ESSAY Moving past postmodernism

As a philosophy and lit student at a good liberal arts university in the mid-60′s, I was exposed to a lot of jargonizing and theorizing. Ontology, Epistemology and Semiotics were frequent subjects; exegesis and explication de texte were familiar interpretive tools.

Later, as an overworked English teacher (pardon the redundancy), I had far too little free time for technical reading. It’s only now that I’m able to try to catch up.

While I was away, things went a little bit crazy.

A while ago, a friend introduced me to Alan Sokal’s hoax article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Since then, I have been absorbing as much postmodernism as I can stomach. Small, well-spaced portions are best, I’ve discovered.

Postmodernism is a huge topic, with many parts, and as many focuses and emphases. I will make no attempt to be thorough. I don’t have the patience, or the expertise, to be thorough.

Why bother with postmodernism now, long after its introduction and years after its widest influence?

The answer is that while academia finally may be turning away from the “theory wars” of the 80’s and 90’s, both the postmodernist POV and its impact remain relevant to the ways we live in the larger culture.

Postmodernism, as its name denotes, is a rejection of the central principles of modernism, among others the Enlightenment concepts of progress, truth, rationality and identity. Postmodernism is a philosophy of “cognitive relativism,” which asserts that objective truth is illusory, and that cultural contexts and language itself create a multiplicity of equally valid subjective realities, typically called “narratives.”

OK, so that isn’t too bad. In fact, there is considerable merit at this level of postmodernist thought for anyone studying literature, history, sociology – any academic area whose content is, by its nature, more or less “narrative” to begin with.

After all, even in the unenlightened 60′s, we English students had read Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author.” We appreciated the powerful tool provided by liberating meaning from authority. Rereading Heart of Darkness with a post-colonialist or a Marxist viewpoint opens new avenues of interpretation. Re-conceptualizing the witch hunts of medieval Europe and colonial America through a feminist lens provides both fresh perspective and a new history. These are powerful, often exciting expansions of our critical and interpretive faculties.

Unfortunately, the postmodernist wave doesn’t stop there, where it belongs, and where it makes a real contribution.

Before anyone objects, of course this is not to claim that postmodernism has nothing at all to say about “non-narrative” — or, more accurately, “not-entirely-narrative” — topics, like the physical sciences. The cultural frameworks and sociopolitical contexts of “not-entirely-narrative” subjects have been, and remain, fair game for postmodernist interpretation.

My objections lie in two specific areas: the postmodernist murder of meaning, and the subjective rebranding of objective scientific data.

Not satisfied with creating new meanings, postmodernist writers forge ahead and cavalierly do away with meaning altogether. For them, “meaning” is, well, meaningless. They proclaim that meaning is not only merely dead; it is really most sincerely dead.

As an example, French philosopher Jacques Derrida championed a writing style that he described as being purposefully ambiguous, so that his own words could illustrate what they were claiming – or weren’t claiming, to be consistent. Here’s a snippet of Derrida on some subject, but what that might be escapes me:

In time’s absence what is new renews nothing; what is present is not contemporary; what is present presents nothing, but represents itself and belongs henceforth and always to return. It isn’t, but comes back again.

Got that? Maybe it loses something in the translation.

Simply and devastatingly, there is the formal logical criticism levelled by Sokal and many others: If, according to postmodernist theories, no meaning has objective meaning, on what basis should we accept the truth of the postmodernist theory that no meaning has objective meaning?

But wait, believe it or not, it gets worse — when postmodernism leaves its natural home in the humanities and tries to apply itself to the physical sciences.

There is a seemingly inexhaustible supply of examples of an inappropriate, sometimes absurd misapplication of postmodernist notions to hard science, but one well-known example will suffice in this context. Cited by Richard Dawkins in his review of Sokal and Bricmont’s 1998 trashing of postmodernism, Fashionable Nonsense, postmodernist Luce Irigaray attacks the masculine oppression inherent in the most famous equation in science, E = mc2.

According to Irigaray, Einstein’s formulation is a “sexed” equation because “it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us.” Are we then supposed to reject the ever-growing experimental evidence that Einstein’s equation is correct, on the basis that it violates the equivalidity of all speeds, whatever the heck that is? This is nonsense masquerading as analysis, Dawkins says, and so do I.

Beyond incomprehensibility, intended or unintended, and the inappropriate application of linguistic and social epistemologies to the factual outcomes of hard science, other critics decry the jargonistic trendiness of postmodernism, its tendency to apply its theories willy-nilly to this, that and everything, to claim all topics as the province of contextual correlatives, or some other equally obscure terminology.

It’s one thing, perhaps even a defensible thing, to argue that in interpretive subjects everything is, in a word, interpreted. And Thomas Kuhn was certainly right that there’s as much culture and bias in the human practitioners of science as there is in acolytes of postcolonial anthropology and similar subjects.

But to extend that argument to the physical sciences is a catastrophic category error. To suggest that one’s view of the impact of the “Race for Africa” is the same kind of knowledge as is a calculation of the length of a tree branch is, to steal the phrase, so nonsensical that it’s not even wrong.

Yet, according to a central tenet of postmodernism, science is, in Sokal’s words, “nothing more than a ‘myth,’ a ‘narrative’ or a ‘social construction’ among many others.”

In 1996, critical theory journal Social Text published an article by physicist Sokal in its “Science Wars” issue. Sokal’s article, titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” was a hoax, designed to expose the buzzword sloppy thinking of the sociological theory of “cognitive relativism,” especially when applied to science.

Sokal  reserves some of his strongest criticisms for academic specialities like feminism and anti-colonialism, areas of study whose aims he supports but whose misunderstandings of science he finds not only wrong but also counter-productive. Sokal clearly identifies his concerns with the impact of postmodernism on progressive politics:

Against the mystifications promoted by the economic and political elites, we have to offer to our fellow citizens a coherent and persuasive account of how the existing society really works; we have to criticize that society on the basis of a coherent set of ethical values, and finally, we have to make coherent proposals for how to change that society so as to bring it more in accord with our ethical values.

As well, he criticizes the application of postmodernism to science for “the use of trendy but ambiguous phraseology,” for “how Cultural Studies has vulgarized valid philosophy of science,” for how many in Cultural Studies have questioned “the distinction between facts and values,” and for ”the failure of much trendy work”  to distinguish properly between different areas of knowledge.

Sokal, who is a physical scientist, has little to say about the value and utility of some of the more moderate postmodernist approaches in areas like literature and history, where notions of “narrative” and “social construct” can be profitably applied. Nevertheless, I strongly agree with his defence of the physical sciences against these social science theories. It’s not just apples and oranges, in this case; it’s more like apples and drill presses.

For philosophers of science, the technical and thorough middle section of Beyond the Hoax, “Science and Philosophy,” gives a closely-reasoned defence of the scientific method against the objections of postmodernist and post-structuralist thinkers, asserting convincingly that science provides, at the very least, a reasonable, useful and close approximation to reality.

– * –

Despite postmodernism’s supposed death, both the continuing influence of ideas first advanced by postmodernism and the theory’s frequent devaluing of science could be seen as recently as a year ago, when the American Anthropology Association (AAA) stirred up the hornets’ nest with a new version of the group’s long-term plan. As the New York Times reported on December 11, 2010:

Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession after a decision … to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-term plan.

The decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.

For those who have been critical of the hijacking of  ”soft” or “human” studies by relativist theory, this latest coup came as no surprise; but there are sure to be some readers who have not fully realized the sway that subjectivity and dogma hold over many academic fields.

“Science” is a very dirty word to some social researchers (remember, we can’t call them “social scientists” anymore). It smacks of Enlightenment empiricism, which they associate with racism, colonialism, and the other evils of Eurocentric imperialism. In their view, science is not a methodology but an ideology. They’re wrong, but that doesn’t stop them from being widely influential.

The New York Times summary is a disconcerting report in its own right, but to appreciate the full flavour of the victory of relativism over reason one needs to look more closely at just what changes were made to the AAA’s long-term plan — not only what was taken out, but also what was added.

To see the scope of what sounds like a simple change, here’s a partial text of the statements, old and new, so that the full scope of the alterations will be easy to see. Empasis added.

OLD Section 1. The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research, and to further the professional interests of  American  anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge, and its use to solve human problems.

NEW Section 1. The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archeological, biological,  social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and  linguistic anthropological  research. The Association also commits itself and to further the professional interests of anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge,  expertise, and interpretation.

There’s a lot more going on here than just taking out the word “science.” The purpose of anthropology will now be to advance “public understanding.” Of what? If there’s no science, what’s to be understood? Why, the accepted truths, of course. What evidence led to those ideas being accepted as “truths”? Sorry, but presumptive knowledge is just fancied-up belief, and it’s no wonder that the real researchers, including the President of the affiliated Society for Anthropological Sciences (SAS), were so up in arms.

Notice also that “ethnological” has been excised. There is among postmodernists a fierce dogmatic opposition to the investigation of human variation, one of the historical concerns of ethnology. Thus, ethnology is a subject inappropriate for study by the followers of cultural relativism. In the tainted word’s place, a long list of relativisms has been added. These interpretive and ideology-based research areas are just fine with postmodernists.

Worst of all, “knowledge,” which the postmodernist views as merely another subjective cultural artifact, has been joined by “expertise” — the point of view of the relativist, whether empirically tested or not — and “interpretation” — anything from the best guess of the armchair expert to the revealed dogma of the true believer.

The New York Times article concludes with a clear delineation of the battle lines in the fight over the future of anthropology:

[SAS President Peter Peregrine] attributed what he viewed as an attack on science to two influences within anthropology. One is that of so-called critical anthropologists, who see anthropology as an arm of colonialism and therefore something that should be done away  with. The other is the postmodernist critique of the authority of science. “Much of this is like creationism in that it is based on the rejection of rational argument and thought,” he said.

Dr. Dominguez [President of the AAA] denied that critical anthropologists or postmodernist thinking had influenced the new statement. She said in an e-mail that she was aware that science-oriented anthropologists had from time to time expressed worry about and disapproval of their nonscientific colleagues. “Marginalization is never a welcome experience,” she said.

Indeed, Dr. Dominquez, indeed. Just ask a scientific anthropologist.

– * –

In Beyond the Hoax, Alan Sokal, whose own progressive credentials are solid, warned the left against embracing postmodernism too closely, among other things pointing out that PoMo was more naturally a tool of the reactionaries.

With Templeton fellow Carlin Romano’s attack on Stephen Hawking as a good example, Sokal appears to have been right.

The result is an often bizarre coalition between fundamentalists and conservatives on the one hand and anti-imperialists and advocates of identity politics on the other. Neither side believes in empirical fact, for the simple reason that each has a belief agenda that is harder to defend if evidence is something to which attention must finally be paid. More on the unholy alliance in the section after this one.

In September of 2010, The Chronicle of Higher Education featured Romano’s “Cosmology, Cambridge Style: Wittgenstein, Toulmin, and Hawking.” Ostensibly a “review” of Hawking’s Grand Design, Romano’s piece is a full-bore postmodernist rejection of Hawking’s widely-publicized view that physics has made God “unnecessary.”

At the beginning of this essay, I wrote that I had passed through university a little bit too early to study PoMo directly. However, I did take courses on both logical positivism and the philosophy of science. So I was exposed to both of Romano’s champions in his fight against Hawking’s ideas: Ludwig Wittgenstein and Stephen Toulmin.

Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and Toulmin’s Foresight and Understanding (which, for some reason, I still possess after endless bookshelf purgings over the years) were core texts of these courses.

Both authors wrote from a perspective that foreshadowed the redefinition of science in Thomas Kuhn’s seminal The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Today, almost 50 years after Kuhn’s book, theists are still using these ideas in their rearguard defence of the viability of the non-rational. Romano, whose grant is from the Templeton Foundation, the premier financial backer of attempts to use science to promote the existence of God, is just the latest in this line.

Romano recounts Toulmin’s notion that science is “a creative form of knowledge that shifts with changing historical practices.” He goes on to write that “In a 1992 interview, Toulmin summed up the core theme of his works as: ‘the limits of theory.’”

Elaborating, Romano explains that:

[Toulmin] suggested a Darwinian vision: that scientific concepts and theories catch on by being “better adapted” than rivals. It was “fruitless” to look for an all-purpose “scientific method”: Growth of scientific ideas will always call for “different enquiries.”

And, delivering what he hopes will be the knockout punches:

Toulmin … embraced Wittgenstein’s scepticism toward science as deliverer of a unique, objective account of the world. He argued that such scepticism requires us to police science’s positivist ambitions. … As a result, Toulmin, like Wittgenstein, never overvalued science. Science simply devises pragmatically useful descriptions.

… Toulmin praised cosmology for stretching “our powers of speculation” but also worried that perhaps “the truth about the Universe as a Whole is unknowable.”

Developments in 20th-century philosophy of science—from Thomas Kuhn’s vision of a historical practice with changing paradigms to quantum theory’s uncertainties—invited a return to traditional cosmology.

Stephen Toulmin was an important precursor of Thomas Kuhn, and Toulmin here returns the favour. But the key point to take from the above is that Romano’s appeal to Toulmin – not to mention, typically and ironically, his citation of the scientific theories of quantum mechanics as a reason to embrace the irrational – is thoroughly and orthodoxly anti-empiricism.

Kuhn’s ideas were embraced by the social sciences because social scientists saw in Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions a route into the previously-closed realm of respect as “real” sciences. As the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:

The social sciences in particular took up Kuhn with enthusiasm. There are primarily two reasons for this. First, Kuhn’s picture of science appeared to permit a more liberal conception of what science is than hitherto, one that could be taken to include disciplines such as sociology and psychoanalysis. Secondly, Kuhn’s rejection of rules as determining scientific outcomes appeared to permit appeal to other factors, external to science, in explaining why a scientific revolution took the course that it did.

A few moments thought should make clear that the appeal of postmodernist relativism for the theist is that its concepts both (1) devalue the objective outcomes of scientific inquiry and (2) elevate the speculative and irrational to equal narrative status. If science is nothing more than a subjective human enterprise, then it can be ignored when faith is at the stake.

The religious right rejects the authority of science in favour of the authority of God. The progressive left distrusts the science that brought us Hiroshima and Bhopal. The corporate class ignores the warnings of science if they might be bad for business. And much of academia relegates science to the status of another local cultural narrative.

Thus it’s no surprise that science has so little sway over public policy — or much of a role in informing the decision-makers.

This dangerous weakness is the subject of Shawn Lawrence Otto’s readable and informative book, Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, published in October of 2011 by Rodale Press (and reviewed here elsewhere).

Otto explains how the contemporary attack on science comes from an unholy alliance, what Otto calls a “three-front antiscience war.” This unprecedented attack on the credibility of science is a combination of a fundamentalist backlash against unacceptable versions of the story of life, a corporate propaganda campaign to protect profits from scientific warnings about the negative effects of pollution, and a largely left-wing rejection of objectivity and rationality in favour of progressive dogma.

– * –

But it’s not so bad, really, is it, now that postmodernism is passé?

Several mid-2011 online articles announced the death of postmodernism, and good riddance, too, they all said.

Rebecca Goldstein started the rush at Prospect Magazine, with her 2011 article titled “Sell Descartes, Buy Spinoza.”  And Prospect wasn’t through, publishing Edward Docx’s  article “Postmodernism Is Dead” shortly after.

Many rationalists of one stripe or another have taken on the self-contradictory, and self-congratulatory, tenets of postmodernism, including Terry Eagleton, a frequent subject here, whose The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996) applied his post-Catholic and post-USSR Marxism to the cults of relativism, insignificance, and unbridled consumption.

There’s too much in Eagleton’s book  for this space, so one typically damning passage will have to suffice. Think what you will about Eagleton’s ideas, you can’t fault the man’s enthusiastic clarity in expressing them:

For all its vaunted openness to the Other, postmodernism can be quite as exclusive and censorious as the orthodoxies it opposes. One may, by and large, speak of human culture but not human nature, gender but not class, the body but not biology, jouissance but not justice, post-colonialism but not the petty bourgeoisie. It is a thoroughly orthodox heterodoxy, which like any imaginary form of identity needs its bogeymen and straw targets to stay in business. … It knows that knowledge is precarious and self-undoing, that authority is repressive, and monological, with all the certainty of a Euclidean geometer and all the authority of an archbishop. It is animated by the critical spirit, and rarely brings it to bear upon its own propositions.

And in 2006, Alan Kirby produced a seminal article, “The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond,” available online at Philosophy Now.

Kirby challenged postmodernism for being neither post-enough nor modern-enough, for being passé and not even noticing:

Just look out into the cultural market-place: buy novels published in the last five years, watch a twenty-first century film, listen to the latest music – above all just sit and watch television for a week – and you will hardly catch a glimpse of postmodernism.

Kirby described the post-postmodern world as a kind of “pseudo-modernism” — a return to the appearances of modernity, but without the quality. Kirby’s critique is, on one level, just one more snob’s dismissal of the content of the current culture:

In postmodernism, one read, watched, listened, as before. In pseudo-modernism one phones, clicks, presses, surfs, chooses, moves, downloads. There is a generation gap here, roughly separating people born before and after 1980.  … Those born before 1980 may see, not the people, but contemporary texts which are alternately violent, pornographic, unreal, trite, vapid, conformist, consumerist, meaningless and brainless ….

The more recent death notices differ from Eagleton’s ideological retrenchment and Kirby’s pessimism: they all revel to one degree or another in the revival of meaning and reason.

Goldstein’s short article praises Spinoza’s insight into the unity of body and mind, and she finishes with this relevant comment about our current subject:

The rising value of Spinozas indicates that postmodernism, which plays fast and loose with rationality, might be heading for a bear market. I’d advise short-selling Heideggers.

Docxlike Eagleton and others, is quick to give postmodernism its due in the creative arts, its natural home, and in its attack on the inequalities inherent in the notions of an official narrative or a dominant culture. As he writes:

The epistemic confrontation of postmodernism, this idea of de-privileging any one meaning, this idea that all discourses are equally valid, has therefore lead to some real-world gains for humankind. Because once you are in the business of challenging the dominant discourse, you are also in the business of giving hitherto marginalised and subordinate groups their voice. And from here it is possible to see how postmodernism has helped western society understand the politics of difference and so redress the miserable injustices which we have hitherto either ignored or taken for granted as in some way acceptable.

But, speaking of his own area, the novel, Docx points out what he terms “the postmodern paradox”:

… A lack of confidence in the tenets, skills and aesthetics of literature permeated the culture and few felt secure or able or skilled enough or politically permitted to distinguish or recognise the schlock from the not. And so, sure enough, in the absence of any aesthetic criteria, it became more and more useful to assess the value of works according to the profits they yielded. … In other words, increasingly, artistic success has become about nothing except money; and, increasingly, artists have come to judge their own success that way, too.

So while postmodernism tore down the barriers to both social inclusion and free expression, by going to the extreme of “deprivileging” all standards, all truth, all taste, and all value it abandoned us to the lowest common denominator arbiter of mass consumption. Postmodernism as the philosophical bedfellow of late capitalism, indeed.

Now that it’s dead, does anyone know how we get rid of the stinking corpse?


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