What is postmodernism and what does it have to do with therapy, anyway?
作者: Lois Shawver / 7410次阅读 时间: 2011年6月19日
标签: Interview interview LoisShawver postmodernism 后现代主义
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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

Can you give an example of the ways that postmodern therapists might find to relate to clients?

They might introduce clients to the experience of a paralogical dialogue, one in which the client's own knowledge is given more weight than it has been given in the past. They might also interview clients to help them find their own preferred pathways. Or they might make multiple suggestions so that no single suggestion carries the weight of authority. They might also introduce new postmodern vocabularies or idioms. I offer one myself, but these idioms are presented in a provisional way.

There is a surprisingly large number of ways to relate to people usefully without taking the position that you know the truth about them and know how they should lead their lives.

Who are the leading postmodern authors you read, especially in disciplines related to therapy?

First, I must tell you the philosophers I read because what draws postmoderns together today is the postmodern philosophers they read. Wittgenstein is probably the most prominent philosopher read by postmodern therapists. Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Richard Rorty, are also inspiring to postmodern thinkers.

Postmoderns also read about social constructionism. Social constructionism is a visionary approach to postmodernism. These are utopian postmoderns, not nostalgic ones. Social constructionists remind us that we humans create the institutions that define our lives and that we often do so unwittingly, just by accepting the scripts we're handed. Noticing this makes it possible to consider alternative ways of defining our lives.

I am particularly inspired here by the social constructionist writings of Sheila McNamee, John Shotter, and, of course, Mary and Kenneth Gergen. They have so many books, and they often publish in combination. Let me suggest, however, the now classic text, Therapy as Social Construction by McNamee and Gergen.

I am taken by Douglas Ingram's work, too. He is a psychoanalyst who has broken with the psychoanalytic tradition of interpreting every client with the same Oedipal storyline. Instead, he finds ways to give each therapy relationship a "signature" that constructs the relationship as unique and special. I cite his work a lot in my writing and am presently preparing a paper to show what I find inspirational about Douglas Ingram's thinking.

Also, high on the list of postmodern therapists whom I admire is Lynn Hoffman (see page 28). Hoffman is breaking new ground with a philosophy of "speaking with a different voice." She takes her concept of a "different voice" from her reading of Carol Gilligan. The different voice is a voice that has learned to avoid sinking into the acrimonious position disputes that have characterized modernity. Her most postmodern work to date is a collection of essays called Exchanging Voices.

Harlene Anderson's (see New Therapist 5) work is also postmodern. She introduces a "not-knowing" style and actively invites clients to collaborate with her in exploring what she calls the "not yet said." I especially like her work because it can be imported into other ways of doing therapy. Surely every postmodern can profit from reading her book, Conversation, Language and Possibilities.

Another postmodern therapist is Tom Andersen (see New Therapist 2 and 5). His "reflecting team" is a format that replaces the hierarchical, expert status of the modern therapist with the collaborative, side-by-side status of the postmodern one. In this, he seems to extend Lyotard's concept of paralogy into therapeutic practice.

Then there is a large group of activist postmoderns who work with Fred Newman and Lois Holzman (see New Therapist 5). They challenge the model of therapy as an institutionalized profession. Their clients are often in training to become what they call "social therapists," and their therapy does not all take place in an office. Newman, for example, uses self-written and professionally performed morality plays to inspire new perspectives. This team also works a lot with inner city youths by holding talent shows that allow teenagers to develop and enjoy their abilities. The Holzman/Newman team are very busy with their own version of a "non-knowing" approach, and their impact has been remarkable (see New Therapist 5).

There are others, too. I have recently heard Rob Doan speak. Doan is the co-author with Alan Parry of Story-Revisions. Hearing him speak I am convinced of his postmodernism. There is an open style to his talk, a way of inviting others to join with him. And I would like to include Klaus Deissler's work on social poetizing, which shows how we label things with metaphors that help shape our worlds. I think Tom Strong's deconstruction of our diagnostic categories should be included, as well as his other writing (see page 36 of this edition).

And I want to mention, too, a budding new group of Derrideans, Glenn Larner, David Pare, Alexa Hepburn. My list could go on and on, but perhaps these will be enough for now.

How do you see postmodernism related to poststructuralism?

Poststructuralism is one of the routes to postmodern skepticism. There are others.

Structuralism was the school of thought that said that there was a hidden underlying structure to the human mind. Different structuralists posed their own theory as to what exactly this hidden structure was. Poststructuralists, no longer believe there is such a well-defined, stable mental structure and some poststructuralists become postmodern as a way of dealing with this skepticism. That is, they turn to conversational paralogy and try to avoid forcing the paralogy to particular conclusion. Hershey Bell taught me the term "agendaless" to refer to this way of interacting.

Michael White, however, stayed with poststructuralism without moving into this postmodern paralogical approach. As you know, White helped create an important version of narrative therapy. He was heavily influenced by the ideas of the poststructuralist, Michel Foucault. For White, the term "poststructural" calls attention to the specific problems that underlie therapeutic modernism in a way that the term "postmodern" does not. His school of thought offers creative ways of dealing with problems once understood to be structural, but he does not call himself "postmodern," even though he would agree with many postmodern positions at least this is how I understand Michael White's reasons for considering himself poststructuralist rather than postmodern.

As opposed to structuralism, positivism was the school of thought that believed that words always labeled objects and that good positivist philosophy could teach us how to get the labels exactly right. This is the philosophy of most research in the social sciences, research that defines its variables and statistically analyzes its data. This was what I once believed in, and so this was my own route to postmodernism. It was also Wittgenstein's route. This postmodernism is postpositivist.

Remember, however, all of this simplifies the postmodern picture. Most postmoderns study both poststructuralist and postpositivist writing.

How do you see postmodernism related to poststructuralism?

Poststructuralism is one of the routes to postmodern skepticism. There are others.

Structuralism was the school of thought that said that there was a hidden underlying structure to the human mind. Different structuralists posed their own theory as to what exactly this hidden structure was. Poststructuralists, no longer believe there is such a well-defined, stable mental structure and some poststructuralists become postmodern as a way of dealing with this skepticism. That is, they turn to conversational paralogy and try to avoid forcing the paralogy to particular conclusion. Hershey Bell taught me the term "agendaless" to refer to this way of interacting.

Michael White, however, stayed with poststructuralism without moving into this postmodern paralogical approach. As you know, White helped create an important version of narrative therapy. He was heavily influenced by the ideas of the poststructuralist, Michel Foucault. For White, the term "poststructural" calls attention to the specific problems that underlie therapeutic modernism in a way that the term "postmodern" does not. His school of thought offers creative ways of dealing with problems once understood to be structural, but he does not call himself "postmodern," even though he would agree with many postmodern positions at least this is how I understand Michael White's reasons for considering himself poststructuralist rather than postmodern.

As opposed to structuralism, positivism was the school of thought that believed that words always labeled objects and that good positivist philosophy could teach us how to get the labels exactly right. This is the philosophy of most research in the social sciences, research that defines its variables and statistically analyzes its data. This was what I once believed in, and so this was my own route to postmodernism. It was also Wittgenstein's route. This postmodernism is postpositivist.

Remember, however, all of this simplifies the postmodern picture. Most postmoderns study both poststructuralist and postpositivist writing.

Is postmodernism just a fad?

In a way yes, and in a way no. I believe the postmodernism of today is likely to be a passing thing. Today, postmodernism is defined by its skepticism, but I think postmodernism will come to be seen as the kind of creative spirit that fosters collaboration and new ways of talking and writing between people who do not necessarily share an allegiance to the same school of thought.

Is postmodernism likely to affect our future as therapists? If so, how?

As therapists, postmodernism will make us work more collaboratively. We will study our clients' situation with them in ways that we hope will foster their creativity. We will be more inventive about approaches and less condemning of approaches different from our own.

I also believe that postmodernism will lead, eventually, to more online therapies (see New Therapist 7, due out in May 2000, for an exhausitive look at online therapy). Some will be self-help groups (sometimes including therapists) and some will be new types of advice services. I have recently imagined that we would have families describing their problems online while reflecting teams observed and commented over the internet. Regardless, the design of these conversations will be different from what we have known before. They will exploit the new online medium to foster better relationships among speakers, respect for difference. They will often tend to betray the theorist's intentions in order to make the therapy fit the local situation better. These postmodern therapists will be more respectful of clients than therapists have generally been.

That's how I see things going. However, like any postmodern, I realize that this peering around the corner is largely imaginative. There are so many unknown forces. Still, it is hard to imagine that whatever comes after postmodernism will be unaffected by the changes it has brought us.

Lois Shawver grew up in Texas, the daughter of parents who had not graduated from high school. Her father, unable to read, did not appreciate Lois' early scholarly interests. At nineteen she was engaged and was a mother of two in her early twenties. One day, Lois' loving grandmother offered to move in with her and babysit for a year so Lois could go to college. Six years later, Lois had a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She has been in private practice for 25 years and worked as a prison psychologist part-time for 15 years. She has published numerous articles and one book. Today, she lives with her husband Douglas Kurdys and their two dogs in northern California where she continues with a private practice, runs a popular internet listserv on postmodern therapies and publishes on postmodernism as it relates to therapy. Visit her at www.california.com/~rathbone/pmth.htm

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