The Story So Far

Personal Knowledge and the Political

Personal Knowledge and the Cultural Logic of Postmodernity

Before embracing personal knowledge in the form of narratives and story it is important to locate this genre within the emergent cultural patterns of contemporary societies and economies. Whilst the pace of change at the moment is rapid, a good deal of evidence points to an increasingly aggrandizing centre or state acting to sponsor "voices" at the level of interest groups, localities and peripheries. From the perspective of these groups this may look like empowerment for oppressed aboriginals, physically and mentally challenged, gays and lesbians and other deserving groups. This is all long overdue. But we need to be aware of the overall social matrix. Specific empowerment can go hand in hand with overall social control.

Hence, alongside these new voices a systematic attack on median or secondary associations is underway - schools, universities, libraries, welfare agencies and the like. An attack, in fact, on many of the existing agencies of cultural mediation and production. Economic restructuring is being closely allied to cultural redefinition - a reduction of contextual and theoretical discourses and an overall sponsorship of personal and practical forms of discourse and cultural production. The overall effect will be to substantially redraw existing modes of political and cultural analysis. In its place we may end up with what Harvey (1989) calls the "tyranny of the local" alongside what we might call the specificity of the personal. General patterns, social contexts, critical theories will be replaced by local stories and personal anecdotes.

Denzin (1991) has commented on this in his critique of the rehabilitated "life story movement".

The cultural logics of late capitalism valorize the life story, autobiographical document because they keep the myth of the autonomous, free individual alive. This logic finds its modern roots on Rousseau's Confessions, a text perfectly fitted to the cultural logics of the new capitalist societies where a division between public and private had to be maintained, and where the belief in a pure, natural self was cherished. The logic of the confession reifies the concept of the self and turns it into a cultural commodity. The rise to power of the social sciences in the twentieth century corresponded to the rise of the modern surveillance state. That state required information on its citizens. Social scientists, of both qualitative and quantitative commitments, gathered information for this society. The recent return to the life story celebrates the importance of the individual under the conservative politics of late postmodernism (p. 2).

Hence, in the cultural logic of late capital the life story represents a form of cultural apparatus to accompany a newly aggrandising state and market system. In the situation that is being "worked for" the subject/state, consumer/market confrontation will be immediate. The range of secondary associations and bureaucracies which currently "buffer" or mediate this pattern of social relations will be progressively reduced. The cultural buffer of theory, critique and political commentary will likewise wither. It will not be the state that withers (as in fond Marxist theory) but the critical theory and cultural critique that stand against the state. In the "end of history" we shall indeed see the closure of cultural contestation as evidenced in theoretical and critical discourse. In its place will stand a learned discourse comprising stories and practices - specific local and located but divorced from understandings of social context and social process.

In the next section I review how this cultural redefinition is emerging in some aspects of the media.
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Subject: Life History
Available in: English
Appears in: Resources in Education, ERIC Issue RIEMAR95, I.D.: ED 376 160
Number of editions: 1

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