From the protein wisdom archives: “Pomo a-go-go”
[Saturdays tend to be good days for discussion, so I thought I’d bring back this post, originally published here in 2002 (many of the links probably won’t work, but that shouldn’t affect your ability to piece together the various staked positions under review). The person I’m answering here has, since this piece, decided (as many others from the earlier days of the blogosphere have) that I am reprehensible and worthy of censure. Which is fine. But the point here is that many of you who have continued to read me — that is, you haven’t been offput by my supposed tendencies toward violence or psychosexual deviance; my misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and racism; my contemptible and dangerous writings on politics and current events; or my disconcerting predilection for enjoying the occasional ribald description, saddling you forever after with indelible “rape” images of ice dongs, prison-fashioned sybians, or Shannon Elizabeth and the Sugar Hill Gang — will recognize in this early piece many of the same questions I continue to explore and debate here to this very day.
Amazing how context can color perception, isn’t it?
So then. A glimpse into how the blogosphere used to be. Here you go. Discuss.]
[…] in a world where competing narratives are ultimately equally valid — in Stanley Fish’s world — Israeli soldiers might as well have dragged women and children from their homes and shot them. Because that is the Palestinian truth. And no “fact-checking” or “investigation” could materially change that. Does this matter? Of course. It matters to the men and women who, living in that narrative, decide to put on explosive belts and walk onto Israeli busses.
And, ultimately, it is promoted and fed by a corrupt elite who manipulate the narrative — and for whom the malleability of “fact” becomes the fuel for their political power.
Why did the Germans willingly follow Hitler? Because they believed in him. Because no one tested his narrative.
My response was too long for A.L.’s comments section, so I’m posting it here:
Not being a postmodernist myself, I feel strange defending it, but here’t goes. Fish’s postmodernism is not about relativism. It’s about materialism. All it says is that there are no metaphysical / universal standards by which to judge one certain narrative superior to another. This does not mean there aren’t other (socio-linguistic) mechanisms available for doing just that, because there are many — e.g. consensus, social contracts, codification, power, rhetoric, etc. And in fact it is these other mechanisms that lie at the heart of Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, Solidarity — and provide the basis for much of modern pragmatism (and realpolitik, to introduce some relevant political language).
Here’s how Rorty articulates the position:
We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that the truth is out there. To say the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.
Philosophically speaking, when you believe something, you believe it to be true. Postmodernism doesn’t change that. It simply says that any proof you offer in defense of your beliefs must necessarily appeal to social/linguistic constructs, not to some greater Platonic order of Truth that, should it exist, would be articulated in ways we could never possibly recognize.
This doesn’t mean that all beliefs are equal or equivalent. People who teach postmodernism this way are incorrectly applying its observations (and so aren’t engaged in postmodern thought). What postmodernism observes instead is that, because the truth value of a specific belief can never be ‘independently’ (to use Fish’s term) determined, those truth claims must necessarily appeal to some matrix of human constructs for validation.
What Armed Liberal seems to be suggesting in his various posts is that postmodernism creates the groundwork for a totalitarian-driven misuse of master narratives. But this observation begs the question, because what postmodern philosophy does, simply, is reveals competing narratives already in existence, explains how such narratives came (and come) to be, and seeks to describe conditions under which they can be evaluated.
It is the misapplication of postmodern ideas — the reduction of postmodern philosophy to a kind of simplistic subjectivism — that is what is truly problematic. And Armed Liberal is absolutely correct to worry about such things, because these misunderstandings often inform bad policy or bad decision making.
Ultimately, a preponderance of physical evidence, human observation, and convincing argument derailed the Arab/Palestinian narrative of Israeli atrocities in Jenin. That certain Palestinians still believe it to be the case is a truism, but such a belief in a mistaken narrative doesn’t make it an equally valid ‘truth’ from the perspective of the world community. The competing narrative — the one in which the IDF was cleared of the charges — is ascendent. In Fish’s world, the ‘truth’ of Jenin was decided by those factors (observation, believable testimony, rhetoric, etc.). Of course, for postmodernism, the current ‘truth’ is contingent — and may some day be called into question by any number of new factors or discoveries.
So yes, corrupt elites often manipulate narrative and lie to their followers. And those who believe that the absence of an objective platform from which to judge ‘Truth’ means that all truths are relative, are particularly susceptible to such manipulations. But postmodernism itself is not responsible for the conditions of its misuse. Getting back to Armed Liberal’s example, that few Germans bothered to test Hitler’s narrative is not the fault of the narrative. It’s the fault of the people who failed to challenge it.
Historian and historiographic theorist Hayden White writes, ‘there is an inexpungeable relativity in every representation of historical phenomena. The relativity of the representation is a function of the language used to describe and thereby constitute past events as possible objects of explanation and understanding.’ To ‘constitute past events as possible objects of explanation and understanding’ is to capture these past events in narrative representations of those events; thus, what we both capture and study are not the events themselves, but the subjective linguistic refigurations of those events which we allow to stand in for the events themselves.’ None of this denies that some representations of events as they occurred are more true than others; it simply points out that we as humans must use language to articulate our truths, and that we have nothing larger than our own creations to appeal to for validation.”
[Related: More on Richard Rorty]
[update: Howard Owens, “Going to battle with ideas”
update 2: Ian at Fierce Highway asks:
[…] if it is these other mechanisms [man-made socio-linguistic constructs] that provide the foundations for evaluation and pragmatic decision making, what real good did it do to have the postmodern front end on the whole argument?
The short answer is, postmodernism is itself a descriptive narrative, and so it serves no more (or less) “good” than any other philosophical description. What it articulates — that there are no metaphysical / universal standards by which to judge one certain narrative superior to another — can have wide-ranging consequences, depending on how such an observation is put to use.
update 3: A great post by Erin O’Connor on how the cookie-cutter churnout of politicized postmodernists has underwritten the intellectual collapse of the “English” establishment. ]