July 19, 2002

Pomo – a – Go-Go

Armed Liberal has been hosting an interesting discussion of postmodernism’s role in shaping political culture — included in which is this latest post, wherein A.L. argues that

[…] 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:

“A.L. —

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. ]

Posted by Jeff G. @ 7:29pm

Comments (31)

  1. Damn, JG, you’re scary. Very well-constructed and presented. You must be a very good teacher.

  2. Thanks J.G. for a reasoned explanation of a contribution by postmodernism to modern thought. I’m tempted to belittle it as being somewhat on the trivial side, but it might seem that way because it’s worked into common belief sets (ie perceived triviality as a marker of success).

    Funny, still, how the State’s propaganda in _1984_ has a postmodernist ring to it, making Orwell a good author to bring into A.L.’s discussion on the relevance of PM to totalitarian ideologies.

    I’ll close with part of a paragraph of Jacques Derrida on ‘differance’, lifted from Danny Yee’s book review of “A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader”. How does this sort of sorry mishmash accord with the points in defense of postmodernism that you raised in your post? (Taking Yee at his word that this is an example of clear writing by a Grand Old Man of the field).

    Readers can judge Derrida for themselves; the Yee review is at dannyreviews.com.


    Retaining at least the framework, if not the content, of this requirement formulated by Saussure, we will designate as differance the movement according to which language, or any code, any system of referral in general, is constituted ‘historically’ as a weave of differences. ‘Is constituted’, ‘is produced’, ‘is created’, ‘movement’, ‘historically’, etc. necessarily being understood beyond the metaphysical language in which they are retained, along with all their implications. We ought to demonstrate why concepts like production, constitution, and history remain in complicity with what is at issue here. But this would take me too far today – toward the theory of the representation of the ‘circle’ in which we appear to be enclosed – and I utilize such concepts, like many others, only for their strategic convenience and in order to undertake their deconstruction at the currently most decisive point. In any event, it will be understood, by means of the circle in which we appear to be engaged, that as it is written here, differance is no more static than it is genetic, no more structural than historical. Or is no less so…

  3. Amac–

    If you’re able to download PDF files, included in this lengthy set of notes is a discussion of Derrida’s ideas concerning signification (and my responses, which delineate why I think he’s wrong). Derrida’s real contribution to poststructural thinking is his idea of how the sign works. In short, the suggestion that the sign is haunted by the ghost of all its potential signifieds, if believed, surrenders intention to essential drift. Yada yada yada.

    But anyway, the pages that deal specifically with the issues Derrida raises: 2 (notes), 5-18 (w/ 13-18 dealing specifically with Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” and Limited Inc.

    Later in the notes is a discussion of postmodernism and history, if you’re interested.

  4. I’m responding to the paragraph that begins: “Ultimately, a preponderance of physical evidence … “

    This sounds to me suspiciously like an “appeal to the people”—the logical fallacy that if enough people believe it, it must be true.

    What if no amount of investigation had ever shown that the IDF committed no atrocities in Jenin, what would be the “truth” then?

    The truth would still be the truth. What if the ascendent belief was that the world is flat? What does that say about the truth that the world is, in fact, a globe?

    I happen to believe that there was no massacre in Jenin, but if 50 billion people disagreed with me, that wouldn’t make me wrong. If there was no massacre in Jenin, then there was no massacre in Jenin. The truth is the truth and it’s always the truth. The truth is never contingent.

  5. I trust Professor Irwin Cory.

  6. As I say, Howard, I’m not a postmodernist, but the pomo response to your reservations would be, “from what independent perspective are you making those determinations of truth”? There was a time, for instance, when the “truth” being propagated was that the earth was the center of the universe, that leeches cured disease, and that boring holes into peoples scalps to relieve them of demons saved their souls.

    A postmodernist might fiddle with your language a bit and say, “things are what they are—outside of human engagement—but truth is a human concept, and so truth is only what we decide it to be.”

    Sometimes all it takes to “prove” “truth” is consensus. Sometimes consensus is not enough. But that depends on a number of things—not the least of which is the philosophical idea of truth held by the culture trying to determine it.

    If no amount of evidence ever cleared the IDF soldiers from the perspective of international opinon, that wouldn’t prevent the IDF or the Israelis or others from believing their version of events to be true. This is precisely why truth is contingent—the Palestinian version is pressured by the Israeli version.

  7. Thanks J.G. for your explanation of a pomo response to Howard Owens. Yet it’s not what it seems; “this is precisely why the truth is contingent” doesn’t mean “truth” as understood by a philosopher is contingent. It’s another way of saying, “You’re right in this hypothetical case Mr. Owens, but that won’t make other people align their version of the truth with yours.” Stated this way, the riposte is trivial, and Mr. Owens was likely aware of its validity at the outset.

    Thank you for linking to the pdf file of your paper in your earlier post. It is heavy going, but readable, and written to be read and understood–and so, different IMO from much else on this subject. I wouldn’t be able to explain Derrida’s position on signs and signifiers, or your response, so that means I don’t really understand either. But at least as an outsider, I can get a glimpse of what you’re talking about. In that sense, your piece puts Derrida’s own prose, cited earlier, in an even worse light.

    It still seems to me that as a discipline, postmodernism doesn’t measure up to the kind of test that physicist Richard Feynmann proposed: Stating your essential case in plain words so that non-specialists can understand its basic nature, and giving people a sense of why it is important. Feynmann managed this, although he worked on subatomic quanta and the nature of time, so I don’t accept that postmodernism is “too complicated” to subject itself to this kind of challenge. In this regard, I can think of a few explanations for pomo’s failure, all perhaps partly true, and none particularly kind to this field.

    1. Some of the insights on offer are banal, along the lines of “what the writer means to write is only one part of what the reader understands”.

    2. Some of the insights appear to be stupid, such as “what the writer means to write has no relevance to what the reader reads”.

    3. Some postmodernists seem to be unclear about their own beliefs on reality, and the implications. Does pi have a value, 3.14159…, that exists apart from perception in the Platonic sense, or is pi only a construct, and therefore negotiable?

    4. Some postmodernists lack the ability to write lucidly, or else see no virtue in clear writing for personal, career, ideological, or political reasons.

    Adherents of postmodernism have gained fame for applying their work to real-world fields, including history, psychology, politics, biology, and physics. I am not aware of any meaningful contribution to my field (biology), or another quantitative science. On the whole, broad applications of postmodernism seem to be marked by ignorance, perhaps due to laziness or arrogance. What lessons have been learned by the postmodern academy from reflecting on the Sokal hoax?

    I know I’ve gone too far in painting postmodern thinkers as a group; each person is an individual. A number of people with sympathies running in this direction have gone out of their way to explain aspects of postmodern thought clearly to me. I’m grateful and I think I’ve learned a little. But it seems that the more explicitly writers identify _themselves_ as postmodernists, the more closely criticisms 1-4 seem to fit. Not surprisingly, I am still left seeing more merit in the skeptics’ arguments than in the supporters’ ones, and I would suppose that may hold true for many other readers as well.

  8. Kenneth writes, “the solution that supposes that a culture awash in relativism will make the necessary intellectual adjustments that will allow it to live with the implications of that theory (or fact, as I believe it to be) without allowing those implications to color its actual behavior in the real world seems to me to be wildly optimistic.”

    I agree. Which is why I’m bothered far more by the faulty transmission of the ideas than I am by the ideas themselves, which simply replace metaphysical truths with local truths. My solution has been to remain vigilant, and to try to correct the notion that postmodernism allows for a free-for-all of subjectivism.

    Howard—Rorty might respond that you are conflating the idea of “truth” with the idea of “the world.” What actually happens is immutable; “truth” (what is asserted in language as the end product of belief)—in that it can be proven not to be true by new discoveries of truth—is contingent. The difference is small and semantic, but to pomos it is THE difference, because it returns the control of truth to man.

    Chad—you’re correct, I think, when you write: “Most of the problems that afflict postmodernism are not so much intrinsic flaws in the ideas of postmodernism, as irrational exuberance in applying those ideas outside their natural range” (though “natural range” might prove problematic, were we to really begin pressuring your description). This, combined with faulty promulgations and misunderstandings, can prove dangerous in the way I note in the original post, and in the ways Kenneth notes above.

  9. Jeff—There was a time when the majority of people believed the world was the center of the universe, but that didn’t make it the truth. It was, in fact, as we now know, in error. The truth is immutable. It is people’s perspections that change.

  10. Jeff, you make a compelling case for pomo, and I tend to agree with your conclusions. The problem pomo poses for the culture is not what the specialist within the academy thinks, but what the vulgarizers and popularizers manage to instil into their charges. We aren’t to blame Fish, apparently, for the vast number of young people who respond to the WTC attack with the mantra: “Who are we to say we’re right and they’re wrong?” Or who insist, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, on maintaining that any given culture is just as good as any other. In point of fact, we aren’t to blame anyone, I suppose, since those young people are saying something that is at least arguably true: i.e., all standards are relative and there is no objective way of proving one is better than the other. The problem arises when that truth is taken not as the beginning of the question (“What is our real world response supposed to be to this sort of behavior?”) but the end, the actual solution. We are to do nothing because, hey, who’s to say we’re right and they’re wrong? Nietzsche’s response to a realization that pre-dates and is far more rigourous than Fish’s regarding the relativity of all truths, was to impose on the Artist the responsibility of creating new and more believable Myths for a race that had stopped believing in the old ones. The gnostic solution to this sort of problem was simply to hoard the truth to themselves and let the unwashed go on believing the lie. Neither solution seems to me to be terribly attractive, but the solution that supposes that a culture awash in relativism will make the necessary intellectual adjustments that will allow it to live with the implications of that theory (or fact, as I believe it to be) without allowing those implications to color its actual behavior in the real world seems to me to be wildly optimistic. I wish I could come up with a better one.

  11. AMac cites Feynman on the need for clear language, and notes the famous Sokal hoax, by way of arguing against postmodernism. I’m tempermentally inclined to agree with Feynman (I am, after all, an experimental physicist), and I thought that the Sokal hoax was one of the funniest things I’d seen in years, but I wouldn’t push this stuff too far.

    Most of the problems that afflict postmodernism are not so much intrinsic flaws in the ideas of postmodernism, as irrational exuberance in applying those ideas outside their natural range. Postmodernism makes some reasonable points regarding literature and history, but has relatively little to say about biology and physics. The flaw is in the people who attempt to apply postmodern theory to those disciplines, though, not the theory itself.

    Of course, this sort of foolishness is not in any way restricted to postmodernists– shortly after the Sokal hoax, there was an article in Physics Today in response, which pointed out that many of the Fathers of Quantum Mechanics (I think I recall Bohr being the worst offender, but I’ve long since lost that article) went completely goofy late in life, and attempted to apply their creation to the social sciences– arguing that uncertainty, complementarity, and the like had meaningful implications for interpesonal interactions. Having revolutionized one field of human endeavor, they sought to bring the same revolution to others. And, needless to say, failed miserably.

    Some would argue that sociobiology/ evoltuionary psychology/ whatever they’re calling it this week suffers from exactly the same overreaching arrogance.

    I generally agree with your broad point– postmodernism isn’t a good idea when applied outside literature and history and a few other places– but I’d caution against drawing really general conclusions regarding the field from people who are over-reaching. Only those whose discipline is without overweening arrogance should throw stones in glass houses. Or something like that.

  12. Excellent post, Jeff. The conflation of moral relativism and pomo has always bugged me. It’s perfectly possible to hold a traditional theory of truth (propositions are true or false regardless of whether they are uttered, and regardless of who utters them, etc.), and in fact to be quite strident in doing so, while believing that moral statements can only be relatively true. When you dig deep into moral statements and try to compare their sort of verity to the type of verity we see in scientific or ordinary observational propositions, moral statements look very strange.

    “Killing is bad”–what does that mean? While many conservatives and bloggers think of moral relativism as an attempt to usurp the social order, it isn’t. It’s usually the last gasp of a philosopher who thinks that “Killing is bad” can’t be objectively true or false, and says that such propositions can be true or false only relative to some normative system. “For Americans, killing is bad” can thus be perfectly true, assuming Americans are working within a certain type of system. An analogy: Einstein established that “The rocket is moving at 1000 km/hr” is not a meaningful proposition. It’s only even meaningful relative to a certain observer: “From Prof. Goldstein’s perspective, the rocket is moving at 1000 km/hr.” The same, some folks argue, goes with moral propositions.

    My take on this little non sequiter I’ve offered is that the relativists are engaged in a hopeless enterprise. Moral statements are, if you pick them apart enough, meaningless. The only salve is (as it often is) to ignore persnickety philosophy, and just act like moral statements are like regular ones; moral relativism is a band-aid that doesn’t stick. It’s better to just pretend the wound isn’t there.

  13. By the way, Jeff, if you couldn’t figure it out from the last post, I’m starting to miss college rasberry

  14. Heh heh. That’s why God invented Grad school, Glenn!

    (Short of that, you can always resume your blogging and make your site a haven for “academic” discussion. Bet you’d find a nice audience with a specialty site like that. I do a bit of it, but such posts are normally buried between penis jokes and anti-UN tirades…)

    Hope all’s well!

  15. Thanks to J.G., Howard Owens, Chad Burke, Kenneth Orzel, and Glenn Kinen for the forgoing discussion. I now take the point that broad application (mis-application, to some) of pomo principals is the problem, as I see it, rather than anything inherent in postmodernism itself.

    …so maybe you _can_ teach an old dog new tricks?…


  16. I’ve posted a quote I’m fond of from Fackenheim, which addresses the issue of ‘intentional belief’, which he calls pragmatic make-believe.

    In the event I get some time today, I’ll try and respond at length.

    BTW, this is a great post and dialog…thank you.


  17. Very interesting discussion.

    On pragmatic make-believe: it’s a bit weird though not surprising that I’ve come more or less independently to a way of thinking that someone else, this Fackenheim, has named before I was even born. I recently posted something to my blog on a seperate topic, Useful Fictions that doesn’t explore pragmatic make-believe, but rather employs it. Armed Liberal, on his blog, suggests that this way of thinking has been discredited, or at least that it doesn’t work in the long run:

    Pragmatic make-believe collapses in self-contradiction.

    I guess I’ve got some research to do!

  18. To say “Pragmatic make-believe collapses in self-contradiction” completely misses the point–non-make-believe either collapses in self-contradiction, or just renders as nonsense many of the propositions we need to use to live as human beings. It’s an acceptance of common sense when a principled departure from it would cost too much.

  19. Insufficient give-a-damn to write a long response, but some of this seems to be a misunderstanding of the difference between facts and truth. As has been written elsewhere, facts are sacred and independent of the viewer. Truth depends upon some perspective, with a healthy dose of morality, knowledge and experience thrown in.

    Still, a lot of lives have been wasted thinking that post-modernism is “the truth.”

  20. I’m not sure Charles Austin is right at all. The fact/truth distinction usually relies on “Truth” being spelled with a capital T. That is, facts are mundane statements that clearly either do or do not obtain, while Truth involves method, process, perspective, generalization, etc. This seems to be an unwarranted distinction: even the most mundane, seemingly unimpeachable assertions betray all sorts of cultural prejudices, background information, contingent suppositions, and so on.

    At the risk of sounding extremely pretentious, those who seek to answer pomo by positing a spurious distinction between fact and truth would do well to read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. It’ll take you a semester to understand badly, and about thirty years to understand well. I studied it for a semester.

  21. By the way, Jeff, life is going really well. Work starts in about two weeks, but I’ve got a trip to Canada planned before that. And plans are in work for a trip to Las Vegas. I’ll be going with a few friends, two of whom, you’ll be interested to know, are Oriental-Americans.

  22. This is going to make me sound droll and un-enlightened and not at all sophisticated, but the real problem with pomo is their writing. It is dense, obtuse, circuitous, and dull. The syntax is brutal, the ideas buried beneath a vocabulary maintained and employed only to impress, and worst of all, it is long-winded.

    At least that is how it was in all of my curriculum courses. All of my pomo adhering profs had nasal voices too- so they were as unpleasant to listen to as they were to read.

  23. You know, John’s hit the nail on the head. If you read most Anglo-American and/or analytic philosophy, you can see in every sentence how the author takes great pains to make every point (even the bad ones) crystal clear. Even when jargon is introduced, it clarifies the argument instead of clouding it. In a word, they want to be understood, and they sympathize with the reader.

    I don’t know what the hell most pomo, poco, etc. writers think they’re doing. Are they trying to confuse me? Impress me? Put me to sleep? Because they are succeeding.

  24. I’ve often disagreed with Stanley Fish, but I’ve never found his prose labored or unclear.

    Glenn: my Japanese-Irish-American wife says (from her position of authenticity—though she’s never visited an Asian country, you understand) that you’re not funny at all.

  25. Me so sorry, Jeff.

  26. That’s interesting.  Po-mo, executed as described above, seems to be an aid to objectivity and empiricism.

    Seems to me the symbols of mathematics and physics could be viewed as an attempt, a very important one, to escape the subjective bounds of language and arrive at that “independent

    truth.  2 + 2 undeniably = 4, after all (assuming we’re in base ten).

    And then Einstein screwed it all up again by showing everything is relative.

  27. The thing I like best about pomo is the implication that Western culture is doing one of its famous double-takes where we suddenly realize basic facts about our circumstances like, eating starch makes you fat, sex is not immoral, smoking in public is impolite, rock concerts make you deaf, human consciousness is both subjective and real, exercise cures disease, etc. 

    You know, all the really obvious things you tend to miss when you’re a replacement for fallen Holy Roman warriors like the typical white American child.

    The best article I read in a while (in Discover) was about an autistic female scientist who specializes in animal care.  She pointed out that because animals have so little forebrain (imagination), when you put a cow into an obvious slaughterhouse setting, it gets scared.  Whereas if you put a human being into a gas chamber, it is far more docile than any animal would be…

  28. Pingback: The Annotated (academic) Left: a deconstruction [UPDATED]

  29. Pingback: Foucault’s (relativistic) Pendulum, anthropomorphized

  30. Pingback: “Every Man a Derrida”

  31. Pingback: Obama on Benghazi cover-up: “there’s no there there” | protein wisdom