The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

FUCK post-modernism

| 42 Comments

I made a tweet regarding events in Chile on this day in 1973, and included a link to an article that, placing the blame above all on Washington, was also critical of Allende.  Someone tweeted this back: “FWIW that narrative differs from the one you find in Chile, where e.g. Allende is regarded as socialist.”

The word “narrative” jumped out at me, and I realized suddenly that it had been months since I last spewed forth my utter hatred and disgust for post-modern philosophy.

Post-modernism is built on the notion that we can’t actually know anything, we only construct “narratives.” The very concept of “narrative” carries the implication that one is as good as another, and one chooses a narrative based on one’s goals.  But goals are subjective; truth is objective, and thus to interpret the world based on narrative is to deny that it is possible to actually know anything.  But all of human progress has come from the effort to know things, and then act on that knowledge.  It’s not about “narrative,” it’s about the effort to discover the  laws of motion that guide processes in the objective world.  This inevitably leads the post-modernist to reject the concept of progress.  I find this appalling.  Also, stupid.

Post-modernism works very hard to use language that obfuscates and excludes–that’s why it’s so easily subject to hoaxing; anything that wants to consider itself a science ought to make clarity and precision and transparency guiding principles.  In particular, post-modernism uses Marxist-sounding lingo in its effort to undermine what is most vital for Marxism–that is, understanding social processes and communicating that understanding to the working class.

As I said earlier, post-modernism attacks and rejects the very notion of progress.  They do so, today, using the latest and most advanced technology that progress has produced.

Post-modernism is built on attacking Enlightenment beliefs.  There were, to be sure, ideas produced by the Enlightenment that deserve serious criticism: the perfectibility of Man, for example, or the belief that human thought can be independent of time, place, and material conditions.  But post-modernism attacks what was most progressive in the Enlightenment: the idea that human beings can learn, can work to improve conditions, can make advances in social and economic equality.

Post-modernism not only rejects the notion that we can learn from history, but, in many cases, insists that there is no such thing–that there is no objective truth to be known in past events.  The idea that people will study history from the point of view of their own beliefs is not new; historians have known it as long as the discipline of history has existed.  To go from there to utter rejection of the validity of historical study is like saying that, because human beings are mortal, the medical profession should be abolished.  I suspect many post-modernists have visited a doctor (although, in many cases, I wish they hadn’t).

During a discussion at this year’s Fourth Street, someone mentioned that, in the arts and sciences, post-modernism was most associated with, among other things, architecture.  Someone at the table where we were sitting remarked, “I don’t know about you, but I want the person who designed the building I’m in to believe there’s an objective world.”

 

ETA: After some discussion with jenphalian, it seems I need to clarify something.  The word “narrative” is not, in fact, evil.  There are times it’s appropriate when discussing someone’s view of events and interpretation of facts.  But I will stand by my position that these times do not include efforts to understand politics, economics, or, really, anything beyond the personal level.

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

42 Comments

  1. Jen’s right. You might do another post about narrative, because humans narrate, whether they’re honest, lying, pursuing objectivity, or embracing subjectivity.

    Also, “post-modern” isn’t completely evil. In literature, it can be used to describe what the PJF tried to do, to take what we like from the past and the present without feeling obliged to reject what’s old. That said, the name is completely stupid, at least until pre-futurism comes along.

  2. Pingback: Brust on Post-Modernism | Karavansara

  3. skzb

    Will: That’s why I made it point to say “Post-modern *Philosophy*”. No Zelazny fan can totally throw out all of post-modernism.

  4. The pre-future is now! #objectivefact

  5. Steven, I’m afraid you’re right about PoMo and it shouldn’t be that way. There are important lessons and skills there which we all need to pick up, and somehow a whole lot of people who study that don’t get them.

    Somehow it turns into just a sort of trump. “*I* know the truth and *you* don’t. The truth is that everything you think you know is just bias, and *you* can’t prove me wrong!” It’s sad that so many people don’t know how to do research to counter this, so that in fact the PoMo critics are right. But in a good world they would be wrong.

    Medical people know that they are supposed to do their experiments double-blind. Patients shouldn’t know what’s supposed to happen, and neither should the people who come in contact with patients. They seldom actually do it, but they’ve all heard why they ought to. Most MDs believe it doesn’t apply to them, though.

    In the biological and physical sciences there’s a tradition that lone grad students do experiments that give very clear results, and later others try to replicate the results and it isn’t as good, and later still the original people might repeat their experiments and often they can’t do it. Somehow, knowing what results they expect subtly influences their results.

    When they get to be senior enough to have research assistants performing their experiments, it’s *vital* that someone else mix the reagents and give them labels that let the guy who does the experiment add the right thing at the right time without knowing which is which. The guy who measures the results mustn’t know which samples are which so he won’t unconsciously get the expected results. Because even worse than grad students, research assistants know that if they get the right results the boss will be happy, and if they get the wrong results the boss will be upset. And they want to look good, so repeats will tend to come out particularly similar. Not that they’d cheat exactly, but — well, some of them will cheat. Don’t let them know which is which and you’ll get truer results.

    It happens with science where people do their best to avoid it. It happens everywhere. People do in fact make narratives, and they expect the world to fit their narratives. “Many things must be seen to be believed. Most things must be believed to be seen.” This is an ongoing source of bias. It isn’t 100% bias. It isn’t 100% uncorrectable. Bad to see that it happens and then announce that there cannot ever be any truth. But also bad to ignore it.

    Ideally, PoMo thinking would be used to look for possible bias and then find ways to reduce that bias. Widen your sense of what’s possible. Look at other possible causes for things, that are correlated with the causes you believe. Think better.

    But in practice it seems like it mostly gets used as a way to do put-downs. And then the people who get put-down don’t want anything to do with it.

    What an utter disgusting waste.

  6. “Narrative” is how we understand the world. The world is much too complicated to fully comprehend every bit of it. So we make up a little story to explain to ourselves what we think is important (the rules, as it were). So this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t matter if it is heat or fire spirits that burn our fingers when we touch the pan that was sitting on the fire. At least not in the first analysis (we pull our finger away). Hopefully, the narrative gets more accurate and refined over time.

    The idea of “that’s just your opinion and mine is as good as yours”, drives me nuts. I had an on line conversation a while back where I finally told the guy to pick up a chemistry book and look it up. They figure everything is just words. It does not occur to some people that there are ways to get a good answer and not just another opinion.

  7. Following Will’s point, I would like to reply in some way that defends post-modernism, because I’m confident you’ve grossly oversimplified it, even as regards literature. Of course there have been plenty of pre-post-modernist (ha!) prose works without narratives, or at least which don’t focus on the narrative. And outside literature, of course this distinction is not germane. Architecture for example, doesn’t have a narrative to begin with, and this is where movements like post-modernism have their core exemplars.

    However… I find that there is almost nothing post-modern in any field of art that I actually *like*, even a little bit. Post-modern architecture in particular turns me off. So what the hell, let the whole movement burn for all I care.

    I’m still a fan of modernism, though, at least in design and architecture. But the fact that Howard Roark is at least a soi-disant modernist does give me pause…

  8. Strikes me that post-modernism is a really good example of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Not very well-read on the subject, but I think the key is a criticism of this enlightenment belief: that human thought can be independent of time, place, and material conditions.

    Post-modernists agree with other thinkers who believe that’s not true: Time, place, and material conditions very much affect human thought. But while other thinkers try find objective truths by adjusting for those effects, post-modernists declare that such adjustments can’t be made and that therefore objective truth doesn’t exist. Doing so closes off further discussion and creates a self-justifying look.

    Which kinda sucks.

  9. Having waded through a decade of graduate school–including a doctoral minor’s worth of comparative studies classes–I’ve spent a lot of time considering (and leveling) these kinds of criticisms. The common screed of relativism rendering the world flat (morally, historically, personally) is old hat. And it’s absolutely true if you use postmodernism lazily, or if you take it up as some kind of personal philosophy.

    Yes, postmodernism can descend into vapid navel-gazing. Yes, you can “problematize” “narratives” to the point you choke on your own scare quotes. Jargon is endemic and maybe even intrinsic to the whole area of study. PoMo can be an easy excuse to linger on surfaces and pointlessly rattle your bone box.

    Used carefully, though, postmodernism (as it grows up around linguistics and philosophy before bleeding out into the humanities and social sciences) provides a powerful toolkit. Interrogating beliefs and biases is a necessary first step at getting closer to good answers. My experience with PoMo is on the linguistics and humanities side of things, where it was adopted and developed as a response to a scholarly environment that kept telling people where to find absolute answers–in the author, in the text, in the reader. The new guys came in and said “wait, you’re not going to find it in any one of those places. We can collectively do better.”

    Postmodernism kills capital-t Truth. It strikes a line through pure answers. It does *not* have to make terrible answers equivalent to good ones. (Though jargon can suck you down a rabbit hole deep enough that the differences are not worth sorting out.) I don’t think postmodernism absolves people from looking for the best answers they can find or create. It throws you in a boat in the ocean–it’s up to you whether you want to go anywhere, and which stars you use to navigate. It can’t change the stars that are there any more than it can choose them for you, though…which is why PoMo will never be sufficient as a guiding principle on its own.

    As a mostly unrelated aside, I will say that the lazy version of postmodernism that makes all points of view equivalent has greatly enabled the perpetual gray fallacy that is contemporary media coverage of anything “controversial.”

  10. Since I suck at tweeting…

    I’m with Will, humans narrate all the time. I’m not sure if it’s because we’re wired for stories, or if most people have trouble building and maintaining models in their heads, but whatever the reason we seem to latch on to linear stories. I don’t agree that this necessarily makes one narrative as good as another. (Full disclosure, I believe in objective reality. As unfashionable as that may be currently.)

    I suspect the problem is that we tend to latch onto the _first_ narrative to the exclusion of all others. At least we’ve seemed to measure that effect, though I won’t be citing references from my cell phone.

    In science we try always to remain skeptical. New data may change our models in drastic ways. (c.f. all of 20th century physics.) Humans… not so much. Possibly because constantly staying in a state of skepticism is exhausting. If there’s a good narrative to be had, we seem to accept it regardless of whether it is later disproved. It’s… easier.

    I guess all I’m really trying to say is that narratives aren’t harmful in themselves. We’re certainly not going to abolish them at any rate. I’d suggest single LOUD narratives, however, are detrimental to discovering truth. They prevent us from collecting more narratives to compare and contrast against. And that’s how we promote little t truths into big T Truths.

    Or so my little t experience would suggest.

  11. J Thomas has the right idea: just call it po-mo. It takes all the “beyond modern” aspect out of it. And don’t get me started on po-mo architecture. That building sticking out of another building crap just has to go.

  12. post-modernism approves of your message

  13. Well, this is where I always get sad, because I more or less grew up on pomo and it’s wired into me at a fundamental level. What’s funny to me is that I often have a less defined idea of what’s pomo and what isn’t than other people; I didn’t come to it by sitting down with something and saying “now I will learn about postmodernism!”, it was just everywhere. I often don’t know where it begins and where it ends. But I think that’s also why I have no problem picking and choosing what I like from it and throwing out what I don’t.

    It seems like you’re getting mad about extreme positions on epistemology taken by the likes of Paul Feyerabend. I myself don’t think of these positions as defining or characteristic of postmodernism so much as I think of them as an idiotic sideshow, academic performance art, good for getting tenure if your reviewers are soft in the head but not much else, besides maybe RPG source material. (Mage: the Ascension is Feyerabend’s philosophy of science written up with witches, cyborgs and phlogiston guns, as far as I can tell. It’s pretty fun!)

    On the other hand, I can’t imagine seeing deconstruction, generally considered a postmodernist activity, as other than an absolutely indispensable critical tool (is the concept of subtext itself pomo?), and as you’ve noticed, I think about things in terms of narrative an awful lot. I don’t do this as a fashion statement, I do it because it has unparalleled explanatory power for human action. (This is an excellent article touching on how the irrepressible human need to narrate interacts with scientific observation, by the way: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/12/ff_causation/all/1)

    The idea of limiting narrative analysis to the personal kind of boggles me. I mean, for starters there isn’t a boundary between the personal and the political, as anyone who’s had a police officer put his hands on them knows. But just for starters in politics, every victimless crime, as well as those where the status of victim is nonconsensually imposed on a party by society, exists to serve (generally bourgeois) narratives of identity. Economics? Every luxury status goods purchase is driven by identity narrative. White supremacy is a narrative. The Protestant work ethic is a narrative. The Monroe Doctrine is a narrative. We build our entire lived experience out of these things. We starve, torture and murder people for their preservation every day.

    I am awfully curious whether this is why I like the Merlin Cycle and you don’t.

  14. “I think about things in terms of narrative an awful lot. I don’t do this as a fashion statement, I do it because it has unparalleled explanatory power for human action.”

    Yes, you can use it to explain almost anything that involves human choices. Though you could also use the Will of God to explain the same things.

    But what about this — suppose I look at a human situation and I come up with a truly scientific, objectively true explanation. I mean after all, I use the principles of science and my results are objectively true by materialist standards. And then you come along and explain my results according to my narrative! How utterly insulting!

    I mean, sure, it’s fine to explain most human behavior in terms of human narratives, but when you say that science itself is nothing more than the narrative of a priestly cult — that’s taking it too far. Is nothing sacred?!

    We know that science is objectively true — without science there would be no internet. Without science there wouldn’t even be TV! So QED. Quant suff.

  15. skzb

    Chaosprime: Thank you for the thoughtful remarks. Let’s take a look.

    Have you ever heard a post-modernist say or imply that it is vital we study history in order to learn, as well as possible, what is objectively true about the past? To learn the laws of motion that guide human history? Or even that there are such laws and that they are knowable? Every post-modernist I’ve come across says exactly the opposite.

    “On the other hand, I can’t imagine seeing deconstruction, generally considered a postmodernist activity, as other than an absolutely indispensable critical tool (is the concept of subtext itself pomo?)”

    I’ve seen some interesting (and possibly useful) deconstructions of poetry; I’ve yet to see any such of any kind in fiction. Should deconstruction vanish from the Earth, I would argue that our understanding of literature would be unharmed, and quite probably improved. (And “subtext” was coined, I believe, by Stanislavsky sometime in the early 50’s as part of method acting, which I, at least, do not consider terribly PoMo).

    “I think about things in terms of narrative an awful lot. I don’t do this as a fashion statement, I do it because it has unparalleled explanatory power for human action.”

    We are now coming to the crux of our disagreement: The post-modernists seek the explanation for human action, first, in thought, in ideas; “narrative” can be viewed in no other way. I see it first in material conditions. These differences produce wildly different conclusions. See the earlier post about the Paris Commune for an example of the differing methods resulting in differing conclusions with (implied) completely different guides to action.

    ” there isn’t a boundary between the personal and the political, as anyone who’s had a police officer put his hands on them knows.”

    Heh. I saw you palm that card. 🙂 To say there is no boundary between them is not to say they are identical. I accept that “narrative” can be a useful tool in helping the victim of police or domestic violence to come to terms with the trauma; that is entirely different from saying it is useful in understanding the social sources of police or domestic violence, or working toward eliminating them.

    “The Protestant work ethic is a narrative. The Monroe Doctrine is a narrative.”

    The Protestant work ethic is a moral guide produced by capitalism in general and the early industrial revolution in particular, reflecting, in ideological terms, massive social upheavals, and attempts to cope with them given incomplete knowledge–it was, in short, an ethic of the rising bourgeoisie. The Monroe Doctrine went through some significant changes, but by the time of the Mexican War, it was a justification for the expansion of slavery. It was, in short, a doctrine useful to the Southern slave-holding class. In neither case does calling it a “narrative” advance our understanding by an iota.

  16. skzb

    jdjplocher: Thanks for jumping in. One question: Can you give me examples (outside of religion) of someone claiming “capital T Truth?” I keep hearing people attack it, but I’ve never heard anyone defending it. Unless you mean the rather radical notion that there is such a thing as objective reality, in which case, well, I’m the guy post-modernism is arguing against, so it is quite natural I’d disagree.

  17. I totally agree with your sentiments. Until I got to the last paragraph though I was going to complain about your hijacking of “narrative”. But I see I am not alone in this, but I did want to add something that some of you might find surprising.

    I am a mathematician and I write papers and I work very hard to keep a narrative line. Well, one of more. The potential reader will be lost without it. I have one coauther whose philosophy is “think a thought; write it down and include it” and I have to work to keep his random diversions out of it. Some of them could well be the subject of another paper.

    So narratives are just as important to me as to…Paarfi. Not to mention SKZB. This might surprise some people, but it is true.

  18. Alan Sokal, who so famously hoaxed the postmodern journal Social Text with an obviously-nonsensical paper, sums up all that’s wrong with the redefinining of objective truth as a narrative in this wonderful quote:

    “Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)”

    Instead of having us question what the truth is, postmodernism attacks the very idea that there *is* a truth to be known in the first place. Yes, a capital-T Truth. While this may be a worthwhile endeavour in personal matters (relationships, taste in art, etc.) it is utterly catastrophic when applied – and it is applied – to the objective reality that surrounds us. Because then you get what is essentially a secular version of the faith-based worldview. Comforting to some, perhaps, but utterly inadequate to actually dealing with any of the problems humanity is faced with. Because the supreme lesson of human history is that the world does not bend to our desires. We are not the centre of the universe (where postmodernism would once again place us, thanks to the all-consuming power of subjectivity), we are not the chosen of god, and the world was not made for us. From disease to bolide impact to global warming, reality proceeds according to objective laws whether we believe in them or not. If we all collectively decide that global warming is a hoax, the Earth will still get warmer, the poles will still melt. Our beliefs, our narratives (in the postmodernist sense), won’t change that. If our species is to survive, it must let go of the arrogance that deludes us into celebrating our centrality in the cosmos.

    Finally, the idea that deconstruction is somehow unique to postmodernism is as ahistorical as the rest of its claims. Rhetorical analysis and similar ways of engaging with cultural output are as old as civilization – as is “to take what we like from the past and the present without feeling obliged to reject what’s old”, which the ancient Greeks themselves happily did in their plays and poetry (Euripides being a good example of someone who played with and subverted mythological stories to talk about current events in a way that nowadays would be labelled postmodern).

  19. Hm. I have so far had my own arguments for each side of this debate presented and subsequently shot full of holes by others.

    I think I will sit back and learn, since I have no opinions left to venture.

  20. skzb

    Matt: Or it might be that, as we have each presented our arguments clearly, that is all that can be reasonably accomplished.

  21. That is also a possibility, I admit.

  22. Okay. Deep breath before getting back into this–a number of thoughtful comments already submitted. I will try to keep my focus on the bits I know best (literature, music, and, to a lesser extent, linguistics and philosophy).

    I cannot, and probably *could* not, come up with examples from within any of my disciplines claiming specific capital-t Truth (outside of issues relating to the authenticity of various documents). What were prevalent, though, especially in the postwar U.S., were specific claims to the *location* of truth. It went hand in hand with the scientism that led to so many idiotic, well-meaning power trips in the medico-psychiatric world. The author was unreliable. The composer was unreliable. Truth was in the text–this is clear in literature in American formalist criticism (and can be picked up in other formalist work, like Levi-Strauss). It’s also clear in dominant strains of postwar composition and music scholarship in railing against “interpretation”–Stravinsky was a famous proponent of performers as “realizers,” a kind of mechanical reproducer of the score. (Not coincidentally, Stravinsky was a big fan of Mussolini.) The desire to clean up anything messy is understandable, I think, but there was an enormous amount of *denying* anything messy. Scholars could fight about any number of things, but there was a Truth, and it was somewhere in the text. (Similar things happen in linguistics with folks like Jakobson, who aimed to plot out the ways that language, as an arbitrary thing, could hold meaning. Literally. On a graph with axes.) The aim seemed to be at monoliths.

    PoMo enters my fields in part as a response to that, and as part of the general socio-cultural upheaval that followed the postwar period. By no means was it all good. Derrida–the name probably most associated with deconstruction–drives me crazy, constantly dancing back and forth across the brilliant/bullshit line. There are some things Derridean deconstruction is very good at, particularly identifying underlying contradictions and interests. It’s not much good for more than identifying them, though, and allowing guesses as to what those contradictions might mean.

    About the same time in (art) music, you start to get the weirdest stuff from John Cage, the musicircuses and such. Postmodernism is a much murkier thing in music, though, because it didn’t start to get into the scholarship at all until the 80s, and as a label it’s sometimes applied where “anti-modernist” might be more accurate. I’ve heard composers from the mid-50s to the aughts identified as “postmodernist.” (Never mind that nobody really agrees on what “modernist” is.)

    The way I see it, postmodernism as a set of scholarly practices was best at blowing up monoliths. It performed admirably in that role, and still has a purpose at a certain point in students’ education when they need the rug pulled out from under them. There are segments of academe, though, where it’s clearly become a monolith of its own. Otherwise the hoaxers wouldn’t get anything through. For what it’s worth, I never had a professor or colleague who tried to pitch it to me in that monolithic way, as an epistemology unto itself. It was at best a good set of tools for interrogating received notions. Probably worth pointing out that those “received notions” were nearly always things interior to the discipline in question. Scholars love to talk and argue about themselves, operating layers away from material circumstances, even if they bring them into their arguments. That was at least a third of grad school.

    When we dig down far enough, I think the fundamental disagreement hinges on whether objective reality exists *as something knowable*. PoMo philosophy argues that objective reality can, at best, be approached asymptotically. In the lazy version of PoMo, that becomes an excuse for not bothering to approach it at all.

    No postmodernists walk out twelfth-story windows to challenge received narratives about gravity. Some of them would, though, talk your ear off about the way social or linguistic predispositions color even “objective” research, or even helped “construct” the notion of objectivity itself. And because most postmodernists are academics, they’re more concerned with being right than doing anything with it. (You know the joke about the different varieties of scholar and the hot air balloon with the punchline ‘obvious, true, and irrelevant’?)

    P.S. Personally, I like Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory, which allows for interplay between material conditions, social conditions, and ideas…and generally comes back around to power relationships and their maintenance.

  23. ” (You know the joke about the different varieties of scholar and the hot air balloon with the punchline ‘obvious, true, and irrelevant’?)”

    http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/hot_air_balloon_lands_in_a_field_accountant_economist_mathematician_joke/

    “When we dig down far enough, I think the fundamental disagreement hinges on whether objective reality exists *as something knowable*. PoMo philosophy argues that objective reality can, at best, be approached asymptotically.”

    And that’s at best. It’s possible to think that everything is settled to within a small error margin, and then find out that we didn’t know as much as we thought we did, that lots of things we thought we knew were only sort of coincidentally true.

    It’s possible to get things to work and only vaguely understand them.

    We could approach reality asymptotically and yet our belief about how fast we’re approaching could suffer big jumps backward as we find out that things we had assumed were true, were not. When that happens our correct understanding of the world increases. Our belief about how much we knows becomes more accurate. But our belief about how much we know is not monotonic, we find out that we don’t know as much as we thought we did.

    “The way I see it, postmodernism as a set of scholarly practices was best at blowing up monoliths.”

    Yes, a set of tools for deconstructing monoliths. But not good at building replacement monoliths.

    People who *like* monoliths will naturally hate it.

  24. skzb: Okay, let’s see what we got.

    “Have you ever heard a post-modernist say or imply that it is vital we study history in order to learn, as well as possible, what is objectively true about the past? To learn the laws of motion that guide human history? Or even that there are such laws and that they are knowable? Every post-modernist I’ve come across says exactly the opposite.”

    No. That would be weird. I can’t recall the last time I talked to or read someone where “this person is a post-modernist” was anywhere in my awareness, though. I mean, isn’t that a bizarre way to identify? What, is this person trying to be pomo *professionally*? That seems at least as suspect as trying to be a feminist for a living.

    I guess we just disagree about deconstruction, but I’ll put in that I think of it as a thing to *do*, not a thing to *watch*.

    “We are now coming to the crux of our disagreement: The post-modernists seek the explanation for human action, first, in thought, in ideas; “narrative” can be viewed in no other way. I see it first in material conditions.”

    As far as this goes, I have yet to get past the blatant contradiction. There’s this maneuver where we want to reject the political program of idealists who want to take no concrete action but talk people into thinking differently which will supposedly produce change, right? So we say, no, philosophical idealism is wrong, it’s material conditions, we should change those. And then we *slip idealism in the back door* by constructing ideas as some kind of airy-fairy thing that is specially excluded from the world. Sorry, that’s no good; can’t have it both ways.

    Everything is material; therefore, *ideas are material*. Ideas are a part of the material conditions of existence. Thoughts are a part of the material conditions of existence. You can tell because consequences proceed from them.

    Now presumably some eXtreme performance-art postmodernist, like the goofy-ass straw postmodernist Jonas Kyratzes beat the stuffing out of up there, would claim something stupid like that ideas and thoughts are arbitrary and interchangeable and that we need do no more than change them to whatever is best to our liking. This is, of course, dumb. Our thoughts and ideas are greatly reflective of less subtle material conditions like what goods and services we have access to and those that are dangled in front of us. But they’re also not *solely* reflective of that — which is nice, not least because if they were it’s hard to imagine there being hope for the socialist program, since the working class would only ever learn the subservience its working conditions are designed to inculcate.

    I get the vague idea that you associate the mere use of the word “narrative” with this sort of assertion that all narratives are equally valued and we can’t judge one over another. I’m sure it’s brought up that way, but it’s really not anything to do with why I use it. So that’s one counterexample, for what it’s worth.

    “Heh. I saw you palm that card. 🙂 To say there is no boundary between them is not to say they are identical. I accept that “narrative” can be a useful tool in helping the victim of police or domestic violence to come to terms with the trauma; that is entirely different from saying it is useful in understanding the social sources of police or domestic violence, or working toward eliminating them.”

    You don’t think a grasp of the story a police officer understands himself to be acting out is useful in comprehending why he acts violently and predicting under what circumstances he will do so?

    “The Protestant work ethic is a moral guide produced by capitalism in general and the early industrial revolution in particular, reflecting, in ideological terms, massive social upheavals, and attempts to cope with them given incomplete knowledge–it was, in short, an ethic of the rising bourgeoisie. The Monroe Doctrine went through some significant changes, but by the time of the Mexican War, it was a justification for the expansion of slavery. It was, in short, a doctrine useful to the Southern slave-holding class. In neither case does calling it a “narrative” advance our understanding by an iota.”

    What does using the word “narrative” take away from describing them, then, such that it’s important to use other terms?

  25. I do feel like pointing out (not that it hasn’t been mentioned in other terms) that postmodernism’s attacks on concepts of truth are largely a reaction to untold intolerable fucking millennia of worthless pieces of shit in positions of power deciding that their bigotries constitute natural law and using that story to justify endless brutal sadism for their aggrandizement and entertainment.

    Gosh, I wonder if there’s a dialectic relationship there.

  26. It strikes me as odd that you say I’m attacking a straw man. What I described is what I encountered in my years at university, in academics, writers, and philosophers; though their approaches were different in some details, they all rested on the same basic principles. See also the Sokal Hoax and Sokal’s subsequent writings for plenty of evidence that what I described is hardly unusual or extreme.

    Central to all this is a rejection of “grand narratives”, i.e. attempts to understand the way the world functions on a larger scale, disguised as a questioning of authority but ultimately boiling down to little more than a support for a vague capitalist liberalism.

  27. skzb

    chaosprime: I understand some of where you’re coming from; thanks for the clarification. Let me examine at least a couple of pieces of it: “There’s this maneuver where we want to reject the political program of idealists who want to take no concrete action but talk people into thinking differently which will supposedly produce change, right? So we say, no, philosophical idealism is wrong, it’s material conditions, we should change those…”

    Right. I follow. It seems like I’m saying, “No, it isn’t about ideas, it is about conditions, so change your ideas.” But the contradiction is only apparent, not real. That was what I was getting at in my earlier post about the Paris Commune: by *focusing our attention first on the ideas* we fail to understand the source of those ideas.

    I’ll go even further in support of the importance of ideas: in the coming period, ideas will be utterly decisive in the success or failure of social revolution; the degree of consciousness of the masses, the ability to comprehend of the revolutionary party. And, indeed, in certain cases the subjective ideas of the masses can become (indeed, will necessarily become) an objective factor in social conditions; I wouldn’t even begin to deny that.

    And yet, again, the contradiction is only apparent, not real. To put it in terms of the hard sciences, the task of a physicist it to bring his thinking–his theories–as much into line with the objective world as possible. Yes, his theories matter; they’re his business. But if he’s worth anything, his focus is on the world outside of his as cause, and to make his thinking reflect that is the effect. Idealism, quite simply, does the reverse. Moreover, many who are influenced by postmodernism seems to make a break, a distinction, between the hard, physical sciences, and the social sciences. Not simply a break, but, rather, an insistence that, in the latter case, we are not dealing with matter where there are knowable laws of motion. This, itself, is a profound difference in method, and, hence, result.

    To repeat from my earlier discussion of the Commune: it did not fail because of arguing among the leadership; it failed because of the correlation of objective forces; the arguing among the leadership was the reflection and product of those. You may, to be sure, agree or disagree; but I trust you can see the difference.

    “You don’t think a grasp of the story a police officer understands himself to be acting out is useful in comprehending why he acts violently and predicting under what circumstances he will do so?”

    Not really, no. At least, not in any meaningful sense. What matters is that he is paid for by the State to defend private property–that he is part of the body of force that stands between humanity and freedom. If you want to predict his actions, then what story he tells himself is unimportant; If you want to predict his actions, look at what the ruling class requires of him. In practice, however, the reverse is more nearly true: If you want to know about the current thinking of the ruling class, don’t look for their “narrative,” either; one vital place to look is: what they are having the cops do? In Madison, WI, the police are beating and arresting people for (I’m not making this up) singing in the public areas of the State Capital. You won’t learn why by investigating the story those officers tell themselves, but by understanding the need of today’s ruling class to suppress any hint of dissent.

    “What does using the word “narrative” take away from describing them, then, such that it’s important to use other terms?”

    What does it add?

    I’ll mention in passing that the “straw post-modernist” Jonas is discussing is one I have encountered on many occasions; He may be straw, but it’s pretty loud and active straw, and it deserves a good beating.

  28. Speculative question: I wonder if our respective experiences with the reality/unreality of the “straw post-modernist” might have some generational element. The Sokal affair started in ’96, and had pretty much finished by the time Clinton left office. I would *like* to think that, in the intervening years, scholarship has worked on separating the postmodernist wheat from its chaff, and backed off from the worst of the jargonistic posturing.

    Again, speculation, but I think it’s worth considering.

  29. @jdjplocher: The Sokal affair was before my time, so sadly that’s not the case, at least not in my experience. But then again, I do find myself opposed to postmodernism’s most central tenets, so I’m not likely to find a lot of “good” postmodernism out there.

  30. “… someone mentioned that, in the arts and sciences, post-modernism was most associated with, among other things, architecture.”

    Ironically, postmodernism in architecture has (or had) very little to do with postmodernist *philosophy* (and its various literary/cultural-criticism “critical theory” avatars and descendants). Modernist architecture was about, among other things, simplifying form as much as possible, removing ornament, and rejecting the styles of the past. Postmodern architecture, by contrast, involved being aware of and re-using past styles, including things like ornament, though ideally in an “ironic” and self-aware fashion. (In other words, you shouldn’t just create mindless — or scrupulously authentic — Gothic or Classical buildings; you should play around with the style a bit, perhaps mixing together things from different periods in a suitably “playful” or “ironic” fashion.)

    I think the closest you get to crossover between architecture and postmodern philosophy is the movement called Deconstructivism, some of whose practicioners explicitly referenced Derrida and other postmodern philosophers. But Deconstructivism (if you think of Frank Gehry’s architecture, you can get some of the flavor) was, if anything, a reaction against postmodernist architecture.

  31. About the Sokal hoax — could a hoax like that be done in physics? I’m pretty sure it could.

    Get a respected mathematician who has not previously published in physics to send a paper about string theory to a physics journal that does not do peer review. The paper could contain a pastiche of stuff from other string theory papers, mixed with some sort of new stuff, like there could be a discussion about dr-branes as opposed to dl-branes. Give it lots of equations and some weird-looking diagrams.

    It might likely get published, and then the mathematician can point out that equation 5 on page two is obviously wrong and anybody who actually paid attention should have seen that instantly. He published nonsense and nobody could tell the difference! String theory is bogus!

    Would that create a scandal? No. Everybody knows that there are lots of string theory papers that nobody reads, published in unrefereed journals. It wouldn’t mean anything. At most it would damage the mathematician’s reputation that he published a fraud.

    What makes the difference? People want to believe in physics. But they don’t want to believe in work that says they are biased and their opinions deserve careful re-examination.

  32. Is there any major science journal that does not do peer review? Because Social Text isn’t some tiny journal published in some academic backwater that nobody reads.

    Furthermore, Sokal’s paper doesn’t contain the equivalent of a wrong equation on page 5, but completely obvious nonsense and even outright jokes. It takes an unbelievable tolerance for bullshit to publish something like that.

    In other words, this is like hoaxing Nature or Science with an article from the Onion.

  33. skzb

    Jonas: Yeah, but even more: I hearby challenge someone to come up with utter nonsense using Marxist terminology that I would not identify as utter nonsense. I mean, take your time–a few months, or a year, when I’ve forgotten to be watching for it.

  34. Steven, can you suggest an area of Marxism which is considered cutting-edge, where things change fast and the terminology changes fast and most people who consider themselves competent Marxists don’t understand, but they respect it?

    String theory is like that for physics. It might lead to wonderful things or maybe not, it uses math that most people can’t follow, and nobody but specialists really understand it.

    70 years ago special relativity was like that, but now undergraduates mostly understand it. Except I’ve never seen two experts explain the Sagnac effect in relativity the same way, or agree that the other’s solution is correct.

    There might not be anything like that in Marxism. It might all be too down-to-earth and practical, or the abstruse theorists might not get much respect.

  35. “Is there any major science journal that does not do peer review?”

    arXiv was like that, but they’ve changed. They let authors publish quicker than most, which is useful for priority. They used to get a lot of papers that were probably unpublishable elsewhere, but now they have both an endorsement system — you can’t publish unless somebody they trust vouches for you — and some sort of moderation.

    An author who is connected to a prestigious institution doesn’t need to be endorsed. Moderators often don’t see a published paper for months, sometimes apparently for years, but at any time they can remove a published paper if they see something they don’t like about it.

    So an established mathematician could very likely publish a nonsense string theory paper, but as soon as he made a fuss about getting away with it, it would be gone.

  36. Just a note on Stanislavsky–he died in 1938 (in time to escape Stalin’s purges which killed many of his colleagues and friends) and the “Method” acting popularized in the US in the 1950s was inspired by, but is not the same as, his ‘method’, which is eloquently described in his books including “An Actor Prepares.”

  37. skzb

    Kamilla: Thanks for the correction.

  38. J Thomas:
    The arxiv is not a journal. It is a preprint repository, with no attempt at anything resembling peer review or editing. In my field (astronomy), people use it to make available copies of papers they’ve submitted to (or which have been accepted by) real journals, conference proceedings (which never see peer review), white papers generated for project planning (ditto), and occasionally short comments on other papers; people even submit joke papers, timed to appear on April 1:
    http://www.metafilter.com/114484/April-Fools-for-Physicists

    There’s some minimal “moderation” aimed at catching things like plagiarism, spam, and the like, but it’s nothing remotely like a peer review system.

  39. Peter, it isn’t completely unmoderated, and possibly someone could get a nonsense paper made available there.

    It’s major but it isn’t exactly a science journal. Can you think of a better candidate to fit Jonas’s question? A major science journal that doesn’t do peer review?

  40. Social Text was not peer-reviewed when Sokal perpetrated his hoax, though it did have an editorial board and, for obvious reasons, implemented peer review soon after Sokal’s project.

    You can read one of the editor’s takes on the whole business at: http://linguafranca.mirror.theinfo.org/9607/mst.html

  41. Sokal’s rebuttal there is also interesting and sanguine to more general subject of PoMo and Leftism.

Leave a Reply