Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth
London, Routledge, 2011, ISBN: 9780415782180; 160pp.; Price: £75.00
Date accessed: 10 August, 2022
In History in the Discursive Condition (2011) – a follow up to her (for me) ground-breaking Realism and Consensus (1), and Sequel to History: Postmodernism and the Crisis of Representational Time (2) – Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, a student of interdisciplinary cultural history and theory, explores the practical implications for history of the discursive condition, the condition which in her view has been created (or at least is in the process of being created) by the so called ‘postmodern’ challenge to modernism. (Readers who would like to know more about Ermarth might like to read her strangely reticent ‘Invitation to historians’(3)).
Ermarth, it may be noted, does not much like the terms ‘postmodernism’ and ‘postmodernity’, which in her opinion have ‘lost value from too little specificity or too much contradictory or careless usage’ (p. xii). In North America, in particular, treatment of the term ‘post-modern’ by a variety of generally unnamed intellectuals and others has been too often ‘trivialising’, ‘dismissive’ and ‘inadequate’ (p. xii). Where possible, we should avoid using the term. Following the precedent set by Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition, she personally prefers to use the terms modern condition and discursive condition.
In part one of History in the Discursive Condition (made up of two chapters, on the modern condition and on the discursive condition), Ermarth explains in some detail how the modern condition (modernism) arose out of the ‘ discontinuous’ medieval background; and how it became accepted as the established order of understanding. In part two (made up of four further chapters, on individuality and agency in the discursive condition; discursive times: phase, phrase, rhythm; method and the tools of thought; and action and art) she explains how, in the late 19th and 20th centuries, the modern condition (modernism) was challenged by a variety of artists, scientists, philosophers and others, with the result that a paradigmatic shift (a ‘tectonic’ shift, a ‘sea-change, a ‘second Reformation’) occurred in the process of understanding, a development which, in her opinion, has not yet been fully accepted by the academic community.
The medieval (Christian) world out of which modernism emerged was, in Ermarth’s opinion, one in which time and space were seen as being static and discontinuous. In this static and discontinuous world, narrative was not based on a meaningful distinction between past, present and future, but on ‘interpretative generalisations of typological paradigms’ (p. 7), essences united only in the mind of God. The successful French king, for instance, was one who ‘approximated the type represented by Charlemagne, however remote from any French king Charlemagne’s immediate concerns might have been’ (p. 7). Objects in space were identifiable merely in themselves, not in their mutual relationships with each other. Even in cases where time had some thematic value, it was given a ritual rather than a formal importance. The emphasis was always on difference and incompatibility, not on continuity.
Modernism, the successor to the medieval perspective on things, or rather lack of a perspective, according to Ermarth (here she draws on her earlier work on the subject) started in the period of the Renaissance, when artists such as Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Leone Battista Alberti, Michelangelo and Raphael, created a new ‘perspective technology’, a development that lead effectively to a revolution in human consciousness. In this new world, objects (and people) were/are no longer thought of as being static and discontinuous, as in the medieval period, but as interconnected, wrapped in an envelope of neutral, homogeneous and infinite space and time (Newton’s absolute time, ultimately God’s time), subject to mutually informative measurement. It was this interconnectedness of objects in space and time, in Ermarth’s opinion, that enabled the discovery of scientific laws (and generalisations), the creation of realistic art and literature, and the invention of historical representation.
Finally, out of the modern condition – so Ermarth believes – arose the discursive condition, one created, mainly in the 20th century, by a series of revolutionary artists (Manet, Cezanne, Picasso, Braque, Breton), scientists (Einstein), writers (Woolf, Joyce, Beckett), philosophers (Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault), and students of linguistics (de Saussure), who individually and collectively challenged the principal assumptions of the modern condition, in particular the neutrality of space and time, the objectivity of the ‘real’, the common denominator of measurement and generalisation (except in the most limited of circumstances), the transparency of language, as a vehicle for understanding the world, and the concept of individuality and its associated concept of individual agency. No longer, it seems, in this new world of surrealism, relativity theory, quantum mechanics, the stream of consciousness and modern linguistic analysis, can we depend on space and time to provide the common denominators that make possible mutually informative measurement. No longer can we reconcile difference, using a ‘consensus apparatus’ to bridge the gap between irreconcilable modes of understanding. No longer, in other words, can we identify and observe a real and objective world, out there, awaiting our description.
Of these artistic and other discoveries and innovations, the most important, in Ermarth’s opinion, was undoubtedly Ferdinand de Saussure’s radically new theory of language, in which language is identified, not as a transparent vehicle for the description of meaning and value in the world, but as a differential system of meaning and value, in effect a code or semiological system, finite, arbitrary, and autonomous. (Ermarth’s analysis of the implications for knowledge of de Saussure’s innovations in the field of linguistics, which she clearly considers fundamental to her understanding of the discursive condition, is excellent, well worth the purchase price of the book). According to de Saussure, meaning in language is enabled, not by its association with the world it supposedly describes, but by ‘system’, a subliminal code of discursive rules (langue) that enables speech (parole). Any actual enunciation of the code is understandable only systematically and negatively, never positively, as both the code and its enunciation lack any referential anchor in the ‘real’ world. This is true, not only of verbal languages, but also of all other systems of meaning and value that operate like languages in the world, such as body language, garment language, traffic control language, and the languages of diplomacy and history. What this means is that ‘everything is language, everything is writing, and in the expanded sense Saussure sponsors, in which language and writing are things we do in non-verbal ways as well as in verbal ones: in this sense everything is discourse’ (p. 39). Such discursive systems are the condition of our consciousness and knowledge. They determine what we think and what we say (though the creative scope of enunciation is considerable; occasionally an exceptional speaker of the code, such as Shakespeare, may extend the code, but for the most part it is fixed: we do not speak, we are spoken). In other words, as Ermarth puts it, we inhabit not the modern condition, but the discursive one.
What does this mean for history? Effectively, as Ermarth makes clear, at the very least its destruction as an objective portrayal of what happened in the past. In the discursive condition, history takes its place as just one more (language) system amongst many, no longer the system that contains all systems. The historian (and for Ermarth we are all in one way or another historians) cannot simply carry on as usual, assuming individual identities and causalities as if time were an envelope, unproblematic and even neutral. In the discursive condition, process is conceived anew as a semiological (sign system) process, based on a semiological system, not a historical one. Time is a dimension of events, phrased, discontinuous or rhythmic. Things are not objects, ‘objectively’ there, but merely the sites of acts of attention. The individual, the so-called ‘founding subject of history’, is what Ermarth refers to as a ‘palimpsestuous’ multiplicity, evident only in enunciation, not in system (p. 56). The historian, by an act of enunciation, can remain creative (more so perhaps than ever), but he or she cannot represent or reconstruct the past, except as a sort of fiction.
That does not mean that, in Ermarth’s opinion, the historian is finished. In the discursive condition, he or she can, if he or she wishes, practice history as an art, a coded possibility of enunciation, engaging genuinely in cross-disciplinary work (as opposed to a mere splicing activity that preserves the disciplinary status quo), and renewing individuality, agency and causality in terms, not of neutrality, as in the modern condition, but of multiplicity (multiple semantic systems). Moreover, he or she might (Ermarth provides a useful list of suggestions for this on pp. 111–2): develop themes based on iterative details and patterning rather than on plot-and-character; employ sequences and series that are inflected rather than plotted; emphasise difference rather than resemblance; employ a narrative line constituted by a process of digression and return; emphasise fabrication and not representation; and use pasts as dimensions of present experience (of present enunciation). He or she might even, if brave enough, attempt to decipher, from particular acts of enunciation, the differential systems of meaning and value the new paradigm implies – something ruled out, I would have thought, in de Saussure’s system. By this means the historian would create, or at least attempt to create, something that would reflect more accurately the multiplicity of human experience and consciousness in the present world.
To illustrate the potential of the discursive condition for the arts, Ermarth cites a number of what she considers to be exemplary cases of artists who succeeded in using or shaping that condition, including the novels of Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar and Vladimir Nabokov (extended discussions of which appear in Sequel to History), the paintings of Pablo Picasso and René Magritte, and the films of George Clooney and Alexander Payne. Though surprisingly (or maybe not) she includes few if any works of ‘postmodern’ history in her citations, mainly perhaps because they are as yet so few and far between – a fact that should give even the most enthusiastic advocate of the discursive condition some pause for thought.
Ermarth clearly expects that, in the near or distant future, modernist historians will respond positively to the discursive condition, and adapt their histories to its exigencies – this despite the fact that she fully recognises the deep-seated conservatism of the historical profession. That, in other words, we historians, as she puts it, will ‘get over it’ (it being presumably the paradigm shift she identifies); (the phrase ‘get over it’ is Ermarth’s, p. xiv). I am not so sure – though a number of theorists, including Roland Barthes, Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Keith Jenkins and Hayden White have apparently already made considerable progress in that direction. This is because, as I understand it, history is a cultural practice that, consciously or unconsciously, follows (reflects, participates in, responds to) the mainly spoken culture of the age in which it is written (in our case English). It can therefore only employ the words and phrases (terms, concepts, ideas) generally accepted by the language concerned, such as, in our case, time and space (Newtonian and subjective), things (objects), individual identity (I, you, we, they), cause and effect (because), story (plot and drama) and picture (representation). History, in other words, is fundamentally unsuited to the construction of a new paradigm, as science and possibly philosophy are not. True, from time to time a quisling word from the language of the new order may penetrate the language of the old (relativity, narrative, discourse, quantum and code spring to mind, though interestingly Ermarth views relativism as a part of the old, Modernist order, and not a part of the new), but for the most part we historians are not equipped to promote radical change; we are slaves of the old order, not advocates of the new. It will, therefore, I fear (I nail my colours to the mast here: I am more or less persuaded by the philosophical necessity of the discursive condition) be some time before we as historians feel confident enough to adopt the new paradigm in full, or even in part; though we may from time to time adopt some of its useful words and phrases. And (if and) when we do, the new order (paradigm) will have become so entrenched in our thinking (consciousness) that we will not even be aware of the extraordinary changes we have accomplished. We will simply employ the (mainly literary) devices proposed by Ermarth, and no doubt others, without even thinking about them, as if, as Ermarth puts it, such things were entirely natural.
One should not assume that the discursive condition, as defined by Ermarth, is above suspicion (though it would be a brave man or woman who enters the lists against Ermarth, a formidable adversary). How far, one wonders, in the medieval world, was time static and discontinuous mainly for the educated elite? For the peasantry, it might well have been rather a dimension of events – the rising and setting of the sun – as proposed by Ermarth in the discursive condition. Why should not modernist time (neutral, Newtonian, infinite) co-exist, admittedly as part of a different language system, with discursive time (discontinuous, finite, rhythmic)? May not all language systems be the product of common brain events that somehow produce consciousness – of which all language systems appear to be mere derivatives? Or is consciousness, perhaps, merely an integration of all language systems? How far, one wonders, could one survive in the ‘real’ world without some concept of the ‘real’ and the ‘objective’, or at least an awareness of the same? Why should not Modernist history survive, as a language system, enjoying its own autonomy, as an alternative to history in the discursive condition, its supposed successor? Finally, is not the discursive condition, that Ermarth proposes, itself just one more example of the capacity of the modernist condition to generalise the particular, a generalisation that Ermarth elsewhere condemns so vigorously? After all, we might speak and understand body language. We might speak and understand garment language. But it is doubtful if we will ever succeed in speaking and understanding the language of the discursive condition. These are some of the questions that Ermarth’s penetrating analysis of the discursive condition provokes, in me at least.
I might add that I am not entirely convinced of the differential and negative nature of language in the discursive condition. When I hear the word rabbit I cannot help thinking of the rabbit I used to keep (and lost) in my childhood – but I suppose that this is just a typical modernist error of understanding, subject to future correction.
Ermarth is understandably uncertain about how far we, the inhabitants of our contemporary culture and civilisation, will succeed in constructing (fashioning, creating, inventing) tools of thought appropriate to the discursive condition (it cannot be said that many of the instances of experimentation she cites in the field of the arts, the novel and cinema are particularly convincing). But she is in no doubt regarding the probable consequences of a failure to respond adequately to the changes brought about by the condition. Without a serious attempt to discover the new tools of thought appropriate to it, she believes, we will be unable to find practical ways of dealing adequately with practical problems such as, for instance, over-population, water shortage and global warming. Nor is she in any doubt regarding the probable consequences with regard to history (her main concern in this book). Without fashioning new tools of thought, appropriate to the discursive condition, she argues, it will prove difficult, if not impossible, for the historian to distinguish objective truth from lies. This is because, as Ermarth puts it (discussing a particular case of genocide in the Balkans): ‘There is little possibility of comparing objective truth with lies when the objective (historical) truth is “the lie”’ (p. 92). History performs a cultural function, and that function is ‘not so much to hold up a mirror to nature as to create and maintain the terms in which it is possible to see, and not see, the world’ (p. 93). As for the modernist historian, who continues to write modernist (standard) history, his work will, in Ermarth’s opinion, seem about as quaint an undertaking, as painting realistic landscapes: laudable, appealing, reassuring no doubt, but relatively useless in terms of cultural renewal.
- Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, Realism and Consensus in the English Novel (Princeton, NJ, 1983).Back to (1)
- Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, Sequel to History: Postmodernism and the Crisis of Representational Time (Princeton, NJ, 1992).Back to (2)
- Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, ‘Invitation to historians’, Beyond History, 5, 2 (2001), 195-215.Back to (3)
The author will respond to this review in due course.
This book focuses on a central problematic, one that I have developed in various earlier work and brought here in one volume together with some discussion of implications. The problem is to answer the question: what fundamentally is at stake, practically speaking, in the homologous departures from six centuries of modernity by various physicists, philosophers, artists, musicians, politicians. The confluence across the range of practice is by now undeniable, and it seems to me that the stakes are high and have too long been trivialized by some cultural interpreters, perhaps especially by historians. The book offers two fundamental steps. First, a definition of that threshold between two quite different cultural paradigms: one founded by faith in neutrality, the other founded in language; the former the modern condition (Eurocentric societies, roughly from 1400 to 2000); and the latter the discursive condition rooted in the infinite plurality of semiological systems (also in Eurocentric societies since roughly 1850 and ongoing in the present). The book then turns in the second part to some implications of this cultural shift, tracing what happens in the discursive condition to familiar empiricist ideals concerning identity and agency, time, method, and art’s role in social renewal.
The reviewer, Mr Macfie, focuses mainly on the first issue just mentioned, the overriding foundational difference between modernity and what is succeeding it, and he focuses as so many do not on the heart of the matter, which is the invention and perpetuation of neutrality in the culture of modernity. Given this intelligent reading I regret having to begin with the terminological tangle he creates in the process around the terms ‘modern’ and ‘modernism’. Clearly I have failed to convey the degree to which modernism has very little to do with modernity (a slight, but only a slight exaggeration).
Modernism belongs to a brief period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its productions in the realm of ‘art’ (if we can still use that term) were self conscious and stylized and suggest a final push of modernity to ‘save the essences’ – a phrase I coined (in Realism and Consensus) in response to Owen Barfield’s phrase for medieval art as an engine for ‘saving the appearances’.
Modernity belongs to the era from (roughly) 1400 to 1900 in Europe and includes everything from so-called realism in painting to the foundations of modern science. It would be interesting to discuss all the ways in which this modernity, and the neutrality crucial to it, produced its yet-to-be catalogued main branches over half a millennium and eventually reached some kind of phoenix fire in modernism, the final, simplified, intense, but comparatively limited effort to save the essences of modernity.
Mr Macfie’s review repeatedly collapses this distinction between modernity and modernism. The end of modernity is profoundly consequential. The end of modernism is relatively trivial by comparison. Confusing them obscures the key focus of the book, which is the high stakes involved in departing from modernity. A reference to ‘the modern condition’ is immediately contradicted by the ‘… gloss ‘(postmodernism)’’. He suggests that I say (I do not say ) that ‘modernism’ emerged out of the medieval Christian world; what I think I say is that ‘modernism’ emerged near the end of six centuries of modernity. Mr Macfie works within a scholarly culture that, for whatever reasons either explicit or obscure, has hopelessly confused the key terms we have agreed to use in discussing a profound change in the culture of the West. The term modernism has become so invested in value that it need not mean anything exactly; it has become one of those ‘mana’ words Levi Strauss talked about that function as place holders for meaning, rather than anything more specific. To the extent this is the case it will thwart any meaningful discussion of what exactly is and is not at stake in a shift beyond modernity. Thus the academy strikes another blow for the status quo.
Mr Macfie focuses, with a couple of exceptions, on the key terms and arguments of the book with regard to the neutrality of modern (NOT ‘modernist’) time and space. That neutrality makes possible the kind of measurement essential to modern (NOT ‘modernist’) science. That neutrality makes possible distinctions between past, present and future that sustain historical explanation, the final triumph of modernity (NOT ‘modernism’). That neutrality made possible the objectification of the world and thus the creation of the ‘objects’ that we still assume are independent of our measurement, despite personal and scientific evidence to the contrary. (To speak of medieval ‘objects’ would be a bit like referring to the Homeric idea of ‘self’: projecting something recent and ‘modern’ into something ancient where it has no place). ‘Objects’ belong to the modern (NOT ‘modernist’) world; we cannot say that our ‘objects’ existed in the medieval world, not even that most interesting of all objects, ‘the subject’. It is hard to say what ‘objects’ are once they are viewed from within the discursive condition where they do not exist as univocally as they have existed in the modern condition.
I belabor this point to emphasize and confirm Mr Macfie’s strongest point: his recognition of the difficulty involved in even perceiving, much less deliberately departing from, the habits and expectations codified by modernity (NOT ‘modernism’). Discussing the discursive condition does not lend itself to the easy objectification achieved by most historical explanation. Mr Macfie acknowledges the big questions raised by the shift from neutrality to language and asks whether we might not refer the problematic taking shape to class-based or biology-based explanations.
He asks, for example, was medieval time discontinuous for the elite but cyclic or even a dimension of events for the peasant? Or for another example, might not ‘consciousness’ be defined as the ‘integration of all language systems’ on the basis that they all arise from our brains? These questions and many like them are precisely the kind raised by the phenomena that, taken together in their infinite systemic plurality, cumulatively suggest the presence of a discursive condition competing fundamentally with the modern condition. They could lead into productive discussion if they avoid slipping backwards into instrumental and rationalist ways of speaking about language. Even Mr Macfie does not avoid this; he doubts that we can ever speak and understand ‘the language of the discursive condition’ or ever ‘succeed in constructing (fashioning, creating, inventing) tools of thought appropriate to the discursive condition’. But the terms belong to modernity. In the discursive condition we don’t ‘fashion’ or ‘invent’ a language (conceived in Saussure’s terms, which I take as a model); nor is there any single language that is ‘the’ language of the discursive condition. History in the Discursive Condition is short and focused on key implications; the widest range of examples can be found in my longer books on narrative where persuasion relies more on examples (e.g., Realism and Consensus, Sequel to History, and The Novel in History 1840–1895).
I find promising Macfie’s willingness to formulate the problem and speak directly to it. First, he speaks to the infinite plurality of semiological systems and then recoils from it by speaking of ‘the language of the discursive condition’ as if there were some singular language characteristic of the discursive condition when in fact that condition is the condition of systemic multiplicity. There is no objectification among the palimpsest of codes. Second his method tends (whose doesn’t?) toward the reductive abstraction, and uses the instrumental imaginary so characteristic, of the culture of empiricism (modernity). However, as users of our semiological systems, we did not fashion, create, invent, or construct them and we will not fashion, create, invent, or construct any of the systems we approach as new possibilities belonging to the discursive condition. The great complexity of semiological systems is modified in usage, not ‘constructed’ by instrumentally minded empiricists who by definition avoid or suppress the irreducible complexities of the discursive condition. Modernity requires certain assumptions; the discursive condition requires other assumptions. The two sets do not ‘agree’ – end of story. The discursive condition of infinite semiological systems is one thing; the common denominator universe of modernity where neutrality sponsors objectification is quite another. What can be done in the discursive condition is all and only the work of self-conscious enunciators within the particular set of semiological (language) systems available uniquely to each person, and using the creativity called for by each such moment. Those moments where someone specifies by particular usage what otherwise remains only systemic potential – those are the moments of creative opportunity that are featured in the discursive condition and trivialized in the modern condition. The discursive condition involves an entirely new approach to individuality, creativity and influential action. The modern condition by contrast sponsors an heroic idea of ‘the’ individual: someone whose ‘genius’ can Change The World without any intermediary system to complexify and linguistify the situation – an idea of identity and action that now probably produces more harm than benefit. That, and not tired rehearsals about ‘ethics’ or ‘postmodernity’, would be one of the postmodern issues worth pursuing.
Finally and most puzzlingly the review ignores the final chapter of the book, a discussion of ‘art and action’ which indicates what constitutes opportunity in the discursive condition. Among other things, the chapter argues that, as Werner Herzog has said, ‘art’ is not a concept appropriate to our time. ‘Art’ is a commodity. Creative work is a process and part of the ever-present opportunity presented by the discursive condition. Rationalism (the so-called Enlightenment) deliberately marginalized ‘art’ and that marginalization continues to have dire consequences in western societies especially those most deeply invested in empiricism. As rationalism loses persuasive power in a world defined by principles of uncertainty, the value appreciates for creative usage among the variety of systems within which most of us operate daily, using creatively or conventionally the many non-verbal (semiological) systems that operate like language as Saussure defines it. If it is true that language speaks us, then language speaks us in the sense that we are born into our available languages (semiological systems including non-verbal language). Only an idiot would claim to have invented all the languages s/he uses on a daily basis. And that usage (‘enunciation’) can only take place in language – there is no ‘outside’ to language – and thus usage is the ever-present opportunity for creative action in the discursive condition. We can at each moment use, or deflect, the opportunity for new usage that exists, whether we exploit it or not, within our available systemic potentials. So we are spoken by language in the sense that we acknowledge that powerful systems of meaning and value shape everything from consciousness to cosmology. But it is also true that each person can and does speak, even powerfully; in fact only such individual speech can specify the systemic potentials available to and unique to that person.From that potential comes the unique and unrepeatable poetry of a life.Agency and action are not foreclosed by the shift to language. But they are redefined. Doing something new takes courage as well as knowledge; courage to say or do what ‘cannot’ be said or done – that has seemed un-sayable or un-doable. (I don’t know why Mr Macfie says that systemic plurality is ‘ruled out’ by Saussure, who was at pains to show how, for instance, time differs absolutely in different language traditions (Slavic, Romance, Germanic)).
Toward the end Mr Macfie takes to stating what I ‘believe’; I wish he would stick to what I argue; the only belief of mine he could know from this book is the belief that it is important to follow a trail of clues that seem consequential even if you have no idea where they lead. I’m surprised to find that he thinks I am ‘in no doubt’ about several points when in fact doubt is the watchword of the book. I do insist on the importance of taking the measure of our most habitual commitments, in this case particularly the commitment to historical explanation which is a default operating system in North America especially.
Mr Macfie notes quite correctly that there are ‘few’ examples of postmodern history. That would always be the case when big change is underway undercover. Most of us are habitual historians on a daily basis. It would be silly to expect more until we have defined the problematic. It took our ‘modern’ history 400 years at least to develop from its cultural foundations in the Renaissance to its flowering in the 19th century. A postmodern history might show its colours 400 years from now, unless postmodern history does not simply prove to be a contradiction in terms in which case history as we know it will simply wither and die out from lack of critical attention and return us to what has been the non-historicist status quo of most cultures and most times. Denial and dismissal pretty much define the present state of affairs with, as Mr Macfie notes, very ‘few’ exceptions. He explains quite eloquently how assimilation of something as profound as a new cultural paradigm is likely to go, sneaking up on us bit by bit as we attend to less profound, consequential things. He might be right. Another option would be to do and to encourage work with the requisite combination of humility and courage necessary for pursuing foundational critique in general and the ‘postmodern’ problematic in particular. What’s needed at this early stage is some humility and some creativity in defining a problematic and the many issues it raises, resisting the temptation to fall into the radioactive language of our empiricist traditions. The march of past, present and future has brought us relentless and unapologetic ‘development’ to the point of coma. The self-justifying faith in neutrality and objectivity has brought us the suppression of all stories but one, and one engaged in a war of story against story now in its second century. The trivialization of language as a habitation has nearly obliterated the sense that power can be non-instrumental. These would be the kind of discursive issues worth pursuing.
There are more questions than answers in dealing with the discursive condition, and in the process of asking those questions we can take the measure of what that condition is capable of so we might discover new states and modes more appropriate to our time than the leftovers of Lockean empiricism. Mr Macfie rightly expresses his doubts about being able to assume the position of a discursive conditioner. That’s okay. One does not, and is not being asked by me, to ‘adopt the new paradigm’; we don’t even know what that is yet beyond a collection of demonstrably related phenomena that spur creative thought about what we think we know.