CLoM » Atlas Shrugged, Part III -- My Postmodernist Hat

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Atlas Shrugged, Part III -- My Postmodernist Hat

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I'm late again, aren't I? In this post I wear different hats.

  • Note - I have cut out a lot of useless dialog in this post. I did so before, but there is more gone now. None of it lead to any interesting discussions or fun, so it's not important. I just hope you can still tell what's happening the excerpts. If you can't follow it, I apologize. You should mention it on the talk page, and I'll explain which parts I missed.
She sat on the arm of the big chair facing James Taggart's desk, her coat thrown open over a wrinkled traveling suit. Eddie Willers sat across the room, making notes once in a while. His title was that of Special Assistant to the Vice-President in Charge of Operation, and his main duty was to be her bodyguard against any waste of time. She asked him to be present at interviews of this nature, because then she never had to explain anything to him afterwards. James Taggart sat at his desk, his head drawn into his shoulders.
  1. “His title was that of Special Assistant to the Vice-President in Charge of Operation” — This is getting silly now. The only reason this is here is to emphasize Dagny's impressive title a little bit more. I really fail to see the point. And as if this title isn’t bizarre enough, it has to be prefaced with “was that of” instead of good old “was”. Sure, because without that part, the sentence was just too straightforward.
  2. James Taggart’s posture is becoming increasingly outlandish.
"Oh, did Orren Boyle say he'll—"

"I've ordered the rail from Rearden Steel."

The slight, choked sound from Eddie Willers was his suppressed desire to cheer.

Not the actual cheer, just the desire. What, you don’t think desire makes a sound? You’re having a laugh.

James Taggart did not answer at once. "Dagny, why don't you sit in the chair as one is supposed to?" he said at last; his voice was petulant.
  1. I think this is the first time in this book that I’ve seen someone referred to by their first name.
  2. Another abysmal semi-colon. This one is like having my hand randomly struck with a hammer while reading.
  3. “[robotic etiquette advice]” he said petulantly. — I’m starting to think Ayn Rand was secretly a surrealist.
Taggart sat looking down at his desk. She wondered why he resented the necessity of dealing with Rearden, and why his resentment had such an odd, evasive quality.

Come on Dagny. It’s because he’s a socialist. We’ve done this bit already.

If she were insane, thought Dagny, she would conclude that her brother hated to deal with Rearden because Rearden did his job with superlative efficiency; but she would not conclude it, because she thought that such a feeling was not within the humanly possible.
  1. “If I were insane” is always a good place to start a train of thought. To be honest, I think if I were insane, I would want to do something more fun. “If she were insane, she would douse him in brandy and leap from the window” is more what I would expect. Live a little, Dagny.
  2. “not within the humanly possible” — Yeah. Well sorry, it turns out the world is full of people whose thoughts bear no resemblance to yours. There is no situation where you can say “No one could possibly think that”.
"That we always give all our business to Rearden. It seems to me we should give somebody else a chance, too. Rearden doesn't need us; he's plenty big enough. We ought to help the smaller fellows to develop. Otherwise, we're just encouraging a monopoly."

"Don't talk tripe, Jim,"

Again, James starts describing quasi-socialist principles, but he phrases them like he thinks they’re sound business advice. It’s like Ayn Rand thinks that “collectivists” actually want to be pure-blood capitalists, but fail because they don’t have the right amount of Responsibility & Confidence.

This is the first place where we see Ayn Rand’s uniquely nuanced view of the economy. Orren Boyle is a “smaller fellow” because he is bad at his job. Hank Rearden is cornering the market because he is very good at his job. In this world, there is no such thing as delayed reaction. There is no such thing as an alienated workforce. There is no such thing as misplaced zeal. There is no such thing as an honest mistake. There is no such thing as marketing. There is no such thing as disability. There's no such thing as hype.

It’s much simpler than our world, isn’t it?

But really, my mind is still boggling at this plot point. James Taggart wants to wait indefinitely for a bad supplier — a decision which will result in him personally having less money — but he doesn’t really have the principles that lead to this decision. He’s not saying “I’m going to patronize one of the little guys so I can help him out”, he’s actually saying “I’m going to boycott one of the big guys even though there isn’t an alternative.”

"If we give Rearden such a large order for steel rails—"

"They're not going to be steel. They're Rearden Metal."

She had always avoided personal reactions, but she was forced to break her rule when she saw the expression on Taggart's face. She burst out laughing.

Sure. You always avoid personal reactions, except when they’re involuntary, like they always are. Plus, she’s still calling him Taggart. Dagny, that is also your surname.

Rearden Metal was a new alloy, produced by Rearden after ten years of experiments. He had placed it on the market recently. He had received no orders and had found no customers.

Here, Ayn Rand does something which is slightly more interesting than the rest of the chapter — she attempts to describe a situation in which a successful product is not successful in the marketplace. In the real world, we don’t need to do this, because there are a thousand and one ways this could happen, but if you want to build a moral system where economic success is an indicator of personal worth, this is going to be pretty high on your To Do list.

Ayn Rand’s answer is: it’s because of people like James. James is too cowardly to be the first to adopt Rearden Metal, so he wants to rely on the prevailing opinion. There is a bit of a hole here — where does the prevailing opinion come from in the first place? James cites the work of “metallurgical authorities”, who are “ skeptical” about Rearden Metal, but it’s unclear who these people are. Are we supposed to assume that they are a government-run body, and therefore completely unreliable and probably evil? We’ll never know, because Dagny treats James’s reference to them as an evasive maneuver, and demands that he stop talking and agree with her.

There is a grain of truth here, actually. “Don’t consider someone authoritative unless they’ve shown their work” is a very good principle... as long as you don’t follow it up with “consider me authoritative instead.”

"The consensus of the best metallurgical authorities," he said, "seems to be highly skeptical about Rearden Metal, contending—"

"Drop it, Jim."

"Well, whose opinion did you take?"

"I don't ask for opinions."

"What do you go by?"


This part sort of hangs together, at least. I mean, it’s still delusional but it’s at least quite snappy...

"Well, whose judgment did you take?"


...until this bit.

"But whom did you consult about it?"


And also this bit.

"Because it's tougher than steel, cheaper than steel and will outlast any hunk of metal in existence."

"But who says so?"

"Jim, I studied engineering in college. When I see things, I see them."

Ah. Here we come to Ayn Rand’s favorite thesis. There are really two implications here:

  1. There is no such thing as subjectivity.
  2. There is no such thing as misjudgment.

Rand would probably deny point 2. I’m sure she would say that, rather than denying misjudgment, she is arguing that human judgement can be accurate in many cases. I agree, but it is important to add that we are usually incapable of identifying these cases. Even if you’re not attempting to be wholly objective and empirical, it’s always sensible to consider what might happen if you are wrong about something. Even if you’re pretty much certain, you should think about how you could be wrong. There is nothing “disempowering” about this. If anything, it’s one of the most empowering principles humanity has developed. It is the root of science, logic and philosophy, and it should be the root of a great deal else.

Point one is simpler, and requires me to put on my Postmodernist Hat.

[postmodernist hat on]

The root of Objectivism is the argument that reality is objective. The exact opposite of this stance, broadly speaking, would be postmodernism, which generally argues that reality is subjective. I am a postmodernist (look at the hat) and I think I can provide a fairly reasonable critique of Objectivism.

  • Before I begin, I should mention something. Even though I am a postmodernist myself, I am under no obligation to ally with or justify the opinions of anyone who calls themselves a postmodernist. There is a lot of rubbish put under the umbrella of postmodernism, and I intend to ignore all of it. I'm also a feminist, but I don't have to justify Camille Paglia.

Firstly, I don't care whether reality itself is objective. Strange as it may sound, it isn't relevant. Reality may well be objective, and it seem very likely -- but we would never know, because we are not in contact with it. Regardless of whether reality is objective, human perception is not. This, in my opinion, is the core of postmodernism. It's not the most popular or well-known part, it's just the part that is true. Objectivism, as outlined in this book, relies on perception being objective -- "when I see things, I see them" -- and without this link, the rest of the chain is meaningless. You can decide you are certain of something, but that's as far as it will ever go.

Atlas Shrugged is vaguely aware of its ideological opposition, and attempts to refute it quite a lot. These attempts seem to boil down to 2 categories.

  1. Declaring that "man's mind" is an authority in of itself.
  2. Depicting "collectivists" and generally uncertain people as weak, nihilistic, mislead, or unable to succeed financially.

1 is self-evidently hollow. 2 is a logical fallacy. Neither of these are important to my point -- what is important is the lack of a third category, which we will get to in a moment.

Now here's the important thing: postmodernism cannot be attacked directly. Postmodernism, in any meaningful sense, is nothing more than the statement "you can't be sure of that". Some people have trouble with this, because they assume we think this principle is itself objective. It clearly isn't — it’s a pragmatic observation. It’s a working theory based on the observation that nothing has been proved objectively.

And if you want to refute it, you can. It’s very simple. Just prove something. Anything.

Not by Ray Comfort style semantics like “existence exists”. Not by arrogant parochialisms like “have confidence in your judgement”. If you believe there is such a thing as objective certainty, show it to me. Show me a moral principle that can be derived purely from physical science. Show me any human sensation that can’t be imagined or hallucinated. If you propose certainty, the burden of proof rests firmly on you.

Ayn Rand is attempting to refute the statement "you can't be sure of that", by answering "I can". The only correct refutation of this statement would be "I am". That is the third category. Instead of chanting “it’s been proven”, prove it. Then we’ll talk.

[postmodernist hat off]
"Well, if it were any good, somebody would have used it, and nobody has." He saw the flash of anger, and went on nervously: "How can you know it's good? How can you be sure? How can you decide?"

Is “if it were” an attempt at idiom, or just a weird mistake?

(Or worse... is “if it were” correct, and am I actually an idiot? The more I say it, the more plausible it sounds. Uh-oh...)

"We're still the best railroad in the country. The others are doing much worse."

"Then do you want us to remain in the hole?"

"I haven't said that! Why do you always oversimplify things that way? ... "

I’m starting to like James. Occasionally he says things I really agree with. “Why do you oversimplify things” is a pretty plausible argument for use on Objectivists. It’s just a pity this conversation is taking place in Ayn Rand’s head, where legitimate complaints never receive answers.

He did not like the way her eyes moved to look at him and remained still, looking, for a moment.

I don’t like that either, because it sounds horrible. I think Ayn is doing this on purpose by now. She knew I would eventually read her book, and she wanted to hurt my eyes with sentences like this. Well, mission accomplished Ayn, you big jerk.

"I refuse to consider, I absolutely refuse to consider the possibility of the San Sebastian Line being nationalized!"

"All right. Don't consider it."

At this point I should mention - Objectivists think “I refuse to consider reality!” is an actual political viewpoint that people have, and are aware of. It’s a pretty clear inference, actually — if you believe that reality itself provides objective moral and political principles, the only possible reason for people to disagree with you is if they are against reality itself. Ayn Rand thinks her critics are saying “I agree that reality objectively supports your views, but I disagree with reality”.

You couldn't make it up, except she did.

"I don't give a damn about your opinion. I am not going to argue with you, with your Board or with your professors. You have a choice to make and you're going to make it now. Just say yes or no."

I love how the opinion of “professors” is worthless next to Dagny’s idealistic certainty. How very... Conservapedian.

"That's a preposterous, high-handed, arbitrary way of—"

"Yes or no?"

"That's the trouble with you. You always make it 'Yes' or 'No.' Things are never absolute like that. Nothing is absolute."

In the real world James is right, because the things he is saying are correct. In Randworld he’s wrong, because he’s the bad guy. That’s all there is to it.

She had turned to go, when he spoke again — and what he said seemed bewilderingly irrelevant. "That's all right for you, because you're lucky. Others can't do it."

"Do what?"

"Other people are human. They're sensitive. They can't devote their whole life to metals and engines. You're lucky — you've never had any feelings. You've never felt anything at all."

As she looked at him, her dark gray eyes went slowly from astonishment to stillness, then to a strange expression that resembled a look of weariness, except that it seemed to reflect much more than the endurance of this one moment.

"No, Jim," she said quietly, "I guess I've never felt anything at all."

Another fairly realistic criticism from James. Throughout this conversation, Dagny has repeatedly said things like "I don't care about that, I just want to make money", so this kind of reaction is only to be expected. You can't construct a worldview that denies empathy without making a few people angry.

There's probably a lot more to dissect here, but I find myself unable to engage with it properly. These principles are all so thin that when I criticize them I feel like I'm doing most of the work. It's like they're empty balloons and I have to supply all the air before I can burst them.

Plus, wearing my Postmodernist Hat for so long has made me confused and blurry.

He was about to leave her office, when he remembered a matter he had not reported. "Owen Kellogg of the Terminal Division has asked me for an appointment to see you," he said.

She looked up, astonished. "That's funny. I was going to send for him. Have him come up. I want to see him. . . . Eddie," she added suddenly, "before I start, tell them to get me Ayers of the Ayers Music Publishing Company on the phone."

The Ayers... Music Publishing Company...?

The Ayers Music Publishing Company.

The Ayers Music Publishing Company.

The Ayers Music Publishing Company.

The Ayers Music Publishing Company.

I have typed this five times now, and I’m still so very far from enlightenment. The Ayers Music Publishing Company.

"The Music Publishing Company?" he repeated incredulously.

The Ayers Music Publishing Company.

When the voice of Mr. Ayers, courteously eager, inquired of what service he could be to her, she asked, "Can you tell me whether Richard Halley has written a new piano concerto, the Fifth?"

"A fifth concerto, Miss Taggart? Why, no, of course he hasn't."

"Are you sure?"

"Quite sure, Miss Taggart. He has not written anything for eight years."

"Is he still alive?"

"Why, yes?that is, I can't say for certain, he has dropped out of public life entirely?but I'm sure we would have heard of it if he had died."

"If he wrote anything, would you know about it?"

"Of course. We would be the first to know. We publish all of his work. But he has stopped writing."

"I see. Thank you."

“Eddie, get me the Head Man of the Ministry of All Musics.”

“Yes Miss Taggart.”

[ring ring]

“Hello, this is the Head Man of the Ministry of All Musics. What things can I tell you immediately?”

“Tell me things about Richard Halley, specifically his The Fifth concerto for piano and Fifth.”

“Such a thing does not exist. Richard Halley has not been heard of for years. Even his legal and professional representatives probably don’t know what he’s doing.”

“That’s you, isn’t it?”

“Yes, that’s what I meant. Even we probably don’t know what he’s doing.”

“But if he did do something, you would know, right? If he wrote more music, you would know?”

“Of course not. If he likes music he probably also writes casually, for his own enjoyment. Does this composer like music, Miss Taggart?”

“It’s hard to tell. This is an Objectivist novel.”

“Oh, I see. Sorry, I didn’t know.”

When Owen Kellogg entered her office, she looked at him with satisfaction. She was glad to see that she had been right in her vague recollection of his appearance — his face had the same quality as that of the young brakeman on the train, the face of the kind of man with whom she could deal.

There’s only one type of Good Person in this book.

"You had asked me once to let you know if I ever decided to change my employment, Miss Taggart," he said. "So I came to tell you that I am quitting."

After this line, there’s about a page or two of extremely tedious conversation where Dagny asks random yes-or-no questions about why he’s leaving and Owen refuses to tell her anything interesting. This really does read like Ayn Rand just wanted to make the scene longer, and it’s pretty annoying. Luckily, we’re going to skip to the “interesting” bit.

"Kellogg, is there nothing I can offer you?" she asked.

"Nothing, Miss Taggart. Nothing on earth."

He turned to go. For the first time in her life, she felt helpless and beaten.

"Why?" she asked, not addressing him.

He stopped. He shrugged and smiled — he was alive for a moment and it was the strangest smile she had ever seen: it held secret amusement, and heartbreak, and an infinite bitterness. He answered: "Who is John Galt?"

Notice how the meaning of the phrase has changed from “I don't know” to “we want your business and way of life to fall apart because you disagree with us slightly”.

On a brighter note, we are now at the end of the first chapter. Hooray for that! This is a good thing, because I have typed the word "objective" far too many times now. I think I have probably used up my quota, and if I wrote another post today, I would have to use a different word, like "objecty". Clearly it is time for me to rest, and restock on words.

--04:18, 3 April 2010 (UTC)

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This was a good one. I like the po-mo critique and the analysis of the dialogue. My favorite part, though, was were you said "How very... Conservapedian." In any case, I hope you realized that the book is only going to get worse, not better... Tetronian you're clueless 13:21, 3 April 2010 (UTC)

That part sounded so much like Andy that I just had to mention it. After all, what do professors know? Nothing, I presume. Mei (talk) 05:51, 4 April 2010 (UTC)
I am okay with it getting worse. I'm worried about it being homogeneous, and basically forcing me to repeat myself or skip over large bits of the text. I will have to find new ways of looking at the story soon enough. Mei (talk) 05:51, 4 April 2010 (UTC)
If I were insane, I'd take anything said by a self-proclaimed post-modernist seriously. -- (talk) 13:18, 3 November 2011 (UTC)