April 18, 2017

Postmodernism and Its Discontents

Waferinos: two posts back, Julie sent in this link and asked me what I thought of the article:


My response follows below.

1. Deconstruction, including cultural relativism, has a long pedigree, and goes back to the Sophists--from which we get the word 'sophistry' (rhetoric as opposed to objective truth). Plato ridiculed this subjective approach to knowledge--that man was the measure of all things--in the Protagoras, a fabulous dialogue. Millennia later, Robert Pirsig defended the Sophists against Plato in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, arguing that it was myth and rhetoric that were true, and that Platonic logic was 'insane'. Both texts are definitely worth reading.

The crucial problem of postmodernism and deconstruction--that of self-referentiality--was also known to the Greeks. It was called Epimenides' Paradox: "A Cretan said, 'All Cretans are liars'. Was he telling the truth?" It has also been called Mannheim's Paradox. Karl Mannheim, a German sociologist, wrote Ideology and Utopia in 1929 (German edition), a cornerstone of what is known as the sociology of knowledge. All knowledge, he claimed, exists in a social context; pure objectivity is a myth. The paradox arises when the sociology of knowledge is applied to the sociology of knowledge: From what social context did it arise? Thus the deconstructors get deconstructed. This is the Achilles' heel of the whole postmodern game, and one that the pomos have been unable to convincingly answer. For in the end, what they are saying is, "All texts are relative--except ofr ours." (Shades of Orwell) They refuse to apply their methodology to their own methodology, because then the game would be up; the whole pm project would unravel. The truth is that in the process of attacking 'metanarratives', they have just created another metanarrative. In effect, what they did was take a small truth and turn it into a big lie. (Someone once said--it may have been me--that pm was basically nihilism masquerading as radical chic.)

2. Nevertheless, the small truth is there. My Reenchantment book draws on Foucault, and argues for epistemological relativism. It says that modern science is only one way of knowing the world, and that the sciences of premodern societies--alchemy, astrology, witchcraft, and so on--probably were valid in their own contexts; although I do assert the existence of transcultural truth (Galileo, not Aristotle, was right about projectile motion--it's a parabola, period). (Or, the Nazi claim that there was such a thing as "Jewish physics" was hogwash, unless Jewish atoms wear skullcaps). In addition, some pm notions are similar to Buddhism, which is a truly profound way of thinking about the world, in my opinion.

3. So the truth of this debate lies somewhere in between; the problem is that Americans in particular have to go whole hog; they have a difficult time with the word 'some'. It was embarrassing, in the 60s and 70s, when folks like Derrida would come to lecture at American universities, watching American academics swoon and fawn over him: "Give us the Word, Master!" This is clearly Eric Hoffer's True Believer syndrome. As noted, pm is just one more metanarrative, regardless of what the pomos claim. But American academics were/are not capable of saying, "postmodernism has some valuable aspects to it." Oh no; this was now the (latest, fashionable) Answer with a capital A. I have repeatedly stated on this blog that in the US, even the smart people are stupid. The American craze for pm is a perfect example of this. Thus, as the author of the article shows, for some pomos the difference in size between an ant and a giraffe is merely an "act of faith."

4. The author Charles Finch identifies how this, or any other, intellectual craze spreads through the culture at large. It starts (he says) with 15 readers of some obscure semiotics journal, spreads to 100 listeners at a dinner party, moves on to 10,000 readers in a popular magazine, and then to one million viewers on TV. Finally, the whole nation is engulfed in "political correctness." I saw this insanity in the early 90s, when I (foolishly) got involved in a distance-learning school that was caught in the grip of this nonsense. I didn't know who was dumber or more pathetic, the students or the faculty; but it was eerie for me to watch a brainwashing/groupthink camp in operation. You can read more about this in the Twilight book, where I call the place "Alt U." "Grotesque" was not too strong a word for this place, whose notion of education was embarrassing.

5. As the author of this article on pm observes, liberals are now authoritarian: only one (p.c.) version of events is allowed, and the liberals are happy to shout down visiting speakers rather than actually engage them. This is by now a nationwide phenomenon; Trump was the inevitable reaction to it.

6. A couple of illustrative vignettes (two among many I could furnish, in addition to that of Alt U.):

-(I need to preface this one by saying, I'm not kidding) A few years ago, a friend of mine retired from the English department of a major, and very respected, university in the Southwest. Shortly after that (this was relayed to him by a former colleague), the department was seeking to make a new hire to replace him (albeit at the junior level), and interviewed a number of candidates. All of them showed up in full-blown p.c. mode, but the most bizarre candidate was a grad student who declared that he hoped to found a "Department of Shit Studies." "Shit Studies," he told the faculty, "is the new intellectual frontier." I can't remember if this guy got the job; he may have (you wonder why such a distinguished faculty didn't tell him that his Ph.D. thesis was pure shit). Wafers, when I say that America is on its last legs, I know whereof I speak.

-Roughly 30 years ago I was invited to attend a two-day session of Ivan Illich's discussion group where he was then based, Penn State. They said they wanted my input on what they were doing, based on my forthcoming book, Coming to Our Senses, which Illich had read in manuscript form. There were about 40 or 50 people in attendance. The whole approach was pm: everything, from physics to the human body, was socially constructed. Illich himself had a rather large tumor growing out of the side of his head; I couldn't help wondering if he regarded it as socially constructed as well. (Perhaps it was a banana in some alternative universe.) In the face of incipient death, he was spouting bullshit. At one point I led the group in a meditation exercise, guiding their awareness through their bodies, step by step. The general reaction was confusion and anxiety; these folks were so out of touch with their bodies, that when reality hit them they didn't know how to react. They had very little interest in coming to their senses; safer to stay in one's head.

Later, Illich and I had a debate about transcultural truth, which for him didn't exist. I pointed out that a flying arrow really did describe the path of a parabola, as Galileo mapped out, and was not a case of discontinuous motion, as Aristotle had claimed. Illich replied, "Well in fact, it's not exactly a parabola, because of air resistance." "Ivan," I said, "you just said 'in fact'. So even you believe in a basic empirical reality, right?" He chose to ignore this.

On the last day of the conference, I talked obliquely about the problem of closed societies, and closed systems of thought, but I doubt they understood what I was saying. This crowd was as solipsistic as Alt U. Gilles Deleuze pegged it correctly when he referred to these sorts of groups as "microfascisms of the avant-garde."

Anyway, as all of you can see, I've been in the trenches with a lot of this stuff over the course of my career. I do think that pm offers us some valuable insights; the problem arises when scared human beings, desperate for existential security, turn a few valuable insights into a Totality, a System of Thought, which is swallowed whole. In Coming to Our Senses, I tried to explain why we tend to do this. People have told me (I don't know if it's true) that the most often-quoted line on the Internet is from that book: "An idea is something you have; an ideology is something that has you." Rather than wake up, we just keep changing paradigms.


April 17, 2017



As Trumpland gets darker and darker, this blog gets brighter and brighter. We have much to celebrate.