The Poverty of Postmodernism

31 03 2011

You may not realise it, but you’ve probably been poisoned by postmodernism. No-one who lived through the 1970s would have escaped untainted. And just about anyone who underwent schooling or a university education in the 1980s or 1990s received a crippling dose. I was entirely oblivious to my own indoctrination during my undergraduate in the early ‘90s until only a few years ago.

You can blame postmodernism for the banalities of political correctness.

You can blame it for making contemporary art ugly and incomprehensible.

You can blame it for moral relativism, and the inability to criticise individuals from other cultures when they do plainly heinous things.

You can blame it for rampant individualism and greed.

You can also blame it for words like ‘deconstruction,’ ‘hermeneutics,’ and my favourite, ‘subversion.’ You can even blame it for the identity crisis afflicting the political Left.

The good news is that postmodernism is philosophically defunct. Deep exhale. We can all let it go now. Let it sink to the bottom of the Swamp of Bankrupt Ideas. And we can move on to firmer conceptual territory, in doing so discovering the world is, in fact, more (and less) explicable than we probably think, and intractable problems – like multiculturalism, for one – are more solvable than we realise.

First: what is postmodernism?

There are more reams of garbled text on the subject than I would inflict on my worst enemy, and these reams would have you think that postmodernism is a lofty, profound, bamboozling concept which, like quantum mechanics or the intricacies of hedge funds, are beyond the ken of common folk. But that’s all a part of the postmodern spell. In fact, postmodernism is a surprisingly simple thesis, bordering on trivial even.

Postmodernism is effectively a form of scepticism. It starts with the notion that what we see around us, despite its apparent veracity, is actually flavoured by our own subjective attitudes. Reality is elusive, if it exists at all. And objectivity is a myth.

So far, so good. People often see the same thing in different ways, depending on their upbringing or experience. Your attitudes towards Tibetans – even the way you perceive Tibetans – would be very different if you were raised in Tibet. Even more so if you were raised in China.

But postmodernism says something more than that we can’t see what’s beyond the veil of subjectivity. Postmodernism says there is nothing beyond the veil of subjectivity.

This is because, according to a popular strain of postmodernism, we construct reality from our very subjectivity. We project meaning on to the world and then assume it’s the objective truth.

But here’s the signature pomo rub. The meaning we project into the world doesn’t come just from us, it is shaped by the environment around us. And what, or who, shapes the environment around us? Those in power: politicians; the media; men, corporations; cultural elites; colonial powers etc.

And all these powerful institutions have their own vested interests. They have a way they’d like us to see the world because seeing it in that way helps entrench their power.

Hence, deconstruction: the attempt to pull apart (or ‘unpack’) the layered meanings, values and ways of perceiving that are bound up in some idea or concept, and attempt to surgically remove those that are inauthentic or corrupted by those in power.

And really, that’s all there is to it. Once you understand this characteristic postmodern turn, you start to see through all the fluff about ‘discourse,’ ‘text,’ and ‘hermeneutics.’ They’re all attempts to come to grips with the way things are expressed, as if that was all there is to the matter, and there’s no reality – no ‘fact of the matter’ – lying underneath. That there’s “nothing outside the text”, to quote the T-Rex above.

From this, we can also understand why postmodernism is relativist: our values and moral outlook are shaped by our environment and culture, but there’s no final arbitrator of right and wrong, so we should tolerate all. Even the nasty stuff.

Or political correctness: we construct the world with our language, so if we use more positive terms then that, in turn, makes that thing more positive. Hence ‘disabled’ becomes ‘mobility challenged.’ Doesn’t matter than someone who is ‘mobility challenged’ is still, in some real sense, disabled.

Or the black armband view of history: the old colonial powers reinforced a myth of their own moral and cultural superiority, and in doing so subjugated other cultures by diminishing their values, thus oppressing them. That’s bad, and pride in our past is endorsement of colonial oppression. Doesn’t matter that British and Australian culture are also valued by many, and have also done many great things along with the heinous. It doesn’t matter that the liberal pluralist tradition – or the very intellectual tradition that led to postmodern enlightenment – also stemmed from the same source.

Or why art is ugly: ideas of beauty were imposed by old cultural elites. Producing beautiful art is simply kowtowing to the entrenched impressions of beauty impressed upon us by tradition as imposed by the elites. As such, artists should attempt to ‘subvert’ our preconceived notions of beauty by confronting us and forcing us to question our own outlook on what we think beauty really is. Beauty is selling out. Ugly is illumainting.

Or why the Left has trouble dealing with things like the oppression of women in other cultures: on the one hand, feminism is all about tearing down the old misogynist cultural elitist idea that men were superior, but it runs up against the cultural relativism that warns against telling other cultures what’s right and wrong and becoming the very cultural elitist you abhor. So, ironically, many feminists remain strangely quiet on things like female circumcision or the affect the burqa has on attitudes towards women.

You can even start to see why society has turned towards individualism and greed: if it’s up to me to determine my own values, and there’s no overarching moral or community standard, then why not retreat to my core world of close friends and family? After all, of determining all of my own moral values for myself is an awfully heavy burden to bear. Far easier to retreat into egoism or hedonism.

We can also see how even science has become a target for postmodernism: science is ‘just another’ way of describing the world, no better or worse than any other. Except those silly naive scientists have fallen into that dangerous trap of thinking they’re describing the real world, when they, too, are the pawns of their own power structures and vested interests. Just ignore the fact that science has unparalleled predictive power and has done more to reveal how the world works than any other approach to knowledge. Science is its own nobly deluded domain, no better or worse than any other.

When you really understand the triviality and poverty of postmodernism, all these things suddenly become clear. We can now appreciate how the postmodern turn transformed all forms of enquiry into  literary theory.

Postmodernism is as sadly ubiquitous as it is ludicrous. It’s no surprise that we’ve seen a backlash against it from many sides. The church, as well as many politicians on the Right, have rebelled against the moral relativism and tolerate-anything attitude of postmodernism. John Howard was particularly active in attempting to wind back some of the advances of postmodernism in academia and our schools.

Yet we even saw creationists turn postmodernism against the Left in the evolution versus intelligent design debate, declaring “teach the debate, and let the students decide for themselves.” That kind of thing works with issues of value, but it was ludicrous to apply it to a matter of scientific fact – like teaching the debate between the Ptolemaic system and the Copernican system and letting people decide for themselves. Yet the creationists almost got away with it.

The good news is there is an escape from postmodernism. We can happily acknowledge that we do, indeed, project meaning and value onto the world. But we should also acknowledge that there’s something about the way we are, and something about the way the world is, that is independent of our subjective values. And it’s this that determines how we project value on to the world.

It’s awareness of this very fact that makes science so successful. The scientific method acknowledges that subjectivity has a way of seeping in to our ideas, so it has built-in checks and balances, like always appealing to evidence, and blind peer-review, to mitigate against these forces. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best system bar none that we have to revealing the facts about how the world really is.

We can even acknowledge that the way we use language is important – just notice the cheeky way ‘tax cuts’ became ‘tax relief’ – but language isn’t the ultimate arbiter of reality. We should be wary of those in power attempting to manipulate language to trick us into accepting their worldview. But we should not assume there’s no fact of the matter to prove them wrong.

And art can be beautiful once again. In many circles, it already is. But the theme of ‘subversion’ has run its course, it’s done as much good as it ever will, and it’s time to let the notion go, and let people create what they want, without having to challenge us, or authority, or the cultural elite at every turn.

Ultimately, postmodernism was a 20th century phenomenon. It’s time we look at it for what it is: a fairly simplistic philosophical and political view obfuscated by unnecessarily convoluted language. It’s time we left it behind and moved on to more rational, more scientific, more factual pastures. That doesn’t mean hopping on the back of science to answer all questions. But it does mean getting off the back of literary and critical theory to understand every aspect of the world.

The Right has already distanced itself from postmodernism. It’s now time for the Left to acknowledge its poverty and divorce itself from relativism, political correctness, vagueness, ambivalence towards science etc. It’s time to let postmodernism go.

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14 responses

1 04 2011
Troy Camplin

Pretty much sums it up. Of course, these elements have always already been in existence, and will continue to do so. Like referring to theft perpetrated by governments as “taxes,” as though the person of group doing the stealing matters.

1 04 2011
GTChristie

You can even blame it for the identity crisis afflicting the political Left.

I haven’t even read the whole thing yet and already you’ve made me ROFL. Torpedo the dams! Heads fulla speed! LOL …

1 04 2011
Paul

“You can even start to see why society has turned towards individualism and greed: if it’s up to me to determine my own values, and there’s no overarching moral or community standard, then why not retreat to my core world of close friends and family? After all, of determining all of my own moral values for myself is an awfully heavy burden to bear. Far easier to retreat into egoism or hedonism.”

Wouldn’t a better explanation be that increasing wealth, health, security, urbanization, diversity, and geographical mobility,lead people to live lives more or less outside the reach of any one particular moral community, and that the popularity of postmodernism is more a consequence of a changing world than a driver of any changes?

1 04 2011
Paul

I guess the unstated conclusion of my comment was that Postmodern was a reflection of an underlying moral poverty, and not a cause. Hence the retreat of Postmodernism does not signify that people will be any less hedonistic or egotistical, as the structural conditions which underlie contemporary cosmopolitan hedonism and egoism aren’t going away. Which means that, at best, science and the pursuit of knowledge will be viewed as a means to an end, and not as something worthy in itself. Not that this should be viewed as a problem; judging by Plato’s dialogues, 5th century Greek aristocrats largely viewed rational discourse as a means to an end, but they still managed to produce many brilliant mathematicians and Aristotle.

1 04 2011
GTChristie

I should make clear up front that I have no sympathy for post-modernism in philosophy. But it’s interesting what “respectable” roots it has. First, there is Hume’s cause/effect skepticism which pointed out that ultimately, causality is an inference (not a necessity) and therefore causality reduces to belief in the last analysis. Then there is Hume’s moral sentimentalism, which says only emotion moves the will and that reason “is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Then there’s Hume’s is/ought divide which is mistaken by many to be a methodical doctrine “no oughtfromis.” (Actually Hume only demanded “a reason should be given” for inferring an ought statement from a fact statement, since these are two different types of statement. Nobody’s quite figured out how to do it; postmodernists tend to think it can’t be done.) Three strikes for Hume. But those are fundamental roots of the postmodern skepticism.

Then there is Wittgenstein, second edition: everything is a language game. Truth is just a story we tell ourselves. And Nietzsche, claiming morality is secretly encoded into language: “… we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.” Nietzsche again: morality is about power, master over slave. Better to have one noble individual who is a law unto (him)self, than a whole world of slaves — the rest of the human race is dispensable in the process, by the way.

You will notice, however, that Science (yes, caps) is at the heart of all this. Empiricism only goes so far, but it takes us everywhere Hume et al want to go. But that’s a rant for another day. LOL.

1 04 2011
Tim Dean

@GTChristie
I thoroughly concur that the seeds of postmodernism lie in healthy criticisms of naive realism. However, like most flawed philosophies, postmodernism overreached and became nonsensical.

In fact, pragmatism existed prior to postmodern philosophy and offers a superior response to sceptism without sliding into the verbose absurdities of pomo. The pomocaust, I call it.

@Paul
I think postmodernism is a symptom and has also become a cause of modern malaise – at least by making it harder to properly diagnose and treat the true underlying causes. And I agree that the retreat of postmodernism doesn’t necessarily mean people will abandon egoism etc. But putting pomo behind us will surely help its (hopefully) more wholesome replacements take hold.

1 04 2011
GTChristie

This is the type of discussion that floats my boat, so I can’t resist putting just one more penny in the pool. There is an interesting phrasing above: … if it’s up to me to determine my own values, and there’s no overarching moral or community standard, then why not …

Over time I have “discovered,” by gradual steps, that the arguments I make and the perspective I use belong to the general class called “communitarian.” The strongest influence on that is a rock-solid belief in “consensus” as a cultural process (“ethics making,” so to speak), which belief is grounded upon a cultural (anthropological) view of ethics. In the sentence fragment above, the word “community” stands out, and its use points out the most useful direction we might go: to reject the idea that there is no community standard and study instead how community standards actually develop (“standards dynamics,” so to speak). It may be possible to re-evaluate the roots of post-modern skepticism (especially to critique its nihilistic elements), re-stitching the “language game” for instance, as a culture’s continual striving to make/keep itself coherent — including morally coherent — throughout its history. With an approach like that, odd-duck factors that are unexplainable by the “language game” approach, such as the impact of technological progress on the moral life of a society, now have an envelope that looks more like coping, rather than power-playing …

Anyway that’s the way my thought seems to go, and “community” in the phrase above lit up: might not communitarian approaches be the most effective sodium bicarb for the acid excesses of post-modernism?

3 04 2011
James Gray

But postmodernism says something more than that we can’t see what’s beyond the veil of subjectivity. Postmodernism says there is nothing beyond the veil of subjectivity.

No, it doesn’t. Maybe straw man postmodernism does. Postmodernists can be just as skeptical of skepticism as of anything else.

This is because, according to a popular strain of postmodernism, we construct reality from our very subjectivity. We project meaning on to the world and then assume it’s the objective truth.

No, it doesn’t.

Postmodernism might have been dangerous to stupid people who distorted it in foolish ways, but there was some decent philosophy involved. Foucault would certainly not agree with any of the above and was careful to steer clear of ambitious forms of philosophizing.

You told me before that you didn’t know what to think about epistemic realism — that you might be an anti-realist. I don’t see how you could find postmodernism so unattractive with that perspective. There are no real knowledge or justified beliefs that correspond to “nonsubjective” “objective” reality without epistemic realism.

5 04 2011
Adriana

Tim, first of all, I really like your blog and I do find your moral ecology theory really appealing. Second, I’m a scientist and in the 80s when I was in college I used to fight all the time with my friends who were in the humanities or philosophy fields about post-modernism, they were all in love with the idea that there was no “real world” and I was a reductionist who had fallen for the illusion of science being superior than other endeavors at describing the world. I’m not going to shed a tear for the death of postmodernism. Not one minute too soon.
However, and although I agree that in certain circles liberals have fallen prey to the spell of postmodernism, I honestly am not aware that many feminists of any notoriety remain silent about female genital mutilation or the oppression of women in non-Western cultures. So please provide me with examples because if said feminists are on the internet blogging, and excusing such abhorrent behavior, they will hear from me.

29 05 2011
Fatness

I think the concept of postmodernism has gone completely over your head. This philosophy (if you understood it) would allow you to see that you are no exception. In this essay you have turned just about everything you referred to into a bias which reflects your beliefs and opinions. Try to consider that what you have learned and the basis on which you found your beliefs and opinions are just as rooted and valid as those with conflicting beliefs and opinions. What you have done is try to answer a question for others, doing just what anyone desperate for certainty does. The reason progression is stifled is because we have people who think they have it figured out and, unintentionally, create propaganda and don’t realize that they, trying to impose an objective truth, are trying to make it a truth by convincing/fooling others into believing it. You are arguing a very small portion of the argument and not the totality of the event. You obviously understand your own position, now try to learn more and please have respect for those who have beliefs that are contrary to yours.

29 05 2011
James Gray

Fatness,

I don’t know exactly what Tim thinks “postmodernism is” but I think your comment completely missed his point. No one here thinks they have all the answers or has attained certainty. The opposite of being dogmatic isn’t always total relativism. We can try to have reasonable beliefs without claiming certainty.

13 06 2011
Margi Macdonald

“The scientific method acknowledges that subjectivity has a way of seeping in to our ideas, so it has built-in checks and balances, like always appealing to evidence, and blind peer-review, to mitigate against these forces. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best system bar none that we have to revealing the facts about how the world really is.”

All well and good if we’re thinking of pure science, and enquiry for the sake of enquiry.
Yet this statement simply cannot be applied to medical science, if BigPharma is paying for that enquiry, hiring ghost writers, hiding evidence and doing all the things for which BigPharma is now infamous.

Gone are the days when we might sweetly trust that checks and balances are applied within the scientific method, if there are several squillion dollars at stake. Post-modernist greed, or some other kind of greed?

13 06 2011
Tim Dean

Hi Margi. I agree that commercial interests distort the scientific method, particularly in health and agriculture. I don’t see that as a problem for science but a problem for society.

As such, we should structure our scientific reporting systems – journals, conferences etc – to be aware of the distorting influence of commercial interests to as to mitigate against them and keep them as ‘pure’ as possible. Likewise we should structure them to be aware of the distorting influence of politics (in climate change, for example), religion (with creationism/Intelligent Design) or popular opinion.

Crucially, though, my point is about the postmodern attack against science as being ‘just another way of describing the world’. The distortion you talk about is orthogonal to that issue.

13 07 2011
Diego

Really good. I think that regarding post modernist art, architecture deserves a whole chapter. What a stupid and spiteful way of wasting resources, while making unefficient and hideous structures!

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