Scarlet & Grey
Ohio State University
School of Music

Joseph Natoli and Postmodernism

Supplementary Notes by David Huron

Music 829
May 5, 2000

Natoli, Joseph. A Primer to Postmodernity. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.


Postmodernism means different things to different scholars. Joseph Natoli would be the first to claim that his book describes only one brand of postmodernism. Notwithstanding Natoli's caution, A Primer to Postmodernity does accurately represent the main ideas in postmodernism.


To begin with, Natoli notes that he is morally outraged by the existing political system. At several points in his book he mentions "the growing gap between rich and poor in America" (p.32) and the "growing economic injustice" (p.191).

Natoli regards market capitalism as one of the primary culprits. "There are literally multitudes of disenfranchised, impoverished, victimized people, who would take objection to the dehumanization and devastation caused by untamed or modulated market values. ... There is nothing innately reasonable about ever-increasing consumption and production that the free market advocates." (p.66)

"I wouldn't be priming you toward a postmodern awareness" says Natoli "if I didn't think that [the world wasn't headed toward] strong leaders with quick fixes -- a totalitarianism of either the left, the right, or ordained by a deity". (pp.8-9).

For Natoli (and many others), postmodernism provides:

  1. an explanation as to why the system is so impervious to change,
  2. an explanation as to why minority and marginalized people are so powerless, and
  3. a program identifying what can be done to change things.

The Culpability of Rationality

Given the injustice that exists in the world, one must ask "Why aren't things different?" In particular, why hasn't rational argument succeeded in rectifying the injustices of the world?

Here Natoli points out that logic, reason, and rationality aren't the impartial intellectual tools we might think they are. Natoli notes that the Nazi's claimed that reason was on their side; the activities of the Third Reich was "eminently rational to them" (p.49). "Every powerful story antes up with reason as an alibi." (p.161)

Surely, if all sides in a debate claim to be acting "rationally," then rationality itself becomes suspect.

The Failure of Scientific Reasoning

In identifying the problems of rationality, postmodernism adopts a number of criticisms of science that have arisen from within the philosophy of science. As Natoli notes, "postmodernity is not questioning anything that scientists themselves have not questioned". (p.131)

Like Pierre Duhem, postmodernism argues against naive realism -- that there exists an external world independent of our thoughts, and that we observe the world directly. Like Karl Popper, postmodernism argues that "facts" are theory-laden. Observing something as simple as a "D-minor chord" requires an enormous theoretical baggage. We "see" what our theories allow us to see.

Natoli explicitly suggests that "the postmodern mindset" began with Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn provides two essential concepts for postmodernism. First, Kuhn identified the notion of a paradigm -- an over-arching world view that is held by a group of people. The second idea is the notion of incommensurability -- that rational debate between people from different paradigms is impossible.

Like Paul Feyerabend, postmodernists argue that there is no "method" for arriving at the truth. Argument is propaganda.

Master Narrative

Postmodernism replaces Kuhn's term -- paradigm -- with its own term -- narrative. Since one paradigm is not rationally superior to another, it is more honest to characterize paradigms as "stories." The term narrative better draws attention to the "story" quality of paradigms. Using terms like narrative and story also subverts any tendency to regard any particular paradigm as "true".

Incidentally, the terms originally used by Lyotard are petits récits (for dissident narrative) and grands récits (for dominant or master narrative).

Recall that Kuhn characterized "normal science" as dominated by a single widely-held paradigm. In postmodernist terminology, the dominant paradigm is referred to as the master narrative.

Kuhn conceived of paradigms as restricted to particular disciplines, such as chemistry or geology. In addition, in Kuhn's portrayal of science, paradigms are replaced periodically by revolutionary moments that occur perhaps every 50 or 100 years. In postmodernism, by contrast, a master narrative is typically conceived as dominanting an entire society. Moreover, the principal extant master narrative ("modernism") has been dominant in the West since the Enlightenment. In other words, the master narrative of modernism is both longer-lived and more pervasive than any paradigm identified by Kuhn.


We are born into a world of already existing narratives. These are narratives, not of our own choosing.

In addition, there is no neutral place where the individual can "regroup" and pick a narrative which best conforms to reality. "The self is not in a closet observing at a distance but already dragged into the scene, already infiltrated with what is to be reached "objectively." (p.182)


"Only because there is no such grounding logic, do postmodernists claim that our representations of world are arbitrary." (p.72)

"Postmodernity has an attitude toward language that removes it from the innocence and instrumentality that Enlightenment Modernity accepted" (p.71).

For Natoli, it is important that to recognize that postmodernism is not a form of philosophical idealism.

"Again, the postmodernist does not deny that the world exists or that we make every effort to strike a precise correspondence between what we say and what is real." (p.120)
In this respect, Natoli is in agreement with Stanley Aronowitz[1]:
"`Many people think that those of us who say that language mediates our experience of the world are denying the existence of the word . . . [sic] I do believe the world exists. But you can't separate what the world means from the language used to describe it. To use a simple phrase, reality does not yield its secrets. It has to be interpreted.'" (p.120)

Manufacturing Truth

For the modernist "truth" is discovered. However, for the postmodernist "truth" is manufactured.

Natoli quotes Richard Rorty as follows:

"Truth cannot be out there -- cannot exist independently of the human mind -- because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own -- unaided by the describing activities of human beings -- cannot (p.5)" [p.12]

"Knowledge" is not a knowledge of some independent external reality. Knowledge is a social construction. Reality is a social construction. (Berger and Luckman)

Asking Whose Truth?

If truth is manufactured, the next logical question is to ask, "Whose truth is this?" "Who created the master narrative?" "Who does this truth serve?"


A social order needs to maintain itself. The master narrative is reinforced in every conceivable way. "Education is the means. So is the family. So is every social institution, practice, and discourse." (p. 139)

The master narrative gives power to some people while disempowering others. As the disempowered begin to find their voices -- to create their own narratives -- the master narrative attempts to contain and defuse these alternative interpretations of the world. Society responds to these challenges by offering counter-narratives that provide a rationale or alibi (p.183) that preserves and sustains the master narrative.

In forming counter-narratives, there is no logic or rationality in the sense of speaking the truth. There is, only the raw exercise of power.

"It is not a simple matter of modernity wanting to seek the truth and postmodernity not wanting to. Rather what we see is modernity wanting and needing a universally shared reality so that the only problem to be faced is a methodological one: what are the best methods to be employed in discovering the truths of this reality?" (p.168)

"Gramsci's notion of hegemony is precisely this: an order of things making an effort to bring a cultural polyphony of meanings and values into a monologue." (p.139)

Principals of Postmodernism

Natoli approvingly cites Todd May who identified two basic principles of postmodernism: what we might call the antirepresentational principle and the pluralist principle.

To this, we might add a third principle:

Cultural Studies

As noted above, postmodernism provides ways to challenge the hegemony of the master narrative through deconstruction. Postmodern scholars who pursue deconstructive analysis can be found in many departments. However, the field of "cultural studies" provides one of the principal homes for postmodern scholarship.

The principal approach is to deconstruct a "text" -- to analyze press reports, TV shows, film plots, advertisements, speeches, photographs, music, and all the other representations that a society produces. Deconstruction aims to unravel a text and to show (1) how the text has multiple meanings (not "one" meaning), and (2) to show how the text serves a particular group of people.

Natoli provides the following description of how cultural studies are pursued.

  1. "We have no disciplinary methodology that promises to reveal meaning and value." (p.181)
  2. Proving something empirically is not possible.
  3. Empirical investigations of the world do not slowly establish some foundation of absolute truth.
  4. "Numbers, like reasons, are pawns; they can be summoned to produce any reality we wish to construct. This is clearly shown by statistics that can be generated to support both sides of a hypothesis." (p.182)
  5. "We have disciplines and narratives in the same way we have high culture and popular culture -- we say our objective analyses enable us to fashion reliable criteria by which we can distinguish notable ways of attending to the world from superficial ways." (p.182)
  6. Cultural studies doesn't waste time creating and defending so-called rigorous, objective, analytical methodologies, just as it wastes no time in pretending it is employing a universal, absolute Reason or any system of logic based on an independent critical reason. (p.182)
  7. We attempt to describe our own life-world.
  8. We attempt to describe prevalent discourses that shape our social world.
  9. We attempt to describe the cracks in the social order -- those feelings, desires, dreams and manias -- that are especially evident in art, and that constitute the "cultural imaginary".
  10. We trace the effects of chaos, and how the social order attempts to defuse such chaos.

A major difference between Cultural Studies and empirical explanation is that the postmodernist never comes to some stable place of closure. Representations are always in motion, and so conclusion or closure is never warranted. (p.173)

Leading the Prison Break

"In the end", says Natoli, "I want to lead a sort of prison break out of the notion that we're all living in the same, one reality and not in innumerable stories about reality that we share to various degrees and in various ways. None of these stories can validate themselves as reality and disprove all the others. Or, to put it another way, they can all validate themselves in a thoroughly rational and/or empirical way and they can all invalidate each other. Reason and its minions, logic, and statistics, work all sides equally well. It all depends on time and place." (p.7)

The final purpose of postmodernism is to give us the tools to escape from over-bearing master narratives. The goal is freedom. Freedom from narratives that presume to tell you how you experience the world. Freedom for everyone, not just the elect few.


[1] As quoted in Liz McMillen, "The Science Wars," .I "The Chronicle of Higher Education," June 28, 1996, A13: