April 18, 2017

Postmodernism and Its Discontents

Waferinos: two posts back, Julie sent in this link and asked me what I thought of the article:

https://areomagazine.com/2017/03/27/how-french-intellectuals-ruined-the-west-postmodernism-and-its-impact-explained/

My response follows below.

1. Deconstruction, including cultural relativism, has a long pedigree, and goes back to the Sophists--from which we get the word 'sophistry' (rhetoric as opposed to objective truth). Plato ridiculed this subjective approach to knowledge--that man was the measure of all things--in the Protagoras, a fabulous dialogue. Millennia later, Robert Pirsig defended the Sophists against Plato in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, arguing that it was myth and rhetoric that were true, and that Platonic logic was 'insane'. Both texts are definitely worth reading.

The crucial problem of postmodernism and deconstruction--that of self-referentiality--was also known to the Greeks. It was called Epimenides' Paradox: "A Cretan said, 'All Cretans are liars'. Was he telling the truth?" It has also been called Mannheim's Paradox. Karl Mannheim, a German sociologist, wrote Ideology and Utopia in 1929 (German edition), a cornerstone of what is known as the sociology of knowledge. All knowledge, he claimed, exists in a social context; pure objectivity is a myth. The paradox arises when the sociology of knowledge is applied to the sociology of knowledge: From what social context did it arise? Thus the deconstructors get deconstructed. This is the Achilles' heel of the whole postmodern game, and one that the pomos have been unable to convincingly answer. For in the end, what they are saying is, "All texts are relative--except ofr ours." (Shades of Orwell) They refuse to apply their methodology to their own methodology, because then the game would be up; the whole pm project would unravel. The truth is that in the process of attacking 'metanarratives', they have just created another metanarrative. In effect, what they did was take a small truth and turn it into a big lie. (Someone once said--it may have been me--that pm was basically nihilism masquerading as radical chic.)

2. Nevertheless, the small truth is there. My Reenchantment book draws on Foucault, and argues for epistemological relativism. It says that modern science is only one way of knowing the world, and that the sciences of premodern societies--alchemy, astrology, witchcraft, and so on--probably were valid in their own contexts; although I do assert the existence of transcultural truth (Galileo, not Aristotle, was right about projectile motion--it's a parabola, period). (Or, the Nazi claim that there was such a thing as "Jewish physics" was hogwash, unless Jewish atoms wear skullcaps). In addition, some pm notions are similar to Buddhism, which is a truly profound way of thinking about the world, in my opinion.

3. So the truth of this debate lies somewhere in between; the problem is that Americans in particular have to go whole hog; they have a difficult time with the word 'some'. It was embarrassing, in the 60s and 70s, when folks like Derrida would come to lecture at American universities, watching American academics swoon and fawn over him: "Give us the Word, Master!" This is clearly Eric Hoffer's True Believer syndrome. As noted, pm is just one more metanarrative, regardless of what the pomos claim. But American academics were/are not capable of saying, "postmodernism has some valuable aspects to it." Oh no; this was now the (latest, fashionable) Answer with a capital A. I have repeatedly stated on this blog that in the US, even the smart people are stupid. The American craze for pm is a perfect example of this. Thus, as the author of the article shows, for some pomos the difference in size between an ant and a giraffe is merely an "act of faith."

4. The author Charles Finch identifies how this, or any other, intellectual craze spreads through the culture at large. It starts (he says) with 15 readers of some obscure semiotics journal, spreads to 100 listeners at a dinner party, moves on to 10,000 readers in a popular magazine, and then to one million viewers on TV. Finally, the whole nation is engulfed in "political correctness." I saw this insanity in the early 90s, when I (foolishly) got involved in a distance-learning school that was caught in the grip of this nonsense. I didn't know who was dumber or more pathetic, the students or the faculty; but it was eerie for me to watch a brainwashing/groupthink camp in operation. You can read more about this in the Twilight book, where I call the place "Alt U." "Grotesque" was not too strong a word for this place, whose notion of education was embarrassing.

5. As the author of this article on pm observes, liberals are now authoritarian: only one (p.c.) version of events is allowed, and the liberals are happy to shout down visiting speakers rather than actually engage them. This is by now a nationwide phenomenon; Trump was the inevitable reaction to it.

6. A couple of illustrative vignettes (two among many I could furnish, in addition to that of Alt U.):

-(I need to preface this one by saying, I'm not kidding) A few years ago, a friend of mine retired from the English department of a major, and very respected, university in the Southwest. Shortly after that (this was relayed to him by a former colleague), the department was seeking to make a new hire to replace him (albeit at the junior level), and interviewed a number of candidates. All of them showed up in full-blown p.c. mode, but the most bizarre candidate was a grad student who declared that he hoped to found a "Department of Shit Studies." "Shit Studies," he told the faculty, "is the new intellectual frontier." I can't remember if this guy got the job; he may have (you wonder why such a distinguished faculty didn't tell him that his Ph.D. thesis was pure shit). Wafers, when I say that America is on its last legs, I know whereof I speak.

-Roughly 30 years ago I was invited to attend a two-day session of Ivan Illich's discussion group where he was then based, Penn State. They said they wanted my input on what they were doing, based on my forthcoming book, Coming to Our Senses, which Illich had read in manuscript form. There were about 40 or 50 people in attendance. The whole approach was pm: everything, from physics to the human body, was socially constructed. Illich himself had a rather large tumor growing out of the side of his head; I couldn't help wondering if he regarded it as socially constructed as well. (Perhaps it was a banana in some alternative universe.) In the face of incipient death, he was spouting bullshit. At one point I led the group in a meditation exercise, guiding their awareness through their bodies, step by step. The general reaction was confusion and anxiety; these folks were so out of touch with their bodies, that when reality hit them they didn't know how to react. They had very little interest in coming to their senses; safer to stay in one's head.

Later, Illich and I had a debate about transcultural truth, which for him didn't exist. I pointed out that a flying arrow really did describe the path of a parabola, as Galileo mapped out, and was not a case of discontinuous motion, as Aristotle had claimed. Illich replied, "Well in fact, it's not exactly a parabola, because of air resistance." "Ivan," I said, "you just said 'in fact'. So even you believe in a basic empirical reality, right?" He chose to ignore this.

On the last day of the conference, I talked obliquely about the problem of closed societies, and closed systems of thought, but I doubt they understood what I was saying. This crowd was as solipsistic as Alt U. Gilles Deleuze pegged it correctly when he referred to these sorts of groups as "microfascisms of the avant-garde."

Anyway, as all of you can see, I've been in the trenches with a lot of this stuff over the course of my career. I do think that pm offers us some valuable insights; the problem arises when scared human beings, desperate for existential security, turn a few valuable insights into a Totality, a System of Thought, which is swallowed whole. In Coming to Our Senses, I tried to explain why we tend to do this. People have told me (I don't know if it's true) that the most often-quoted line on the Internet is from that book: "An idea is something you have; an ideology is something that has you." Rather than wake up, we just keep changing paradigms.

-mb

29 Comments:

Anonymous DioGenes said...

It's not even a wide or true appreciation of contemporary theory. Zizek, Bauman, and others are only now making a name for themselves.

We are talking about a particular small group of French literary theorists- who are more appreciated in America than France.

This kind of "pomoism" is really "Baby Boomerism". Something that seemed cool for a few years became The Culture. A few inflated mediocrities got to lord over academia for a few decades. In the mean time, the rest of the world looked on in horror and moved on. Even the rest of the English speaking world does not accept US academic fadism.

6:25 PM  
Anonymous cubeangel said...

Is this what you're saying Dr. B... Let's start off with this

premise 1. Everything is relative

premise 2. If everything is relative is true then relativity must be relative as well.

premise 3. If relativity is relative then some things must not be relative.

Premise 4. Some things are relative and some things are not which means some things are objectively true.

Conclusion. Things are objectively true relative to their constraints.

8:58 PM  
Blogger Michael A. Lewis said...

Interesting... I left academe in 2000 under the dark shadow of P.C and pm. That and cell phones in the classroom, among other anti-educational trends.

In my world, it was Native American p.c., in reverse. My department head took me to task for stating, in an email to a fellow researcher, that our Natural History Museum lacked N.A. input in the interpretation of its ethnological and archaeological collections. Seemed simple enough to me, but I wasn't supposed to let that particular cat out of the bag, since careers were made on the insistence of the opposite.

So here we are in a dying culture, a failed civilization, if that's what it is, without two paradigms to rub together.

Thanks for your writing, by the way, here and elsewhere. Helps me weed out the sane from the in.

11:06 PM  
Blogger Marc L Bernstein said...


Here's an interesting article that I stumbled across which relates to Post-Modernism :

http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2017/02/consciousness-is-an-illusion-but-truth-is-not.html

A remark at the end of the article summarizes the author's perspective :

"I say consciousness and truth are on a par: neither can be explained away. Neither is eliminable. Neither is an illusion. Both are part of what we must presuppose to explain anything.

Nietzsche had a great insight: No God, no truth. For the POMOs there is neither. For me there is both. For the inconsistent [Daniel] Dennett there is the second but not the first. Again, there is simply no place for truth in a wholly material world."

I found this article (by "Maverick Philosopher") while I was searching for an article I read a year or so ago which posited that human perceptions evolved not to ascertain the truth about the world around us, but rather to maximize our survival and prosperity. In other words, our perception of the world does not exactly coincide with what actually exists in the world. Perhaps this is why Einstein considered it surprising that the human mind was even capable of comprehending the universe.

7:08 AM  
Anonymous Sean Kerrigan said...

There's currently a discussion on the internet (I heard about it on Twitter) of a family who operates a YouTube channel and (allegedly) emotionally abuses the kids. It's pretty clear they have a dysfunctional family. Very sad. Very American in so many ways.

This video provides a brief summary of the accusations and some clips pulled from their channel. You'll get the idea pretty quick: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvoLmsXKkYM

2:46 PM  
Anonymous T.H. said...

pomism reminded me other 'isms of the age, a nice John Gray-esque piece:

https://nplusonemag.com/issue-28/essays/ghost-in-the-cloud/


transhumanism (like so much else in the secular West!) is "a secular outgrowth of Christian eschatology."


- Thomas

3:39 PM  
Anonymous JRS said...

Thank you Dr. Berman for your thoughtful response to the article I posted. I kept thinking of your book ReEnchantment of the World and issues with science being only one way of knowing the world while I was reading the article. And that there are so many ways of knowing, including through the body much like dancers, practitioners of yoga and I would also say work in ceramics.

As far as the PC environment in academia, so much in that culture is getting rigid, stiff with ideology, as in rigor mortis. It's difficult seeing so many young people so rigid in their ideology already, desperately seeking security through it. Ideologies which seem to act much like a fundamentalist religion which stunt personal growth and introspection.

It seems that since they believe that all texts are relative except for theirs and that they refuse to apply their methodology to their own methodology, that they performed the very act that they claim to be against and that is reductionism.

Anyway, I'm just glad to see more writing coming out like this.
As always, thanks again Dr. Berman. Your scholarship, writing, and wisdom are much appreciated.

Julie

6:00 PM  
Blogger Michael Burgess said...

Mike Burgess said....

Dr. Berman and Wafers:

Just figured you would like to read what Paul Craig Roberts says about the Trump presidency - Trump apparently is using the presidency as a money-making scheme, not unexpected. What Roberts writes about Pence seeming to usurp the president's job to negotiate (actually threaten, I guess we usually don't really negotiate) with countries is interesting; Pence seemed to come out of nowhere to become Trump's vice-presidential candidate - pretty sure Pence was foisted on Trump as a condition for RNC support. The US really deserves to the laughing stock of the world and as Roberts says, the world should be very concerned, not with North Korea's nuclear weapons, but that we seem to be itching to use our nuclear weapons.
Maybe we will go out with a bang.

http://www.paulcraigroberts.org/2017/04/20/president-trumps-disappearance/

10:22 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Fred-

Cdn't post it; we have a rule here of half-page maximum. Pls compress and re-send. Thanks.

mb

11:10 AM  
Blogger Grandma said...

Dr. B, thank you for this. As a middle-aged but newly minted PhD I read the pomo's work and came out the other side completely confused. Now I understand both why it's so attractive to some and what parts to ignore, much appreciated.

Reminds me of an article also posted here:

"It is naively assumed that the fact that the majority of people share certain ideas or feelings proves the validity of these ideas and feelings. Nothing is further from the truth. Consensual validation as such has no bearing whatsoever on reason or mental health… The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane." - Eric Fromm

At a "finer scale" this also speaks to the horrible YouTube channel posted that demonstrates the scapegoating of a child within a very dysfunctional family. "It's just a prank", sure it is.

Welcome to the dark ages. I've fully arrived. Glad to be amongst friends.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Grandma-

Welcome to the blog. It's the only one worth participating in, I can assure you. As for the opaque quality of pm, here's an old joke: What do you get when you cross a pomo with a mafioso? Answer: Someone who makes you an offer you can't understand.

pm has also been called "the revenge of intelligence against genius," which rings true.

mb

12:07 PM  
Anonymous Rich said...

"...I do think that pm offers us some valuable insights; the problem arises when scared human beings, desperate for existential security, turn a few valuable insights into a Totality, a System of Thought, which is swallowed whole. In Coming to Our Senses, I tried to explain why we tend to do this. People have told me (I don't know if it's true) that the most often-quoted line on the Internet is from that book: "An idea is something you have; an ideology is something that has you." Rather than wake up, we just keep changing paradigms."

When I was in college in the 90s, one of my history professors who was a British national observed the humorlessness of many American feminists. She said that while feminism is strong in the UK, British scholars rarely are as fanatical as they are in the US. I haven't read Coming to Our Sense yet, but I always suspected our penchant for fanaticism had to do with ontological insecurity that is endemic to life in the US. Our culture (if we can even call it that) is so thin, our economic life is so brutal, and our physical urban landscape is so ugly that one would be off-kilter if he/she DID NOT feel a sense of anomie. Encountering any mode of thought that provides some sense of meaning is like giving a starving dog a rib-eye steak. They eat it up in a frenzy.

Thank you for this blog. I look forward to reading your books in detail.

3:52 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Rich-

See ch. 1, in particular. Progs in general are a pretty humorless bunch, but I suppose a case cd be made for American feminists as the grimmest. In my experience, they are very angry; under that is a huge layer of pain; and under that, tremendous sadness. Most (not all) just stay at the topmost layer, never going any deeper. Hard to laugh when yr carrying all of that shit around.

I actually met women in San Francisco in the 70s who, when asked what they did, said--with a straight face--"I'm a woman." Hard to know how to respond to that. Maybe, "Gosh, that's fantastic!"

mb

6:26 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Wafers-

She's back! I'm so excited.

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/apr/20/sarah-palin-donald-trump-ted-nugent-kid-rock

mb

6:45 PM  
Blogger BM C said...

Thank you so much for your insightful and thoughtful take on this subject Morris. This is why I love your work and come on this site. I was very interested to hear you mention Ivan Illich. I have only just recently heard of his work and was looking to start reading one of his books. I was disappointed to hear you not have the best things to say about him because you know...wafers, but I am curious to hear more about where you and him part on ideas.

Also, in reading the article the main concern of the author was that postmodern thought is a threat to modernity. I know you believe that the modern age is already waning and if this is so than it certainly would be because of much larger forces than postmodern thought. So pomo is a symptom? Does this give it more credibility in your view? As if it has some kind of insight to a larger truth that is coming more into focus?

Thanks again, love ya buddy.

10:21 PM  
Blogger comrade simba said...

I saw Ted Nugent in concert as a high schooler. He was my God! Now he's just an insane, no class idiot.
Wearing a hat in the Oval Office... jfc. I hope Sarah gives both him and kid rock the clap.

10:29 PM  
Anonymous Trevor said...

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/taibbi-on-the-new-book-that-brutalizes-the-clinton-campaign-w477978

8:36 AM  
Blogger Frantisek Panuskova said...

MB, Wafers,

Trying to figure out what to do after leaving the U.S. in June. Is there something like a Dual Process Ideas and Practices Exchange somewhere? A Wafer International?

I am wondering, if the collapse is near or already beginning, could (or should) the more practically inclined among us concern ourselves with developing the emerging culture?


9:22 AM  
Anonymous Pastrami and Coleslaw said...

This really speaks to me, and though it has been talked about here and elsewhere before, it is always worth a reminder:

https://thewalrus.ca/the-benefits-of-solitude/

Michael Harris' previous book "The End of Absence" is also good WAFer material.

10:16 AM  
Anonymous Mark Notzon said...

One of the advantages of going "pomo" may be that it could allow one to go from ADHD to Alzheimer's with an adult stretch of Aporia in between--a"triple A-rated" state of the art style of life.

11:49 AM  
Anonymous Cel-Ray Tonic said...

Frank: Where were you going again? I guess it would depend on what you like doing; do you want to learn how to sail and live on a boat? Learn how to farm? Build you own off-the-grid house?

11:58 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Trev-

Jesus, will ya look at that face!

BM-

Many thanks for yr support. My disagreements with Illich were many...e.g., he really thought we shd shut down hospitals and schools, instead of trying to fix them. The worst of it was his arrogance: he was never "in dialogue." If you politely asked him a question that might throw an assertion of his into doubt, he just waved his hand and shook his head: I can't be bothered to engage with you, was the idea. Check out Jenny Diski's bk, "The Sixties," for her take on Illich as well.

As for pm: yes, a symptom of decline; which is why it has been most popular in the US, the vanguard of Western collapse. The French moved on from pm a long time ago; they have their culture to believe in (secular replacement for Catholicism). We have nothing to believe in, and pm essentially says, There *is* nothing to believe in (except our texts).

Wafers-

Here's another story from the trenches, relayed to me by a prominent journalist who was asked to address a class in journalism at a major West Coast university. Well, he and another prominent journalist. He asked me beforehand what I thought he shd talk abt; I said: "It really doesn't matter; the students will just be updating their Facebk profiles." Which is what happened. There were abt 100 students; they didn't pay attention to either speaker, just stared into their laptops and smartphones. During the other journalist's lecture, my friend looked down the row he was sitting in: a string of girls who were cruising a website selling expensive dresses. Later, talking to the prof, he (the prof) told the two of them that there was only 1 student in the class, out of the 100, who was seriously interested in learning anything.

These kids are our future! What future??!

mb

12:03 PM  
Anonymous politically incorrect said...

Collapse of Complex Societies by Dr. Joseph Tainter
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0R09YzyuCI

1:49 PM  
Blogger Edward Miessner said...

Hi mb,

I like these longer posts! I'm still reading Spengler, he seems to have predicted or presaged post-modernism--he wrote that all knowledge of any culture was based in that culture. That sounds like the sociological basis of knowledge that is advanced by postmodernists.

Anyway I have a couple of items for you and the rest to chew on.

man charged with groping a twenty-year old woman at a Market Basket supermarket in Somersworth NH; turns out he has had previous run-ins with the law:

http://www.unionleader.com/crime/market-basket-groping-just-the-latest-arrest-for-dover-man-20170419

Something Strange is Going on in Atlanta: narrator thinks something bizaare is happening in her hometown--the goings-on there DO seem to be QUITE postmodern...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlmZY4wFSsE

2:02 PM  
Blogger jjarden said...

How else was he supposed to light his cigarette?


http://katu.com/news/local/deputies-arrest-man-suspected-of-lighting-dennys-customer-on-fire

7:10 PM  
Anonymous Tom Servo said...

Excellent article on the class divide in the United States.

America is Regressing into a Developing Nation for Most People

https://www.ineteconomics.org/perspectives/blog/america-is-regressing-into-a-developing-nation-for-most-people

This article is spot on. You can easily see it if you travel enough in the United States. Outside of some affluent suburbs and certain gentrified big city neighborhoods the country looks like a wasteland. Vacant lots, dilapidated homes, shuttered businesses, malls that look like ghost towns. This is the reality for 80% of Americans. It amazes me that so many Americans still think they will hit it rich someday when social and economic mobility is actually lower now than in the past.

2:56 AM  
Anonymous Derek said...

MB and Wafers,

I agree wholeheartedly with MB's take on postmodernism. I studied English at university and the prevalence of postmodernism is one of the main things that convinced me not to pursue a master's degree or PhD in the subject. It's sad, really, but we barely even read anything in my English classes. Instead, we mostly talked about racism, feminism, and political correctness. If anyone out there wants to learn about literature, or just reading and writing in general, I would recommend studying a foreign language instead. I certainly learned more in my French classes than my English ones.

I also wanted to leave a quick film rec that may surprise some of you: The Devil Wears Prada. I think this is the first film I've seen that's both a Wafer film and a chick flick! (BTW, saying "chick flick" would have got me killed in one of my English classes). Anyways, the films follows Anne Hathaway as an ambitious young journalist who decides to take a job as the assistant to Meryl Streep, a famous editor at a fashion magazine similar to Vogue. She ends up so consumed by work and "hustling" that she loses touch with her friends and changes her whole personality. In the end, she has to decide what's more important: her luxurious new lifestyle or her family and friends. I say it's a Wafer film because she opts for the latter.

-Derek

9:46 AM  
Blogger Jack Lattemann said...

The pummeling in the air continues, this time on the appropriately named American Airlines which says “sorry”:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/22/american-airlines-says-sorry-to-woman-hit-with-buggy-by-staff-=member

Meanwhile, Shaneka Monique Torres has at least another year to serve before she can again try for the bacon at McDonald’s:

http://mugshots.com/US-Counties/Michigan/Kent-County-MI/Shaneka-Monique-Torres.104505509.html

And here in Cascadia, an attempted shoplift of beer and snacks at a 7-Eleven in downtown Seattle resulted in a shoot-out, one dead, several police wounded, and downtown shut down in the massive police response:

http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/crime/police-say-robbery-suspect-was-killed-by-seattle-officers-gunfire/

10:47 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

free-

Pls observe half-page-max rule in future. Thank you.

Note to a-

You can't check in with 'a'. That's not a real handle.

Meanwhile, the real Bernie emerges:

https://www.commondreams.org/news/2017/04/21/sanders-stumping-anti-choice-mayoral-candidate-draws-ire

Jack-

Not clear why AA didn't just club the woman to death. As for Shaneka: she's now sporting a nice smile, so perhaps prison has been an upbeat experience for her. The Seattle caper wd have been better served by a drone dropping a nuclear device. US law enforcement is so wimpy, really.

Tom-

Gd, but Michael Harrington said much the same thing ca. 1960.

mb

11:14 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home