Monday, January 07, 2008

Notes toward wednesday's talk

So I was originally asked to do an introductory talk on "postmodernism" for the community college faculty. I agreed, and have decided to make it a retrospective look on what I think is a dying fad. The talk isn't especially formal, and the audience will have little or no specialized knowledge in philosophy. I started writing it today, and here is the first draft of the first part. Looking at it now, I see I'm coming off as too hostile to various postmodernisms. This will soften as things develop.

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"Realism and the Reality Based Community: A Retrospective Look at Postmodernism"

The ideas behind postmodernism have been lurking in western philosophy since the beginning, and were advocated in the last couple centuries by big name philosophers like Nietzsche and Heidegger. But I am more interested in the history of the idea as a buzzword and battleground in the US culture wars. So my focus is going to be on the growth and reception of these ideas in starting in the post WWII era, a time when American universities grew rapidly in size and prestige because of the GI bill and the reaction to Sputnik.

The ideas I am introducing here were a part of a skeptical reaction to the European Enlightenment and the revolution in modern science. The Enlightenment (for simplicity's sake, lets take it as running from 1600 to 1800) was generally perceived as a time of great advance in human knowledge, especially scientific knowledge. Not coincidentally, it also saw the rise of capitalism and the political en economic domination of Europe over the rest of the world. Enlightenment philosophers were concerned with systematizing and legitimizing the advances in science and technology that they saw, but many were also concerned with explaining and justifying the social order that was emerging including the power of European governments and the mechanisms of capital. All these efforts involved making assumptions about the nature of knowledge and the nature of meaning, which later thinkers would come to reject.

Since the beginning, the Enlightenment had skeptics, but prior to the postmodern era I am concerned with, such skepticism had always been associated with conservative and right wing politics. Skeptics of the Enlightenment were openly fascist, like Heidegger, quasi fascists like Nietzsche, or at least reactionary defenders of monarchy like Edmund Burke. The association between skepticism and conservatism is natural. If you doubt the human ability to know reality, than simply sticking with tried and true institutions like the church or the kingdom is the safest bet. Champions of the Enlightenment were people like John Stuart Mill, working to promote democracy, freedom of speech, and the rights of women.

Somehow, in the second half of the 20th century in America, these images became reversed. As the United States came to dominate the world politically, and American universities came to be the centers of production for knowledge worldwide, it became fashionable for defenders of oppressed people to be skeptical of the knowledge claims of the enlightenment and to challenge the assumptions about knowledge and meaning that underpinned those claims. I’ve been charged to talk about “postmodernism”, but really the movement went under a large number of names, including “relativism,” “constructivism,” “social constructivism,” “post-structuralism” and “post colonial thought.”


All these isms shared certain skeptical claims about meaning and knowledge. Knowledge was always in some way relativized to culture, so that it was possible to talk about many “equally valid ways of knowing” of which enlightenment science was only one. For instance, contemporary biologists say that the cassowary (an ostrich-like creature) is a bird, albeit one that cannot fly. The Karam people of New Guinea, who live alongside the cassowary, say that the cassowary does not belong in the same category as the birds (which they call yakt) but bats do belong to that category. So who’s to say that the biologists are right and the Karam are wrong? Knowledge is all relative.

Claims to knowledge were also always in some way “constructed” or “socially constructed” in the postmodernist movements. This meant that they had less to do with grasping the way the world actually works and more to do with creating social structures that advanced the interests of the people who claimed to have knowledge. The science of thermodynamics was not really a description of the properties of heat. It was about convincing people to buy steam engines and arranging society so that they would be happy when they bought one. The idea of the social construction of knowledge caught on, in part because it gave scholars an easy way to quickly generate work that would be published. You simply pick an idea that everyone takes for granted, say, gravity, discuss the history of the idea in a way that emphasizes political interests, and title your book The Social Construction of Gravity

Skeptical claims about meaning are harder to explicate, but for many, especially in English and literature, were more central to the postmodern movement. Thinkers in the Enlightenment often took a very atomistic view of language. Locke’s view of language is a good example here. For Locke, the mind gets ideas through the senses. We see a dog in front of us and we get an idea of that dog in our minds. The mind can then universalize that idea to the general concept dog. Words are simply labels the mind puts on these ideas, like sticking post-it notes to the objects on your desk. (Write “Phone” on a yellow sticky and slap it on the phone.) Once the mind individually constructs its language, it can meet up with other minds to coordinate their labels.

There is a lot wrong with this view of language. There is a lot more to language than labels: this is at best an account of nouns. Language is not made up by the mind and then shared with others; it is learned as one is assimilated into a group. The parts of language are not easily isolated. It is hard even to come up with a coherent distinction between nouns and verbs that makes sense across languages. In the resulting picture of meaning, you have to understand entire languages and societies in order to see how an individual word comes to have a meaning. Words simply do not stick to objects like post it notes.

The social and holistic nature of language makes meaning very slippery, and this slipperiness is exploited by a lot of postmodern philosophies of language. In the hands of some philosophers, it started to seem like words didn’t mean anything, or could mean anything we wanted them to, and that written works could be interpreted as saying the exact opposite of what they claimed to say. Thus the art of “deconstruction” caught on at American universities. Someone skilled in the lingo could make any text say the opposite of what you thought it said, and doing that to a work was an easy way to get something published. Books called Deconstructing X become as popular as books called The Social Construction of Y.

Ok, that's what I have so far. Coming up next

I. The spread of skeptical philosophies throughout all the humanities and social sciences, except philosophy itself, in American universities in the post war period.

A. Notable dates
B. Roots of this trend
C. The odd fact that many of these ideas have their roots in philosophers that we think of as paragons of rationality, like Carnap.
D. Reasons for the trend.

II. The retreat of skeptical philosophies.
A. Basic critiques
B. Science studies people who either recant (Pickering) or become ostrocized (the guy who is now testifying for creationists)
C. Softer philosophies, like pragmatism and contextualism, and the fact that they are way cool. (The talk title will come in here.)
D. Political reasons for progressives to embrace the possibility of knowledge.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've been looking for a simple, straightforward explanation of the post-modernist movement for a while. Every time I try to figure out what people are saying in the movement, my brain hurts.

Ray Recchia

Kristine said...

I found it interesting that, whenever I challenged postmodernist thinking in my lit classes, I found myself bumping up against people who seemed to have more cultural capital than me (e.g., they were the sons/daughters of professors and other middle- or upper-class professionals, whereas I was the first in my family to get a 4-year degree) and they took it for granted that all their expensive cars would consistently get them to the class every day, despite science being some sort of "power imposition" on reality.

I think postmodernism was just a form of intellectual posturing - bitching by rich people about the means by which those less fortunate could enter their "power structure." Seriously, I think it was a class issue. Which makes sense in a twisted way.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Seriously, I think it was a class issue. Which makes sense in a twisted way.

Totally, which is why you now see most of the talk of power creating reality coming from Bush administration officials.

brad said...

Excellent point about postmoernism and power. It follows the postmodernists' critique of hegemony and co-optation that powerful figures (e.g, Dick Cheney) eventually started making relativistic arguments to justify their actions.

C.A. said...

I recognize that you are trying to explain some difficult ideas to a general audience, but it seems to me that you end up with a sort of hatchet job that leads very easily to the sort of ad hominem dismissal in the comment above.

Honestly I still can decide whether that comment is a joke or not, since it seems to suggest that postmodernism is socially constructed in exactly the same way that you problematize when applied to science. If it's not a joke, then it seems to be an accusation of hypocrisy? Would a postmodernist deny that postmodernism is socially constructed? I'm really perplexed by the mise en abyme. ("I find it interesting that scientists seem to have more cultural capital than I do. .. ."???? Seems like pretty dangerous terrain for the argument to head onto given the current culture war over science. But certainly it seems right that postmodernism like all other inter-subjective practices and theories are in part economically and socially determined.

More interesting is the claim that conservative politics is furthered by an anti-realist metaphysics or epistemological skepticism (or some other feature of postmodernism (its cultural relativism or its social reductionism?) and progressive politics is frustrated by these same positions?--and advanced by realism and everything that is wholesome and good). That seems interesting though I find it at most a speculative hypothesis and in need of a great deal of argument beyond the sort of assertion of it you make in your comment. (How do we explain Foucaultian and Derridean "progressive" politics? Why are most conservatives seemingly moral realists rather than relativists and constructivists? I'll admit the claim sounds a little Jonah Goldberg to me on the surface. But I'll be interested to see what argument and evidence can be given for this claim (I think the Nation had a sort of hatchet job 5 or 6 years ago blaming Bush on postmodernism, or was that 9-11 on liberals?)

I'll leave aside commenting on your representation of pomo, except to say that it seems a bit of caricature. At least, the people who were most responsible for developing these ideas (Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard?) would not, I think, recognize themselves in your representation. . . Yes, yes, you are talking about the "cultural scene"--but that might just be unfair here.

Anyway---just some off the cuff comments. Apologies in advance for misconstruals and stupidities :) Off to a meeting.