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The Humanities Conference 2003

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The Persistence of Realism

Niall Lucy.

Realism may not seem a hot topic in the humanities today, and yet it remains a stubborn concept. Current affirmations of the fractured state of truth, power and meaning dismiss realism as an exhausted force, while counter affirmations of the transcendental or pragmatic unity of truth, power and meaning exalt realism as a force inescapably to be reckoned with.

Is this realisms fate either to be overlooked or not to be looked at all?

Certainly it appears that in the wake of, lets say, Nietzsche, Saussure, Heidegger and Wittgenstein, realism commands no urgency as a concept worthy of further inspection by those on the side of the virtual or the post. By contrast, the resistance to what might be called postmodern thinking and textuality often defers to realism as a consensual yardstick by which to measure the excesses of so-called anti-foundational statements (there is nothing outside of the text, writing is the destruction of every voice etc.) which are seen to threaten the affecting power of art, the importance of philosophical rigour and the shared purpose of political conviction.

Either realism, then, or relativism, with no place in between.

While the defence of realism is associated usually with opponents of postmodernism (as the friend of Anglo rather than Continental thought), what distinguishes the approach taken here is its sympathy for a non-realist or textualist history of ideas as the appropriate context in which to critically re-evaluate realism. The intention is to show that an acceptance of the arbitrary structure of the sign, or of the view that there is nothing outside of the text, does not lead necessarily to the rejection of realism as a mere effect of structuration, textuality or convention.


Niall Lucy  (Australia)
Head, School of Arts
School of Arts
Murdoch University

Niall Lucy is Head of the School of Arts at Murdoch University and author of several books on deconstruction. His latest book, A DERRIDA DICTIONARY, is due out shortly with Blackwell.

  • Realism
  • Textuality
  • Postmodernism

(30 min Conference Paper, English)