A Personal Memory on the study and spread of Postmodern Thought in early 21st Century China: An interview with Michael A. Peters

Recently rearranging my computer files, I happened across a document titled “Postmodernism, Philosophy and Culture: An interview with Michael A. Peters “. The interviewers were two junior undergraduates from the Department of Philosophy, Beijing Normal University. The Chinese version of the record of interview was published in the Guangxi Social Sciences, 2003, No. 2.

As the record reveals, the two interviewers had done a good preparatory job, and the questions that they asked touched on several core issues of postmodern thought. In addition, those questions reflected the young students’ special attention to, interest in, and preference for a variety of issues related to postmodernism, including postmodern literature and art, postmodern feminism, and so on.

Being present for the interview, I was at most a facilitator. Thanks to a friend’s recommendation in 2000, I had the honor to invite Professor Michael Peters to visit Beijing Normal University. I was at that time beginning to immerse myself in postmodernist philosophy and had just translated and published Spirituality and Society: Postmodern Visions, originally edited by the constructive postmodernist David Ray Griffin (1988). At the same time, I was also researching the contemporary crisis of identity, which itself is an iconic topic of postmodernism. From a personal perspective, Michael Peters’ heroic temperament, purely scholarly character, kindness to others, and generosity were and are still a source of inspiration to me. Therefore, I felt like an old friend with Professor Michael Peters and Professor Tina Besley at the first meeting 20 years ago and have maintained warm academic exchanges and personal friendships with them ever since.

I am enthusiastic about the academic research of Professor Peters, who is committed to postmodern philosophy of education from the perspectives of thinkers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Friedrich Nietzsche. After his first visit to Beijing Normal University, I translated and published his “Poststructuralism/Structuralism, Postmodernism/Modernism: Narrating the Difference” (Journal of Harbin Teachers College No. 5, 2000), and “Lyotard, Education and the Problem of Capitalism in the Postmodern Condition” (Philosophical Translation Quarterly No.2, 2000). During my stay as a visiting scholar at the University of Alberta in Canada from September 2001 to August 2002, I completed the translation of a very difficult work, The End of Education: Toward Posthumanism by William V. Spanos, and dedicated it to Michael Peters, whom I had many times consulted about academic issues in the translation.

Michael paid his second visit to Beijing Normal University in the autumn of 2002. I set about arranging his academic schedule before he came to Beijing, for example I would invite him to give lectures to graduate students and teachers. One day, I hit upon an idea: I hoped that Professor Peters could give a class to undergraduates at the Department of Philosophy during his stay in Beijing, so that the students could experience a teaching scene similar to foreign universities. Coincidentally, I held a course for undergraduates in Western philosophy that semester, for which several lectures focused on postmodernist philosophy. Michael readily agreed, and his lectures were very successful. The students were well prepared and remained attentive during the class, and they asked many questions afterward. Although nearly 20 years have passed, I still remember many details of that scene.

The interview in question took place during Michael’s  second visit to Beijing and the two interviewers were among the students who were in that course. Michael gave clear, succinct, and thoughtful answers to their questions and demonstrated an attitude for equal and friendly dialogue throughout the interview. He was not teaching as a senior scholar, a famous scholar or even as a foreign expert, but instead sincerely engaged in an academic discussion in a dialogue style. That, perhaps, is exactly the stance that has been endorsed by postmodern philosophy of education.

Time flies quickly, and 20 years have elapsed since that interview. The academic community is unlikely to pay special attention to this ordinary interview in the future at a time when it will look back to summarize and review the introduction, dissemination and influence of postmodernism in China, but in my personal experience and in my academic career, it remain a beautiful memory that I will cherish forever.

The beginning of the 21st century was a period when postmodern thought exerted its great influence on Chinese academic circles, cultural circles and social life, and postmodernism was a popular subject in philosophy classes. Professor Peters visited Beijing several times during that period to give lectures, and he played an active role in the study of Chinese postmodern philosophy of education. If we consider the 40 years of China’s reform and opening up (from the late 1970s to the first 20 years of the 21st century) as a span of time, the 1990s and early 21st century witnessed the greatest influence of postmodernism on Chinese academic, cultural, art circles, and social life. To this day, postmodernism remains one of the most important fields of Chinese academic research. Taking the field of philosophical research as an example, contemporary continental European philosophy (whose main content is postmodern philosophy) is the most important research object in the study of foreign philosophy in China. This situation is a result of the combination of many factors, including the hard efforts of experts, one of whom is Michael Peters.

The exchanges between Professor Peters and the students exercised a positive impact on their choices of academic career. Liu Xiang, one of the interviewers, entered the Graduate School of Foreign Philosophy in the School of Philosophy at Beijing Normal University in 2004, and received her PhD in 2010 with a dissertation on the work of postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Since then, she has become an editor of the English philosophical magazine Frontiers of Philosophy in China. Dr. Liu Xiang has published in succession the monograph Taking the Side of Objects: The Studies of Jean Baudrillard’s Extreme Anti-subjectivism Thought, the translation of Fatal Strategies by Jean Baudrillard, and the English papers “‘I Effaced Myself’ and The Disappearance of the Subject: A Comparison between Zhuangzi and Jean Baudrillard’s Anti-Subjectivism”. She participated in the postmodern philosophy undergraduate course that I offered at Beijing Normal University every year until 2019, teaching postmodern literature and art to undergraduates. In addition, another of the interviewing students also took an academic path to become a researcher in the field of religious philosophy.

Another outcome of Michael Peters’ academic activities at Beijing Normal University was that four doctoral students from the School of Philosophy were successively accepted to study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as joint PhD students under Michael. As well, one of the teachers at Beijing Normal University went to the Department of Educational Studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland as a visiting scholar to do academic research under the his guidance when he was teaching there.

In closing, I would like to share the memory that often flashes across my mind from Michael Peters’s second stay in Beijing. Professor Peters and I ran into Professor Zhu Xudong one day when we there were having lunch at the Lanhui Restaurant on Beijing Normal University. Professor Zhu is now the Dean of Faculty of Education at Beijing Normal University, but he was studying postmodern education at that time. When I introduced Professor Peters to Professor Zhu, the latter said that he knew about Professor Peters’ research work. Twenty years later, Professor Peters currently holds the invited position of Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Education, and the two have become colleagues. That might have something to do with the destiny that Chinese people often talk about.


Postmodernism, Philosophy and Culture: An interview with Professor Michael A. Peters

Wang Zi  and Liu Xiang   Department of Philosophy, Beijing Normal University


Wang Zi and Liu Xiang (hereafter “Authors”): Professor Michael Peters, postmodernism marks to a certain extent an orientation of spiritual value in contemporary Western culture. Being a very influential scholar in the field of postmodern philosophy and postmodern educational philosophy, what do you think of the overall characteristics of postmodern philosophy?

Michael A. Peters : Postmodernism has been shown as a phenomenon varying from one person to another and affecting different academic fields, but it is a term very hard to define. However, we can get a general idea how to define it by looking at the research objects of postmodern theories. Briefly, postmodernism takes modernism as its theoretical object. Postmodernism has been used to stand for a new era or style against modernism, whether in the various studies of architecture, history, literature, and art, or in philosophy. If there is a term that can be used to define postmodernism, to my thinking, the most pertinent one must be anti-foundationalism, which, as you know, is not intended to refuse the possibility of knowledge although it has been claimed that the exploration of the basis for knowledge has been misled.

In correspondence with anti-foundationalism, postmodernism reveals some other characters, for example, anti-essentialism, anti-epistemological standpoint, and anti-representationalism, the rejection of the picture of knowledge as accurate representation, and the rejection of truth as correspondence to reality.

Authors: As we have been finding out, people have started to discuss structuralism together with postmodernism and Neo-Dadaism. Questions concerning the ruling transdisciplinary paradigm and the structurality at the center of structuralism have met challenges from poststructuralism. These challenges led to the development of feminist research and psychoanalysis in France, but also to important cross-fertilizations and interpenetrations among the disciplines as well as to intellectual advances in newly forming sub-disciplines in different fields. With respect to this deep influence of poststructuralism, we wonder how you think of these new research tendencies based on the postmodern experience.

Michael A. Peters: The term “poststructuralism” is not beyond doubt. In my view, the response to the so-called status of structuralism among sciences is precisely the response to its status as a metaparadigm among social sciences. As a movement inspired by Nietzsche, Heidegger and others, poststructuralism goes all out to dissolve the structure, systematicity and scientific status of structuralism and to criticize its underlying metaphysics, which it extends into many various directions; at the same time, it retains the central part of structuralism—the critique of humanist discourse. Its primary character lies in the fact that it is not a term used to convey the sense of homogeneity, singularity and unity, but a way of thinking, a philosophic style, and a writing style.

The primary contribution of poststructuralism concerns its inquiry about structuralism. First, poststructuralism has successfully re-introduced history by laying a new emphasis on diachronic analysis, mutation, changes, the interruption of structure, discontinuity, repetition, archaeology, and, finally, the so-called genealogy that might be even more important. Second, poststructuralism has challenged scientism among the human sciences, where it epistemologically opposes anti-foundationalism and re-emphasizes perspectivism through interpretation. Third, Nietzsche’s critique of truth, his emphasis on the relationship between interpretation and power, and his attention to the question of style in philosophic discourse became central poststructural motifs. Fourth, poststructuralism underwent a creative theoretical development in connection with Heidegger’s concept of technology. Poststructuralism is, in a way of speaking, a critical philosophy of technology. Fifth, poststructuralism was established on the critique of the political identity that modern liberal democracy constructs, and it particularly deconstruct the series of binary oppositions upon which it rests; this has further developed the critique democracy, and thus triggered political criticism of the value of the Enlightenment. And sixth, poststructuralists have used, developed and applied the concept of “difference” in distinctive ways, which has proven effective in diagnosing “power/knowledge” and the exposition of dominant technology.

Authors: Generally speaking, any contemporary philosophical thought can find its sources in previous philosophies, for example in the case of using classical elements in 1980s postmodern architecture. So, can the interest in philosophies of classical culture be viewed to a certain extent as a historical return in the eyes of postmodernists?

Michael A. Peters: To answer this question requires some attention to a group of terms used to mark out periods, changes of style, and genre or tone in the West. These terms often give people the impression of similar experiences of time. And precisely because of this, when we come to the term “postmodern,” we often negate modern times, or at the least we make the relationship between modern and postmodern complicated and obscure. I personally believe that this practice is strongly misleading, because the experience of time not only shows considerable disparities, it is also culturally restricted.

Postmodernism consists of a set of discourses together with various cultural phenomena. To some degree, in popular usage it implies an apocalyptic tone of “ends”: the end of modernism, the end of metaphysics, the end of humanism, the end of Man, the death of God, the end of value, the end of ideology, the end of history, the end of the welfare state, the end of capitalism, and so forth. And at the same time, it is related to the expectation of something that follows “the end”: it is “the new”, “the beginning”, or “a return.” These seemingly eschatological narratives of endings are endemic to Western culture and help define both its cultural specificity and its sources of renewal.

To my thinking, the disputes over postmodernism in the contrasting Chinese and Western contexts indicates something that is “deeper” and functions at a cultural level, and that is what I call apocalyptic thinking. The word “apocalypse” originated from the Greek term meaning “to uncover,” “to reveal” or “to disclose.” Later it entered into Christianity and began to refer to the intervention by God in history. The notion of apocalypse has been more secularized since it was transplanted from its theological form into philosophy. In the secular interpretation on history, the word “apocalypse” means to consider a civilization, a paradigm or an age through their possible ends. Here I would argue that apocalyptic thinking can be considered a deeply ingrained way of thinking—a deep cultural habit of thinking—that holds for cyclical conceptions of time as well as linear progressive conceptions.

Apocalyptic narratives can be found in many fields. In philosophy, twentieth-century Continental thought since Nietzsche carries a deep foreboding of apocalyptic themes. Of course, similar themes are also available in Russian and German thinking. After Nietzsche, who announced “the death of God,” there came in succession Martin Heidegger on “the end of metaphysics,” Michael Foucault on “the end of man,” and Daniel Bell on “the end of industrial society”.

Here I would like to express my agreement with the idea that postmodern philosophy puts history back into philosophy, and that postmodern cosmology is closely related to its pre-Socratic counterparts.

Authors: As we have learned, feminism has been exercising an increasingly obvious influence on Western philosophy, literature and art, politics, sociology, and social movements, and some scholars regard feminism as an important spiritual trait of postmodernism, as something related to post-patriarchy. We think that the feminist movement has completed its practical correspondence with post-patriarchy, what do you think about this opinion?

Michael A. Peters: It is true that feminism is exerting an increasingly obvious influence upon all aspects of social life, and that such impact is becoming more and more pronounced in all fields, but I do not think that feminism as a movement can be viewed as simply a postmodernism coming in any form from post-patriarchy. Just as many feminist historians have exhibited—at least in the West it is so— feminism as a movement was first formed in the nineteenth-century struggle of women for the right to vote and equality. In a certain sense, it predicts indeed some aesthetics in art, a cultural movement, or a philosophical postmodernism, for, you know, women in New Zealand did not obtain suffrage until the late 1890s; only after that women in Britain began to have the right to vote, but French females did not have a chance to vote until 1944. Feminist philosophy can be traced back to the Enlightenment, the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolution, and a variety of revolutions in Europe. In China, as I think, feminism in a true sense should be attributed to the era pioneered by Mao Zedong. Fundamentally speaking, terms from the Enlightenment might have been used to define the original basis for feminism, and some current forms of feminism might have arisen from the call for universal suffrage. In the sense of their philosophical facades, nevertheless, they followed the postmodern turn. Perhaps we should return to The Second Sex published by Simone de Beauvoir in 1949, and to the 1953 event in the United States when the term “women’s liberation” was first incorporated into contemporary texts. Ten years later, Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, and she became the first president of the National Organization for Women in 1966.

In general, postmodernism and poststructuralism have been intended to overcome the binary opposition between men and women created and maintained by relationships of power. Postmodernism provides feminists with a tool for criticizing this binary opposition (and other binary oppositions latent therein, for example those between man and nature, rationality and irrationality, body and mind, and so on). Such binary oppositions are a part of anthropocentrism. In 1980s, some feminists drew on the experience of poststructuralism for their own deconstruction of binary oppositions, of female identity, and of the history of women’s struggle. And their advocacy of differences eventually broke the feminist movement into several incompatible divisions.

Authors: In comparison with other general theories, postmodernism impresses people with the feeling of entering into the field of art, where postmodern films have attracted large audiences due in part to their most visualized forms. How do you think we should analyze the postmodern elements in certain films from a philosophic angle?

Michael A. Peters: In today’s highly commercialized society, the media’s commercializing trends will become stronger and stronger. To really understand film and other video forms, we now have an urgent need to construct and develop a real philosophy of media.

Postmodern films not only imitate the skills of visual arts (especially of avant-garde art) and the experimental skills of postmodern novels, but they innovate in relation to frames, editing, shooting, and images. Correspondingly, postmodern films try to represent what cannot be represented, erase boundaries, and experiment with time, and they apply methods of hybridization, imitation, and montage. They encourage a sort of irony through film art, they reflect on history, and they foster the feeling in audiences of peeping into real life.

The center of postmodern film criticism lies in the so-called A— A relationship, in which the first A refers to an author, director or creator, and the second A to the audience or observer. As far as usual criticism is concerned, the meaning of a certain poem, song, novel or film can be viewed as coming from the intention of its author. According to this model, we will be able to decide the meaning of texts so long as we can guess correctly the intention of the author, and in these cases the significance of audience or readers fails to receive its due attention.

In postmodern criticism, meanings are not the simplistic outcome of an author’s intentions, but results more from the relationship between audience and authors. When we try to understand a film from this basic instance, we find that the author or director as well as the audience have been decentralized. We may question the role of a director: Where does he or his guidance come from? To what extent can the director adapt a screenplay? And what experiences and traditions has the script absorbed? From the perspective of postmodernism, films or image media reveal behaviors of collective participation that bring media technology and traditional art together. Then, how to understand the role of an audience or observer? Here, we can also discuss the shift of models, that is, the change from a passive model to an active model: the model of effects taking television as a tool for social management; the model of use and contentment assuming an active individual observer (despite the lack of social or cultural contents); the anthropological model trying to explain how different audiences treat image media respectively, which emphasizes the fulfillment of diversity and practical watching; and the positive postmodern insight freely constructing the bits and pieces of televisions. In a manner of speaking, postmodern philosophy intends to make audiences construct the meaning of their own responses with an attitude of active participation when they stay in front of screen media in various circumstances and backgrounds. Therefore, the meaning comes out of the intricate A—A relationships as I mentioned before. As a general model, A—A is something combining an active watching model with a passive watching model.

Authors: As we know, Professor Peters, you have visited China several times and established very close academic relationships with many scholars and academic institutions in China, so you must have learned that postmodernism as an academic trend, after its introduction into China, has really exerted considerable influence and impact upon the circles of literature, art, popular culture, and even philosophy in this country, and that it has received normal criticism from academia in China at the same time, as it has happened in other places. In our opinion, such criticism should continue to be deepened, and postmodernism as an academic trend that has been academically influential in the contemporary West should deserve more of our research. In this sense, we think that this interview will be greatly instructive to our future understanding and study of postmodernism, and we also expect to do more work on it.

Michael A. Peters: It is a pleasure to discuss these issues with you. Actually, it also a helpful process for me to do some summation on questions that I have been thinking about. To have dialogues in various forms about academic issues has been in fact a desirable academic attitude for postmodern philosophy all time. Because of the angle, characteristics and discourse manners peculiar to postmodern philosophy, and because of its ambivalence towards traditions, I think it is not odd that postmodernism has been criticized. Here I would like to stress, as it has been shown in our conversation, that the emergence of postmodern philosophy has its own theoretical and practical bases. Therefore, understanding it cannot be isolated from such particular contexts as contemporary society, politics, philosophy, and so forth. As for the theme of postmodern matters, I would like to add something. In my opinion, in interpreting the “post” in the word “postmodern,” we should pay attention to its nuances in different expressions. For example, in the concepts of “postmodernity” and “postmodernism,” the prefix “post” can be interpreted as a critical attitude, but in the conception of “postmodernization,” it should be explained as a process, a process of constant fulfillment, rectification, and improvement. In this sense, postmodernism precisely proposes the rejection of absolutes towards modernism, and just because of this, postmodernism cannot be viewed as the end of modernism. Rather, it is a certain initial state of modernism, just as Jean-François Lyotard says in his essay “Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism?”, “this state is constant.”

And I also sincerely expect more opportunities for cooperation with Chinese scholars to do further in-depth research on postmodern themes.

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Full Citation Information:
Chengbing, W. (2021). A Personal Memory on the study and spread of Postmodern Thought in early 21st Century China: An interview with Michael A. Peters. PESA Agora. https://pesaagora.com/columns/a-personal-memory-on-the-study-and-spread-of-postmodern-thought-in-early-21st-century-china-an-interview-with-michael-a-peters/

Wang Chengbing

Wang Chengbing is Professor of philosophy in the School of Philosophy, Shanxi University, China. He is associate editor-in-chief of the English journal Frontiers of Philosophy in China. His main research fields are pragmatism, postmodern philosophy and education of philosophy. He has published seventy articles, twenty monographs and translations. His new publications are The Crisis of Identity in the Context of Modernity and The Themes of Postmodern Philosophy (Ed.) (both 2017, Beijing Institute of Technology Press ( 北京理工大学出版社). He is currently heading a major national project “Translation of the Philosophical Works by William James” (15 volumes) which will be concluded by December, 2022.