The issue of post-modernism has arisen a number of times at the blog (most recently here), and since I’ve been meaning to put up David Thompson’s conversation with PoMo critic Stephen Hicks for some time, I decided now might be propitious. For the sake of introduction (and since I find some valuable items in the post-modern paradigm), let me lay out the major claims — and strengths — of post-modernism. My criticism will accompany the rather ample discussion of Thompson and Hicks.
Post-modernism, as I understand it, represents at once a disillusionment with the failure of the “modern” project — science, technology, the superiority of the modern West — especially in the wake of World War II. No more optimism that the scientific method will produce the solutions to all our problems. At the same time, pomo was a declaration of independence from the demands of the modern, scientific epistemologies, from the demands normally made on exegetical specialists whose job, in every culture, is to interpret the world all about. This meant, above all, probing and, if necessary, stabbing texts in order to “deconstruct” them, to identify their silences and bring out what discourses the text deliberately concealed.
Derrida’s notion of différance, which is a double-pun (differ and defer) and a play on the discontinuity of oral and written media (you can’t hear the difference with “difference”) has much to offer here, especially the notion that a text’s meaning is constantly deferred into an unending future, that the passage of time inevitably reveals new facets of the text’s import. Given that Western culture is profoundly marked by apocalyptic hopes, prophecies, and “readings”, and that time consistently strikes them down and raises them up, the discovery of such a notion in Western culture may not be so surprising. But it is valuable in injecting a little modesty in the otherwise all-too frequent tendency of exegetes to insist they have the meaning.
The rejection of the “objective” is a reasonable linguistic move: language cannot possibly be transparent on reality, especially the reality of human experiences. Even if something “really did happen,” there’s no way to reduce it to verbal formulae, no way for verbal formulae to somehow lock on to the objective reality at which it points. Epistemologically, it’s possible to push it all the way to radical doubt — we can’t know what we can’t know.
One of the more interesting directions pomo thought takes this axiomatic relativism, is the rejection of the “Grand” or “Meta-Narrative,” the all-encompassing, totalistic narrative that includes, gives order and priority in meaning to the multiplicity of “little narratives” that emerge from any event. Pomos have declared the “death” of the Meta-narrative, apparently feeling that having slain the reigning Meta-Narrative (modern, scientific objectivity), they would not allow a new one to gain hegemony.
All of these ideas are interesting and potentially enormously fruitful. The danger I find most pervasive though, is in the lack of understanding and appreciation that post-modernists have for their exegetical freedom. Not realizing that in most societies in most parts of the world for most of history no one, not even the most privileged figures had anything remotely resembling their freedom to interpret and criticize and even reinvent the meaning of the culture’s major texts. As a result, they tend to abuse their freedom, decoupling the key pair of freedom and discipline for an extraordinarily self-indulgent display of solepsistic “creations.”
Indeed, in their eagerness to flaunt their freedom, the unconsciously replicate the ancestors they thought they had slain, those Meta-Narrative driven figures like Hegel and Vico, who saw in history the inexorable march of freedom. And yet, unlike earlier heroes in the heroic narrative — Washington’s refusal to become king comes to mind — they fail to appreciate either the gift they’ve inherited, or the audience to which they, as the culture’s interpreters, are responsible. Alas for us.
And now to Thompson and Hicks…
UPDATE: Shrinkwrapped has an interesting (and approving!) read of this post. The Modern Left: A Marriage of Post-Modernism and Narcissism, Part I and II
A discussion with Stephen Hicks.
March 22, 2009
“In politicized forms, then, postmodernists will behave like the stereotypical unscrupulous lawyer trying to win the case: truth and justice aren’t the point; instead using any rhetorical tool or trick that works is the point. Sometimes contradictory lines of argument work. Sometimes your audience’s desire to belong to the in-group can be played upon. Sometimes appearing absolutely authoritative works to camouflage a weak case. Sometimes condescension works.”
Dr Stephen Hicks is Professor of Philosophy and Executive Director of the Centre for Ethics and Entrepreneurship at Rockford College, Illinois. He is co-editor with David Kelley of Readings for Logical Analysis (W. W. Norton, 1998), and has published in academic journals as well as The Wall Street Journal, The Baltimore Sun, and Reader’s Digest. His book Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault was published in 2004 by Scholargy Publishing and is now in its eighth printing. He is the author and narrator of a DVD documentary entitled Nietzsche and the Nazis, which was published in 2006 by Ockham’s Razor Publishing.
DT: In an exchange with Ophelia Benson, I mentioned Explaining Postmodernism and suggested one of the book’s main themes is that postmodernism marks a crisis of faith and a retreat from reality among the academic left. Is that a fair, if crude, summary?
SH: It is striking that the major postmodernists – Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Richard Rorty – are of the far left politically. And it is striking that all four are Philosophy Ph.D.s who reached deeply skeptical conclusions about our ability to come to know reality. So one of my four theses about postmodernism is that it develops from a double crisis – a crisis within philosophy about knowledge and a crisis within left politics about socialism.
In millennial studies jargon that’s cogntive dissonance at recognizing (and denying) the failure of one’s outrageously hopeful expectations, at the horror of witnessing the God that failed.
Here, rather than acknowledge that the failure of expectations was due to a misreading of human nature, we have people throwing out the very effort to accurately read the world of humans.
DT: It seems to me that in its broadest sense postmodernism is as much a rhetorical device as it is a set of theories and political stances. For instance, Slavoj Žižek can dismiss aspects of postmodern theorising while employing much the same manoeuvres in his own writing. Much of what he says is clever in a rhetorical sense, in terms of manoeuvring around a dubious and unproven premise, while being enormously tendentious or simply glib. If you don’t accept the premise – say, a tarted-up rehash of “false consciousness” or an antipathy towards capitalism – then what follows is unpersuasive, even absurd. Geoffrey Galt Harpham pointed out that Žižek’s essays often disregard conventional argumentative structures in favour of stylistic effects and bald assertion:
“[E]ven the earnest reader who begins at page one has the constant impression of having opened to a page somewhere in the middle. This sense of an endless middle is achieved by reducing the conventional middle to almost zero. The typical Žižekian unit of discourse – a wittily-titled passage of between five and fifteen pages – begins abruptly with the kind of confident assertion commonly associated with the conclusion; there is no phase of doubt, no pretence of unprejudiced inquiry, only a series of demonstrations, exemplifications, and restatements.”
Bold yet unsupported claims are pretty much a signature of Žižek’s output – and of postmodernist writing more generally – and this is tolerated, indeed championed, by his more cultish admirers. What seems to matter is a “provocative” conclusion, at least of a certain kind, not how that conclusion was arrived at or whether it can be justified.
For instance, we’re told that fundamentalist Islam constitutes a “site of resistance” from which “one can deploy critical doubts about today’s society.” Yet “today’s society” – i.e. Western, liberal, capitalist society – is questioned openly, at length, and as a matter of routine – more so, I’d guess, than any other society in history. However, the societies envisioned by enthusiasts of fundamentalist Islam don’t seem likely to foster similar reflection or dissent; nor do they seem likely to equip their inhabitants with the tools of such endeavours. Yet these basic considerations don’t delay Žižek in his rush to assert.
This is a classic irresponsible pomo move. They are so enamored of “decentering” and “destabilizing” Western discourse — which I strongly suspect is a reincarnation of Marxist efforts to undermine false consciousness — that anything that serves will find favor, not matter how grotesque the passage from moral equivalence to moral inversion.
The radical inconsistencies in moral judgment, assessment of evidence, principled rigor, all serve the same purpose: decentering the hegemon. Saïd’s Orientalism rises (and falls) on the inconsistency between his harsh criticism of Western attempts to “essentialize” the “Orient” and his harsh essentializing of Western scholarship.
SH: Pomo is rhetoric-heavy, yes. But rhetoric is a tool, so one can ask how it’s being used and why it’s being used that way. The postmodernists have rejected reason, and along with it concern for evidence and consistency. What then is the purpose of rhetoric? In pomo practice, there are a couple of possibilities.
One is that rhetoric becomes a kind of subjectivist expressionism – you play around with language and hope that something interesting pops out. Derrida is often like this – I think of him as a performance artist of postmodernism. In its darker moods, this approach recalls a line from Kate Ellis, a sympathetic-to-postmodernism commentator, who noted “the characteristically apolitical pessimism of most postmodernism, by which creation is simply a form of defecation.” Whatever’s been processing and churning up inside you – you just let ‘er rip.
And yet, and yet, pomo is not a-political, it just disguises its refusal to face the failure of the revolution in a pseudo-a-politicism. Terry Eagelton is a good example. He wants revolution at any cost — even the cost of reintroducing religion, as described by Stanley Fish in an essay I hope to feature here.
Eagleton acknowledges that the links forged are not always benign — many terrible things have been done in religion’s name — but at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions, for its “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.” And it is only that great subject, and the aspirations it generates, that can lead, Eagleton insists, to “a radical transformation of what we say and do.”
I like the image of creation as defecation. It’s as if, somehow, the process of digesting meaning went from chewing one’s cud and producing life-giving milk, to sucking the nutrients out of the text and crapping all over your readers.
The other use of rhetoric is politically-charged persuasion. Pomo rhetoric becomes long on emotionalism, ad hominem, and so on, and it becomes short on logic and evidence. But the point of such rhetoric is effectiveness, not truth.
You mention that much pomo political rhetoric is anti-capitalist and champions unlikely causes such as fundamentalist Islam. Here the pomo are taking a page out of Lenin’s and Marcuse’s playbooks. There’s a long-ish story here that I talk about in Chapter 5 of Explaining Postmodernism: Traditional Marxism said that capitalism would collapse from the inside (the exploited and alienated workers would rise); but when that didn’t happen, Marxists theorized that capitalism had exported its misery to the Third World (Lenin’s idea) or to outcast and marginalized subcultures (Marcuse’s idea). So the new strategy was to cultivate the anti-capitalist resistance in those places.
Like other pomo of this generation, Žižek is an evolving combination of the above.
Again, this is classic post-apocalyptic behavior: When the prophecy fails, find a way to explain its failure so that the hope remains, re-identify the problem, set a pre-millennial project in motion that will help hasten the day, and continue to look passionately to a day when all suffering will be gone from this earth. From the pursuit of the “politique du pire” (oppose reform, try and make things worse so that the revolution will come sooner) to a kind of Xhosa “cattle slaying” in which one kills one’s own texts in the hopes of making room for better ones, and each failure brings on a determination to root out every text one can possibly find.
DT: You say, “The postmodernists have rejected reason, and along with it concern for evidence and consistency,” and I suspect some readers will find this hard to accept. It sounds outlandish. But, as you point out in the book, Lyotard explicitly rejected notions of truth and clarity as being synonymous with “prisons and prohibitions.” Foucault shared these sentiments, claiming “reason is the ultimate language of madness,” suggesting that nothing should constrain our beliefs and political preferences, not even logic or evidence. Frank Lentricchia, another left-wing theorist, said the postmodern movement “seeks not to find the foundation and conditions of truth, but to exercise power for the purpose of social change.” And Stanley Fish, who rushed to defend Social Text after the Sokal hoax, had previously argued that theorising and deconstruction “relieves me of the obligation to be right … and demands only that I be interesting.” There is a pattern here.
The pattern is one of indulgence. Like the card-game where the trickster knows where the card is, and takes the pile indicated by his dupe or its opposite as appropriate, the political pomo favors that which destabilizes the hegemon. If they had courage, we could be safe in knowing that once Islam becomes the hegemon, they will go after it with the same enthusiasm. But I doubt that. There’s no cost to smashes Western idols, just don’t touch Muslim ones.
SH: It is hard to accept the rejection of reason, especially if you’re outside of academic circles, but it’s no secret inside. You nicely quote some representative statements – it’s also worth noting that the leading pomo thinkers cite Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Existentialists as their forerunners, and the rejection of reason runs deep in those lines of thought too.
DT: A while ago, I quoted a chunk of Derrida prose that’s hilarious nonsense. I’ve defied several Derrida enthusiasts to explain what this particular passage means, or might mean if you squint and tilt your head, but so far no-one has managed to tell me. And the essay from which the quote is taken has numerous, equally baffling, paragraphs which could be arranged in almost any order with no perceptible difference. Much of the essay is wilfully incomprehensible, like some Dadaist prank that no-one dares to mention. And there seems to be a taboo against even entertaining the possibility that such a thing could happen, and happen quite often, with little if any protest from colleagues and students. It’s unthinkable that such a con could be perpetrated, and maybe that’s why it goes on happening.
Now there’s an interesting comment. Not only does it call up images of the Emperor’s New Clothes, but it parallels the attitude of current pundits on Islam — the more outrageous it is, the more reasonable it appears in their view.
As for obscurantism, this one, from a graduate student term paper is my current favorite:
‘The rememoration of the “present” as space is the possibility of the utopian imperative of no-(particular)place, the metropolitan project that can supplement the post-colonial attempt at the impossible cathexis of place-bound history as the lost time of the spectator. (‘Psychoanalysis in Left Field and Fieldworking: Examples to Fit the Title’, in Speculations after Freud: Psychoanalysis, Philosophy and Culture, ed. Sonu Shamdasani and Michael Münchow, London and NY, Routledge, 1994, p. 63; see Roger Scruton’s discussion of this here.)
More recently, in a piece about the art world’s reliance on postmodernist rhetoric – what’s often called “art bollocks” – I pointed out that the artist Aliza Shvarts was mouthing opaque gibberish while pretending to be profound. The text she’d written and presented as a key part of her art was clumsy, incoherent and often simply meaningless. It was a kind of verbal flailing and rhetorical camouflage. (It’s difficult to determine exactly how wrong an unintelligible analysis is.)
One postmodernist commenter took exception to my criticism – first by accusing me of arguing things I clearly wasn’t arguing, then by saying I was holding “entrenched positions” in which “aesthetic values” (in scare quotes), “scientific reality/clarity” (again, in scare quotes) and my own “reliance on logical consistency” (ditto) were obstacles to comprehension. Specifically, they were obstacles to comprehending Shvarts’ alleged (but oddly unspecified) “arguments of power, control [and] dominance.” The tone was, of course, condescending and self-satisfied. I’m guessing the commenter in question didn’t pause to consider the possibility that one might find pomo bafflegab objectionable precisely because it represents the “power, control [and] dominance” of what amounts to a priestly caste.
On one level, I suspect that this kind of obscurity, when joined to an assumption of profundity, produces a kind of Rorschach test: you read the passage, imagine the deepest meanings your own semiotically aroused mind can produce, and project that meaning back on the “artist” — actually that last move isn’t necessary. Shvart’s defender could have said, “you may be right, it is meaningless. But it is precisely the aporia of her discourse that permits the creative relationship of the viewer to her art.
There’s a joke about a guy who comes home to see his wife in bed with another man. “What are you doing?” He asks (somewhat lamely). “Listening to music,” she replies. “I don’t hear any music,” he answers (again somewhat lamely). “Oh,” she says, “You can’t hear the music if you’re not plugged in. Hicks is clearly not plugged in. How pathetically pedestrian and bourgeois of him to even object.
SH: A lot of what you’re getting from your various commentators seems like third-raters playing the game, so it’s probably not worth focusing on them – instead of attending to the lessons they’re learning from the leading pomo strategists.
Another clue is that some postmodernists prefer “neo-pragmatist.” Rorty, Fish, and many of the legal postmodernists sometimes use that label. Pragmatism as a school of thought thinks of knowledge, truth, and certainty as chimerical quests and suggests that we focus our efforts on what works. In politicized forms, then, postmodernists will behave like the stereotypical unscrupulous lawyer trying to win the case: truth and justice aren’t the point; instead using any rhetorical tool or trick that works is the point. Sometimes contradictory lines of argument work. Sometimes your audience’s desire to belong to the in-group can be played upon. Sometimes appearing absolutely authoritative works to camouflage a weak case. Sometimes condescension works. And so on.
Of course, pragmatism assumes you have a goal to be pragmatic about. In epistemology, it would seem to be “what works” in the sense that if I think this is the case, and I act in a manner that depends on my understanding, then I will have success interacting with, even manipulating/controlling the reality beyond my ego. Unscrupulous lawyers are driven by the “loyalty to their client”; unscrupulous revolutionaries are driven by their libido perturbandi (lust to disrupt); and serious people by their desire to understand and respond to the feedback of the world outside themselves as effectively as possible.
DT: I suppose, then, “neo-pragmatism” is often a euphemism for “bad faith,” or “rhetorical authoritarianism”?
SH: Not necessarily. Some neo-pragmatists take the milder position that truth is hard, our data always partial, and the world always evolving – and so rather than obsessing about truth we should be flexible and focus on working hypotheses and workable results. Susan Haack comes to mind here. That doesn’t have to be bad faith or authoritarianism. But other neo-pragmatists do push hard on the skepticism-about-truth button, as Rorty does, and that takes them into postmodernism.
My third option above, the responsible use of the freedoms post-modern observations offer us.
DT: It’s interesting to contrast Explaining Postmodernism with some of the material you criticise. The writing is always clear, even when you’re dealing with quite detailed and knotty concepts or loaded obscurantism. I suppose some pomo theorists might consider your prose “unproblematic,” which is a pejorative, apparently. Writing in Innovations of Antiquity, Ralph Hexter and Daniel Selden dismissed “transparent prose” as “the approved mode of expression for the society and values of the newly empowered middle class.” In the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Mas’ud Zavarzadeh denounced “unproblematic prose and clarity of presentation” as “the conceptual tools of conservatism.” The rejection of transparency as “conservative” is particularly odd, since transparency makes a claim amenable to broad critical enquiry, and thus public correction. Without transparency, what do we have? A private language shared only by likeminded peers, in which one is “free” to assert, largely unopposed? Is that really a marker of progress?
How on earth can anyone claim that this represents an “a-political” stance. It rather makes the whole pomo adventure an exercise in épater les bourgeois. This is precisely the kind of sneering dismissal that fuels the ostracism of anyone who, for example, might speak plainly about the threat of Islamo-fascism.
As for the contrast between obscurity and clarity, the best explanation for why modern science appears in the European vernaculars (rather than the obvious, universal, Latin) is because it was addressed to a large audience of plain thinkers whose ability to understand played a key role in a new, reasoned kind of consensus that replaces the obscurantist, hierophantic (priestly) concoctions of an elite intelligentsia.
In the essay linked above, Keith Windschuttle names various academics and educational advisors who claim that truth and reality are “authoritarian weapons” and that disinterested scholarship is merely “an ideological position” favoured by “traditionalists and the political right.” This presents a rather handy excuse to dismiss political dissent without having to engage with inconvenient arguments. Presumably, if you prefer arguments that are comprehensible and open to scrutiny, this signals some reactionary tendency and deep moral failing. On the other hand, if you sneer at such bourgeois trifles, you’re radical, clever and very, very sexy. (Though I wonder what mathematicians and structural engineers would make of this claim. Is there such a thing as a rightwing calculation, or a rightwing bridge – I mean a bridge that’s rightwing because it doesn’t promptly collapse?)
SH: There’s that line from Nietzsche about obscurantists – they muddy the waters to make them appear deep.
But there is a deeper point about form following function, or in this case rhetorical style matching the content of one’s beliefs. The function of language is to express one’s thoughts. If you think truth is possible, then you work hard to understand the world clearly and completely. But if you doubt that truth is possible, that has psycho-epistemological consequences: you come to believe that the world is at best fuzzy and your mind incapable of grasping it – you come to believe deep down that all is fractured and disjointed – and your writing will tend to the fuzzy, the fractured, and the disjointed. And in consequence you will come to be suspicious of clarity in others. Clarity, from this perspective, must be an over-simplifying.
And there is a cheap rhetorical variant as well: if the data and the arguments, when presented clearly, are going against you, muddying the waters gives you some breathing room, so to speak.
Post modernism as squid ink.
DT: How was the book received by defenders of the faith? Was there any serious attempt at refutation by those whose views you criticise?
SH: It’s been well received and reviewed by realist liberals, conservatives, and libertarian intellectuals. From postmodernists, I have received only a few email denunciations.
DT: One of the recurrent themes here is the self-inflicted disrepute of large parts of academia. Whether it’s the spread of political lockstep and the consequent intolerance and extremism, or hucksterism and incompetence (and those who champion it), or student “activists” who regurgitate postmodernist clichés while enacting their dreary psychodramas. It seems to me that many of these things are related to the subject of your book. Whether viewed as a set of claims, as a political movement or as a rhetorical device, how would you describe the general fallout of postmodernism?
SH: In the shorter term, postmodernism has caused an impoverishment of much of the academic humanities, both in the quality of the work being done and the civility of the debates. The sciences have been less affected and are relatively healthy. The social sciences are mixed.
Anthropology is, according to Herbert Lewis, has been badly hit. Middle Eastern Studies have imploded.
I am optimistic, though, for a couple of reasons. One is that pomo was able to entrench itself in the second half of the twentieth century in large part because first-rate intellectuals were mostly dismissive of it and focused on their own projects. But over the last ten years, after pomo’s excesses became blatant, there has been a vigorous counter-attack and pomo is now on the defensive. Another reason for optimism is that, as a species of skepticism, pomo is ultimately empty and becomes boring. Eventually intellectually-alert individuals get tired of the same old lines and move on. It is one thing, as the pomo can do well, to critique other theories and tear them down. But that merely clears the field for the next new and intriguing theory and for the next generation of energetic young intellectuals.
So while the postmodernism has had its generation or two, I think we’re ready for the next new thing – a strong, fresh, and positive approach to the big issues, one that of course takes into account the critical weapons the pomo have used well over the last while.
It’s a big and interesting world out there. Let the best arguments prevail.
How deliciously old-fashioned. Let the games begin.