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« Friday Ephemera | Main | On PoMo Contradiction »

April 10, 2007

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StuckRecord

Brilliant article.

My wife often tells me off when I scoff at catwalk fashion shows. As I snort with derision at the absurd and impractical creations prancing merrily down the catwalk, she reminds me that these absurdities will, before too long, make their way -- albeit diluted -- into every high street shop in the country.

So it is with the horrors of postmodernism.

It's quite odd really to see 'trickle-down' theory so well proved, albeit in another field.

David Thompson

StuckRecord,

Quite. And the impracticality is rather important. If one is inclined to habitual bullshit, it helps to generate bullshit that’s (a) incomprehensible, and (b) of no practical application whatsoever. That way it’s much harder to tell exactly how bad the bullshit is.

Alan Sokal touched on this in the wake of the Social Text hoax:

“Theorising about ‘the social construction of reality’ won't help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming. Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity…”

StuckRecord

The 'incomprehensibility' tag is, to me, the most important.

I'm sure it's been recognised by someone far smarter than me (i.e. anyone), but I've long thought that the modern cultural Marxist elite bear less resemblance to intellectuals, then they do to high priests -- in many cases, priests of some obscure cargo cult.

Throughout history the most important tool of closed priesthood systems is the ability to be able to defend their position with obtuse and indecipherable logic. Any attempts to clarify, or allow the ordinary masses to understand is resisted -- often violently. Case in point a documentary by Rod Liddle last night on Channel 4 about the attempts to translate the Bible into English during the late mediaeval: Wycliffe, Tyndale etc. The violent resistance to this from the power elite in the church was all about keeping the authority of interpretation (and therefore by inference supreme authority of God) in their hands.

Progress, as we would understand it, only occurred when the obscurantists lost.

The modern cultural Marxist elite, having utterly failed to put their ideas successfully into practice in the 20th century, have decided instead to take over the language. They seem -- judging from the evidence around us -- to have succeeded. By destroying the meaning of words they can now never be successfully proved wrong.

I despair sometimes, which is why I'm overjoyed at finding your blog. A beacon of light, and clarity of thought.

What I can't understand about postmodernism, moral relativism and cultural Marxism is, how can its thought police -- so sure in their belief that no idea of concept can be proved to be wrong -- believe certain things are indisputably wrong: the US, racism, sexism, colonialism etc?

Maybe you could help.

David Thompson

StuckRecord,

The self-refuting nature of much PoMo theory has been widely noted. Most obviously the supposed equivalence of all cultures, past and present - except our own, which is, apparently, the cause of all known ills. I think this contradiction is generally ignored, along with so many others. Or, at best, you hear squirming about ‘playfulness’ and the futility of being ‘right’.

From personal experience, the preferred tactic is to ignore the contradiction and persist in some kind tu quoque exchange, by listing the shortcomings of the West, real and imagined, louder than before. See here for one example:

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/02/the_perils_of_m.html

I guess one has to remember this isn’t really a serious attempt at a coherent explanatory philosophy. It’s more akin to a façade for an emotional position, usually involving resentment and self-loathing, and a need to belittle one’s own culture and any successful product of it.

David Thompson

Carnal Reason has some interesting comments over here:

http://carnalreason.org/2007/04/10/what-is-postmodern-scholarship-for/

The bit about telling lies in public is, I think, important. Likewise the quote by Theodore Dalrymple about probity, control and emasculated liars.

StuckRecord

Thanks very much.

I love Dalrymple. His column in the Spectator was one of my favourites.

Dan Collins

It's hard to believe that she's a Martial McGluon Fellow at the U of T.

Jeff G

"Any attempts to clarify, or allow the ordinary masses to understand is resisted -- often violently."

Tell me about it. I've had some fairly nasty blogospheric attacks thrown my way for having the temerity to untangle this stuff.

Having said that, though, I think we go a bit far to argue something like this:

"I guess one has to remember this isn’t really a serious attempt at a coherent explanatory philosophy. It’s more akin to a façade for an emotional position, usually involving resentment and self-loathing, and a need to belittle one’s own culture and any successful product of it."

This seems to me a rather too harsh assessment of postmodern philosophy itself -- though it is quite a fair assessment of the stuff that is trickled down and eventually taught as postmodernism or poststructuralism.

I wrote a post on this a while back, for those who may be interested:

http://proteinwisdom.com/index.php?/weblog/entry/pomo_a_go_go/

GrumpyJoe

Is it me, or does this stuff look like it's been generated by computer?

Tools like this - http://pdos.csail.mit.edu/scigen/ do a similar job or creating plausible-looking gibberish automatically.

I could probably write a PoMo book in no more than 100 lines of code and an online dictionary.

David Thompson

Jeff,

Thanks for the link. Will mull.

As for being harsh – well, perhaps. I’ve some sympathy with Stephen Hicks’ evaluation of PoMo as a broad historical phenomenon – i.e. as a bunker for embittered Marxists in which reality can be held at bay and failure can be rationalised, after a fashion.

http://www.amazon.com/Explaining-Postmodernism-Skepticism-Socialism-Rousseau/dp/1592476422

But my comments were aimed chiefly at the broader political and emotional positions that are widely adopted, often with reference to PoMo ideas, accurately or otherwise. Taken loosely, or colloquially, PoMo is very often used to articulate and justify a contorted, self-loathing stance.

NukemHill

I just got stupider reading those quotes.

Thanks a lot.

Jim in KC

Shouldn't it be "meatspace," not "real space?"

I guess if I was looking for a way to prove that words actually do mean nothing, writing and somehow having published an enormous pile of words that, well, actually do mean nothing is as good an approach as any.

David Thompson

This is sort of relevant. PoMo in modern, politicised art:

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/02/art_bollocks_re.html

And, of course, the Postmodernism Generator will induce hilarity and madness in roughly equal measure.

http://www.elsewhere.org/pomo

GrumpyJoe

Found this - you probably knew about it - http://www.elsewhere.org/pomo

David Thompson

I quite like this, from Ms Guertin’s Statement of Teaching Philosophy:

http://www.mcluhan.utoronto.ca/academy/carolynguertin/phil.html

“Cyberfeminism is a process of dynamic interaction and fluid boundary-free practices that pose new strategies for navigating real and virtual worlds, and navigations in the cyberspaces of networked literature point to potentialities for how it might be possible to escape the white western male power structures that tend to rule technological discourse and our classroom work as well.”

I think we should send someone back in there to count exactly how many times she uses the words "discourse" and “potentialities.”

And this… well, insert your own tasteless gag of choice:

“As technology becomes more pervasive in every aspect of our lives, everything is becoming digital and our feminisms grow still larger.”

Dan Collins

I think we need some time apart. I need my Hilbert Space.

Ophelia Benson

So you found that at Shrinkwrapped? Do I take you to mean you don't check Butterflies and Wheels's news links every day? I'm shocked, shocked.

I've been trying to remember where I saw the piece...I think it was at the Richard Dawkins site.

David Thompson

Ophelia,

I found a couple of threads at Dawkins' site after I'd filed this for 3:AM. They're worth a squint:

http://richarddawkins.net/articleComments,823,Is-this-another-Sokal-Hoax,Carolyn-G-Guertin,page2#comments

http://richarddawkins.net/article,824,Postmodernism-Disrobed,Richard-Dawkins-Nature

And surely every good-hearted person checks the B&W news links on a daily - nay, hourly - basis...?

http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/news.php

Ophelia Benson

It was the Dawkins site, and furthermore, Guertin replied there on April 7 - see comment 50, bottom of page.

http://richarddawkins.net/article,823,Is-this-another-Sokal-Hoax,Carolyn-G-Guertin

But of course no one understands, it's professional technical stuff, outsiders can't judge, etc etc

"Yes, I expect a few pages cut and pasted from the middle of any 600-page work, even a work by the illustrious Mr Dawkins himself, would become cryptic when cited out of context to people working in another field. No literary scholar would undertake such a decontextualized analysis; clearly the standards are considerably lower in the sciences. Why bother to read the 300 odd pages that precede this section set out to establish the framework for these same complex concepts as they apply to three particular examples of digital narrative when you can leap to outrageous conclusions? Do I really need to point out that this was a dissertation written for specialists working in my field and not a work for general publication?"

Specialists! In what?! Quantum feminism? Which is - what exactly?

Ophelia Benson

Excuse cross-post, David - I thought I had already posted the above, but forgot to check whether it had gone through; I keep misreading the test-thingy.

No one should miss Guertin's teaching philosophy

http://www.mcluhan.utoronto.ca/academy/carolynguertin/phil.html

"Cyberfeminisms writ large are what I call 'quantum feminisms,' lived as much in the scientific world as in the literary, personal as much as political."

Right because that's what 'quantum' means in the world of specialists in - um - naming things whatever they feel like naming them.

What a preening pretentious buffoon.

David Thompson

Ophelia,

Heh. Of course, we need to “look deeper.” And disregard the obvious, presumably. It seems she doesn’t like scientists very much. Envy, perhaps? It's odd, though, given how readily she appropriates fragments of technical jargon in order to decorate her own nest.

Ophelia Benson

Well that's why she doesn't like them. She's afraid they'll come along and take her shiny jargon away.

Franklin

"...clearly the standards are considerably lower in the sciences."

Okay. Now I'm angry.

David Thompson

Franklin,

For some strange reason I’m picturing Ms Guertin as a metaphorical Bower Bird, pilfering feathers and colourful debris in order to seduce a mate with someone else’s plumage.

Franklin

That worked. I feel better now.

Franklin

"Why bother to read the 300 odd pages that precede this section set out to establish the framework for these same complex concepts as they apply to three particular examples of digital narrative when you can leap to outrageous conclusions?"

Might we read this complaint to predict that if we start at page 1, we will find a rational, clearly-written setup for the "complex concepts" that follow? Let's test.

http://www.mcluhan.utoronto.ca/academy/carolynguertin/1i.html

Ouch.

JohnAnnArbor

The fun would begin by asking her for working definitions of the scientific terms she tosses about. Each should be examined and corrected as needed. After she's flubbed about five, then say, "If you don't even know anything about the scientific concepts you cite, why should we believe the rest of your prose is meaningful at all?"

As to her complaint that a few pages cut from the middle of a long book are always going to sound like that: hogwash.

McFawn

I've been thinking about just these ideas lately. Why is it that postmodernists spend so much time just asserting the same idea--that langauge has been loosened from meaning, etc etc? If that's so, than the postmodern critic is indeed entitled to talk gibberish--but they are not entitled to assert their gibberish as supreme. They should respect all nonsense--even the retrograde critics that still believe in truth & lucidity! Check out my site litandart.com if you want to see more of my thoughts on this point. Great post--glad to see somewhat lay into the dual demons of feminism and cybershit.

David Thompson

It’s interesting to note that in her reply to comments on Richard Dawkins’ forum, Guertin chooses not to clarify her position in any meaningful way. Instead, she claims, rather peevishly, that her work can only be understood by specialists, who, we’re told, will “look deeper.”

But appeals to special, deeper, insight aren’t exactly convincing, least of all in this instance. Affecting some secret knowledge and elevated status isn’t going to work if that status is so clearly unearned. I’d have thought it would be of greater use, and a sign of good faith, to explain – if she can - what her work is, and why it’s worth reading, or indeed writing. But that would probably entail explaining why, for instance, basic physics terms have been so obviously misused.

I, for one, would love to hear what’s meant by the “blatantly viral agenda” of feminist acts to “insert women, bodily fluids and political consciousness into electronic spaces.”

McFawn

I like how you point out how she dodges defending herself by invoking the high-specialism of her work. One of the worst things about Postmodern criticism is that critics don't need to have any wit or fighting spirit to defend it. They are automatically protected by their jargon and the hegemony of their position. 50 years ago, an argument between two eminent literary critics, for instance, would be something even the layperson could enjoy--the passion, cleverness and erudition made for a fun fight. Now, conflict is dulled, and the actual personality of critics has gotten duller as well. Spirited thinkers have migrated elsewhere.

David Thompson

McFawn,

“Spirited thinkers have migrated elsewhere.”

It would seem so. In the article, I mentioned David Lehman’s Signs of the Times, in which he recounts being told, “If you want to make it in the criticism racket, you have to be a deconstructionist or a Marxist.” Presumably, many of those who found neither option appealing, and were unable to pretend otherwise, were obliged to look elsewhere for employment.

The fact that Guertin’s blatherings were apparently unchallenged by her supervisors suggests either an inexcusable inattention on their part or, perhaps more likely, that they’re of a very similar disposition and schooled in much the same nonsense. Perhaps entire departments are now populated by fraudulent ideologues who grade according to political conformity and a willingness to deceive, rather than on any real ability to think.

If so, a purge would seem in order.

dilys

"a metaphorical Bower Bird, pilfering feathers and colourful debris in order to seduce a mate with someone else’s plumage."

He's got it! It's bricolage! By a bricoleur.

These materials may be mass-produced or "junk". -- Wikipedia

Rochenko

Whilst you spend a lot of time demolishing Guertin's turgid emissions, the core of your piece seems to be this: "One ream of postmodern gibberish is difficult to distinguish from any other, and this is not by accident." This block denunciation is Sokal and Bricmont's starting point too of course, on the basis that any piece of writing by a number of disparate authors (possibly with substantially different commitments) is equally bad if it uses a scientific concept in an allusive or metaphorical way. This always seemed to me an extreme misunderstanding of the role of scientific concepts in philosophy. In reflecting on our everyday ways of thinking, we often become aware that we rely on spatial and other physical imagery - the use of precise scientific concepts outside the context in which they evolved can enable us to unsettle the metaphysical assumptions on which these everyday modes of thought are based. Such procedures were good enough for Kant, Wittgenstein and Whitehead, and unless you are prepared to dismiss their efforts too as deserving of nothing more than being cast out for all eternity into an undifferentiated pile of pomo trash, perhaps you might consider being a little more discriminating in your judgements? Perhaps the philosophy should be judged as philosophy, for example (a possibility that Sokal and Bricmont steer clear of, although they are happy to rely on the philosophy of science for refutations of relativism)?

David Thompson

Rochenko,

“This block denunciation is Sokal and Bricmont's starting point too of course…”

I wouldn’t say my argument is based chiefly on the generic vacuity of much PoMo theorising and its interchangeable nature. Nor would I say that was Sokal and Bricmont's starting point. Though casual misuse of terminology, strained or empty analogies and wilful, even gleeful, obfuscation are defining features of so much material of this kind. And I do think it’s noteworthy that these “radical” individuals should produce material of staggering uniformity, insofar as it involves the same dishonest manoeuvres, the same mangled language, and much the same broad political posture.

As the title suggests, I’d have said that the “core” of my argument is the obvious fraudulence of Guertin’s ‘work’ and her willingness to inflict such nonsense on others in the name of education. Like many of those she namedrops, Guertin is quite clearly either a fraud or, at best, inexplicably incompetent. That, or so confused as to be unwell.

As I suggested in the article, Guertin seems to be a product of a climate in which such material is regurgitated and granted license largely because it is incomprehensible, and deliberately so. It is, in effect, repeated and endorsed precisely because it isn’t understood, and for fear of appearing stupid. I’m sure you’ll appreciate the irony.

Or do you think that Guertin’s contorted flummery really does “enable us to unsettle the metaphysical assumptions on which these everyday modes of thought are based”? I'm guessing not.

It seems to me implausible that Guertin has arrived at this hogwash by carelessness and inadequacy alone. Her handiwork has clearly been shaped to conform to a certain fashion and will have been read, re-read, proof read, supervised, etc. Constructing such opaque gibberish is hard work, of a kind. It requires determination to befuddle so comprehensively for 600 pages or so. To produce so many sentences, paragraphs – entire pages – that are devoid of discernible meaning and littered with non sequitur requires motivation.

Thus, one has to suspect bad faith on the author’s part. Specifically, an effort to deceive by pretending something is what it’s obviously not, in the hope that readers will squint, see nothing much, and assume the fault is theirs. I realise the idea that such a thing can happen, and happen frequently, is taboo. But I’m pretty sure it happens nonetheless. And I suspect it continues to happen precisely because the very idea is, apparently, unthinkable.

Ophelia Benson

I have a question (here, here in the back!).

"Perhaps the philosophy should be judged as philosophy, for example (a possibility that Sokal and Bricmont steer clear of, although they are happy to rely on the philosophy of science for refutations of relativism)?"

Which philosophy? Guertin's? But she's not doing philosophy, is she? Does she even claim she is? Not that I've seen. She claims to be doing scholarship, but philosophy? Surely not. But perhaps someone else's philosphy was meant? But if so, whose?

Rochenko

I have no idea what Guertin is doing, and have no particular desire to find out.

Ophelia: what I was referring to was the philosophy that is being done by the authors who Sokal and Bricmont are generally taken to have 'debunked'. Deleuze would, in my opinion, be a particularly good example of a writer whose philosophy is anything but full of "casual misuse of terminology, strained or empty analogies and wilful, even gleeful, obfuscation".

There is undoubtedly an industry, particularly in some cultural studies departments, that thrives on ceaselessly mongering analogies between thinkers, concepts and cultural phenomena. But Sokal and Bricmont are not attacking this culture directly, even if David is. What their 'debunking' amounts to is essentially an attack on a particular way of doing philosophy which is entirely legitimate and which, as I suggested, has a perfectly respectable lineage. All they have really managed to do is to show that they have not really understood its purpose. As a result, they misconstrue the use of scientific concepts as a wilful misuse purely for intellectual flash and the appearance of authority, and as a result, construct their book around the aforementioned 'block denunciation' - adding that what all these individuals really want is to defend some form of strong cultural relativism (which is also arguably untrue).

David Thompson

Rochenko,

Thanks for the clarification. I guess we’ll have to disagree about Deleuze. But it doesn’t seem to shed much light to say Guertin isn’t doing ‘philosophy’ properly. It isn’t clear that’s what she’s trying to do, however badly. And when PoMo ‘philosophers’ flirt with scientific vocabulary – and QM terminology in particular – they very often misuse it, thus the legitimacy and purpose of such efforts is somewhat questionable. It's often like someone who's watched Star Trek pretending to be a physicist. If key scientific terms with very particular meanings can be used so loosely, like shiny paper, even by those more skilled than Guertin, including Baudrillard, Lacan, Deleuze, Rorty and others, then one has to raise an eyebrow. Invoking poetic license doesn’t really cut much ice.

Guertin may be an extreme example, but she’s far from alone in her cavalier approach. She seems to be a symptom of a more pervasive culture. And she has, it seems, tried very hard to copy the liberties taken by others, to much the same effect.

Rochenko

I'd be interested to know why you appear to agree with S & B about Deleuze. He seems to be to be a particularly good example of why they're barking up the wrong tree. I wouldn't disagree that the sort of thing that Guertin appears to be doing is part of a wider culture that generally, if nothing else, makes for some very boring conferences (her approach might even be old hat in this community itself - I thought it stopped being fashionable to misinterpret the uncertainty principle sometime in the mid 90s ;-) ). But just as this culture exists mainly to circumvent actual thought by employing the same tiresome trigger-words over and over, a culture also exists where using terms like 'pomo' performs exactly the same purpose, producing on cue a chorus of agreement never troubled by the slightest skepticism.

David Thompson

Rochenko,

I don’t have the offending passages to hand, but I’d suggest the fact Deleuze collaborated with Guattari at some length – apparently in all seriousness – indicates a certain cavalier approach to meaning and rigour, at least when it suited, perhaps politically. I vaguely remember a collaboration with Guattari in which they tried to couch capitalism entirely in pathological and oppressive terms. I remember acres of needlessly opaque prose and some rather arch tosh about “economic libidos” or something; and the customary, rather fanciful, bald assertions. In fact, I remember being amazed at exactly how many things were simply asserted as if self-evident, despite being hugely tendentious, or entirely unsubstantiated, or faintly ludicrous. I can’t claim to be familiar with Deleuze’s entire oeuvre, but what I’ve read I couldn’t take seriously. Perhaps you’ve read less objectionable material.

I’d like to think the article above, and others here on similar issues, don’t simply dismiss the PoMo figures and material they address. I’d like to think they do a little more than that. I’d even like to think they encourage critical thinking, rather than credulity. But maybe that’s for others to say.

The Tetrast

Rochenko said -- ...the use of precise scientific concepts outside the context in which they evolved can enable us to unsettle the metaphysical assumptions on which these everyday modes of thought are based. Such procedures were good enough for Kant, Wittgenstein and Whitehead....

I agree with that. To those names one should add that of C.S. Peirce, a philosopher who was also a mathematician, chemist, surveyor, etc. One doesn't have to agree with his conclusions in order to see that he knew what he was doing.

As to Deleuze in particular, I don't really know -- I find him hard to read, not only because I distrust pomo use of scientific terms, but because decades ago I read pomo work on literature (novels, etc.) and was disgusted by it -- I found disrespect for (literary) writers and a total obtuseness about literary problematics from a writer's viewpoint and the literary tradition formed thereby. I was sure that, among other things, the pomo folks were revving up for an attack on science, and lo and behold -- but those were pre-Internet days and I had nobody to whom to say that.

I have since had some discussion with one post-modernist who I'm convinced loves literature in the "right" way -- not merely as grist for a political/ideological. As for Rorty, I hear he's backed down a bit, at least in conversation, from his deprecation of the concept of truth -- it's important in legal trials, for instance! We're rightly unwilling to give it up there! -- and in most other places too.

In general, most of the pomo stuff doesn't seem worth the effort, and it does seem to trickle down, or flood down, in pernicious forms. It's probably symptom as well as source of broader social junk, but it further causes such junk because it tends to foreclose likelihoods of counteraction -- it's taking up the space and energy where good thinking is supposed to be at work.

David Thompson

Tetrast,

I don’t think anyone here has argued that non-scientists shouldn’t use scientific terms; merely that those terms should be used accurately and in a meaningful way - rather than used arbitrarily, or as baubles to impress unsuspecting students. The PoMo thinkers we’ve discussed don’t have a great track record in that regard.

“I was sure that, among other things, the pomo folks were revving up for an attack on science, and lo and behold…”

Andrew Ross is one of many culprits in this area. His ‘Science Wars’ book is particularly demagogic and scientifically illiterate. Ditto Sandra Harding, another despicable huckster.

“It's taking up the space and energy where good thinking is supposed to be at work.”

Exactly. Richard Dawkins makes much the same point in response to Guertin’s flummery. She’s not only littering academia and bullshitting students, but is also claiming a salary that could be paid to a serious scholar. And one suspects her supervisors and many of her peers are similarly dishonest and unmoored from reason. One wonders if students are being judged for having the ‘correct’ political views rather than the ability to think.

rightwingprof

And we owe it all to Mary Daly (if you've never read GynEcology--read spirally like a womb, of course and not linearly like a penis--you're in for a real treat). Well, Mary Daly and Robin Lakoff.


richard mcenroe

"It’s important to understand that nonsense of this kind is rarely arrived at by accident."

At the risk of overanalyzing the Guertin's work, this is the equivalent of a coyote pissing on a rock to mark its territory. It serves no other purpose and if possible conveys less information.

David Thompson

Rightwingprof,

“If you've never read GynEcology - read spirally like a womb, of course, and not linearly like a penis - you're in for a real treat…”

I think that would send me over the edge. Having struggled heroically through Guertin’s prose and then revisited Foucault (for research, I hasten to add), I’m already fighting the urge to bite my own neck.

The Tetrast

I just visited Mary Daly's Website http://www.marydaly.net/ and she uses a big photo that makes her look like somebody's deranged uncle -- check out that axe she's holding. Then look at the simultaneously axe-form and (vaginally?) spiraled (or, at any rate, concentric) text on the Mary Daly announcement poster at http://www.cwluherstory.com/CWLUGallery/Daly.html

Derangement, all right. Polished till it gleams.

David Thompson

Richard,

“This is the equivalent of a coyote pissing on a rock to mark its territory. It serves no other purpose and if possible conveys less information.”

Well, you wouldn’t want to get it on your clothes, that’s for sure. But I think it does convey information of a kind. I suppose one could think of it as propaganda. Or as a kind of verbal pornography aimed at young lefties who get excited by denunciations of capitalism, ‘imperialism’, bourgeois values, etc. (That seems to be the objective of almost all PoMo authors, and how they get there doesn’t appear to matter too much.)

Based on what I’ve read of their work, I can’t see why anyone would take Deleuze or Guattari seriously as philosophers or bearers of great insight. Ditto Baudrillard, Lacan, Foucault, et al. But I can see how they might be used to reinforce a certain political worldview, or to ideologically titillate those who share it. Those of us who find the underlying politics noxious and absurd are more likely to register the errors, non sequiturs and endless bald assertions. As we aren’t quite so in thrall to the “radical” posturing, we’re more likely to check the methodology, such as it is.

And it’s worth bearing in mind that young people are rarely so credulous as when they think they’re being radical.

Habib

This of course would be a problem if anyone with an IQ bigger than their hatsize was ever likely to read this flimsy twaddle, let alone take any of it seriously.

These ageing hippies could be done away with one one easy move- make tertiry institutions pay their own way, and sudents likewise- see how many eager, pasty-complexioned bucketheads would be queueing up to sign on for a 50K evercise in perpetual unemployment?

BTW- she may have missed an oldie but a goodie- I didn't notice any "Challenge the Dominant Paradigm"s- or has that fallen out of favour in luvviedom?

TDK

"the use of precise scientific concepts outside the context in which they evolved can enable us to unsettle the metaphysical assumptions on which these everyday modes of thought are based. Such procedures were good enough for Kant, Wittgenstein and Whitehead"

I think there is something disengenous here.

Scientific terms are certainly used outside the context wherein they evolved. That is a statement of fact. The question is whether the use of such terms by Kant, Wittgenstein and Whitehead was
(a) accurate - ie bore some relation to it's scientific lineage
(b) used to clarify a concept - instead of obscuring it
(c) does this differ from the usage of scientific terms by Post Modernist writers

Clearly Guertin is using scientific terminology to provide a veneer of technicality. It certainly doesn't simplify any concept or aid understanding. By contrast I can draw on my degree in Maths and Philosophy to assert that I am unaware of any scientific term used by Kant or Wittgenstein that sharply contrasted with either the accepted usage or failed to elucidate an argument. It is for the claimant to provide proof.

Which bings me to the phrase

"unsettle the metaphysical assumptions on which these everyday modes of thought are based".

It seems to me that this phrase is begging the question. "Unsettle" the "assumptions" is precisely what Post Modernists argue is being done. Once we accept these terms of reference for understanding past usage of scientific terminology we have allowed the post modernists to frame the debate.

At the very least, this is unhelpful in determining whether this particular example of Post Modernist writing has any merit.

David Thompson

All,

I’m heartened by the interest this piece has attracted, and by the fact comments continue to appear. When I wrote the article, I wondered whether the subject matter – mine, not Guertin’s – might seem too academic or irrelevant. But, as StuckRecord pointed out, the prevalence of PoMo posturing has “trickle-down” effects. Indeed, variations of PoMo ideology inform any number of mainstream idiocies, including cultural equivalence, ecomentalism and hostility to America as the cause of all evil in the world.

Taken as a broad phenomenon, PoMo thinking is fundamentally tendentious and is used to advance and justify a very particular worldview. Those who read the comment pages of the Guardian and Independent with any regularity can find the footprints of PoMo and its associated ills. Some everyday examples have been discussed in the following articles:

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/02/the_perils_of_m.html

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/02/blunting_the_se.html

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/02/phantom_guilt_s.html

But, please, carry on.

Rochenko

@TDK
I wasn't talking about Guertin, as I subsequently made clear in my post at 20.10 on April 14. Indeed, I don't think from skimming the sample of her work that David pointed to that the question of its merit even arises.

And as I also suggested, the 'unsettling of assumptions' is not something that only 'pomo' does (should 'pomo' exist as a readily identifiable, unified phenomenon, whatever it is). Hume aimed to unsettle assumptions about induction; Kant aimed to unsettle the assumptions of empiricism and religious dogmatism; conceptual analysis of a philosophical nature (whoever is practising it) generally proceeds in this direction, even if in its stated aims it only looks for clarification. Unfortunately, a lot of cultural studies bods use the phrase as if they invented it to describe an entirely self-justifying practice (when it becomes the equivalent of an artist using the phrase 'exploring issues of ' in their MA show catalogue entry).

DP111

My main disgust at PoMo writers is not because of the trivia that they write (freedom of expression is afterall still a right), but that they take advantage of the public's trust and respect of the intellectual honesty of subjects such as Mathematics and Physics, and by quoting Mathematical and Physics concepts (of which they have no understanding whatever), to give their own outpourings the same degree of respectability. PoMo writers are in effect, imposters of the worst kind.

In addition, such PoMO garbage debases Physics and Mathematics by association. But PoModernists do not care, for they are afterall in the business of destruction of all ideas that underlie the West.

The Tetrast

It might be better to speak more generally of _bringing everyday assumptions into fresh relief_, and of _testing_ them, and so on, rather than, as if solely, of _unsettling_ them. In fact one often deals not with everyday assumptions themselves, but rather with one's habitual formulations of those everyday assumptions. Sometimes it helps to be aware of scientific ideas, since they may help one notice, at the phenomenological level, things or patterns that one might otherwise miss.

Not that there's something so automatically bad about aiming to unsettle some kind of assumptions. I would imagine that young scientists often hope to unsettle some theory or other, in order to have some big things to do, some sort of work left for them to do after the strides of the giants which they studied in school. Art and literature tend to unsettle some of our habitual ways of feeling about things. The unsettlement of everyday assumptions is a different thing and does suggest, when repeatedly stated that way -- "thematized" in that form -- a political aim or ideological aim in some contexts, (A) to change not just our formulations of everyday assumptions but the assumptions themselves, and (B), to unsettle the existing order. Not that there's something automatically bad about wanting to change people's minds or unsettle an existing order, or something automatically bad about making that sort of thing one's particular aim through philosophy. If such things never happened in philosophy, that would be a very bad sign. Yet to say that such is all philosophy's definitive commitment is to prejudge philosophical results and to let the pomo folks frame the debate. I doubt that Rochenko intends that. So just a little rephrasing seems in order.

David Thompson

I’m not entirely convinced that many proponents of PoMo actually do want to test ideas and assumptions, least of all their own. There is, for instance, a remarkable conformity of political leaning among PoMo academics, and the targets of politicised deconstruction are fairly predictable. “Hegemony” is a favoured buzzword, but the hegemony of leftist postmodernism in large areas of academia is mysteriously exempt from scrutiny.

PoMo rhetoric is often characterised by endless, often ludicrous, attempts to construe capitalism and/or individualism as pathological and depraved. It’s difficult to imagine a PoMo thesis that didn’t refer to capitalism or bourgeois values or Western society as in some way “problematical” or “oppressive”; and if a PoMo paper did omit these things, it might well be regarded as missing its most vital component. Or its reason to exist.

clazy

It's never been clear to me just what post-modernism is, so the following may not be an example. My suspicions are aroused only because the analysis is unconvincing and infected with politics, two characteristics that seem always to accompany post-modernism. If it does reflect post-modernist notions, however, it marks a particularly ironic achievement. For not only has post-modernism misappropriated the language of science; it has also convinced some scientists to adopt the perspective of post-modernism.


The Lancet 2007; 369:274

DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)60146-9
Correspondence

The language of war in biomedical journals

Erik von Elm and Markus K Diener

The “war on terrorism” was declared by the governments of the USA and allied countries 5 years ago. Now wars are being declared in a great many areas of civil life including health care. In biomedical journals we read about wars on everything from renal cancer1 to uncertainty in trauma care.2 The use of war rhetoric has been justified by the numbers of victims, which, in many instances, exceed those of real wars.

“Collateral damage” is another piece of military jargon that is being used increasingly in biomedical communication. Within the US Army it is defined as the “unintentional damage or incidental damage affecting facilities, equipment or personnel, occurring as a result of military actions directed against targeted enemy forces or facilities.”3 However, it has become a synonym for any kind of undesired consequence including the side-effects of new cancer therapies1 and even the effects of obstructive sleep apnoea on bed partners.4

As part of modern propaganda, “doublespeak” terms such as collateral damage trivialise violations of international humanitarian law—ie, the killing of civilians. They aim to blur the images of war that would come to mind if we were confronted with accurate descriptions. Even medical terms have been introduced into military language for this purpose: “surgical strikes” being carried out not with scalpels but high-tech bombs.

Of course, there are many more examples of how military terminology is corrupting biomedical communication. We are used to reading about “killer cells” or “vaccine shots”. Inevitably, the close relationship between medicine and the military in history has left a mark on the language. However, military jargon is inappropriate if it is used uncritically to spice up manuscripts. The responsible use of language should be part of the integrity of both scientists and journalists.

George Orwell was intrigued by the powerful role of words. He advised us “never [to] use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent”.5 With military jargon his rule should be observed even more meticulously. Why not call treatments by their proper names or use less belligerent comparisons at least?

Physicians and researchers should avoid the cynical logic of war when writing about care of patients. However, concise reports on the consequences that real wars have on human health deserve more attention in scientific publishing. And they do not need fancy words to be compelling.

------

And here's an article in The Scientist inspired the letter:

http://www.google.com/search?num=50&hl=en&safe=active&c2coff=1&q=site%3Awww.the-scientist.com+news%2Fdisplay+war+against+metaphor

clazy

I should have included this

References

1. Pasche B. A new strategy in the war on renal cell cancer: hitting multiple targets with limited collateral damage. JAMA 2006; 295: 2537-2538. CrossRef

2. Roberts I, Shakur H, Edwards P, Yates D, Sandercock P. Trauma care research and the war on uncertainty. BMJ 2005; 331: 1094-1096. CrossRef

3. USAF. Intelligence targeting guide. Attachment 7: collateral damage
http://www.fas.org/irp/doddir/usaf/afpam14-210/part20.h...
(accessed Jan 4, 2006)..

4. Ashtyani H, Hutter DA. Collateral damage: the effects of obstructive sleep apnea on bed partners. Chest 2003; 124: 780-781. MEDLINE | CrossRef

5. Orwell G. Politics and the English language. Horizon 1946; 13: 252-265
http://eserver.org/langs/politics-english-language.txt
(accessed Jan 9, 2006)..
Back to top

Affiliations

a. Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, University of Bern, CH-3012 Bern, Switzerland
b. German Cochrane Centre, Department of Medical Biometry and Statistics, University Medical Centre Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany

The Tetrast

I wasn't saying that PoMo folks typically want to test their ideas and assumptions. Certainly the PoMo freaks whom we've been discussing don't seem to want to do so. I'm not defending PoMo, I generally dislike it. But I admit that there are some calling themselves "Post-Modernist" and I can't see why, except that they think of themselves as belonging to an era after the Modern, or maybe it's an academic way to say "really hip, man," I don't know. I know of a fellow -- an information scientist of kind specializing in things like evolution -- who, on the subjects in which he specializes, doesn't rely on jargon or gibberish (so far as I can discern), seems happy to talk about truth and to have his ideas tested, and talks of tests and so on, and he associates himself with PoMo.

David Thompson

Tetrast,

“I wasn't saying that PoMo folks typically want to test their ideas and assumptions. Certainly the PoMo freaks whom we've been discussing don't seem to want to do so.”

Agreed. If the testing of assumptions were a key objective one might expect to find a wide spectrum of political positions among PoMo enthusiasts, which doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead one finds a broad uniformity across disciplines, whether in cultural criticism, art theory, sexual politics, racial identity courses, etc.

Notions of hegemony and ‘imperialism’ are staples of PoMo literature, usually peppered with quasi-Marxist humbug of one kind or another. Patriarchy and women’s rights are other common topics. Though, curiously, criticism is rarely directed at non-Western cultures in which patriarchy is rather more obvious, and where it may involve, say, enforced shrouding, legal inferiority or the stoning of rape victims.

The villain of the piece is almost always a product of Western culture and, coincidentally, something lefties don’t like (or pretend not to like). If a solution is proposed, that solution will generally entail a leftist position of some kind. Given almost every notable purveyor of PoMo “discourse” leans to the left, this is hardly a surprise. And the more overtly postmodern a person’s “discourse” is, the further to the left their politics tends to be.

johneffay

The problem with these sort of debates is it they rapidly devolve into an 'us versus them' situation where 'them' is a massively disparate group of thinkers/critics/frauds/whatever you like really, all grouped under a label which is neither carefully defined nor accurately applied. The label in this case being 'postmodernism'.

The irony is, of course, that the people attacking 'postmodernists' for their abuse of scientific terms are performing exactly the same form of abuse on terms such as philosophical and critical ones.

Not that I would want to defend postmodern thinking as I understand it. I tend to agree with the guy who said 'the virtual ethical and aesthetic abdication of postmodern thought leaves a kind of black stain upon history'. Sokal? Dawkins? No, Guattari.

David

John,

Heavens, this thing rumbles on. Good-oh.

Yes, you’re right, it’s difficult to keep in focus a movement that covers so much ground, is ill-defined by its proponents, and means quite different things in many areas. (Elsewhere, I’ve used the term ‘postmodern’ as shorthand for products of popular culture in which an overt awareness of their own history and conventions is central. Clearly, that’s not the cause of umbrage here.) I’ve tried, perhaps not entirely successfully, to focus on the extent to which a great deal of postmodern thought appears to be a vehicle for a range of dubious political assertions, rather than a ‘free-standing’ intellectual exercise, as it were.

Thanks for the Guattari quote. Do you have a source? There are quite a few self-defined postmodernists who came to realise their folly, at least in part, and rather late in the game. By which time, a great deal of damage had been done. It’d be interesting to know if Guattari’s objection to PoMo’s “ethical abdication” was based on it being insufficiently leftwing.

johneffay

Yes, sorry to arrive at the party so late ;)

The Guattari quote is from 'Postmodernism and Ethical Abdication: An Interview with Nicholas Zurbrugg' in Gary Genosko (ed.) _The Guattari Reader_ (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), p. 116.

Guattari was certainly never a 'self-defined postmodernist'. His published view of postmodernism was unflinchingly vituperative. This is exactly the sort of problem I wished to highlight with my 'us and them' comment.

It is undeniable that Guattari's work is deployed (often very badly) by self-avowed postmodernists, however that is hardly his fault. If this makes him a postmodernist by association, then I guess that makes Heisenberg one as well if the same people who misinterpret Guattari are misinterpreting the Uncertainty Principle.

You write
'It’d be interesting to know if Guattari’s objection to PoMo’s “ethical abdication” was based on it being insufficiently leftwing.'
I think that this is broadly correct. Guattari's problem with postmodernism, as he sees it, is that it hinders any practical leftist political engagement, simply hiding behind obfuscation and concepts such as 'the end of metanarratives' which encourage passivity and thereby emasculate left wing politics. This argument should be familiar to you: it is substantially the same as Sokal's justification for pulling his hoax.

My point here is not to rehabilitate Guattari in the eyes of you and your commentators, merely to demonstrate that the way in which you appear to be using the term 'postmodernism' is subsuming widely disparate elements under one banner.

I am also highly dubious of your conflation of 'postmodernism' with left wing or pseudo-Marxist politics. This is only true of some of the people you name check. I won't take up much more of your time, but will point out that there is an entire industry churning out articles on how Derrida and deconstruction is fatally compromised politically via its association with the purportedly Nazi philosophy of Martin Heidegger and the participation of thinkers such as Paul de Man. I don't believe any of it myself, but it does go to show that things are not as black and white as you appear to depict them.

Incidentally, Derrida was never a postmodernist either.

David

John,

Thanks for the Guattari source; much appreciated.

“This argument should be familiar to you: it is substantially the same as Sokal's justification for pulling his hoax.”

Agreed. Though I’m not sure how Guattari reconciles this with some of his own earlier writing, and I doubt Sokal would have much time for Guattari, his work, or even his politics.

“Incidentally, Derrida was never a postmodernist either.”

Derrida is generally, if loosely, regarded as a postmodernist figure; for instance, see below:

http://carbon.cudenver.edu/~mryder/itc_data/postmodern.html

Insofar as he peddled obfuscation, self-contradiction and anti-rationalism - and favoured dodgy leftist politics - Derrida fitted the broad postmodern template quite well, I think. And the point remains that most of the key – and almost all of the current - purveyors of postmodern ideology are of the political left, and often the far left. This is not, I think, a coincidence.

Epistemic relativism, competing “power narratives” and associated ideas suit a range of doubtful leftist assertions. On this basis, one can argue that all cultures are equal (except our own), that gender is entirely a social construction, that “Western ways of knowing” are imperialist endeavours, etc. This cluster of assertions has serious disabling effects, both for critical thought and for politics. The acceptance of these ideas tends to make it rather difficult to say why Western democracies are preferable to Islamist theocracies, or why reason is preferable to religious hysteria, or why the education of women is preferable to the denial and suppression of such. Some of these problems are outlined in the pieces linked below:

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/02/the_perils_of_m.html

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/02/blunting_the_se.html

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/02/alguardian_the_.html

See also this article, especially the later sections:

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/02/art_bollocks_re.html

Gekkobear

Well StuckRecord "My wife often tells me off when I scoff at catwalk fashion shows"

I've got a link for you from last year:
http://www.style.com/fashionshows/collections/F2006RTW/complete/slideshow/PUGH?loop=0&event=show1425&designer=design_house996&trend=&slideshowId=slideshow32355&iphoto=6&play=false&cnt=20

Label on the link:
Fall 2006 Ready-to-Wear
Gareth Pugh - Runway

Challenge her to find a half dozen people "ready to wear" the monstrosity pictured. That picutre (7) is IMHO the "worst", but 10 and 11 make me giggle every time I see them.

Dr.Dawg

Still time to comment? I seem to have stumbled, rather late, onto a somewhat morose intellectual orgy.

Just a couple of points, if I may. First, if one is going to argue, David, or rather assert, that pomo is a Bad Thing because it's left-wing, that really does shut down further enquiry. Maybe you didn't mean it that way; maybe it's just the finishing touch after your attempted demolition; but it's out of place, at least without further elaboration.

I haven't read Guertin, and my plate is full at the moment, so I can't tell if she's being deliberately obfuscatory or not. But, speaking as a moderate postmodernist, I think there's a large baby--in fact, several babies--and a very small amount of bathwater being pitched out here. There's nothing obfuscatory, for example, about Foucault: he writes, in fact, with admirable clarity. I've read Judith Butler on Foucault: she makes sense. Richard Rorty is a master of clear, non-obfuscatory writing.

That doesn't mean I believe that "anything goes" (Feyerband); but I'll go on distrusting metanarratives until someone--or some God--grants me divine revelation, or at least a good keek at the ding an sich. Let me end with a look at this comment:

If, to quote Foucault, “reason is the ultimate language of madness”, and if, as Jean-Francois Lyotard argued, notions of truth and clarity are synonymous with “prisons and prohibitions,” then adherents of this view are free to believe whatever they wish to believe, regardless of contrary evidence or logical errors, and regardless of the practical fallout of such beliefs.

This is laughably false, and about as far away from what serious postmodernists believe as the hapless Social Text editors were from what scientists think when they were strung up by Sokal. (I think the latter did us a service, frankly. Trying to explore the margins of relatively new thinking will be bound to produce sloppiness and outright charlatanism on occasion. That stuff needs to be exposed. So does the use of jargon in a dick-waving contest.)

The difference between fiction and serious scholarly investigation lies in tests of empirical adequacy, tests which any ethical scholar willingly undergoes. While empirical adequacy itself is socially conditioned--witness the observation three or four decades back that those who believed that intelligence is genetic and race-based tend to be white males, while those who argued for less culturally-bound concepts of intelligence than IQ tests were not--it is still something to which we agree to submit. We'll go to the primary sources, we'll make observations, we'll test hypotheses: not because some Truth will be revealed, but because we have agreed on a set of rules so that what we do is mutually intelligible--in other words, so we can talk to each other.

Sokal thinks (we've corresponded) that scientific investigation progresses, and we drill down deeper into our knowledge of reality. My own position is instrumentalist: scientists build models, they don't seek after the Truth. I think knowledge gets broader with investigation, with periodic paradigm shifts (Kuhn) or ruptures (Foucault), but deeper? If I can be pardoned for referring to Deleuze and Guattari for a moment, that's tree-thinking. Science is productive, but to claim for it an intimate, privileged relationship with "objective reality," whatever the heck that is, is just another way of saying you're right because God told you so.

Anyway, enough for now. Other than the categorical dismissiveness encountered here, this was a pretty good discussion.

Dr.Dawg

"but because we have agreed on a set of rules so that what we do is mutually intelligible--in other words, so we can talk to each other."

Sorry. Make that "but because we have agreed on a set of rules so that what we do is mutually intelligible--in other words, so we can talk to each other and work together."

David

Dr Dawg,

Welcome aboard. And, yes, it seems this thread refuses to die, gracefully or otherwise.

“First, if one is going to argue, David, or rather assert, that pomo is a Bad Thing because it's left-wing, that really does shut down further enquiry.”

I don’t believe I’ve done that. I’ve pointed out that PoMo theorists and enthusiasts tend to have leftwing politics of various kinds, often an extreme and fanciful kind. I’ve also shown how many PoMo ideas lend themselves to supposedly leftist causes, e.g. the social construction of gender, queer theory, identity politics, the “intellectual imperialism” of “Western ways of knowing”, etc. (It’s true, of course, that others on the left and elsewhere would take exception with, say, cultural equivalence for very good reasons, as it undermines real progress in, for instance, the status of women and minorities.) But it is, I think, significant that almost all of the current architects and proponents of what is loosely termed PoMo are of the political left, often pointedly so. I’ve offered possible explanations as to why this might be the case, here and elsewhere.

“I haven't read Guertin, and my plate is full at the moment, so I can't tell if she's being deliberately obfuscatory or not.”

She is, quite clearly. Perhaps more to the point, she appears to be unhinged and loose among us.

“There's nothing obfuscatory, for example, about Foucault…”

Well, he’s much more comprehensible than, say, Derrida. But that’s beside the point. I haven’t suggested otherwise. I take exception to Foucault not because he was difficult to fathom, but because he was so often tendentious, innacurate or absurd.

Regarding the passage you quoted, I haven’t suggested that you personally, or anyone else, necessarily believes “anything goes”. (Though one notes that several prominent PoMo figures, among them Derrida and Fish, have used epistemic “playfulness” to disregard the contradictions of their own ideas, or to deny past assertions and their unflattering implications, which rather favours my point.)

I’ve suggested that an acceptance of many PoMo ideas, or at least the popular understanding of them, can make it extremely difficult to say in consistent terms why, for instance, Western secular democracy is preferable to Islamic theocracy, or totalitarianism or whatever. Or why the education of women is a good thing to encourage, and the stoning of gay people is not. Notions of cultural equivalence and epistemic relativism have, directly or otherwise, informed popular ideas of being ‘non-judgmental’ and deferential towards other cultural or religious values, however obnoxious and incompatible they might be. This equivalence, ostensibly in the name of fairness, is an intellectually dubious position, and one that raises practical, real world problems.

I’m glad you’ve found the discussion rewarding, at least in part.

Dr.Dawg

Thank you for the welcome, David. This seems like an agreeable place to wrestle.

I agree that many in the PoMo camp (if such a camp exists) are on the Left politically. But there appears to be a suggestion--and if I'm wrong, I'll stand corrected--that these left politics are the real agenda, with PoMo being a kind of front for them. If this is, at least in part, what you are asserting, you might wish to confirm that, because, if so, I have more to say on the subject.

You slip rather too easily into phrases like "cultural equivalence." My previous background was in literature, but I'm currently a returning student in anthropology, and I'm not aware of any serious commentator who argues such a thing as "cultural equivalence." Do you mean "cultural relativism," not to be confused (as it so often is) with "moral relativism?" "Identity politics," as you must know, are not blindly accepted by many of us on the Left. Personally, I think they are founded on essentialism, and, pushed to the extreme, are a strategic blunder.

Certainly, though, PoMo writers investigate such matters as the social construction of gender--and why not? Indeed, it's matters such as the social construction of gender that give rise to PoMo theorizing in the first place. More traditional notions of gender simply don't hold water.

If this is the place for it, I would be interested in your specific critique of Foucault. If you're going to use words like "tendentious" and "absurd," it seems to me that some actual examples would be helpful. (If you've already provided these elsewhere, my apologies. I just discovered this site, and have not had time for more than a cursory looking-around.)

You appear to be concerned--and I'm not criticizing you for this--about the practical consequences of all of this theorizing. It appears to you to be subversive, which it may well be, but that doesn't mean leaving the field open to Osama. Being open to other cultures and epistemes doesn't mean acceptance of invidious practices in those cultures or in our own. I think that we need to approach other cultures in a more sophisticated way than we in the West have tended to do, but that doesn't mean blind acceptance of all things and all acts, by ourselves or by others. Otherwise, we would have accepted German Nazism as the legitimate cultural expression of a Nordic tribe, and explained away their genocidal and expansionist bent as "culturally equivalent." No one that I have read has taken that kind of extreme view of cultural relativism.

David

Dr Dawg,

I wouldn’t think of it as wrestling, but you’re welcome all the same.

“But there appears to be a suggestion… that these left politics are the real agenda, with PoMo being a kind of front for them.”

Given the near-saturation prevalence of leftist politics of some kind among enthusiasts of PoMo, and given how frequently PoMo ideas are used to advance some form of collectivist, anti-bourgeois or anti-capitalist position, that’s a fair point to raise, I think. This isn’t to suggest that all practitioners of PoMo (however we define it) are using their theorising simply as a front for leftwing politics or some pseudo-radicalism; merely that many, perhaps most, appear to be doing something like that to varying degrees. And this doesn’t seem to happen quite so much in departments of engineering or mathematics. One need only note how frequently, even habitually, capitalism is critiqued or “problematised” in PoMo student papers to entertain the possibility of political feather fluffing and ideological lockstep.

Added to that, there are an unusually high number of charlatans – among them Carolyn Guertin – whose “work” has no obvious purpose except as a platform to voice a range of positions associated with one part of the political spectrum. (I realise that one might unearth something Guertin has written that isn’t entirely ridiculous, but it’s difficult to take her theorising in good faith given just how much of it is absurd, and just how absurd it is.) This also raises the issue of systemic dysfunction and bias in parts of the humanities. Guertin may be cartoonish, but she’s far from unique in her flummery. One has to ask how such evident inadequacy and deception passed peer review. Her thesis, such as it is, was presumably read, proof-read, evaluated, etc. Perhaps this was done by people who share Guertin’s shortcomings, her deceitfulness, or perhaps her politics.

“I'm not aware of any serious commentator who argues such a thing as ‘cultural equivalence’.”

I suggest you read the Guardian, specifically the comments of Madeleine Bunting, Seumas Milne, Martin Jacques, et al. There are plenty of specific examples found throughout this site. (See links earlier in thread.) Their arguments on a range of issues are clearly based on the assumption of some equivalence between cultures – selectively applied, of course - and, in Bunting's case, between scientific methodology and religious belief. Though you might well say they aren’t serious commentators, and I wouldn’t argue with that.

“’Identity politics’, as you must know, are not blindly accepted by many of us on the Left.”

Agreed, and I haven’t suggested otherwise. I should point out that there are some voices on the left whose commentary I very much respect. (See blogroll and archive for examples.) But the fact that, for instance, Ophelia Benson and Norman Geras have written some precise rebuttals of cultural equivalence or identity politics doesn’t alter the fact that those ideas are effectively products of leftwing thought and are championed (chiefly) by people of the left. And I should point out that those on the left whose thinking I do respect have many of their most heated and protracted arguments with other people on the left who do advance such things.

“If this is the place for it, I would be interested in your specific critique of Foucault.”

It isn’t, insofar as I don’t have time to itemise and organise my objections right now. I will, I think, return to Foucault and his vanities at a later date. I have touched briefly on his flirtation with Islamic fundamentalism in the post below:

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/04/foucault_and_th.html

“You appear to be concerned - and I'm not criticizing you for this - about the practical consequences of all of this theorizing. It appears to you to be subversive, which it may well be…”

Well, I’m concerned by a number of things. Much of the fashionable theorising is a distraction from affecting positive change, or, quite often, it’s an obstacle to such. And much of it is fatuous posturing for insecure neo-Marxist ideologues pretending to be educators or bearers of wisdom. Hence the gratuitously opaque prose, which seems as much a stylistic affectation as a technical necessity. If you want to improve the world or reduce poverty or child mortality or whatever, fretting over “penile imperialism” or the social construction of reality doesn’t seem to achieve very much beyond one’s immediate circle.

When practical consequences are discernible, they’re often regressive – as with the cultivation of tribal identity politics, the curtailment of free speech, pretentious deference to backwards or incompatible belief systems, etc. And then there's a more general blunting of the critical senses due to the acceptance of tendentious, heavily politicised jargon and a tendency to political lockstep. Much of the jargon, even in art or literary studies, is loaded with quasi-Marxist assumptions and points of reference, thus students are steered towards thinking in quasi-Marxist terms. I’m concerned because a huge amount of theorising actually disables necessary or desirable change and inhibits real progress, whether in terms of sexual politics in the developing world, or child mortality or whatever. See below, which touches on this:

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/05/vagina_warriors.html

See also these:

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/02/the_perils_of_m.html

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/02/blunting_the_se.html

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/02/art_bollocks_re.html

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/04/on_pomo_contrad.html

So, I hope you see my objections aren’t entirely the result of my being pure evil.

Dr.Dawg

"If you want to improve the world or reduce poverty or child mortality or whatever, fretting over “penile imperialism” or the social construction of reality doesn’t seem to achieve very much beyond one’s immediate circle."

Well, maybe so, but I don't see that coloured, charmed, strange atomic particle theorizing cures leprosy, so there we are. Does all intellectual endeavour have to be practically useful? Isn't that a fairly outmoded Stalinoid notion?

On Foucault, I'm less interested in his momentary political dalliances than with his interesting and, I believe, quite valuable contribution to discourse theory. And, as an example of PoMo lucidity, his "History of Sexuality" is pretty good.

My bottom line is that I'm with you on intellectual sloppiness, but I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. You preempted me on the newspaper columnists--I don't look to such sources for serious intellectual insight--but the whole notion of "cultural equivalence," which I notice you wield quite a bit, is somewhat of a straw man, with respect.

I'd actually wandered around enough on your site to have encountered and read the three articles that you reference. And, for the record, I disagree on a number of points, but the idea of "pure evil" should be confined to Islamist atrocities that have no root causes, and similar metaphysical eruptions, n'est-ce pas? :)

David

Dr Dawg,

“Well, maybe so, but I don't see that coloured, charmed, strange atomic particle theorizing cures leprosy, so there we are.”

But particle physicists rarely, if ever, make great claims with regard to their work about “social justice” or “resisting capitalist hegemony” or whatever. PoMo theorists do, very often, and about some rather unlikely things. In certain hands almost anything is political, apparently. Hence the comments about fluffing feathers and political narcissism. In short, I’d suggest there’s an awful lot of bathwater and a very small baby.

“The whole notion of ‘cultural equivalence’, which I notice you wield quite a bit, is somewhat of a straw man, with respect.”

I disagree. I don’t know how closely you follow the UK leftist press or browse popular leftish websites, but variations of these ideas are actually quite commonplace, albeit tacitly assumed in many cases. These assumptions are perhaps most obvious in discussions about multiculturalism and Islamist intemperance.

I have to be brief as I’m needed elsewhere, but feel free to rummage around and argue with the locals. I ask only that you play nicely. Well, fairly nicely.

Anon

"I think that we need to approach other cultures in a more sophisticated way than we in the West have tended to do"

Edward Said' is responsible for one of the greatest myths of the age. The West has for many years absorbed ideas and influences from wherever it has had contact. This stands in stark contrast to the attitude of some other cultures. Consider our attitude to Chinese ideas compared to the reverse. Were the first western eyes opened to Buddha and Confuscious in the 1960s? As a metric, consider Said's original country and consider how few western books get translated into Arabic compared with how many foreign books get translated into European languages.

http://www.reason.com/news/show/117328.html

AntiCitizenOne

> "coloured, charmed, strange atomic particle theorizing cures leprosy"

SQUIDs# help cure cancer. They are the main part of an MRI machine.


#Superconducting Quantum Interference Device

AntiCitizenOne

> Does all intellectual endeavour have to be practically useful?

It should be if it's funded by extortion from a society.

Dr.Dawg

Anon:

What myth is Said being accused of perpetrating? The imposition of the West on the Rest doesn't mean that the former eschews intellectual plunder. Did Said say the opposite?

A pity, by the way, the the underground in Dar-ul-Islam is peddling Hayek. Rorty would be a better read, and more relevant.

AC1:

Your last sentence is worth framing. I'm sure that when you hear the word "culture" you reach for a blunt instrument, revolvers now being illegal and all.

Gekkobear

"> Does all intellectual endeavour have to be practically useful?

It should be if it's funded by extortion from a society.

Posted by: AntiCitizenOne"

Well isn't that just a bourgeoisie patriarchal inference from a...

WAHAHAHA sorry, I tried. I really did.

TDK

I would suggest that Anon uses a link to Reason not to highlight the particular fact that Hayek is not published there, as to source the general fact that little is translated there:

"five times more books are translated annually into Greek, a language spoken by just 11 million people, than into Arabic"

Source UN report (link seems broken)
http://www.undp.org.sa/Reports/AHDR%202003%20-%20English.pdf

I would welcome Rorty being translated into Arabic. Do YOU object to Hayek being translated?

TDK

While on the subject of Said, here is a right wing nutjob (I say that to save Dr Dawg th etrouble) expounding on Orientalism

http://roger-scruton.blogspot.com/2007/06/glory-of-west-is-that-life-is-open-book.html

Dr.Dawg

TDK:

Many thanks for the link! No, of course I don't object to Hayek being translated. I was just grumbling. My top ten for the Arab world would probably differ from yours. But top ten, hundred, thousand there must be. Part of our present nightmare is this kind of insularity. (Are current Arab novelists and poets getting translated and circulated here, by the way? I simply ask.)

Scruton's mini-essay presents arguments that I've seen before. But no one has ever seriously claimed that the West doesn't appropriate elements from other cultures and civilizations. I'm not aware that Said made any such assertion. His thesis was primarily about the way we are conditioned to view the Other, and (while I will, when I have time, look for Ibn Warraq's book) I think it still holds water.

AntiCitizenOne

When I hear culture I think of yogurt.

Most people who use the word culture mean something very different. They mean a body of work produced by people who look down on the genuine cultural work being paid for by vast majorities of people.

David

AntiCitizenOne,

I suppose the issue is whether being interested in culture necessarily entails state subsidy. I’d like to think I’m not a total heathen, but very few of my cultural interests involve the tax payer footing the bill.

Dr.Dawg

Are museums and libraries not funded by the taxpayer?

David

“Are museums and libraries not funded by the taxpayer?”

Yes, but visiting subsidised libraries and museums doesn’t define being cultured. I’m not averse to libraries and museums – I visited one over the weekend – but the role they play in my cultural life is extremely limited. It’ll be interesting to see how the more general role of such venues changes over time. The notion of art galleries, certainly contemporary galleries, as sole repositories of aesthetic excellence is already somewhat doubtful.

Dr.Dawg

No disagreement there. I guess I was getting at the larger issue, taxpayer subsidies for "high" culture. That would include museums and galleries, but also BBC Radio 3 and various granting agencies. Conservatives have a hard time with this, but leaving such things to the market makes my blood run cold. Surely culture in this sense is, or should be, a collective resource.

David

“Surely culture in this sense is, or should be, a collective resource.”

Broadly speaking, I don’t have a sharply defined opinion on this. I don’t rail against the local museum’s £4m overhaul, for instance, though the place now has the obligatory PC whiff about it. What I object to, and have grumbled about elsewhere, is the increasing public subsidy of arts “projects” that are aesthetically vacuous and overtly political – guess which way - and in all the worst possible senses. That lefties can get publicly-funded grants to essentially peddle their political beliefs – and do so really badly – is shameful. It’s parasitic flimflam.

Scott Burgess has written about this at some length:

http://dailyablution.blogs.com/the_daily_ablution/2007/03/the_extraordina.html

http://dailyablution.blogs.com/the_daily_ablution/2007/03/exclusive_inclu.html

http://dailyablution.blogs.com/the_daily_ablution/2007/03/the_gravy_train.html

By the way, I notice you’ve added this site to your blogroll under the heading “Intelligence on the Right.” I’m flattered, of course. But I’m not entirely sure how I qualify as being “on the right.” I’m just not on the left. Unless I’m in denial and am actually – as previously suggested – composed of pure evil.

Dr.Dawg

Aw, I've read that sort of stuff before--dissing a granting agency by looking at titles of projects is a favourite pastime of journalists over here with time on their hands. But this reminds me of where I came in: mocking without depth tends to annoy me (whereas, of course, mocking *with* depth is a pleasure to read). Check out the actual projects, not just the titles, and see if they're really such a waste of time and money. [Declaration: I was a grants officer once, and routinely became annoyed by some of the uninformed jibber-jabber in the popular press. This brings it all back.]

On the blogroll thing, one should never be binary about these things, but, reading around the site, I assumed (and that's a risk, admittedly)that your politics were conservative. If I'm wrong, I'll be pleased to open a new category for you. :)

Dr.Dawg

Never mind, I fixed it. :)

David

If you browse Scott’s site he does more than just look at the project titles, and the point about political bias remains. To the best of my knowledge there’s no comparable rightwing equivalent to this subsidised posturing. I seriously doubt the Arts Council and associated bodies would go for that, and nor should they.

I’m sure many of the recipients imagine themselves principled and righteous. But I fail to see much principle in taking the bourgeois dime to badmouth the bourgeois people whose bourgeois jobs and bourgeois taxes make this kind of horseshit possible.

“Never mind, I fixed it.”

Thanks, I do feel I should have my own tribe.

AntiCitizenOne

> Are museums and libraries %%% funded by the taxpayer?

Yes sadly. I'd prefer them to be funded by the people that visit them and enjoy their contents.

AntiCitizenOne

> Surely culture in this sense is, or should be, a collective resource.

Collectives form themselves.

You mean coercion rather than collective.

It's like the difference between an estate of people who live near each other and a prison.

Vitruvius

On 2003-10-19, Alan Charles Kors wrote the following, which I consider to be a valid criticism of left-of-the-isle postmodernism:

"The cognitive behavior of Western intellectuals faced with the accomplishments of their own society, on the one hand, and with the socialist ideal and then the socialist reality, on the other, takes one's breath away. In the midst of unparalleled social mobility in the West, they cry "caste." In a society of munificent goods and services, they cry either "poverty" or "consumerism." In a society of ever richer, more varied, more productive, more self-defined, and more satisfying lives, they cry "alienation." In a society that has liberated women, racial minorities, religious minorities, and gays and lesbians to an extent that no one could have dreamed possible just fifty years ago, they cry "oppression." In a society of boundless private charity, they cry "avarice." In a society in which hundreds of millions have been free riders upon the risk, knowledge, and capital of others, they decry the "exploitation" of the free riders. In a society that broke, on behalf of merit, the seemingly eternal chains of station by birth, they cry "injustice." In the names of fantasy worlds and mystical perfections, they have closed themselves to the Western, liberal miracle of individual rights, individual responsibility, merit, and human satisfaction. Like Marx, they put words like "liberty" in quotation marks when these refer to the West."

Link

Haha, omg, you guys are so bitter. PoMo texts are jokes, and you guys don't get it: "that banana on the floor is a serious safety violation-- someone could slip!" How do you expect to follow this stuff when you read it without context? With views of science that date back centuries. You can draw the similar (mistaken) conclusions from Quine (re:truth). Excellent vocabulary, but as frankly mistaken in your interpretations of the philosophies you deride, which is, yes, ironic.

David

Link,

Yes, of course, that must be it. We just don’t get the joke. How knuckleheaded we must be. But perhaps you’d be good enough to explain how, exactly, the above critique is “mistaken”, and, in doing so, perhaps you could explain exactly what “context” would make Ms Guertin’s handiwork lucid and meaningful?

Guest

http://www.vacuumwoman.com/About/Main/Curly.doc
Would be interested to hear your thoughts about this.

ConcernedEngineer

I wonder how effective it might be to show postmodernists the foolishness of their total rejection of objectivity and the reality of the antithesis by writing about objectivity, truth, Jesus, the cross, people, justice, and reality in a prose or style which some might call a postmodern rhythm. By rejecting all rules, standards, objective truth, they set themselves up to "win" any argument and shame anyone who would disagree with them, but by rejecting objectivity, standards, and truth, their victorious claims are reduced to absurd gibberish, and the sane person can use postmodern rhetorical poetry to persuade people that by denying the reality of the antithesis, they are proving the reality of the antithesis, since the antithesis of the statement, "There exists a real antithesis" is "There is no antithesis."

Then again, you can just rebuke them for their rebellious godlessness and go on your merry way.

Incidentally, this is also why most of the crap that some call "modern art" totally sucks.

DensityDuck

Postmodernist theory is what the modern world produces instead of poetry.

Clay Childe


I was writing something that required a few lines of feminist gobbledygook - I googled 'feminism' and 'quantum' (two unlikely bedfellows) just to see what mischief I could make., and lo and behold this woman and her dissertation pops up.

I had no idea such insanity existed - insanity because it's taken seriously by all 'evils of patriarchy' females locked tight in their 'gender is a social construct' box.

I fear for womankind.

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