Postmodernism: a few pros, and a few more cons

As a philosophy and lit student at a good liberal arts university in the mid-60’s, I was exposed to a lot of jargonizing and theorizing. Ontology, Epistemology and Semiotics were frequent subjects; exegesis and explication de texte were familiar interpretive tools.

Later, as an overworked English teacher (pardon the redundancy), I had far too little free time for technical reading. It’s only now that I’m able to try to catch up.

While I was away, things went a little bit crazy.

A while ago, a friend introduced me to Alan Sokal’s hoax article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Since then, I have been devouring as much postmodernism as I can stomach. Small, well-spaced portions are best, I’ve discovered. One result is my review of Sokal’s Beyond the Hoax (posted separately); another is this article.

Postmodernism is a huge topic, with many parts, and as many focuses and emphases. I will make no attempt to be thorough. I don’t have the patience, or the expertise, to be thorough.

Postmodernism, as its name denotes, is a rejection of the central principles of modernism, among others the Enlightenment concepts of progress, truth, rationality and identity. Postmodernism is a philosophy of “cognitive relativism,” which asserts that objective truth is illusory, and that cultural contexts and language itself create a multiplicity of equally valid subjective realities, typically called “narratives.”

OK, so that isn’t too bad. In fact, there is considerable merit at this level of postmodernist thought for anyone studying literature, history, sociology – any academic area whose content is, by its nature, more or less “narrative” to begin with.

After all, even in the unenlightened 60’s, we English students had read Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author.” We appreciated the powerful tool provided by liberating meaning from authority. Rereading Heart of Darkness with a post-colonialist or a Marxist viewpoint opens new avenues of interpretation. Re-conceptualizing the witch hunts of medieval Europe and colonial America through a feminist lens provides both fresh perspective and a new history. These are powerful, often exciting expansions of our critical and interpretive faculties.

Unfortunately, the postmodernist wave doesn’t stop there, where it belongs, and where it makes a real contribution.

Before anyone objects, of course this is not to claim that postmodernism has nothing at all to say about “non-narrative” — or, more accurately, “not-entirely-narrative” — topics, like the physical sciences. The cultural frameworks and sociopolitical contexts of “not-entirely-narrative” subjects have been, and remain, fair game for postmodernist interpretation.

My objections lie in two specific areas: the postmodernist murder of meaning, and the subjective rebranding of objective scientific data.

Not satisfied with creating new meanings, postmodernist writers forge ahead and cavalierly do away with meaning altogether. For them, “meaning” is, well, meaningless. They proclaim that meaning is not only merely dead; it is really most sincerely dead.

As an example, French philosopher Jacques Derrida championed a writing style that he described as being purposefully ambiguous, so that his own words could illustrate what they were claiming – or weren’t claiming, to be consistent. Here’s a snippet of Derrida on some subject, but what that might be escapes me: “In time’s absence what is new renews nothing; what is present is not contemporary; what is present presents nothing, but represents itself and belongs henceforth and always to return. It isn’t, but comes back again.”

Got that? Maybe it loses something in the translation.

But wait, believe it or not, it gets worse — when postmodernism leaves its natural home in the humanities and tries to apply itself to the physical sciences. (See my review of Beyond the Hoax for more on this topic.)

There is a seemingly inexhaustible supply of examples of an inappropriate, sometimes absurd misapplication of postmodernist notions to hard science, but one well-known example will suffice in this context. Cited by Richard Dawkins in his review of Sokal and Bricmont’s 1998 trashing of postmodernism, Fashionable Nonsense, postmodernist Luce Irigaray attacks the masculine oppression inherent in the most famous equation in science, E = mc2.

According to Irigaray, Einstein’s formulation is a “sexed” equation because “it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us.” Are we then supposed to reject the ever-growing experimental evidence that Einstein’s equation is correct, on the basis that it violates the equivalidity of all speeds, whatever the heck that is? This is nonsense masquerading as analysis, Dawkins says, and so do I.

Beyond incomprehensibility, intended or unintended, and the inappropriate application of linguistic and social epistemologies to the factual outcomes of hard science, other critics decry the jargonistic trendiness of postmodernism, its tendency to apply its theories willy-nilly to this, that and everything, to claim all topics as the province of contextual correlatives, or some other equally obscure terminology.

One frequently quoted criticism is made along these lines by Dick Hebdige in Hiding in the Light. The passage itself is too lengthy for this space, but after cataloguing several dozen areas claimed as evidence of the postmodern — from “the collapse of cultural hierarchies” to the disillusionments of aging Baby Boomers to TV commercials — Hebdige concludes that, if everything is postmodernist, “we are in the presence of a buzzword.

Finally, there is the formal logical criticism levelled by Sokal and many others: If, according to postmodernist theories, no meaning has objective meaning, on what basis should we accept the truth of the postmodernist theory that no meaning has objective meaning?

Really! I mean!

2 thoughts on “Postmodernism: a few pros, and a few more cons

  1. Ron, Never did really understand the Postmodernists (could not be bothered to make the effort to study their theories). Your blog did give me some insight into them. I wonder if Turgenev’s nihilists were Postmodernists. I also wonder what Derrida would have made of Fred Penner’s “The Cat Came Back”?

    • re: nihilism, my reading suggests “yes and no.” Many critical writers see strong elements of nihilism in pomo, but many pomo’s themselves deny the characterization. They don’t see pomo as destroying meaning but rather as opening up meanings.

      I don’t know about Penner’s song, but in the Yale Lit Crit course, which is heavy on the pomo, there is a protracted deconstruction of “Tony the Tow Truck”!

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