Bronze-level articlePostmodernism

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We exist in different epistemological paradigms, fuckpants!
SMBC Theater[1]

Postmodernism is a cluster of philosophical, literary, cultural and art movements which developed in the mid-20th century. It developed out of philosophical criticisms of modernism and disillusionment which resulted among European philosophers on the political left following World War II, when the communist governments of Eastern Europe became increasingly unable to conceal their misbehavior, thus suggesting to the intelligentsia that Marxism was not the greatest thing since sliced bread.[2]

Postmodernism is, per its name, a reaction to modernism, wherever a postmodernist feels something that could reasonably be tagged that needed reacting against; this means that it's not one coherent thing. It also means a lot of it is difficult to understand unless you understand what it's a reaction to.

Contrary to various rationalists' views, postmodernism is not composed entirely of bullshit — it is a useful critical method to keep on hand when talking about social and artistic things, like most of what humans do that might be called "culture." Humans are ridiculously full of shit, and postmodernism can be useful in pointing out its effects. However, as the product of humans, it is itself susceptible to bullshit in turn, particularly when applied to actual reality rather than human conceptions of reality.


[edit] Definition

It's the combination of narcissism and nihilism that really defines postmodernism, and that's another interview for another time, if you're interested in it.
Al Gore[3]

It is difficult to come up with a strict definition of postmodernism. Definitions often rely on some general commonality between methods used by postmodernists. One is that it asserts that the meaning of any text (where the term 'text' is taken to mean any system of meaning of representation) is constructed contextually and is contingent. It emphasizes the fractured and heterogeneous nature of the social, natural and literary worlds. Methodologically, it often focuses on questioning the inherent presumptions and concepts which underlie any ideological system. The emphasis is on the historical and cultural contexts in which knowledge is produced. It is most commonly associated with the work of the French intellectuals: the philosopher Jacques Derrida, the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

[edit] Modernity vs. postmodernity

Another common definition is that it rejects "central narratives" and relies instead on methodological pluralism. Postmodernists define themselves against modernity (itself conceived as an extension of the Enlightenment) by rejecting grand theories that attempt to "totalize" knowledge. Postmodernists reject teleological and deterministic explanations of historical and social phenomena. This was a reaction to the popularity of deterministic theories in scholarly thought in general during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Examples of historical determinism included the conceptions of a linear progression of societies from small hunter-gatherer bands to "civilized" states in anthropological thought or from capitalism to communism in Marxist thought. Applications of biological determinism to social policy, such as scientific racism and eugenics, are also included in modernist thought.[4]

Postmodernism generally identifies the central narrative of modernity to be the promise of progress and the application and primacy of reason. The postmodern critique identifies several problems with this:

  • Doubt that "progress" can be defined meaningfully, and thus a rejection of the notion of progress.
  • Rejection of the idea that everything can be meaningfully quantified and "optimized" in a "rational" manner. Focus on the process of rationalization (in the sociological sense).
  • The tendency for applications of science to lapse into scientism.
  • Ethnocentric conceptions of the world.
  • Failure of science and technology to equate to social progress, evidenced by the two World Wars and the Cold War.

Jürgen Habermas, a critic of postmodernism, argued that modernity should not be rejected wholesale, but that parts of the postmodern critique be incorporated into it.[5]

[edit] Who is a postmodernist?

The coinage of the term "postmodern" appears in the title of Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition[wp] (1979), a criticism of "meta-narratives." However, many thinkers labeled "postmodernist" themselves declaim the term. Michel Foucault, for example, though strongly associated with postmodernism by other scholars, rejected the term as a self-descriptor.[6] Thus, the line is fairly blurry (no doubt to the delight of postmodernists) between who merely influenced postmodernism and who was a postmodernist. Philosophers who attacked logical positivism are sometimes lumped in with postmodernism. Thomas Kuhn, for example, is often grouped in with this school of thought though he claimed his work was widely misinterpreted to imply radical skepticism or total relativism. Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein[7] (ironically also an influence on the logical positivists), however, while seen as influences, are generally not regarded to be part of the postmodernist school while Paul Feyerabend, whose initial works were published before the coinage of the term, is. Furthermore, figures and concepts influencing postmodernism are sometimes confused with being products of postmodernist thought itself. A general trend of counter-Enlightenment thought was codified in the 20th century by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, which was a seminal work of the Frankfurt School. The concept of "rationalization" comes from the work of Max Weber, who published most of his writing more than a half-century before postmodernism. Richard Rorty attempted to distinguish the political views of postmodernists (part of the "critical left") from other leftists (the "progressive left") in Achieving Our Country.[wp]

Again ironically, biological determinism and essentialism, major targets of postmodernism, were initially challenged within evolutionary theory starting with Charles Darwin himself, while the notions of teleology and evolutionary "progress" tended to appear more often in popular and political formulations of evolution.

[edit] Utility

There is a marked tendency to dismiss postmodernism as being useless — a sort of empty set of theories disguised with opaque jargon. But postmodernism is at its heart a theory based around the essential subjectivity (rather than objectivity) of our words and the rules we construct to govern our knowledge. And a serious investigation into the nature of postmodernism reveals that this theory has much to offer us, with its fruits being greater than the nihilistic negation which is often ascribed.

In some respects, the blithe contempt of critics is justified. When some try to use postmodern tools to evaluate the objective sciences, such as physics and biology, they seldom find much worth the reading. While these disciplines are bound by some arbitrary rules and closeted by language in some ways, the problems of these strictures are seldom overlooked by scientists. Taxonomy, for instance, is an entire system of partially arbitrary classifications, but taxonomists are keenly aware of this and constantly propose changes to compensate: the newfound legibility of the genome has forced large revisions to the tree of life, and provides a surer sieve to distinguish and reject the products of convergent evolution. But postmodernism critiques subjective aspects of our knowledge, and incidents like the Sokal affair illustrate how little useful material there is to be found in the subjective investigation of objective science.

In the humanities and social sciences, however, postmodernism can prove a highly effective and insightful theory. The perception that it clears the theoretical table with a sweep of the arm and says, “Well, this was all really nothing,” is not accurate. Rather, it specializes in looking at the way in which we arrive at conclusions, and how these conclusions are built from materials that are ultimately shaky.

The study of Arthurian literature is an excellent example. For many years, literary theorists had examined the various Arthurian works by Malory, Chrétien de Troyes, and others, looking for the ur-text.[8] The idea was that there was a single Arthurian source, which gave the essentials of some of the stories or of the hero himself. Many people had taken one side or another over the years, arguing for the predominance of one idea of Arthur or the fact that a particular folk-tale preceded another in history. But postmodernist Jean Baudrillard pointed out that this was a search based on the false premise that there had to be an ur-text. It was the postmodern approach that suggested this to him.

Postmodernism suggests that any given word or set of meanings derives from an imprecise definition in terms of other meanings, which are themselves imprecise. This endless circle of houses-upon-sand was called différance by Jacques Derrida, the founder of postmodernism. And this approach led Baudrillard to realize that the Arthurian stories might have evolved in a similar way, absent any single dominant source.

Where postmodernism runs into trouble is when the difficulty of creating an precise and unbiased set of meanings is taken to the point of nihilism, either explicitly or implicitly. It is worth noting that many, indeed most, major postmodernist thinkers have been highly politically involved, and have not acted in a manner consistent with nihilism. One major explanation for this phenomenon is Gayatri Spivak's idea of "strategic essentialism," which accepts the need to create constructs of knowledge in specific practical situations. Postmodernism, in its best form, should be understood not as saying that nothing is true or that all meaning is arbitrary — rather it should be understood as noting that meaning and truth are prone to shifts and redefinitions over time based on circumstances.

Any good writer of fiction needs a working knowledge of postmodernism, whether they use that word for it or not.

[edit] Criticism

History: the imaginary elaboration being the language through which the utterer of a discourse (linguistic entity) fills out the place of subject of the utterance (psychological and ideological entity)?
Translation: The way people say stuff.

Most criticism of postmodernism focuses on a perceived lack of substance in postmodern thinking, or on what critics consider central philosophic flaws in postmodern thinking. Unfortunately, for every reasonable and erudite criticism of postmodernism, there is another hysterical attack from ignorance.

[edit] Courtier's Reply

While postmodernist themes in literature — which tend towards the surreal — have proven to be quite successful among writers, the postmodernist philosophy has long suffered from the problem of being extremely difficult to nail down in concrete terms. Its supporters claim that one must be thoroughly versed in the traditions of Western philosophy to even begin to understand the jargon commonly used by postmodernist writers. To their way of thinking, before one can be "post," one must understand the "modernism" against which they define themselves.

In contrast, its detractors suggest that supporters' inability (or refusal) to make their points in clear language is simply an effort to hide a potentially embarrassing lack of substance. This amounts to a suggestion that postmodernists are giving a Courtier's Reply — "Well, you just don't understand!" There is no doubt that this is at least partially true; postmodernism has been strongly influenced by late-20th century French philosophical schools of thought, where strong emphasis is given to rhetorical style and form as integral elements of an argument, and practices such as academic referencing are sometimes sidelined as unwieldy in favour of citationality, the practice of alluding obliquely to or carefully appropriating the work of others while anticipating recognition on the part of dedicated students. Pivotal postmodern figures such as Jacques Derrida present a style of writing that is almost incomprehensible without great familiarity, such is its density of jargon and rhetorical uniqueness. Here, for example, is a quotation taken from Of Grammatology, in which the author stresses (with a contextually implied reference to the critically appropriated work of Ferdinand de Saussure) the fact that the fundamental relativity of language use is demonstrated by the always-historically-evolving nature of linguistic usages in relation to each other:

On the one hand, the phonic element, the term, the plenitude that is called sensible, would not appear as such without the difference or opposition which gives them form. Such is the most evident significance of the appeal to difference as the reduction of phonic substance. Here the appearing and functioning of difference presupposes an originary synthesis not preceded by any absolute simplicity. Such would be the originary trace. Without a retention in the minimal unit of temporal experience, without a trace retaining the other as other in the same, no difference would do its work and no meaning would appear.
—Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology

This admission must be balanced by an awareness that there is always a necessity for specialized jargon in this academic sub-field, to refer to common concepts or difficult ideas in a convenient and accurate way. Furthermore, the sin of unreadability is not a universal one among postmodernists, and an increasing emphasis has been given to clarity and directness in postmodern studies.

[edit] Religious and political

Postmodernism is a major bogeyman among wingnuts. It's generally used interchangeably with moral relativism, Marxism, socialism, and various other terms "pointy-headed academics" like to throw around. The general idea is that postmodernism leads to "moral corruption" by undermining biblical morality.[9] This is also supposedly part of liberal academia's secret indoctrination camps. The label is thus slung at academics whether they are actually postmodernists or not.[10]

[edit] Chomsky

Left intellectual Noam Chomsky has frequently criticized postmodernism[11], and described it as a "rot" from Paris that spread everywhere and claimed that it was "very inflated" and "turn[s] out to be truism" once its ideas were reproduced "in monosyllables". He concedes that it would probably do no harm in "Paris cafés or [the] Yale comparative literature department", but has stressed repeatedly its detrimental effect on activism, especially in third world countries.[12][13]

[edit] Relationship to science

Whilst extremely popular in literary circles, and also influential in architecture, social sciences and cultural studies, postmodernism's dense writing style and commitment to relativist morals have led to criticism. Many outside literature and philosophy circles (liberal and conservative alike) reject doctrinaire postmodernism as being pretentious and intellectually lazy; many, especially those in scientific fields, have asserted that its theories are a form of denialism which prevent theoretical development.

Its attempts to analyse scientific practice have proved particularly controversial (especially in light of the lukewarm-at-best reception in the scientific world of non-postmodernist science philosophers such as Popper and Kuhn).

At the same time, nonetheless, postmodernism does provide tools for interpreting the human activity known as science. This is especially useful in examining its history, role in culture, and in some cases intellectual underpinnings.[14] Possibly troubling to some scientists is that postmodernists hold that much of what they do is a social construct. Furthermore many postmodernists tend to question the concept of "truth," and some have even pointed out the social constructedness of the scientific method itself, showing its development coming from a particular culture and a particular time.[15][16] Moreover, some recent work in the field of science and technology studies (STS) has been pioneered by postmodern authors who possess comprehensive scientific education, such as Donna Haraway (Ph.D. Biology, Yale[17]) and N. Katherine Hayles (M.S. Chemistry, Caltech[18]). Haraway's work has focussed on analysing the way particular assumptions about the nature of science and society influence the construction of experimental and theoretical work in the biological sciences, and on suggesting new model assumptions or metaphors which might be used to develop better understandings of the same. Hayles' work has been in studying the ways in which recent technological media developments such as hypertext and computerised storage and transmission are changing the content and uses of literature, as well as on exploring how certain limited-case metaphors or provisional analogies promoted for particular theoretical applications in the early years of information theory, computer science, and cybernetics have unaccountably grown over time into the implicit acceptance of generalised beliefs or assumptions about the nature of information, intelligence, bodies, and behaviours. This will help science in the long-term, not damage it.

[edit] Sokal affair

Some postmodernists don't quite understand that there is actually such a thing as reality that isn't just a cultural artifact and doesn't care what you think of it. This can lead to some embarrassment.

Of particular note was the 1994 Sokal Affair, in which NYU physicist Alan Sokal submitted and had published a paper called "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" in the literary journal Social Text. The paper was intended by Sokal to be nonsensical and ridiculous. For example, he asserted that gravity was a social construct.[19] It is worth noting, however, that Social Text was not then a peer-reviewed journal, and Sokal himself has stressed the limited nature of the conclusions to be drawn from his hoax.[20]

Sokal went on to co-author a book titled Fashionable Nonsense with Jean Bricmont. This book specifically attacked the use of science and scientific concepts in the works of many leading postmodernists such as Jacques Lacan and Luce Irigaray. The book has been controversial, with postmodernists largely claiming that Sokal fails to understand the texts he cites and thus misrepresents them. Sokal counters this argument in the book, noting that if a scientist cannot understand the use of science to explain a concept, there is something wrong with the explanation.

In defence, many of the theoreticians who initially used postmodernist approaches to study science have argued that scientific knowledge is 'constructed,' rather than 'socially constructed';[21] that interpretations otherwise have failed to appreciate the distinction between these two points.

[edit] Enabling pseudoscience

Some figures influenced by postmodernism, such as Phillip Johnson[22] and Steve Fuller,[23] have used its rhetorical tactics to push intelligent design creationism. Rick Santorum was also found to be using them to attack his opponents,[24] which may prove to be the best excuse to create a real-life irony meter.

Figures associated with postmodernism sometimes explicitly defended pseudoscience. Unfortunately, their enthusiasm for attacking mainstream notions of accepted thinking has on occasion spilled over into an ignorant blanket acceptance of all sorts of rebellious "science." Feyerabend used his concept of "epistemological anarchism" to give cover to creationism, astrology, and alternative medicine.[25] Resistance to biological explanations of behavior has been labeled "secular creationism."[26] While not an indictment of the critical utility of postmodernism, this does illustrate that there is a danger in supporting dissent for dissent's own sake.

In another example, prominent critic Jacques Lacan has been criticized for attempting to resuscitate Freudian psychoanalysis, much of which is considered pseudoscientific in current psychology.[27][28] He was unsuccessful, much to everyone's relief (except in his home country of France, sadly, where his ideas have had a tragic following, and where it's still hard to criticize his kind of intellectual crookery without being accused of fascism). On the other hand, many postmodernist thinkers reject Freudianism outright. Perhaps most notably, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari co-authored Anti-Oedipus, a thorough and systematic criticism of Freud and Lacan's influence on the humanities and political culture. Many other thinkers, such as Slavoj Zizek, employ psychoanalytic ideas in a way that is consciously anything but faithful to their orthodox interpretation. By and large postmodernists are also critical of mainstream psychology, which Michel Foucault, Judith Butler and many "queer theorists" have depicted as productive of cultural biases around gender and sexuality in particular. This position has since been reinforced by many non-postmodern academics, such as Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, the authors of Sex at Dawn. Unfortunately, many young and/or impressionable students misunderstand postmodernism's more legitimate criticisms of the sciences, which often unwittingly lend themselves to dilettantism, straw man arguments, and outright fallacious understandings of scientific terminology. Postmodernism's inclination towards elliptical statement and its reluctance to explicitly define its terminology no doubt reinforces this trend, which could otherwise be easily avoided.

Multiculturalist trends in postmodernism have enabled various kinds of woo associated with indigenous and oppressed groups. This includes pseudohistory and pseudoarchaeology such as Afrocentrism. New Age guff is sometimes imported into these ideas as in Native American woo. There is a danger in many postmodernists' willingness to encourage any challenge to mainstream thought - not on the strength of argument or evidence, but merely out of an over-enthusiasm for any sort of counterculture.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] References

  • Antonio, Robert J. and Douglas Kellner. Postmodern Social Theory: Contributions and Limitations. In Postmodernism and Social Inquiry, edited by David Dickens and Andrea Fontana. New York: Guilford Press, 1994: 127-152.
  • Dawkins, Richard. "Postmodernism Disrobed", Nature, 1998. A review of Sokal and Jean Bricmont's Impostures Intellectuelles (published as Intellectual Impostures in the UK and Fashionable Nonsense in the US). Presents the argument that postmodernist philosopers not only obfuscate horribly, but are in way over their heads whenever dealing with science.
  • Editors of Lingua Franca, The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook The Academy. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2000, ISBN 0803279957.
  • Hagen, L. Kirk, "The Death of Philosophy," Skeptic Magazine 11:4 (2005), p. 18. A scathing attack on Derrida's legacy.
  • Shackel, Nicholas (2005). "The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology", Metaphilosophy vol. 26 (3), p. 295-320. Hilarious takedown of the most frequently used postmodernist obfuscation tactics.

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Both Sides, SMBC Theater
  2. And besides, Otto Frederick Rohwedder didn't invent sliced bread until 1928, decades after Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto.
  3. Interviewed in New York Observer, November 2002.
  4. The Po-Mo Page, Georgetown University
  5. Jürgen Habermas. Modernity vs. Postmodernity. New German Critique, No. 22, Special Issue on Modernism. (Winter, 1981), pp. 3-14. (trans. Seyla Ben-Habib)
  6. Foucault a Postmodernist?,
  7. Hans Julius Schneider. Wittgenstein and Postmodernism: Specifics. 1997 After Postmodernism Conference, Potsdam.
  8. A source text from which the others were derived.
  9. See the American Stinker's "sweeping" eight-part critique "Postmodernism and the Bible" for one example.
  10. See the American Stinker again for an instance of Noam Chomsky (a long-time critic of postmodernism) getting tarred as a postmodernist.
  11. Chomsky on Postmodernism
  12. Chomsky on Science and Postmodernism, Interview uploaded Apr 25, 2011]
  13. Chomsky on Postmodernism June 6, 1997
  14. From STS program at the University of Wisconsin
  15. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, 1985 Princeton University Press.
  16. Science as a Social Construct, UT Austin
  17. Donna Haraway, Curriculum Vitae
  18. N. Katherine Hayles, Curriculum Vitae
  19. The original "Sokal affair" paper
  20. A Brief Note on the Sokal Hoax, Skeptical Humanities
  21. Bruno Latour, 2005, Reassembling the Social
  22. Pennock on Postmodernism in ID Creationism, The Panda's Thumb
  23. The Painful Elaboration of the Fatuous, Skeptic
  24. Populists who speak the (relative) truth, The Globe and Mail
  25. How Not to Feyerabend, Evolving Thoughts
  26. Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh. The New Creationism. The Nation, June 9, 1997
  27. Raymond Tallis. The Shrink From Hell. The Times Higher Education Supplement, 31 October 1997, p. 20.
  28. The Cult of Lacan, Richard Webster
  29. It's good, but the story is impenetrable if you haven't played any other titles in the series. (Blame Kojima.)
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