Homepage (www.california.com/~rathbone/pmth.htm), makes sense of what postmodernism is about and what it means for therapy.

What is postmodernism?

Postmodernism is the new philosophy for the skeptical. Postmoderns are those people who have begun to doubt the authors who seemed to have all the answers, the authors who seem to have everything wrapped up with a complete story of how things are and how they should be. There are many people who are postmodern today but don't know it. The postmodern therapist is the one who looks at all the schools of psychotherapy, from psychoanalysis to behavior theory to family therapy and says, "They talk like they have everything figured out but I don't believe it. They are just too confident. I can think of too many exceptions. I don't have everything figured out either, of course, but I trust my ability to read the issues sensitively and notice the exceptions more than I trust some famous innovator to tell me how things are and how I should do therapy."

Is postmodernism just another word for skepticism then?

Yes, except that it is also various philosophies that ponder our situation as postmodern skeptics.

Why are there a variety of postmodern philosophies rather than one?

It is much the same with any skepticism or agnosticism. Consider religious agnostics, for example. Religious agnostics might say they are skeptical about all religious beliefs, but still those who were raised in Christian homes might continue to celebrate Christmas while those raised in Jewish homes continue to have bar mitzvahs.

The agnosticism of postmodernism is much like that. Although there may be a rather general skepticism, the stamp of earlier beliefs such as psychoanalysis, research psychology, or family therapy, continue to show their trace.

Who do you contrast with the postmoderns? Who is there, in other words, who is not postmodern?

I think of there being three groups of people: the premoderns, the moderns, and the postmoderns. The premoderns are the people who explain things with literal parables such as people who take the Bible literally. The moderns, in contrast, try to put all their beliefs in scientific sounding theories. The postmoderns are more likely to take a non-literal but poetic approach to expressing themselves.

Do the postmoderns have a common set of beliefs?

Not really. They have different beliefs but they share a kind of humility about their beliefs. They treat their beliefs more like hunches than like faithful allegiances. They often describe themselves as "not-knowing" or "non-knowing". They take a professional stance without presenting themselves as experts. They offer help without presenting themselves as authorities. Although there are no real common beliefs, however, there is a common style of talking that frequently emerges from this shared skepticism.

Isn't it a loss not to have firm and committed beliefs?

Some people think so. I call these people "nostalgic postmoderns." I contrast them with the more "utopian" postmoderns. Utopian postmoderns have discovered something to replace their committed beliefs.

What replaces committed beliefs?

A special kind of conversation that I call "paralogy" after Jean-Francois Lyotard, one of the leaders of the postmodern movement. In paralogical conversations, people of quite diverse points of view, even modern or premodern points of view, find ways to talk together and make sense together. Instead of talking past each other or down to each other, they learn from each other, or that's what they try to do.

Paralogy is a very satisfying, very alluring kind of conversation that sometimes happens when people of diverse views come together and listen to each other. Because they no longer feel so firmly committed to a package of ideas (a theory or a parable), they can sometimes listen to each other with more generosity, and learn more from each other. It is not that people begin to think the same so much as that conceptual shifts begin to happen. This can be very exciting. Each conversationalist becomes more creative, more visionary. Once the conversation becomes more creative, many people do not miss the paternalism of modern and premodern forms of life.

Where would I find postmodernism manifesting itself?

Everywhere in the western world where conversation is encouraged.

Modernity was the culture of the book, but the book divides people into authors and readers. The authors and readers never meet each other. There is no conversation. Authors simply provide the ideas and readers simply drink them in.

But in the postmodern culture, people are turning away from books and prefer conversational paralogy. They are tired of monologues. They want to talk with each other, or listen to others talk. If they read texts, they will prefer what Lynn Hoffman (see page 28 for interview) calls "paralogues," a new form of writing in which authors read each other and respond specifically to each other's ideas. Rather than have an edited book with different and unrelated opinions in the different chapters, one might have a central section of the book, for example, with others responding to that section.

But you will see postmodernism manifesting itself wherever it is possible for people to talk. It will show up more in seminars, for example, than in lecture classes. It will show up more on the internet than in the library. It will show up where diversity of opinion is valued and allowed and show up less where allegiance to authority is required and enforced.

How will this postmodernism affect therapy theory and therapist education?

In modernity, therapy theory tended to consist of grand systems of thought authored by individual innovators. In postmodernity, theories authored by individual innovators are no longer very satisfying. The postmodern therapist knows that authors had to simplify their own thinking in order to package it as a book. More important than the book will be the conversation, the paralogical conversation. Students will want to hear authors in conversation more than just read what they have written. And the students will be eager to join those conversations. We will have to find creative ways for students to join in conversation with us.

In other words, graduate school will no longer be the culture of the book. It will be the culture of conversational paralogy. Books will still be used, but those that present themselves as final and complete will seem increasingly outdated. Whereas epigones were once rewarded for their faithful understanding of particular schools, in the postmodern university students will be rewarded for their ability to see connections between different authors and enter into the conversation to show those connections, and find new ways to harvest the insights of different innovators into evolving eclecticisms. The sense of being on the frontier will not belong only to the rich and famous.

Continued on the next page ...


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