Category Archives: pomo

“The Other’s Antichrist, is my Antichrist”: The Millennial Encounter Between Post-Modernism and Global Jihad

I was recently asked to write a preface to a volume of essays on Millennialism. After discussing the enormous resistance of “conventional” historians to allowing millennial topics any more than marginal status within the larger narrative of Western history, and arguing on the contrary that we need to define millennialism in a way that includes stealth secular forms (e.g., communism), I concluded with a discussion of the stakes involved, in part inspired by my encounter with Judith Butler’s work over the past weeks

Here is the concluding section.

Real-World Stakes in Millennial Scholarship: Post-Modern “Others” vs. Islamic Apocalyptic “Others”

The stakes involved here are not insignificant, nor merely “academic,” although they are most specifically academic. Right now, and since the 60s, much of the academic world involved with human subjects (Arts, Humanities, Social “Sciences”) has become absorbed by an interlocking series of theoretical paradigms and exegetical techniques (deconstruction, critical, gender, queer, theory, post-modernism, post-colonialism) that have millennial premises embedded in the core of their theory.[1] And as every effective millennial discourse must provide, Post-modern theory has identified the “source of our suffering,” namely boundaries. And since those “us-them” boundaries – between self and “Other,” “male and female,” one culture/religion/ethnicity/nationality and another – have been constructed, we can ‘free’ ourselves (or at least, resist), by deconstructing.

Thus, the Post-modern theories in their various avatars systematically transgress conventional boundaries, subvert “hegemonic” discourses (including meta-narratives), that must always-already inscribe an invidious dichotomy between “us-them”.[2] Instead, liberation comes from the embrace of the “Other,” in post-colonialism, the subaltern “Others,” to whose narratives we are obliged to grant epistemological equality if not priority.[3] Redemptive performativity is, among other things, a way to speak of messianic behavior, of tikkun olam, of “realized eschatology.”[4] And it all takes place in the (relatively) non-apocalyptic framework of a progressive effort to fundamentally transform a cultural sensibility.[5]

Like many of their predecessors, including Marx, these latest secular millennialists tend to deny their chiliastic genealogy.[6] Indeed, the whole post-modern principle of “incredulity towards Grand or Meta-Narratives,” is a repudiation among other things, of the greatest of them all – apocalyptic narratives about eschatological End of History.[7] So in principle, post-modernists and their offspring (the various “theorists”), have liberated themselves from apocalyptic and millennial narratives. Of course post-modernists are far to sophisticated to fall into complete denial.[8]

A Judith Butler, for example, openly embraces her utopian longings – e.g., for Buber and Magnes’ “binational state”- despite their impossibility – as driving forces of her performativity.[9] But, she would on the one hand, deny any relationship to earlier apocalyptic movements that veered rapidly from transformative to cataclysmic, from demotic to hierarchical, and even when confronted with the disastrous implications of her millennial reasoning, declares herself proud of her courage to think so daringly.[10] Indeed, her work deserves a thoroughly millennial analysis, not the least because she has chosen to perform her theories in the “real world,” of other people, and when she does so, it has results that should alarm anyone familiar with apocalyptic dynamics.[11]

More broadly, I think only a millennial analysis of the post-60s (post apocalyptic) Zeitgeist of the academy, especially where studies of humankind are concerned, can explain the current direction of consensus politics when dealing with Islamism. Take for example, the following conundrum: In the entire history of Christianity, no nation that called itself Christian adopted a foreign policy based on the Sermon on the Mount; on the contrary. Now, however, post-Christians, people who by and large have contempt for religion, even view it as a virus,[12] urge a “turn the other cheek” policy of self-criticism and self-abasement vis-à-vis a profoundly hostile “Other.”[13] As a colleague commented at a conference on apocalypticism, “If the USA were attacked by nuclear weapons, I hope we’d have the maturity not to strike back.”[14]

No Cheers for Stanley Fish’s Tribal “leftism”

Last month, Stanley Fish wrote a piece on the Limbaugh “slut” controversy for the NYT column called “Campaign Stops: Strong Opinions on the 2012 Elections.” It’s, at least to my mind, a deeply disturbing piece, that reveals a political agenda people like Stephen Hicks have long argued lay behind the pseudo-relativism of post-modern thinkers.

Two Cheers for Double Standards

By STANLEY FISH

What is a double standard? It’s a double standard when you condemn an opponent for doing or saying something you would approve or excuse if it were said or done by one of your buddies. The double standard that is in the news these days concerns Rush Limbaugh, who called Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown, a “slut” and “prostitute” because she told Congress that her university’s health plan should cover the cost of contraceptives.

Limbaugh has not had many defenders (Mitt Romney said weakly that he wouldn’t have used that language), but some on the conservative side of the aisle have cried “double standard” because Ed Schultz was only mildly criticized (and suspended for a week) for characterizing Laura Ingraham as a “right-wing slut,” and Bill Maher emerged relatively unscathed after he referred to Michele Bachmann as a “bimbo” and labeled Sarah Palin with words I can’t mention in this newspaper. If you are going to get on your high horse when Limbaugh says something inappropriate, shouldn’t you also mount the steed when commentators on your team say the same kind of thing? Isn’t what’s good for the goose good for the gander?

These questions come naturally to those who have been schooled in the political philosophy of enlightenment liberalism. The key move in that philosophy is to shift the emphasis from substantive judgment — is what has been said good and true? — to a requirement of procedural reciprocity — you must treat speakers equally even if you can’t abide what some of them stand for. Basically this is the transposition into the political realm of the Golden Rule: do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Don’t give your friends a pass you wouldn’t give to your enemies.

So if you come down hard on Limbaugh because he has crossed a line, you must come down hard on Schultz and Maher because they have crossed the same line; and you should do this despite the fact that in general — that is, on all the important issues — you think Schultz and Maher are right and Limbaugh is horribly and maliciously wrong.

These are not so much judgments based on content so much as attributions of venal motives. Limbaugh is “malicious” – i.e., it’s not that he’s wrong, he’s bad. For Fish not to note the shift from content to character, from substance to ad hominem, seems rather sloppy. Presumably he knows the difference.

(Some left-wing commentators have argued that there is a principled way of slamming Limbaugh while letting the other two off the hook, because he went after a private citizen while they were defaming public figures. Won’t wash.)

Interesting that he waves away this option, which is the preferred rationalization among many. I am not particularly impressed with the distinction (everyone’s a public figure here in the sense that they’re weighing in about public policy in the public sphere).

The idea is that in the public sphere (as opposed to the private sphere in which you can have and vent your prejudices) you should not privilege your own views to the extent that they justify treating those with opposing views unequally and unfairly. (Fairness is the great liberal virtue.) This idea is concisely captured by the philosopher Thomas Nagel when he says that in political life we should regard our most cherished beliefs, “whether moral or religious … simply as someone’s beliefs rather than as truths.” In short, back away from or relax your strongest convictions about what is right and wrong and act in a manner that grants legitimacy, at least of a formal kind, to the convictions of others, even of others you despise.

It’s quite striking how often the gut emotions appear here – “despise…” “malicious…” “can’t abide…” Are political disagreements so visceral for Fish?

But there is an alternative way of looking at the matter and it is represented in a scene (which I have discussed previously in “The Trouble With Principle”) from the classic western movie “The Wild Bunch.” Two outlaws, played by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, are talking about the gang of railroad detectives pursuing them. What rankles is that at the head of the gang is one of their old comrades. Borgnine’s character is dismayed at what he takes to be the treachery of a former colleague. Holden’s character explains that he gave his word to the railroad. Borgnine’s character shoots back, “That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give your word to.” What counts is who your friends and allies are. You keep your word to them and not just to anybody. Your loyalty is to particular people and not to an abstraction.

This is the classic notion of asabiyya described by Ibn Khaldoun as the highest moral principle: “my side right or wrong.” It is, by modern, civilized standards, a primitive notion associated with tribal warriors, self-help cultures (like the mafia), and patriotism (Gott mit uns). It’s precisely what people so often condemn among Zionists (communautarisme, “Israel-firsters,” “Israel right-or-wrong crowd”). That Fish would invoke it in a moral discussion in a culture based on “whoever is right, my side or not,” is rather astonishing.

PomoMarx: Eagelton tries to make Marx and 21st century progressive

In my book on millennialism I have a chapter devoted to Marx in which, among other less than flattering remarks, I note the following about his “dialectical” thinking:

The totalizing discourse operates as a kind of scientistic magic, making millennial promises about total liberation—“complete” control over the instruments of production and universal intercourse. But Marx offered this promise not to the intellectuals of his age, but specifically to those then suffering the most from the throes of industrialization.

. . . Marxist revolutionaries adopt Hegel’s dialectic to prove that each step downward into deeper misery simultaneously and inevitably hastened the coming of paradise. “Imperialist” wars and “capitalist” depressions became, for the apocalyptic Marxists, what the “fortunate fall” and the “signs of the End” are for Christians, the same gratifying dialectic that Bakùnin had in mind when he announced that “the passion for destruction is a creative passion.”[1]

With such a promise comes a fury to console and soothe the agony of one’s current condition—the very crushing pains the laborer now experiences will be transformed into the opposite, the very totality of their alienation will make it possible for all to achievecomplete self-activity.

And behind the apocalyptic historical analysis lay an enticing millennial premise and promise: a “new man” would emerge on the other side of this wrenching process of alienation. Just as the French Revolution had promised a new citizen, so the Marxists promised a “new comrade”—an interesting shift, given the sad fact that “fraternity” was the first of the promises to vanish from the millennial formula of liberté, égalité, fraternité.[2] Here, over the course of the nineteenth century, revolutionaries availed themselves of John Locke’s theories about man as a blank slate who had no “innate ideas,” that is, no innate character, that rather sensory perceptions and experiences mold man. Whatever Locke believed he meant, both Enlightenment thinkers and subsequent radicals seized eagerly on this nurture versus nature perspective to believe anything possible.[3]

As in the case of many millennial texts, this one seems far less compelling with hindsight; indeed, these expectations were and still are completely unrealistic.[4] But, “[o]ne may poke holes in the theories . . . mock any number of embarrassing contradictions. None of that matters. It is the myth, as Sorel saw, and its inspirational powers that count. And apocalyptic Marxism is the perfect myth.”[5] One of the reasons that Marx succeeded in winning so many fervent disciples was not despite the bizarre reasoning here displayed, but because of it.[6]

[1]. Mendel, Vision and Violence, 153.

[2]. By the time of the Directory (1794–99), it appears in the variant: “Liberté, égalité, propriété.” See, for example, a print of the three directors (Barras, La Révellière, and Reubell), after the coup-d’état of the 18 of Fructidor (4 September 1797) entitled La trinité républicaine, BNP, Estampes, reproduced in François Furet and Denis Richet, La Révolution du 9-Thermidor au 18-Brumaire (Paris: Hachette, 1966), 123. See also Mona Ozouf, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” in Lieux de Mémoire, ed. Pierre Nora, 3 vol. (Paris: Gallimard, 1997), 3:4353–89.

[3]. Richard Pipes discusses the link between Locke and the Communists in Russian Revolution, 1899–1919 (London: Harvill Press, 1997), 125–36; see above on the French revolutionaries’ use of this notion, chapter 9 n. 87.

[4]. For an attempt at a sympathetic but realistic review of the completely impracticable assumptions that underlie so much of Marx’s thought about the Communist state to come, see Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 521–27. He repeatedly refers to the elements of Marx’s assumptions and allusions that are “extremely” (522) and “irredeemably Utopian” (526), of coming from “Cloud-cuckoo-land” (524). See also Axel Van den Berg’s characterization of Marx’s salvific vision as an “absurdly bucolic . . . utterly cloudy millennium.” The Immanent Utopia: From Marxism on the State to the State of Marxism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988) 56-7,

[5]. Mendel, Vision and Violence, 152.

[6]. “Such utopian images of the future command society, however scattered and fragmentary in the writings of Marx and Engels, form an essential component of Marxist theory—and one that is essential for understanding the appeals of Marxism in the modern world.” Maurice Meisner, “Marxism and Utopianisn” in Marxism, Maosim and Utopianism, Eight Essays (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982); see also Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel, “Marx and Engels in the Landscape of Utopia” in Utopian Thought in the Western World (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1979), 697–716.

I also, in a subsequent chapter on the Russian revolution, note the way Western intellectuals dealt with the cognitive dissonance of the failed communist millennium:

Fellow Travelers and the Cognitive Dissonance of Failed Revolutions

The reaction of Western Marxists to the Soviet debacle, namely, the length and depth of their denial that the dream had turned into a nightmare, has astounded and puzzled most intellectuals not in thrall to Communist ideology. This is particular true since some of these people, like George Bernard Shaw and Jean-Paul Sartre, were both brilliant and otherwise known for their mordant observations on people’s “bad faith.” And yet, just like believers incapable of allowing the evidence of apocalyptic prophecy’s failure to enter their consciousness, these people could not admit to themselves or anyone else that the millennial experiment in which they had invested so much (intellectual) energy could have failed.[1]

… these pilgrims proved capable of the most extraordinary ability to ignore whatever anomalies they observed in their terrestrial paradise. George Bernard Shaw’s visit to Moscow in 1931 illustrates some of the psychology involved. A devastating critic of Western capitalism, he checked his skepticism at the border, along with the numerous tins of canned meat that his friends had given him to bring to their starving Russian friends, and arrived oblivious to all that surrounded him, including the dismay of the Russians when he told them about the jettisoned cans of meat since he “knew” there was no famine in the socialist paradise.[5] Russia served not as a case of the “real world,” subject to his penetrating criticism, but the foil for his own dislike of the world he inhabited, no matter how it welcomed the products of his socialist genius. Despite the horror that surrounded him in Russia, he came back with glowing reports. As Russell noted, Shaw “fell victim to adulation of the Soviet government and suddenly lost the power of criticism and of seeing though humbug if it came from Moscow.”[6]

[1]. One of the significant exceptions was Bertrand Russell, who, among other things coined the expression the “fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed,” in his 1937 essay “The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed,”Unpopular Essays (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1950). For the broader phenomenon, see  David Caute, The Fellow Travelers: A Postscript to the Enlightenment (New York: Macmillan, 1973); Paul Hollander, Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1998).

[5]. Eugene Lyons, Assignment in Utopia (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1937), 428–35.

[6]. Bertrand Russell, Portraits from Memory (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956), 59; cited in Hollander, Political Pilgrims, 139.

Now, too late to add to the footnotes, Terry Eagelton, one of the major figures in the abuse of post-modernism for political purposes, comes up with a book entitled Why Marx was Right. I fisk his article for the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he summarizes his argument and tries to rehabilitate Marx for a modern progressive audience. I put Eagelton’s article in bold to distinguish from other quotes I add to this post.

For other excellent critiques, see Ron Radosh, Marx and the American Academy: When Will the High Priests ever Learn? and John Gray, The Return of an Illusion.

April 10, 2011
In Praise of Marx

By Terry Eagleton

Praising Karl Marx might seem as perverse as putting in a good word for the Boston Strangler. Were not Marx’s ideas responsible for despotism, mass murder, labor camps, economic catastrophe, and the loss of liberty for millions of men and women? Was not one of his devoted disciples a paranoid Georgian peasant by the name of Stalin, and another a brutal Chinese dictator who may well have had the blood of some 30 million of his people on his hands?

That’s much more likely 70 million. See Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 (2010) on the “great leap forward” alone which brought on over 45 million untimely deaths. One of the comments Dikötter highlights is the determination of Mao to downplay the number of deaths, something that, even as he pretends to admit the truth, Eagelton continues to do.

The Hypocrisies of “Post-Modernism”: On Silencing the Israeli Voice

One of the more striking lunacies of our day is the way that the Left has adopted the totalistic discourse of the Palestinians and decided that even allowing Israelis to defend themselves is a violation of their principles. As a result we get the ludicrous monopoly of “debates” about the Arab-Israeli conflict by anti-Zionist Arabs and anti-Zionists Jews.

In principle, the post-modern approach is to open oneself up to many (all?) narratives. Unfortunately, when one opens oneself to pre-modern totalistic narratives (what, again in principle, the pomos reject as “grand narratives”) one ends up shutting down the very openness and tolerance that supposedly animates the whole enterprise.

Three recent examples illustrate the phenomenon:

1) Charles Enderlin publishes a book on the Al Durah affair, full of misinformation and bad faith. He gets plenty of air time in France with no one who can contradict him invited to participate. (This is almost certainly at Enderlin’s insistence, given that he cannot and will not stand up to contradiction in these matters.) Nidra Poller has written about the curiously quiet nature of the book launch (a kind of bird-whistle to his side that he hopes others won’t notice); while Luc Rosenzweig has written about how anyone who can contradict is excluded from the “plateau.”

2) Gershon Baskin has organized a conference on the “From Camp David 2000 Until Today” in which no one is there to present the formidable case that making concessions to Palestinians under current conditions is a recipe for violence.

3) Professor Geoffrey Alderman, one of the few English academics still willing to defend Israel’s interests was invited and then disinvited to a panel discussion on “The Conflict in the Middle East” that has the likes of Avi “Arabs are always sincere in their peace offers, Israelis never” Shlaim and Beverly Milton “let’s talk with Hamas” Edwards. Below is a blogpost with the details from Jonathan Hoffman.

Professor Geoffrey Alderman has sent out the following Press Notice: “On 20 September 2010 I received an email from the Director of the Belfast Festival, Mr. Graeme Farrow, inviting me to join a panel convened to discuss “Conflict in the Middle East” as part of the 2010 Belfast Festival, held under the auspices of Queen’s University Belfast. Mr. Farrow’s exact words were: “I would be delighted if you would join our panel.” I was naturally pleased to accept this invitation. The panel discussion is due to take place on Monday evening, 18 October 2010, in Belfast. On Friday afternoon, 15 October 2010 I was shocked to receive an email from Mr. Farrow informing me that “a mistake” had been made in extending the invitation to me and that although I could join the audience the event was to go ahead without my panel participation. In effect, I was being “disinvited.”

In a series of email exchanges with Mr. Farrow I refused to accept this situation, and I have made it clear to him that I intend to travel to Belfast tomorrow and shall expect to participate fully as a member of the panel. I am frankly appalled at the way I have been treated, for which I hold Queen’s University, Belfast, responsible.”

On the Panel with Alderman were Avi Shlaim and Beverley Milton Edwards. The latter was a founder of Conflicts Forum and believes in a dialogue with Hamas.

I gather that Alderman is going to Belfast tomorrow anyway and will insist on being on the Panel.

Here is Farrow’s email, if you want to protest:
g.farrow@qub.ac.uk

What are they afraid of? That people might, upon hearing the other side, not share their totalistic view. That the anti-Zionist side might get violent? Nothing bodes ill for the West more than this intellectual cowardice.

UPDATE: See Melanie Phillips’ take on the Alderman case; and Daphne Anson’s.

Nick Cohen: How the Institute of Contemporary Arts came to symbolise Liberal Cowardice

I have argued repeatedly that 2000 marks a catastrophic moral failure on the part of the “progressive” (and even the “liberal”) left. Nick Cohen again hits the nail on the head, this time about the moral collapse of liberalism in the past decade and the corresponding rise of a post-modern fascist sensibility which, like earlier forms of fascism, found the Jews a particularly choice target for post-modern scape-goating.

MARCH 14, 2010…12:37 PM
How the ICA came to symbolise Liberal Cowardice

There is much to talk about in Ian McEwan’s Solar. As I say in today’s Observer, he makes a hat tip to John Updike and allows the great issue of global warming to be explained through the devious manoeuvres of a slobby and disreputable hero, Michael Beard. However, McEwan goes to some trouble to show that there are worse people in the world than Beard by sending him to meet a postmodern audience at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Like Lawrence Summers at Harvard, Beard had incautiously suggested that there may – just may – be evolutionary reasons for gender differences in the average intellectual aptitudes of men and women. The press denounce him as a Nazi and a eugenicist, and he agrees to appear at the ICA to defend himself. In an acid scene, McEwan shows that London followers of post-modernism are as contemptuous of the scientific method and as potentially racist as Alaskan followers of Sarah Palin.

    “When he mentioned the metastudies reporting that girls’ language skills were greater on average than boys’, there was a roar of derision and a speaker on the platform rose fearsomely to denounce him for the ‘crude objectivism by which he seeks to maintain and advance the social dominance of the white male elite’. The moment the fellow sat down he was rewarded with the kind of cheers that might presage a revolution. Bewildered, Beard did not get the connection. He was completely lost. When, later, he irritably demanded of the meeting if it thought that gravity too was a social construct, he was booed, and a woman in the audience stood to propose in stern headmistressly tones, that he reflect on the ‘hegemonic arrogance’ of his question.”

Beard’s opponent is a Jewish academic who respects the scientific literature and explains nervously why he is misreading it. Even though she is against the hated Beard, the ICA turns against her, for reasons you may be able to guess.

Truth, Narrative, and Journalism in the ME: Barry Rubin nails it

I’ve dealt with pomo before here, and will again. Meantime, one of the saner observers of the madness that pomo can induce in journalists (and diplomats), Barry Rubin, has an interesting column on the subject.

When journalists say there is no such thing as truth than the world is in big trouble.

He begins with a couple of anecdotes:

A reporter just wrote me a letter that contains a single sentence which I think reflects on why the Western world is in such trouble today. After understandably discussing such real problems of reporting as short deadlines, complex issues, and the duty of the reporter to report what people say, the letter concludes with this sentence:

“And when it comes to the Middle East, one man’s [obscenity deleted] is another man’s truth.”

Woe to us that a journalist thinks this way. Of course, this is very similar to the older version that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Recently, I heard that latter one from the Danish ambassador to the Council of Europe who said that Hamas and Hizballah were like the Danish resistance in World War Two. I replied, among other things, that I don’t remember the Danish or other World War Two European resistance movements bombing German kindergartens and glorying in getting Danish civilians killed as human shields.

I also don’t think that the Danes and other European resistance movements were attempting to commit genocide on the Germans. I do believe it was the other way around.

(PS: More Danes fought in the German army than in the Resistance, and that was true of other countries as well. Forgive me for remembering who was the main victim of terrorism and “freedom fighter” terrorists then and today. But I digress)

That a European country—and one of the more astute ones, to make matters worse–is represented by someone like that says something pretty sad about the state of the world today.

and finishes with a hilarious (to me at least) thought experiment:

What’s a Straw Man of a Straw Man? Fish features Eagelton’s rediscovery of religion

Stanley Fish’s blog at the NYT has often tempted me to write a commentary/fisk, but I never got around to it. But in honor of my last post on pomo, I couldn’t resist commenting on Fish’s current posting about Terry Eagelton, the Marxist post-modernist literary critic’s turn to religion. I may be reading this wrong — I haven’t read Eagelton’s new book yet, and am relying on Fish’s summary — but it strikes me as a puerile and unself-reflecting turn with very dangerous implications. We modernists (among whom I include the post-modernists), if we want to play with the fire of religious belief, need to have a steep learning curve lest it just become a form of regression. I see no sign of the self-criticism that would produce that learning curve in either Eagelton or Fish’s discussion of him.

God Talk
Stanley Fish blog, NYT
May 3, 2009, 10:00 PM

In the opening sentence of the last chapter of his new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution,” the British critic Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed. “What other symbolic form,” he queries, “has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?”

So wait a minute. After decades of post-modern “there are no absolutes,” it’s now, “given that reason and science don’t work, let’s go back to religion?” Is there any self-interrogation here? What happened to post-modernism? Just a little adolescent spiritedness?

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 don’t want to seem dismissive, but this move is a little like Jimmy Carter saying, “I condemn terrorism, but, Hamas is an important and legitimate organization.” Terry, if you don’t have a good understanding of how and why religion has led to terrible things, then you have no business playing with that fire. And first on your list of meditations, is what every scholar of millennialism knows all too well: when religious (or secular) zealots are seized with the ambition to bring about a collective “radical transformation of what we say and do,” they are prime candidates to do “terrible things in religion’s (or communism’s) name.”

PoMo Unpeeled: David Thompson talks with Stephen Hicks

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

Postmodernism Unpeeled

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.