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Only the Names and Faces Change: Critiquing Postmodernism

August 13, 2013

by J. Andrew Zalucky

postmodern image head

The Fight Over “Scientism” and the Dangers of Postmodernism

There was a minor, yet incredibly interesting, point-counter-point that emerged this week between cognitive scientist and experimental psychologist Steven Pinker, and Ross Douthat, the conservative op-ed contributor to The New York Times. What’s at stake here is an old dispute on what one could call the “ought/is” distinction, or to what degree the scientific method (or empiricism in general) can inform moral values and our conceptions of reality, and how postmodernism plays into this dispute.

Pinker v. Douthat

As one would expect, Steven Pinker’s essay in The New Republic defends the idea that the humanities and liberal arts would greatly benefit from a further conciliation with the natural sciences, because such action “offers the humanities countless possibilities for innovation in understanding.” He also argues for a new, positive connotation for the derogatory term, “scientism”.  Douthat argues that Pinker is basically dodging the term by mistaking “a real-but-complicated historical relationship between science and humanism for a necessary intellectual line in which the latter vindicates the former, or at least militates strongly in its favor.”

Though I would recommend Douthat’s column to anyone (especially liberals), I have to side with Steven Pinker on this one. The discoveries and the methods involved in the natural sciences bear strong links to the humanism (secular or otherwise) of the enlightenment. From the way science has informed our moral values, to the empirical explanations for why we have values at all, the two terms are ones I find difficult to separate. Douthat also comes dangerously close to falling into a Godwin’s Law-like trap when he says Pinker’s “argument seems vaguely plausible only if you regard the paradigmatic shaped-by-science era as the post-Cold War Pax Americana rather than, say, the chaos of 1914-45.” There are easily attainable distinctions to be made between the two eras, ones that, yes indeed, can be informed by science.

Though I do concede to Noah Williams when he pleads with Pinker in The American Conservative that “it certainly doesn’t follow that people following a strictly scientific approach will necessarily learn usefully-applicable things more swiftly than those following other, more traditional or more humanistic approaches.”

But among the many points that Steven Pinker made in his piece, his discussion about the state of the Humanities in modern academia made me shudder with how horribly true it was:

Diagnoses of the malaise of the humanities rightly point to anti-intellectual trends in our culture and to the commercialization of our universities. But an honest appraisal would have to acknowledge that some of the damage is self-inflicted. The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness.

What exactly is he referring to here? It’s kind of a long story which I’ll elaborate on briefly, but it reminded me of a hilarious quote from Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory:

It is, admittedly, difficult to spend some years studying literature in most universities and still find it pleasurable at the end: many literature courses seem to be constructed to prevent this from happening, and those who emerge still able to enjoy literary works might be considered heroic or perverse…the fact that reading literature is generally an enjoyable pursuit posed a serious problem for those who first established it as an academic ‘discipline’: it was necessary to make the whole affair rather more intimidating and dispiriting

(p. 166)

Yikes! Though I thoroughly enjoyed studying English as an undergrad, just taking the Literature GRE and reading through Eagleton’s book made me horrified at the jaded mess I might become if I kept going at the post-graduate level.

Post-Modern Academia

An intellectual rift has developed and grown between the humanities and the sciences. This split has roots in the aftermath of the First World War, but has accelerated since the 1980’s. Part of this is due to culture of many universities, where Literature and Sociology students barely interact with, let alone study alongside their counterparts in Physics and Mathematics. An internal culture eventually developed in many English Literature departments (and elsewhere) that centered around what we now know as “cultural studies” and informed by ideas such as “social constructionism“. Many of these ideas were contained within what one could call the “academic left”, though for a set of ideas that basically created a new framework for reactionary attitudes, I’d hesitate to give it that name. After the defeats and disappointments (and some victories too) of the post-1968 era, much of the energy and creativity that intellectuals would have used to fashion a more just society turned inward. The emergence of post-structuralism or “deconstructionism” as its otherwise known came after a long evolutionary process centered around different schools of literary theory such as formalism, new criticism, psychoanalysis and so on. As these schools of thought went out of fashion, the void was filled with….well, basically more void.

Readers should not take this essay to demean everything about social constructionism. Semiotics is a useful discipline when examining cultural topics and how the meanings of certain terms came about. Much of what it says can be useful when opening one’s mind to the socio-cultural reasons for much of the way the world is and how things like racism, sexism, and imperialism have informed the various forms of discourse we use to communicate. For example, our idea of race, that people of different colors or ethnicity must necessarily be different; is indeed a racist social-construct based on the experience that some people may have had at a given moment in time, one that is easily dismantled by historical research, biology, economics, and several other methods. The point being that, just because something happened one way, doesn’t mean its the only way possible. That’s fine.

But!

Here’s where the train runs off the tracks and over the cliff. What began to happen in the 80’s and 90’s was that academics started to apply the same critical ideas to the methods themselves, and that the knowledge gained by physics, chemistry, and biology was suspect, or even invalid, because the disciplines arose within white, male, European social arrangements. In other words, one need not dismiss the discoveries of Edwin Hubble on the merits or with actual facts, but can dispose of them because the discourse in which Hubble engaged was itself polluted by euro-centric, hetero-normative, oppressive cultural norms. Another thing began to happen: with the advent of literary theory, complex, quasi-scientific language began to creep into the curriculum. Scholars who had little or no scientific knowledge or training at all began to appropriate “scientific” terminology and misuse/abuse it for their wildly complex and incomprehensible literary and cultural theories.

conspiracy keanu patriarchy

This all came to a head of course with “The Sokal Affair” when Alan Sokal, an NYU physics professor, created a fake essay of postern-gibberish and sent it to Social Text…who proceeded to take the bait and publish the essay called Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, and were humiliated when they found out it was a hoax. There is actually still a website that produces fake post-modernist essays called The Postmodernism-Generator, modeled on an algorithm based on Sokal’s hoax.

(I just tried it and got Expressions of Dialectic: The Posttextual Paradigm of Narrative, Deconstructive Socialism and Nationalism…lol)

Though much of this occurred back in the 90’s, the root of the problem still exists today, as Pinker says in his essay:

Though science is beneficially embedded in our material, moral, and intellectual lives, many of our cultural institutions, including the liberal arts programs of many universities, cultivate a philistine indifference to science that shades into contempt. Students can graduate from elite colleges with a trifling exposure to science. They are commonly misinformed that scientists no longer care about truth but merely chase the fashions of shifting paradigms. A demonization campaign anachronistically impugns science for crimes that are as old as civilization, including racism, slavery, conquest, and genocide.

This is terrible. Even if my interests lie mostly in literature, politics, and history, it would take a breathtaking amount of ignorance for me to assume that the natural sciences are just a product of socio-cultural factors and BECAUSE of those factors they are not to be trusted. One thing that never seems to get addressed is this: let’s take for granted that gravity is a “social-construct”- the first thing we could ask is…well, so what? The fact that something is a social construct says almost nothing about whether or not the factual assertions it makes are correct or incorrect. It’s true that for centuries women were kept out of the sciences and out of many other disciplines as well and this is a disgrace and something we all need to be honest about. But that does not implicate the conclusions drawn by scientists before the 1960’s as suspect because of this. The fact that gravity was discovered by a white male in a discourse dominated by other white men in the era of British Imperialism (and who, apparently, was a bit of a jerk) says nothing about the efficacy of his laws of thermodynamics.

As Richard Dawkins once said: “Gravity is not a version of the truth, it is the truth, anybody who doubts it is invited to jump out of a 10th-floor window”.

One could go on and on about this, but there are sources better equipped than myself at tackling the nonsense of radical post-modernism. There are two great books out there, one called Fashionable Nonsense, by none other than Alan Sokal himself and Jean Bricmont, and Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science by Professors Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt. There are also multiple YouTube videos to look up, but I’d suggest The Sokal hoax and the problems in modern social science as a good place to start.

Noam Chomsky on Post-Modernism

But there is also this video featuring Professor Noam Chomsky:

I also like the vintage Chomsky line when he says that “they’re nice people, a lot of them are friends”. But to a serious point, it’s true that a lot of this fluff has a pernicious effect on the 3rd world, where we really need well educated, knowledgeable intellectuals to influence public discourse. He also describes how much of this originally came from France (gee…you don’t say), a point he elaborates on an 8-part series, part 3 of which I’ll share here.

Besides providing a bad example to the third world, there are two other consequences of radical postmodernism. First, it gives conservatives yet another thing to point at and laugh about when talking about the intellectual bankruptcy of the left. Second, such strident moral relativism only serves to disarm intellectuals of any effective critique of society and discourages them from taking real action. Because after all, if we are just powerless playthings of the cultural forces around us, we might as well just sit and pontificate to one another with paragraphs of meaningless jargon until our ears bleed. It is not unlike believing in conspiracy theories, at once both stultifying and self-reinforcing: there are forces beyond our control that guide our destiny, “why don’t we act to change that?”, because we are powerless…so let’s just go on The History Channel and sell books instead.

As Terry Eagleton says in his Afterword to the 1996 edition of Literary Theory, Postmodern Theory

has been among other things, the refugee of a disinherited Western intellect, cut loose by the sheer squalor of modern history from its traditional humanistic bearings, and so at once gullible and sophisticated, streetwise and disoriented. It has too often acted as a modish substitute for political activity, in an age when such activity has been on the whole hard to come by; and having started life as an ambitious critique of our current ways of life, it now threatens to end up as a complacent consecration of them.

(p. 206)

And though I do not share Eagleton’s Marxism, I do agree that the life of the intellectual and the radical cannot just be confined to the classroom and to the elites “who really get it”, otherwise we’re all just playing right into the hands of the old establishment’s comfortable idea of new ideas being restricted to those in the aristocracy- while the rest of us go on in blissful ignorance and oblivion. And that oblivion can have real consequences.

And this is where the post-modern, “ect-studies” critique eventually caves in on itself and becomes meaningless. Because if you really see “hegemony” everywhere, than do you really see it anywhere at all? And if absolutely everything is a social-construct and no value system is better than another, than what value can we still cull from social movements like feminism, gay rights, and the workers movement? Aren’t they just “social-constructs” too? If ideology is just an ironic window dressing we all throw around to impress one another, why wouldn’t something truly dark and terrible crawl its way back into the void left by serious intellectual activism?

Bear in mind, it was Mussolini himself who declared in The Doctrine of Fascism that “From beneath the ruins of liberal, socialist, and democratic doctrines”, fascism “rejects the idea of a doctrine suited to all times and to all people” and that “For Fascism the State is absolute, individuals and groups relative.” Speaking of relativism, he went even further in an early essay called Diuturna (or, The Lasting):

Everything I have said and done in these last years is relativism by intuition. If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and those who claim to be the bearers of objective immortal truth, then there is nothing more relativistic than Fascist attitudes and activity. From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, we Fascists conclude that we have the right to create our own ideology and to enforce it with all the energy of which we are capable.

If you reject principles like the sovereignty of the individual over his or her own life based the discourse it emerged from and whatever polysyllabic term you choose to assign to that discourse, you might sound wise and fashionable by today’s standards. You can posture and spew lines of ironic jargon all you want, and choose not to take universal values and principles seriously. But just remember, there are other people out there who will seize on this and take it very seriously.

Chomsky vs. Žižek

Getting back to Chomsky, he’s recently become embroiled in an intellectual dispute of his own with Slavoj Žižek (who else), the famous, provocative philosopher from Slovenia. As Peter Thomson describes it in The Guardian:

Noam Chomsky, the professional contrarian, has accused Slavoj Žižek, the professional heretic, of posturing in the place of theory. This is an accusation often levelled at Žižek from within the Anglo-Saxon empirical tradition. Even those like Chomsky who are on the proto-anarchist left of this tradition like to maintain that their theories are empirically verifiable and rooted in reality.

Whereas Žižek stands in the

continental tradition (as well as against it, but, hey, that’s his job) of asking ontological questions – that is, questions about being as an abstraction – rather than trying to find out through supposedly scientific methods what human nature actually is.

It’s true that Žižek has sort of been on both sides on this point, and playfully described deconstructionism as what people actually believe today, because to state that something is empirically true (ex. “this is a bottle of tea”) would just feel like saying too much. I do think however, that Žižek’s dismissal of Chomsky on the basis of him being often “empirically wrong” is a bit of a dodge, and in a way just plays into Chomsky’s point and way of thinking even more.

This roots of this dispute between Anglophone and Continental schools of thought are old and date back to disputes about rationalism vs. empiricism, and possibly to old imperial gripes between England and her Continental rivals. In fact, I could start another section and call it Descartes vs. Locke, but that would almost merit a book-sized treatment that I’m not ready to provide here.

Things to Salvage, Things to Discard

Just because we can be wrong, doesn’t mean we can never hope to be right.

It’s true that skepticism about observed facts has a place and is very useful for mental training. And it’s true that empirical conclusions can be deceiving due to unseen forces or circumstances playing on whatever phenomenon is observed. But this is a question again of data and results, not of methods or principles. It’s important to be skeptical of a given assertion, but if an empirical assertion turns out to be incorrect, it will be shown only through another empirical discovery, and then another, and so on. It’s one thing to say, “I’m not sure if this is true, so I will be cautious and humble about how strongly I believe it”. But it’s another thing entirely to say, “well the method I’m using has all these cultural underpinnings that I need to feel bad about…bad oppressive westerner! bad! bad!”

As I said earlier, there are grains of vindicating truth to be salvaged from post-modernism, but most of these can be stated in very simple language and don’t require a discarding of science in the process. Debates like those between Steven Pinker and Ross Douthat or between Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek touch on important matters of culture, politics, and society as a whole. To engage in rhetorical obscurantism is to fail to take these debates and their implications seriously. Interestingly enough, Douthat and Žižek may actually be on the same side when it comes to some of these things.

Whichever one of them is more uncomfortable with this is anyone’s guess.

Works Cited

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory, An Introduction. 2nd Edition, The University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, MN. 1996.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. August 13, 2013 11:51 am

    Mmmmm. Conflict and disagreement. Egos butting heads, creating noise. Folks love to take a stance. So many words and so much spectrum deployed in the process. Imagine what could be if all of that energy were to be redirected.

  2. August 13, 2013 1:22 pm

    Uselessness is charming only in the worlds of art and love. when self-described “intellectuals” engage in it, we see only the mark of learned fools, of persons who have nothing useful to do, no practical problems to solve, obviously “free” of the meaningful tasks of managing children, business, or useful invention.

    • August 13, 2013 1:25 pm

      Good point, though I certainly wouldn’t characterize being a college literature professor as “useless”…except maybe in the sense that Oscar Wilde meant it haha

  3. August 13, 2013 1:39 pm

    Hello jaz553, I dare show my postmodern side by recognizing the concept of “useful” as somewhat of a value judgement, considering so many of our “needs” are psychologically-constructed and with –yes, to complicate things more– a social dimension.

  4. August 13, 2013 2:03 pm

    Thanks for writing, jaz. I always enjoy your thoughtful commentary.

    Regarding Steven Pinker, its been about 13 years since I read his “Language Instinct,” now hopelessly buried in a a pile of boxes of books my house will not hold. About the only thing I remember from that experience –and this is a phenomenon which he has no doubt touched on in that other book of his I only skimmed (“How the mind Works” I think it was)– was of course my own subjective experience of the book. And that was the nagging thought that so-called “evolutionary psychology” and probably related fields are inescapably speculative and not nearly as scientific as they portray themselves to be. After all, there are no control groups in the real-time world where the variables are always changing and mostly unrecorded.

  5. August 13, 2013 3:02 pm

    Sorry to monopolize the discussion jaz, but now that I’ve corresponded with the author I had to give the article a second, slower reading. A few reactions:

    1) Social theories centered on conflict, whether from the left or the right, old or new, may have valid insights but are not usually constructive when comprising the be-all of ethics, ie, principles guiding behavior. Besides the obvious fact that most behavior comes not from principle but more animal and unconscious layers of man, those remaining behaviors that ARE guided by something that feels like “understanding” (more complex, goal-oriented processes) seem to offer the most promising results when they envision a way out of “the conflict,” a resolution that, as much as possible, acknowledges those interests of “the other” that are valid and worth conserving through some degree of harmonization of interests.

    2) Thus a lot of the identity politics that characterizes the left for the past 60 years, after achieving those aspects of their liberation vision that are now more broadly accepted as valid, turn into political and psychological dead-ends when persisted in. Hence feminism and race-baiting in our post-feminist and post-civil-rights society of legal equality become divisive walls blocking acceptance of a common interest and a common fate as Americans. Not to sound so pre-post-modern (that is, anachronistically, just “modern”), but the national unit remains the most important social unit because it is more than a social construct, it is also an administrative unit necessary to manage the many complex social interactions in a huge society in which the market will never meet all needs (individual or social), nor regulate itself. Some level of cooperation and goodwill and mutual respect are necessary for a complex society to function, and the conflict theories tend to fuel real conflict and make harmonies of interests seem like delusions and ruses for more sinister aims by “the other” group. In plainer language, there will never be a global social security system or global health insurance system, and thus the national unit has a very real useful role to play. For the left to dismiss it as racist or imperialist is throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    3) Likewise for the right, which pioneered the racism now mirrored by the sanctimonious race-baiting left, conflict theories that assert racial or nationalist identities as irreconcilable or inherently at odds also block the cooperation between nations that is necessary to solve global environmental and humanitarian problems.

    4) Glad you mention above how racial categories are undermined by science, and when racial identities are asserted from a right or left perspective they strike me as equally corrosive, as equally unAmerican in the sense that we are all citizens with a common national interest and a common identity that is more real and defining, and ultimately, USEFUL, than racial (or gender) identities.

    5) At least gender identities have some real basis, no doubt rooted in a natural and biologically-driven simple division of labor from prehistoric times, and of course vastly undermined by modern (please leave “postmodern” out of this for now) society of technology and education and extremely complex division of labor. It will take perhaps centuries up to eternity for romantic love to recover from this undermining, which is not all bad but nonetheless there are some deeply comforting things about romantic love that are worth preserving even if much of that is through redefinition. However that story turns out, for gender politics to trump a sense of common national identity and purpose is, again, a dead-end and corrosive both socially and psychologically.

    6) Your point is 100% correct when you say that scientific facts (and their usefulness) are not discredited by the the postmodern critique of science as rooted in racist and sexist and imperialist culture. The things most indisputably “factual” tend to be the most mundane or emotion-free and therefore “meaningless” things. 2=2 is 4 to anybody but Dostoyevsky, but it is hard to get excited or find emotionally-important meaning in such a fact. The things people really care about are value-laden and hence both more and less than “factual.” For example, the USA is either a great democracy or a democratic fraud, depending on how an individual sorts and values and fits together the potentially infinite number of mundane facts on which the argument will be based. Ultimately that is a humanistic question, not a scientific one.

  6. August 13, 2013 3:09 pm

    Where is the “edit” key? Obviously a typo above when I wrote “2=2 is 4” instead of “2 + 2 is 4” which I must correct here lest I be accused of being one of those who studied humanities in blissful ignorance of the quantitative arts.

    • August 13, 2013 3:42 pm

      keys are just a social construct!!!!

      But actually, I think its on the bottom left of the comment, but I may be the only one seeing it now because i’m the admin

  7. Josh permalink
    August 13, 2013 7:17 pm

    The only problem I have with this (otherwise interesting) article is that is sets up a false dichotomy of relativism vs. scientism. One can be a critic of Pinker’s article without being a postmodernist; either by calling him out for being premature in his declarations of an all-pervading science or by (rationally) declaring some domains (ex. morality) to be conceptually impenetrable to its methods. Pinker attempts to pre-empt the latter, but he doesn’t make much of a case.

    • August 13, 2013 7:19 pm

      Fair enough. I wasn’t saying that all critics of Pinker were Postmodernists- especially not Ross Douthat. But seeing as I went on and on for awhile, I could see why someone would take that point

      • Josh permalink
        August 13, 2013 8:12 pm

        No problem. I figured that wasn’t your express intention.

  8. PJK permalink
    August 13, 2013 7:51 pm

    WSJ weighs in, on history, not science.

    You’d have thought they would be more sympathetic to a dead white guy, but there it is: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324769704579008453713889352.html?mod=hp_opinion

  9. August 15, 2013 1:40 pm

    I really enjoyed this article, it’s very informative and well put together. You hit the nail on the head with what I think is the biggest problem with theory – that it’s inaccessible and elitist. Besides being quite contradictory, this also makes studying literary theory quite sleepy work…

    • August 15, 2013 4:16 pm

      A lot of it is sleepy work indeed, but some of it can be very worthwhile and insightful. Thanks for reading!

  10. PJK permalink
    August 15, 2013 10:25 pm

    It all started with a conflicts grew over “elitist” programming:

    http://lbo-news.com/2013/08/12/the-decline-fall-of-wbai/

  11. PJK permalink
    October 3, 2013 3:18 pm

    see this from recent Jacobin magazine:
    http://jacobinmag.com/2013/04/how-does-the-subaltern-speak/

    The “subaltern” and “postcolonial” studies discussed are in the mode of postmodern thinking (I.e., rejecting science and other elements of ‘eurocentric’ thinking).

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