One way of understanding what Lyotard (1979) called “the postmodern condition” is as a crisis of representation. The “modern world”, on this view, was populated by subjects that were able to speak for each other and talk about the facts as a matter of course. Lawyers represented their clients, sales representatives (so aptly named) represented their companies, union leaders represented their workers, and presidents represented their people. Likewise, scientists were able to represent the world—that strangely enormous object Wittgenstein described simply as “everything” that is the case. Here physicists spoke for the atoms, biologists for the cells, and meteorologists for the weather. They were able to do their jobs well or badly, of course; we might say they were able to be politically or scientifically “correct” about the people or things they were speaking for. “Modern” conditions stipulated only that such representatives should know what they were talking about, that they had formed “justified, true beliefs” about it. By and large, we trusted them. Sometime around 1968, however, philosophers radically raised the stakes by suggesting that representation implicated us in the fundamental “indignity of speaking for others” (Deleuze and Foucault 1972). The crisis was on.
[Note: this post is part of an ongoing project described here. I'll be offering some meta-reflections on this project over at Jonathan Mayhew's blog, Stupid Motivational Tricks.]