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Egalitarian Epistemology

During recent discussions about postmodernism and its implications, a few readers have argued, implausibly, that as a loose set of ideas postmodernism has no single political bias. It’s true that postmodernism is remarkably ill-defined, not least by its devotees, and one might use the term ‘postmodern’ as a kind of shorthand to refer to any cultural product that’s conspicuously aware of its own history and conventions. One might, for instance, regard The Simpsons as postmodern without assigning any particular political leaning to its characters or creators.

Frank_lentricchia_2But insofar as postmodernism refers to a range of claims regarding the relativism of knowledge and ethics - specifically the claim, expressed with varying degrees of emphasis and clarity, that all aspects of reality are socially constructed or meaningful only as social intercourse - then these claims are political in their implications. As are assertions that Western knowledge – regarding, say, cosmology, computing or medical treatments – is a de facto power grab, the aim of which is, allegedly, to bolster the ideological “hegemony” of Western capitalist societies. Indeed, the assertion of epistemic questions as political activism is a defining trait of much postmodern rhetoric. The leftwing theorist Frank Lentricchia happily told the world that the postmodern movement “seeks not to find the foundation and conditions of truth, but to exercise power for the purpose of social change.” Achieved, one might suppose, even at the cost of truth. This overt political emphasis has led to an error and a misplaced pluralism. Specifically, the conflation of knowledge and fairness, and typically expressed as a belief that no one epistemological position – at least not a “Western” one - can be “privileged” above another, ostensibly in the interests of resisting “cultural imperialism.”

The assertion that reality is a matter of local consensus or social custom, with no existence independent of the claims made about it, seems to presuppose that there is nothing “outside” of social intercourse, and by extension that nothing much matters besides society. The default emphasis of such claims is on society, not the individual – who is, implicitly, reduced to an artefact of society, and whose character can presumably be reconstructed by society as is seen fit. Hence the preoccupation with social consensus as defining what reality is, whether or not the particulars of reality are known to human beings. A philosophy of this kind would appear to be a narcissistic cul-de-sac and metaphysically agoraphobic.

Several PoMo figures, among them Andrew Ross and Sandra Harding, have argued that rationality, coherence and standards of evidence are merely social artefacts coloured by white male patriarchy and other Western vices. Thus, it is argued, one cannot assert the primacy of the scientific method over, say, a belief in voodoo or Scientology. Defined in this way, epistemology becomes a matter of lifestyle choice or political preference. Hence Harding’s unveiling of “feminist empiricism”, a quasi-Marxist alternative to the kind that actually works.

Sandra_hardingThis kind of epistemic egalitarianism may seem quite thrilling to a subset of leftist ideologues, particularly those who resent the functional pre-eminence of Western societies, and who feel it is somehow wrong that so-called “Western ways of knowing” are also pre-eminent in their effectiveness. It’s perhaps unnecessary to point out that this levelling of all knowledge claims is also of enormous benefit to Ross and Harding personally, both of whom make grandiose claims based on precious little evidence. But the practical and ethical implications of levelling knowledge in this way, supposedly in the name of “fairness”, are both repellent and unsound. Given there are those who rail against the “microfascism” of “evidence-based discourse” and its “hidden political agenda”, this particular strand of egalitarian fantasy can lead to a nihilistic conclusion.

Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom address this point, among others, in an essay for Axess magazine. In it, they challenge those who would disassemble and deny “not just the criteria for science and reason, but science and reason themselves.” By way of illustration, Benson and Stangroom quote Frederique Apffel Marglin, who rails against smallpox vaccination while romanticising the Indian worship of Sitala, the goddess of smallpox, as an equally valid “narrative”. Marglin – who, one hopes, has been vaccinated against life-threatening diseases - affects to “challenge science’s claim to be a superior form of knowledge which renders obsolete more traditional systems of thought.” In an essay published in Dominating Knowledge: Development, Culture and Resistance, she writes,

“In absolutely negativising disease, suffering and death, in opposing these to health and life in a mutually exclusive manner, the scientific medical system of knowledge can separate in individuals and in populations what is absolutely bad, the enemy to be eradicated, from what is good, health and life. In the process it can and does objectify people with all the repressive political possibilities that objectification opens.”

As Benson and Stangroom point out,

“There is something rather stunning about a level of science-phobia that sees ‘negativising’ disease, suffering and death, as harmful and repressive. It is extraordinary that Marglin, even for a moment, countenances the possibility that human suffering might be a source of joy and pleasure if only it weren't for the intervention of an oppressive system of Western medicine.”

This is the postmodern wasteland to which egalitarian epistemology can lead, and to which, left unchecked, it very often does.

Please, read it all. Related: Ophelia Benson on lit crit insecurity, “physics envy” and why truth matters. (mp3)

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I hope you weren't referring to me in the first line of your post. I have argued the very opposite about PoMo--its ideas and practices are not equally distributed across the political spectrum. Quite the reverse.

However, to the meat of your post--and meaty it is. I'll try to get at what I see are the main bones of contention.

"Thus, it is argued, one cannot assert the primacy of the scientific method over, say, a belief in voodoo or Scientology." "It is argued"? By whom, specifically? This, to use your phrase, seems a bit of a straw man. Science is not immune to critique--certainly the *practice* of science. As for the underpinnings of that most productive of procedures, there is controversy that began well before PoMo. In fact, as I've been reflecting on Karl Popper, for one, I think he might be claimed as a precursor to PoMo theorists, in two respects: first, his view of history as a series of accounts, or stories, not hard data from which patterns emerge; and second, his notion of falsifiability, which abandons--if I read him correctly--the idea that science discovers/uncovers Truth.

An instrumentalist view of science abandons the notion of "objective reality" in favour of models. The discussion between instrumentalists and realists has been around for yonks. It's still going on. I think it would be fair to call Richard Rorty an instrumentalist. But please note that none of this entails putting science on the same plane as Scientology or voodoo.

I read a couple of the papers that are the subject of merriment here and elsewhere. The writers (here I cringe and duck) make a fair bit of sense. Let me provide one instance. The rejection of "evidence based discourse" is NOT a rejection of evidence per se. It is a rejection of an exclusionary practice in which ONLY a scientific practice will do. As someone who recently lost my partner to a particularly horrible form of cancer, I can tell you, with considerable feeling, that oncologists, within the milieu of suffering, come across, frankly, as psychopaths--"micro-fascism" seems to me entirely appropriate to describe their approach to patients. They do not treat the person; they treat the disease. They don't say, "Ms. So-and-so in Room 154"; they say "We have an interesting idiosyncratic pancreatic cancer in Room 154." This is the sort of thing that the writers referred to are getting at.

A holistic approach to disease, on the other hand, centres treatment in the person. Again, this does not exclude scientific evidence by any means; it simply includes a great deal more, and I'm not talking apricot pits. Alternative therapies tend to be dismissed out of hand by current allopathic practice, unless they can be fitted into the dominant paradigm (here I'm thinking of acupuncture in particular, dismissed as superstition until the discovery of beta-endorphins). Transformative experiences, such as trance, are relegated to the dust heap of mysticism and superstition. Maybe they shouldn't be. Maybe they have a role in the healing process. I'm more or less agnostic on that, but open to the suggestion. But so long as a hospital in practice is just a scientific laboratory with slightly larger lab rats, other forms of knowledge will simply be dismissed.

Sorry to go on, but I think that, in the rush to defend scientific evidence-gathering (which I wholeheartedly support), we run the risk of missing so much and so much, just as an over-hasty rejection of science (as opposed to a critique of science practice, although I think Benson and Stangroom conflate the two) would be destructive.

I have by now ploughed through many of the articles referenced here, and other articles referenced in those. There is, to be sure, some evident clutter--I read one piece about Newtonian mechanics that seemed to be a parody of Sokal's parody, but I don't know enough about physics to know whether or not I'm being had. But on the central piece (Benson and Stangroom), a few more random thoughts:

On anthropology, they are wildly off-base. Anthropology (with the exception of physical or forensic anthropology) is about the human subject, not the human object. Advocacy anthropology is perfectly legitimate. Anthropology did provide aid and comfort to colonialism in numerous ways--if citations are wanted, I'll bring 'em on by the truckload. Evans-Pritchard comes immediately to mind.

Like any idea stretched past its elastic limit, epistemic relativism snaps at some point. That doesn't mean, however, that a moderate position on it is worthless. But it always seems to be all or nothing in these debates: either we return to the fetishizing of science as the be-all and the end-all, or we vanish into a puff of postmodernist smoke--nothing in between. Let me cite one solid counter-example: the water-temples of Bali. J. Stephen Lansing and his team became interested in this complex body of knowledge and practices (there's a good documentary called "The Goddess and the Computer" that provides a capsule account). The team discovered that the outcome of all this was an optimization of crops through a highly sophisticated system of water distribution. It was done without the Western episteme of science--it was all religious rituals and such--but it worked. A traditional system of knowledge was, in other words, productive. What is interesting is that the water priests readily adopted computers as an aid in carrying out their mission. Roy Rappaport's "Pigs for the Ancestors" is another excellent read in this respect. (The second edition is best, with his long, respectful engagement with his critics.)

The authors confuse beliefs with epistemes, too. They bring up so-called "Intelligent Design" and Holocaust denial, for example. Apples and oranges. These aren't alternative epistemologies. Indeed, they attempt to co-opt (not subvert) the dominant one--much recourse is had to "evidence" and so on.

I've rambled on far too long, David, but it's your fault. :)


It's not the politics of post-modernism that to me are objectionable. It's the anti-intellectualism, the neo-solipsism, that's objectionable, because ultimately, post-modernism is devoid of meaning, intellect, or utility.


Dr Dawg,

“I hope you weren't referring to me in the first line of your post.”

No, emailed grumblings.

“By whom, specifically?”

Madeleine Bunting, for one. Her defences of Islam, for instance, have been quite PoMo and baroque. But variations of these ideas inform commentary by a number of regular Guardian contributors. The essential argument being that to criticise the religious or cultural practices of The Other is, by definition, imperialistic and wicked. I can’t believe I’m suggesting this, but you really should browse the Guardian comment pages. They’re a treasure trove of peculiar ideas.

“The writers (here I cringe and duck) make a fair bit of sense.”

You’d better duck. If you read the link above, for instance, you’ll see the author is asserting rather more than you are. And it’s clearly more than a matter of “clutter”.

“That doesn't mean, however, that a moderate position on it is worthless.”

I haven’t suggested otherwise, though the examples I’ve given could scarcely be considered “moderate”. By way of another example, Sandra Harding has claimed that Einstein’s theories of relativity are “gender-biased” and thus disreputable. And, famously, she described Newton’s Principia as a “rape manual” and claimed that rape and torture metaphors could be used to usefully describe its contents. She also claimed that “science is a male rape of female nature.” With these things in mind, I don’t think we need take Ms Harding’s output terribly seriously.

“I've rambled on far too long, David, but it's your fault. :)”

Yes, I fear it is. When, oh when, will I learn?

old blockhead

Dr. Dawg - Popper doesn't view history as a series of accounts or stories; you're confusing him with Foucault and Kuhn. And Popper's falsifiability isn't about 'abandoning the idea that science discovers truth' - but about the assertion that science discovers truth. He rejects dogma, which closes a scientific theory to testing and insists on that theory retaining an openness to falsification; otherwise, it fails in its ongoing search for truth. I suggest you re-read Popper.

I've made a comment on postmodernism in the other thread but will repeat a few points here. Postmodernism is not a theory but an action of deconstruction of a synthesizing theory or knowledge base. This destruction of any means of synthesis results in a sensation of freedom, a false freedom, where the individual can themselves connect X and Y anyway they want - without the constraints of a developed knowledge base.

Since postmodernism rejects reason and logic and relies on the immediacy of emotion, these connections are spurious, ephemeral and of course, irrelevant to any development of truth.

What moved into the Gap left by postmodernism's rejection of synthesis? Socialism, which is a metanarrative, based also on emotion rather than reason, and focused on an essentialist Truth, the notion of a Future Purity, a return to Eden as it were.

So, postmodernism is, as itself only an action and not a theory, inevitably bonded to a theory, a political theory - socialism.

No, Dr. Dawg, what you are ignoring in your Rousseauian romanticization of 'traditional societies' is their population size and settlement patterns. Traditional medicines are most certainly effective, for small populations and for migratory ones. They are useless for the infectious diseases that emerge within large settled populations, such as smallpox, influenze, TB, etc.

Industrialism, as a particular economic mode, emerged in the West as a means to supporting its increasing populations. It developed nowhere else; the rest of the world remained stagnant in its knowledge base - and unable, as well, to support any increase in population because of that stagnant knowledge base.


"Sandra Harding has claimed that Einstein’s theories of relativity are “gender-biased” and thus disreputable."

I take it this is a rip-off from Irigaray. Past the elastic limit, I think, although I think we do gender nature and science. The Newton stuff seems off the wall, although I confess I haven't read Harding on it, but the notion of science as a masculine set of practices and the assigning of the female gender to nature is not particularly new, and phrases like "the rape of nature" didn't originate with Harding. I think there's something to this.

I did read the link, and carefully--and another like it as I followed the links, both about medical practice. The first, unfortunately, had far too much regurgitation of postmodern commonplaces, and was *really* short on examples. But...well, I tried to make my point earlier. I don't think I can add to what I said then. Let me just repeat that the authors do not reject evidence as such, but a set of practices instead. And I think they're on to something, although one can find it better expressed in Foucault--and R.D. Laing, and there's a blast from the past for you.


Dr Dawg,

It may surprise you to know that one of my favourite quotes is by Laing, from ‘Knots’. Foucault, on the other hand, I would have happily choked with piano wire. And the ludicrous Ms Harding… well, gassing her like a badger springs immediately to mind.


old blockhead:

Are you, perchance, a professor at Bishop's University? I think I can tell the lioness by her paw, but I'm willing to stand corrected.

But to business. You refer, amazingly, to my alleged "Rousseauian romanticization of 'traditional societies'." Where the hell did that come from? It's an utter fabrication. All I am saying is that traditional knowledge should not be dismissed out of hand. Why does it always have to be all or nothing?

I suggest that *you* re-read Popper on history ("The Poverty of Historicism". He makes the point quite explicitly that "history" and "story" have the same root. I'll track down the reference if I have time, but I'm confusing him with no one else. It is precisely because history does not consist of hard data or sufficient data that discerning patterns in it is a fool's errand. As for falsifiability, I do not think I have misinterpreted Popper in the least. All scientific discovery is contingent--open to falsification. The notion that the Truth has been found by science is precisely that dogma that you refer to.

old blockhead

Dr. Dawg - no, I'm not a professor anywhere.

Now, I'll stand by my criticism of you - both with your Rousseauian romanticization of traditional societies - that ignores, utterly, the variables of their operation, and your total misreading of Popper.
The fact that the Greek 'historia' means story doesn't mean that history, as research, is fictional. I suggest you read his analysis of the Third World thought process to understand that the analytic result is an attempt to articulate the truth, not write a story.

The fact that you reject truth is due to your postmodernist dogma, a dogma that is focused on the privileging of the psychological nature of the individual's sensations.

As Popper said - 'our main concern in philosophy and science should be the search for truth'. (Objective Knowledge, 44). And truth is not subjective but objective, it is about the 'correspondence of a statement to a fact' (46) and that fact exists regardless of you or me. And, "the aim of science is truth in the sense of better approximation to truth, or greater verisimilitude" 57.



Understand that I am not claiming Popper as a postmodernist. But "truth" in his methodology is always contingent. I went no further than that, nor do intend to. Obviously he had a notion that somehow, through his methodology, one drills down towards something called "truth," but that doesn't invalidate the point I made--if you wouldn't mind re-reading it.

I would appreciate your abandoning the straw man wrt the suggestion that I think history is fictional. I make no such claim. As noted earlier, my postmodernism is a moderate version. I believe that there are fundamental differences between fiction and historical narratives.

That will have to do. Your repeated falsehood about my alleged Rousseauianism is more than a little annoying, not to mentioned your increasingly garbled understanding of postmodernism.


Perhaps I should hand out finger food to smooth things along? Ah. Music might help. Something jolly.

old blockhead

Dr. Dawg - Popper's truth is contingent upon what?

You stated that he saw history as a 'series of accounts or stories, not hard data from which patterns emerge' and that he abandoned the 'idea that science discovers/uncovers Truth'.

Of course, I reject both of your opinions about Popper as invalid.

Now you are saying that his view is that one 'drills down' towards something called 'truth'. Actually, no, he doesn't; he doesn't put truth into quote marks. He is an objective realist; the acknowledges that the world is real and that its laws are real and not creations of our mind and that we can, over time, explore, examine and find out the nature of these truths.

These truths include the much more difficult truths about our own behaviour, ie, historical events, which are always subject to our 'Second World' individual psychological interpretations.

But, the thread of this post is the nature of postmodernism and its relation to a political perspective. Again, my view is that postmodernism is not a theory - it rejects theory as a metanarrative - and is instead merely an action of deconstruction of 'connections' - leaving the individual 'free' to voice any and all suggestions about relationships.

These include not merely the simplistic yet dangerous ones of the equivalence of medical treatments, but the ones of the equivalence of political and economic systems. Mugabe in Zimbabwe's equation of family peasant farms to large scale industrial farms has resulted in the collapse of the Zimbabwe food supply.

To fill the Gap, again, socialism moves in and becomes the handmaiden of postmodernism. The two are best friends against the values of reason, science, logic, the development of knowledge and the freedom of the individual to think.


Popper's truth is contingent upon what?

Ay-yi-yi. Thanks for the musical interlude, there, David.


Yes, every thread should have a musical interlude. And snacks.

If I can elaborate on a point I made yesterday…

Both Harding and Ross have been critiqued in detail in Why Truth Matters by Benson and Stangroom. I can’t claim to have read everything Ross has written, but what I have read hinges on assertions that are so loaded, unsupported or absurd that I’m disinclined to regard him as worthy of further attention. Like many of his peers, Ross seems to prefer strained metaphors, insinuation and “provocative” declarations to anything approaching a sound argument. If a meaningful critique of science is required, he simply isn’t the guy to call, even when every other guy is out of town. Ross was, of course, an editor of Social Text at the time of the Sokal hoax. That he’s still employed as an educator is, I think, a scandal, or possibly a cosmic joke.

Ross has a poor grasp of many of the scientific methods and ideas he decries and he habitually defers any specific substantiation of his claims, until one finishes his books and finds no actual evidence has been presented. He says, quite confidently, that the “founding certitudes” of modern science have been “demolished”, but doesn’t – so far as I can tell – explain exactly how, or by whom. It’s simply an assertion, or perhaps a wish.

In turn, this raises a question about the broader discipline, if such it deserves to be called. There are simply too many incompetents, ideologues and charlatans in the PoMo humanities to dismiss them as anomalies. That so many of them survive, even flourish, suggests a dysfunction of the academic environment they inhabit. I struggle to imagine another discipline – say, chemistry, medicine or mathematics - in which comparable levels of flummery, incompetence and deception would be tolerated, even championed.


I know who Ross is. I think I mentioned when I debuted here [ugh!]that I thought Sokal had done us a service. Ross should have been shown the door after that spectacular bit of incompetence.

That being said, I didn't agree with everything Sokal said afterwards, and we exchanged some email on it some time ago--notably on Baudrillard, instrumentalism and realism. He pointed me to another article he'd written (about "truth") and suggested I give him feedback. I did, and very respectful feedback too, but I didn't hear back!


To return to another earlier point…

It seems to me that the notion of epistemological egalitarianism is fundamentally disabling. In some commentary on the left, the disability is expressed as cultural equivalence and a belief that to criticise non-Western cultures is an act of “Eurocentric hubris” or “cultural racism”. These ideas are often rooted in, or justified with, postmodern theories.

We can’t just ignore jerks like Ross, Marglin, Guertin and Harding; or Michael Fegan, who said, proudly, that postmodernism is intended to “expose” rationality as “reinforcing the cultural tyranny of capitalism”, or something to that effect. Nor can we ignore Lentricchia’s preference for “social change” above attempts to fathom truth, or Lyotard’s dismissal of truth and clarity as being synonymous with “prisons and prohibitions.” Or Foucault’s assertion that reason is “the ultimate language of madness.” There’s a pattern here, and its broad implication seems to be that reason and evidence shouldn’t constrain one’s political beliefs. This must suit people whose politics are unworkable, destructive or bizarre.

And even if we did ignore these (and many other) claims as fits of bluster, the broader “egalitarian” anti-rational tenor has trickle-down effects. For instance, it makes it difficult to argue coherently why one should prefer secular democracies, in which women are educated and autonomous, to societies in which those freedoms are curtailed or extinguished. Or to say why young men shouldn’t be publicly hanged for kissing other young men.

If one cannot “privilege” so-called “Western values” above any others, even brutal and deplorable ones, how does one set about defending the rights of women and minorities in theocratic societies? How does one foster economic development or effect any desirable change? Indeed, it seems to raise questions as to how, if at all, those who believe such things would defend their own society and its freedoms against the belligerent “narrative” of another.

old blockhead

I completely agree, david.

Postmodernism is a helpless and hapless process. It functions within the individual's emotional and sensational level, as a 'local and proximate reaction' to an Other. It's defensive and illogical and operates on the most immediate and superficial level of reality.

It attempts to destroy the ongoing networking processes of particular units - which seek to develop and promote commonalities or Universals with each other. This is basic chemistry and biology. Plants will, over time, develop as a common type in an area, adapted to the env't.

Commonalities, or universals, are deemed Nefarious Agents of Control. Universals are most certainly controls - but that's to prevent randomness.

The rise of postmodernism in our universities is concomitant with a reduction in logical and critical thinking. After all, if you are a postmodernist, you can say anything, absolutely anything, the murkier the better, and get promoted, published and esteemed.

Since postmodernism is an action of destruction of any commonalities, this results in a world of 'particulars' - each entity living on its own. So, the second step of Postmodernism is to define all these particulars - as, well, as particulars. They are all the same. Without the capacity for Reason, Postmodernism cannot evaluate, because it cannot make scientifically provable causal connections (it claims causality only by fictional unprovable assertions).

Is postmodernism promoting the individual? No, for it rejects the capacity of the individual to reason and confines them to emotional reactionism.

Then, postmodernism, which has rejected knowledge based on reason, becomes the handmaiden of socialism, a utopian, anti-individual and anti-rational political system of authoritarian engineering.

Egalitarianism is profoundly irrational, for it ignores functionality. Is the finger equal to the heart? Can a society without industrialism support massive populations (eg, the disastrous results of Zimbabwe's reversal to peasant farming). Are there basic human rights - which require one to evaluate how societies treat their members?

Even more fascinating, in the 'real world', equality and equivalence are impossible. You have to have inequalities of energy content and capacity, or, the world would entropically decay to one that is incapable of any interaction - for all energy would be equally distributed. You have to have unequal distribution, and, you have to have synthesizing processes that establish generalities so that individual units can interact with each other - other than by the kinetic adversarial actions of postmodernism.



As you have frequently accused me of employing straw men in our on-going discussions, let me play the "right back atcha" card at this point. I don’t think that postmodernists (and I’m becoming increasingly leery of using this umbrella term to encompass everyone from Feyerabend to Rorty) argue for "epistemological egalitarianism" so much as against "epistemological exclusionism." Personally, I argue for a broader approach that allows one to find value in various incommensurable epistemes—a kind of syncretism, I guess.

And this pesky strawman “cultural equivalence” narks at me as well. I have no idea what it means, and I have never seen it used by the people I read—present company excepted, of course. I know that Indian and French cuisine, to use a trivial example, is subtler than Turkish and Samoan cuisine (from experience, I’m not certain that the latter cuisine even exists). I don’t think it’s "Eurocentric" to point this out. Moreover, there is a real difference between cultural relativism (a better concept than "equivalence") and moral relativism. Otherwise, anthropologists would have argued, for instance, that the German tribe half a century ago was simply operating under their own cultural logic when they perpetrated the Holocaust.

On the issue of rationalism, let me first disclose that I did my read-through of existentialist philosophy some years ago, and was impressed by much of it. Barrett’s “The Irrational Man” comes to mind immediately. I don’t think any existentialist philosopher rejected reason—they used enough of it in their own works, after all—but they felt (as do I) that there is more to anthropos than bare rationality. Hume says that reason is, or should be, the slave of the passions, but too often it has become the master. I gave one example of the modern hospital, when the person is not treated, just the disease. And, since we’ve discovered a common liking for R.D.Laing, his "The Divided Self" is on point—not to mention Foucault’s "History of Sexuality."

Opposing the cult of rationalism, in other words, doesn’t mean abandoning reason. Hence I think I know what Lyotard’s "prisons and prohibitions" refers to, as well as Foucault’s reference to "the ultimate language of madness." (Remember that anecdote in The Divided Self in which Laing looks at a physician’s notebook comments about his dealings with a mental patient, stands back, and asks who appears mad?) Reason and evidence are indispensable to anyone who wants to communicate with anyone else, but we shouldn’t ignore that they, too, are wielded politically.

But I think you raise the crux, once again, in your closing remarks: in an incoherent relativistic sociocultural universe, how can one defend secularism over theocracy, defend human rights outside one’s own house, and so on? I think this is the key question, in fact, underlying the other ones that we’ve been discussing.

This is, as they say, huge, so let me make a couple of brief points:

1)Is the notion of human rights a "Western" value? I see this as a problematic assertion. Ethical systems exist in every culture. And barbarity (in the emotive sense) has characterized many cultures including some European ones to this day (I’m thinking of the Balkans). The vexed question of female genital mutilation is one, for example, that calls for both clarity and considerable nuance. In its extreme forms it is simply wrong, in my view, like slavery or genocide, but local opposition to it is strategically better than appearing, once again, to impose a (well-intended) ban from the outside.

(Moreover, as is the case with almost every human issue, its etiology and cultural practice turns out to be extraordinarily complex. I have done a bit of reading about the veil, as another example of a complex practice; some women see it as protection against harassment, others as oppressive. My own view is that it is portable purdah, just as oppressive as Western fashions can be. Both the mini-skirt and the veil are, after all, imposed to one degree or another, on women, although there's much more to it than that. But I digress.)

2) Must we forever be trapped in binary thinking that sets up “The West” against “The Rest?” For example, doesn’t some of the excellent critical literature on women, development, and so on provide the theoretical tools to oppose rule by mullahs? I share the postmodernists’ broad critique of “the West” (now, there’s an unwieldy umbrella term), but that doesn’t make me blind.

3)Do postmodernists defend all cultural practices on the premise of "cultural equivalence?" Where, then, are the defences of slavery, torture and genocide? I suggest that, in much of the literature, there is indeed a strong moral undercurrent. Our visions of humanity are always culturally bound, but that doesn’t mean that other cultures and societies don’t have enlightened visions of their own with which we might feel considerable sympathy—in fact, that’s the whole point. Cultures aren’t monoliths, and people don’t equate to their rulers. I see common cause to be made, in defence of social arrangements and practices that allow for the full expression of human potential. That’s a culture-bound comment, but one might find—and should look for—suitable translations in other, "non-Western," cultures and societies.


Dr Dawg,

“Right back atcha.”

Maybe you’re confusing my comments with those of others here. I think I made sufficient distinction between PoMo as a broad set of claims with varying points of emphasis (and disagreement) and egalitarian epistemology as a subset of ideas, often colloquially expressed as an ideological reluctance to criticise other cultures, or the making of implausible excuses for them. Thus, no straw man.

Some of the most emphatic assertions of cultural equivalence have come from personal exchanges with left-leaning people who invoked PoMo figures to add grandeur to their claims. But plenty of examples can be found in the Guardian comment pages, most notably Madeleine Bunting, but also Martin Jacques, both of whom have at various times had remarkable difficulty saying why one might prefer democracy, secularism and Enlightenment values over totalitarianism, theocracy and fearful superstition. Indeed, if you browse said newspaper, you’ll find many of its commentators frown upon the making of any such attempt. Instead, the phrases “ethnocentric imperialism” and “cultural racism” are thrown about indignantly. (One of my favourites was “muscular liberals” - intoned with sneery contempt to describe those on the left who are prepared to say that women shouldn’t be kicked and punched for not wearing the niqab.)

“Opposing the cult of rationalism, in other words, doesn’t mean abandoning reason.”

I’m happy for medical care to be criticised for being insufficiently patient-friendly, and some of Laing and Foucault’s comments on psychiatry are quite interesting, even agreeable. But deploying the term “cult of rationalism” is just a wee bit loaded and implies rather more than it says. Ditto the more sweeping assertions listed above, of which there are many others along very similar lines.

“Is the notion of human rights a ‘Western’ value?”

To call them “Western” (which I pointedly haven’t done, except in quotation marks) is, perhaps, misleading. These ideals may have been codified and pursued most vigorously by Western societies, but they aren’t all necessarily exclusive to Western societies, and one hopes their benefits are universal. (One might, however, note the pointed differences between the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its belated and heavily qualified Islamic equivalent.)

“My own view is that it is portable purdah, just as oppressive as Western fashions can be. Both the mini-skirt and the veil are, after all, imposed to one degree or another, on women…”

This is an example of what I’d call cultural equivalence - the tendency to reach, reflexively, for some vaguely similar vice in one’s own culture and then pretend that it has equal significance and moral gravity. Whatever the intention, perhaps from a misplaced sense of “fairness”, it can lead to implausible claims of parity. Societies in which women are - systematically and with armed state backing - beaten and bundled into police cars for not being sufficiently “modest” or “pious” are in no sense equivalent to societies in which women can wear, or not wear, mini-skirts if they choose. Issues of fashion conformity do not exist on the same moral plane as violent coercion by a theocratic state and threats of imprisonment and beating. No-one will be imprisoned for not wearing makeup or sufficiently tarty shoes.



On your last point, don't misinterpret me. In any patriarchal society, women's fashions will not necessarily be dictated by women. That's the equivalence, and right there you will find women defending these imposed fashions, whether niqab or mini-skirt. I found it deeply ironic that a young female soccer-player in Canada was kicked off the field for wearing a khimār, and in France, of course, such girls cannot legally attend school. In one way or another, the woman is acted upon when it comes to clothing.

But that is not to say that there is no difference between relatively minor strictures and being tossed alive into burning buildings. I said no such thing. Another straw man, if I might dare to suggest it?


“Another straw man, if I might dare to suggest it?”

I’m sure readers will decide for themselves.

old blockhead

Dr. Dawg - here are some further points.

1)As you point out, you've reduced the idea of cultural relativism to one of personal taste - the so-called 'boutique multiculturalism'. This is not the cultural relativism some of us are rejecting.

Your equation of the miniskirt and veil as equivalent and as imposed is a relativist and ridiculous conclusion. Imposed by whom? Women had the capacity to refuse. It certainly wasn't defined as a religious dictum and women weren't threatened by religious leaders with death if they didn't wear the miniskirt. Young girls weren't allowed to die in a burning school because they weren't allowed out without their veils/miniskirts.

And we don't need any feminist tracts (I presume that's what you mean by critical literature on women) to oppose the mullahs. Basic reason can do that. After all, the silence of feminists on the abuses of women by the mullahs etc - is quite deafening.

2) Because Hume said something does not mean that it is valid. And further trivializing reason by defining it as a 'cult' is - heck, yet another red herring. You've made the use of reason completely ambiguous- for how is one to differentiate when its use is part of being a 'cult' and when it is, according to you, legitimate? Such a binary framework is essentially ambiguous.

3) Then, linking reason and evidence to political agendas is invalid. Both reason and evidence, as processes, exist prior to political agendas.

4) You ask whether human rights is a western value? You don't answer, but why should you even ask the question, for it implies that it is not a value-in-itself, acknowledging the common humanity of us all, but merely a social or political value.

5)Binary thinking doesn't mean the West versus the Rest, but is a basic process of cognition (see Aristotle's law of non-contradiction). How about thinking about what is ethical versus non-ethical - and to tie it to customs, ie, making it relativistic, rejects our common humanity.

6) Defense of slaves, torture and genocode? Postmodernists seem to neither defend nor reject it; they instead focus on its causality and insist that these practices exist only due to the perfidy of the West.


old blockhead:

And here are some further points for you:

1) I mean by "cultural relativism" much the same as what the Boasian tradition means by it. Your reference to "boutique multiculturalism" is just a fancy attempt at insult. And I think I made plain (although you might have missed it) that I see no over-all equivalence between theocratic rule and comparatively benign cultural mores over here with respect to women's dress.

2) "[T]he silence of feminists on the abuses of women by the mullahs etc - is quite deafening." Utter nonsense. Here, as one of countless examples to the contrary, is the website of a feminist group in Afghanistan: Here's a good article on Muslim feminism:

3) I knew I'd get into trouble for using the phrase" cult of rationalism" (NOT "cult of reason"). It's a useless and polemical phrase, and I hereby withdraw it.

4) Reason and evidence are deployed politically. Put a different way, the two don't exist in a vacuum--they are always used in reference to an argument. I am not using the word "politically" in some reductionist manner here--at least, I hope I'm not--but, rather, I'm trying to make the point that culture (including our own) is imbued with ideology, and (worse, from your point of view) that science is not value-free.

5) On the notion of human rights, please go back and read what I said.

6) Binary thinking, as I've learned over some time (once being enamoured of dialectics) is a trap for the unwary.

7) Why would postmodernists oppose torture, genocide and slavery if we allegedly believe in cultural equivalence? No serious observer blames each and every invidious local practice on "The West." And what do we do, if that charge is correct, with the Holocaust and "ethnic cleansing," both of them Western phenomena?


Dr. ("ironically" your choice of word) Dawg ("cartoon character"--again your choice of word):

Have you ever, once, conceded a point here in any of your numerous comments with the words: "yes, I agree, you speak the truth" or are you merely an "ironic cartoon character" that is predictably contrarian to anything and everything posted here?

Are you nothing more than a high falutin' troll disguised in PoMo vaunted rhetoric? In other words an "ironic cartoon dog?"


Have you ever, once, conceded a point here in any of your numerous comments with the words: "yes, I agree, you speak the truth"

Has anyone else? :)

But indeed I just finished withdrawing a comment about the "cult of rationality." I had been reacting to the oft-used phrase "cult of irrationality," but two wrongs don't make a right.

old blockhead

Dr. Dawg,

1)the Boas view of culture is cultural relativism - which is to say, that different beliefs and behaviour can't be evaluated. That removes these beliefs and behaviour from any structural foundation - which can be evaluated for its origins, function and ability to promote the lives of its citizens and any notion of a common humanity - and reduces them to matters of local taste.

2) You then bring in the notion of moral equivalence, but don't define this as common humanity but instead assert that 'ethical systems exist in every culture', which again, sets up ethical/moral values as relative.

3)You brought up the analogy between miniskirts and the veil, linking them as equivalent because 'both are imposed'. The miniskirt is most certainly not imposed by anyone - and then you claim that it has something to do with 'patriarchy' - that women's fashions are not 'necessarily dictated by women'. I like that term 'dictated'. Since when has fashion been dictated?

Do you ever wear a tie? Now, that's a wierd fashion - is it dictated by patriarchy? How about black tie and tails? Are you 'acted upon'??

Patriarchy? Are you suggesting that women can't dictate? I suggest you get over the ancient meme of 'patriarchy'. Who cares.

4)By the way, the young girl who was kicked off the soccer team was kicked by a Muslim. Why? Because he felt that her head scarf could become loose in the game and harm her. Seems pretty valid to me. I also agree with the French rejection of the head scarf because it is isolationist - declaring that We Are Other To You.

5)Because you claim that reason and evidence are used politically doesn't make them so. I disagree; reason and evidence are not subject to political agendas; they have the ability to stand on their own. Political agendas most certainly can make use of reason and evidence, but it's a logical fallacy (affirming the consequent) to then say that the two are necessarily linked.

6)Our cognitive processes require binarism, ie, the capacity to differentiate between x and y. I don't mean either/or or black and white binarism which evaluates.

However, when one must evaluate the value, not mere existence, of x and y, then, one must move into binarism. You can add a contingent connection, ie, where you can say that 'water is necessary' for plant growth but flooding with water is harmful.

7) No, 'ethnic cleansing' and the 'Holocaus't are not Western phenomena for such actions of selective mass murder have been carried out by non-western societies.

8) The feminist silence against Islamic fascism remains dominant in the academic and popular world.


Dr Dawg,

“I see no over-all equivalence between theocratic rule and comparatively benign cultural mores over here with respect to women's dress.”

Glad to hear it. You did, however, say that veiling ( -I’m actually only concerned with the niqab and burqa- ) is “just as oppressive as Western fashions can be,” and that, “both the mini-skirt and the veil are, after all, imposed to one degree or another, on women…”

Not *more* oppressive or *more* objectionable (and objectionable for many more reasons), but “just as” oppressive. Perhaps I’m missing something, but the obvious implication was one of a general equivalence regarding how such things are “dictated”. The language used – “oppressive”, “imposed”, “patriarchy”, etc, also tends to flatten important distinctions. On the one hand we have sacralised oppression, limited education rights and casual beatings; on the other we have consumerism, vanity and personal urges to conform, which can, of course, be overridden autonomously without state-sanctioned physical harm.

It seems to me that the differences outweigh the commonalities rather dramatically. And hence my objection.


old blockhead:

You are becoming quite entertaining.

1) Boas urged *as a method* that cultures be examined on their own terms, without being ranked, or placed on some evolutionary grid. I agree with that approach, if I want to learn something about another culture, rather than moralize about it. But that does NOT imply that Boas thought all cultural practices were morally neutral. That's a heck of a leap.

2) I happen to believe in a "common humanity" --the "psychic unity of mankind," as Adolf Bastian put it--for the obvious reason that our physical brains, wherever and whenever we're situated, are constructed in similar ways. Getting to that commonality, though, is a complex task. If one wants to do so, however, the worst way to begin is with negative cultural judgments of other cultures. But the very fact that all cultures (that I am aware of) have ethical systems isn't to argue for moral relativism at all. Rather, we can observe an essential similarity in these ethical systems--at least, I see no reason to believe otherwise as yet.

3) "Since when has fashion been dictated?" Aw, come on.

4) A tie is a badge indicating that one does not perform physical labour--so Marvin Harris argues. I haven't worn one for years, even when I ventured into public life. But your point is more general, I think: I'm not being told what to wear by religious police. Absolutely right. But there are all sorts of subtler pressures dictating hwat we wear and on what occasions.

5) As I noted at the time, there are international women's teams that wear khumur:

6) The Law of Non-Contradiction applies to propositions to which it applies. But what of a proposition about a flag that is (say) half-blue and half-white? "The flag is blue" is 50% true. This sort of thing is, as I understand it (I'm no programming whiz, by any means) the basis of so-called "fuzzy logic."

7) Now, you aren't arguing cultural equivalence on the Holocaust and "ethnic cleansing" issues, are you? I was, in any case, referring to two historical events, the latter arising in the former Yugoslavia. And my point about those events remains.



"Not *more* oppressive or *more* objectionable (and objectionable for many more reasons), but “just as” oppressive."

I did say that, didn't I? I shouldn't have left it there. Mea culpa.

Obviously I do not believe that the *enforcement* of "appropriate" dress for women is in any way equivalent in Saudi Arabia and Canada--for example. Indeed there are excruciating differences. The equivalence lies only in the fact that, whether dictated by fashion or religion, women are being told how to dress by men. In Saudi Arabia, they are to avoid being sex objects. In Canada, they are encouraged to *be* sex objects--even in 2007. But in each case, women are acted upon.


Incidentally, there is a *really* good discussion of cultural relativity vs. human rights here:

Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol. 53, No. 3, Universal Human Rights versus Cultural Relativity, Autumn, 1997. Never mind the binarism implicit in the title. :)


Dr Dawg,

“Mea culpa.”

No problem. But you see how easily the slip is made?

“The equivalence lies only in the fact that, whether dictated by fashion or religion, women are being told how to dress by men. In Saudi Arabia, they are to avoid being sex objects. In Canada, they are encouraged to *be* sex objects--even in 2007. But in each case, women are acted upon.”

But, again, I don’t see a credible equivalence here. One is coercive – physically, even mortally, coercive – the other is largely a matter of choice, or vanity, or insecurity, or just feeble-mindedness. In my (somewhat limited) experience of female fashion anxiety, that anxiety is largely self-inflicted. The women I know well don’t seem to be “oppressed” or “acted upon” in any obviously patriarchal or grievous ways. I suspect they’d take exception to any such suggestion.

And, again, given the context, your reference to “subtler pressures” in matters of fashion seems… ever so slightly incongruous. When and whether one wears a tie doesn’t sit too comfortably in a discussion about enforced shrouding and all that entails. Intended or not, it’s a bit like saying, “Yes, those people physically accost and berate women whose hair is showing, and do so with impunity, but, hey, women in our societies fret about tights and hair products, so we’re no angels either.”

I realise that might sound cartoonish, but I’ve heard real conversations that are comparable in their ridiculousness.


But not from me.



On your main issue, I guess skin-lighteners and hair straighteners were (and are) a matter of individual choice by Blacks in North America, self-inflicted and so on. But I think there is a larger question to be considered.

On hijab, perhaps a more satisfying equivalence would be young Muslim women in Canada and non-Muslim women in the same place. We don't have religious police and so on, but these kids do choose khumur. Some of them think it's the moral thing to do, while others, I suspect, may be making a political statement. Or both at once.

Generally speaking, though, fashion (cringes and ducks again) is hegemonic. There: I've said it. :)


Dr Dawg,

“I guess skin-lighteners and hair straighteners were (and are) a matter of individual choice by Blacks in North America, self-inflicted and so on.”

That’s not an entirely fair comparison, is it? It’s scarcely commensurate with the Islamic scenarios we’ve discussed. Unless I’ve overlooked the hitherto secret existence of the Hair Police.

“Fashion… is hegemonic. There: I've said it. :)”

Yes, but you would, wouldn’t you? That’s the whole quasi-Marxist schtick. :)

old blockhead

Dr. Dawg -

1)Boas rejected evaluation. You canot go on and conclude that he thought that all cultural practices were morally neutral.

2)Why is getting to the commonality of our basic humanity a complex task? It seems to me that it ought to be a first assumption.

3)Since when has fashion been dictated? Please don't change the meaning of 'dictate'. You were the one to equate wearing the headscarf and the miniskirt.

4)The 'fashion' or 'dictatorial requirement' that you wear a tie when attending a business meeting - isn't that 'dictated by men'? The fact that you obviously aren't in business and haven't worn one is hardly relevant. Nor is Harris' explanation.

5) Your point about the international team and their wearing of the headscarf is not relevent to the Muslim referee's decision.

6) No, the flag that is clearly demarcated as half blue, half white is not an example of fuzzy logic. Lotfi Zadeh's concept of fuzzy logic refers to qualitative not quantitative measurements, where you cannot 'draw the line' between, so to speak, blue and white.

7) Again, women are NOT being told how to dress by men. Provide some proof, please.
By the way, women who choose to have plastic surgery, breast implants are not being told to do so by men. It's their free choice to treat their bodies as objects.

Equally, men who choose plastic surgery or hair implants or whatever, are also treating their bodies as objects. So? The 'primitives' who paint and tattoo their bodies are doing the same. So?

No hegemonic domination by men, by the West, by anything...How on earth you could claim that 'fashion is hegemonic' ..unreal. Heck- the fact that you are wearing trousers, a shirt or whatever - is that due to hegemonic domination over you?? Sheesh.


I see where - - University of Colorado president Hank Brown, who recommended that the board fire Professor Churchill, said he deserved to lose his job because he had "falsified history" and "fabricated history". Don't you hate it when objective reality refuses to go away just because one finds it inconvenient to one's fradulent agenda?


I see where - - Mike Nifong formally admitted today that there was "no credible evidence" that three Duke lacrosse players committed any of the crimes he accused them of. And so once again, as the sun sets slowly in the west, Don Ho reminds the Gang of 88 that objective reality refuses to go away just because one finds it inconvenient to one's fraudulent agenda.



"That’s not an entirely fair comparison, is it? It’s scarcely commensurate with the Islamic scenarios we’ve discussed. Unless I’ve overlooked the hitherto secret existence of the Hair Police."

I was referring to North America in each case.

old blockhead:

1) Boas was all about method. He rejected comparative anthropology. I am certain that he did not regard all cultural practices as morally neutral--I thought that's what I said earlier.

2)Of course I proceed from the assumption of common humanity. But I'm not certain, as noted, how we get to a language and set of cultural practices that are universal. Sorry if I wasn't clear on this.

3)"The dictates of fashion..." You're straining at a gnat. I have already elaborated on this point.

4)I don't recall saying that men were not on the receiving end of fashion practices as well. But fashions such as the miniskirt were invented by men, not women. It is interesting to speculate what women would wear if there were no men setting the standards.

5)Not relevant? Don't get all sinuous on me now. You claimed that the decision of the Quebec referee was appropriate because it was a matter of safety. Given the use of kumur in international competition, that point is obviously not self-evident.

6) Not so. The proposition "The flag is blue" is half true. That's an example of fuzzy logic--a form of logic in which variables have degrees of truth or falsehood.

7)"By the way, women who choose to have plastic surgery, breast implants are not being told to do so by men. It's their free choice to treat their bodies as objects." Interesting point. Why would they *want* to treat their bodies as objects? And your own version of equivalence fails--how many men have dangerous cosmetic surgery to become more attractive to women? Use Botox injections? Even dye their hair?


Churchill engaged in fraud, not construct-making. He broke the rules by which it is agreed that history must be done. He plagiarized; he made claims based upon sources that didn't exist; and he made reference to sources that were written by himself under pseudonyms. "Objective reality" had nothing to do with it--in essence, he was a liar.


Objective reality had nothing to do with it according to your subjective fantasies, but objective reality doesn't care about your subjective fantasies, it sees no value in the intonations of broken records.


Vitruvius: does "objective reality" actually speak to you, or is it more a kind of ecstatic apperception?



old blockhead

Dr. Dawg - to claim that 'the flag is blue' when it is actually half white and half blue is not an example of fuzzy logic but of invalid reasoning. It isn't blue; it's blue and white.

Fuzzy logic deals with entities that are not clearly defined members of a category. So, if we are looking at the clouded sky, where does the blue of the sky actually end/begin and the white of the cloud end/begin.

If we are discussing food, when is something put into the category (set) of 'possessing a sharp taste' versus a 'mild taste'. Is this person a member of the 'Aged Population'? Is this art 'beautiful'?

More and more men dye their hair; heh - I suspect Garth Turner, for one and many of the MSM pundits. And have plastic surgery - eg, Rushdie had his eyes done!

If women didn't like miniskirts they wouldn't wear them; no-one is dictating what they wear. Again, since men design men's clothing, then, is it the case that men are being dictated to by men?


Not to argue from authority, but it would appear that there are other descriptions of fuzzy logic than yours about--here, for example is the instance of an apple that is partly red and partly green:

"Fuzzy sets have membership properties defined between 0 and 1. This means that if we take an attribute say 'red' we can express the Fuzzy Apple colour of any particular apple as a position in this fuzzy set. We may say for example that it is 30% red and thus has a fuzzy truth value (FTV), fuzzy unit (FIT) or membership function of 0.3. How the FTV relates to actual values depends upon our desired mapping from the real world to the normalised range 0 to 1, and this is arbitrary. Note that if we ask how green is it, we may have a quite different value for the same apple (maybe 0.7, if only red and green are allowed). This means that questions like is it a Red or a Green apple are meaningless, it is both ! Thus fuzzy logic destroys one of the bastions of ancient logic, Aristotle's Law of the Excluded Middle - not only can we have statements that are both A and NOT A, but almost no real world cases actually conform to that either/or realm !" Source:

By analogy, it is correct to state that my flag is blue. It is also white. "Blue" and "white" each have an FTV of 0.5.


One can describe the gradiated fractal chromatic expression of some species of apple as fuzzy, but there is nothing fuzzy about a flag that is half white and half blue. The boundary is determinate. The flag is not white. The flag is not blue. The flag is not in some fuzzy place between white and blue. The flag is exactly half white and half blue. Fortunately, Dawg's use of the concept of fuzzy logic has no effect on those who build things based on the actual behaviour of fuzzy logic.

Objective reality is the taxonmical label we apply to the realization that existence is primary to consciousness. If a massive existing objectively real bus is hurtling down upon me at high velocity, and I am not subjectively conscious of it, objectively real momentum (mass times velocity) doesn't care what I think: I lose. Bus 1, Vitruvius 0.

It is because of the understanding of objective reality that people like me have that we have the benefit of the infrastructure reality upon which our privileged lives depend. One can't play the game of philosophy fetch if one starves to death, or one freezes to death, or one's kennel overflows with toxic sewage (such as postmodernism).

Objective Reality: It's not just a good idea, it's existence existing.


Well, I'm certainly glad that existence exists. Not a predicate? Hah!

The apple in the example given is not a greenish red amalgam. It's partly green and partly red. So perhaps I simply chose the wrong source, and, if so, thank you for the clarification.


Tautologies trump predicates ;-)

Someday I'd love to discuss whether or not axioms are necessarily fundamentally tautological, but it's getting a bit late in the day for me, so now is probably not the place.


Such passion. I do love to see my patrons bonding on a cross-cultural level.

[ wheels jukebox into middle of room and hurries away to find canapés ]


I thought you might find the following extracts from an essay by - of all people - Terry Eagleton quite interesting:

An appeal to cultural tradition simply means that doing something for a very long time is the next best thing to being right. The reason why you go in for honour killings or racial lynchings is because this is the kind of thing you go in for. The word "culture", like the words "taste" or "evil", means among other things: don't argue. What we do is what we do. We cannot justify it rationally, but neither can you justify your objections to it.

So we might as well declare a truce. As long as you let us get on with female infanticide, which is completely unremarkable in our society, we shall let you get on with the domestic violence that figures so richly in your own cultural tradition. Cultural relativism of this sort is highly convenient for the ruling powers. If it means that they cannot criticise other cultures, it also means that as a culture they are immune from criticism themselves. Anyway, not criticising, say, Muslims does not stop you from knocking them around. Cultural sensitivity & political benightedness can be on amicable terms. Every neofascist spokesperson has learned to say "his or her".

Local cultures can indeed be oases in a desert of dreary sameness. Yet if difference is so jealously cultivated these days, it is partly because it sells. You can find the same inimitable hotel restaurants just about everywhere. Nothing is more global than the utterly unique. The local is peddled all over the planet. If capitalism rolls over some local cultures, it takes a hand in creating others. Hostility to the universal is scarcely bad news for those whose interests would be threatened by talk of human rights & connected global struggles.

...Few of the global problems that confront us today are in any precise sense cultural ones. Radical Islam might appear to be an exception, but even this is more about material conditions than spiritual ideals. The enemies we face are for the most part pretty ancient: poverty, warfare, disease & natural disaster. There is not much fashionably postmodern about any of them.

Yet the cultural left continues, astonishingly, to inflate the idea of culture beyond all tolerable proportions. By insisting that culture goes all the way down in human affairs, it ends up repressing its opposite - Nature - with all the ruthlessness of the Enlightenment it detests.

... As such, culture, like sex, can be overestimated as well as underrated. It is true that everyone has to be somewhere, as the man said when asked by the enraged husband why he was hiding in his wife's wardrobe. There is no "raw" humanity, unmarked by local culture. Yet if our being cultural animals is a source of division, it is also what we have universally in common. Besides, to say that we are all cultural animals is to say that we are all needy and vulnerable. Creatures like us, who need culture in order to survive, do so because of a gap or deficiency in our nature.

Human beings are all prematurely born & if culture (in the shape of language, kinship, practices of caring & so on) does not move speedily into this gap, they will prematurely die. So if culture is the mark of our edge over the other animals, it is also a sign of our weakness. It is on this shared vulnerability, not on cultural differences, that any decent politics must surely be built.



“So we might as well declare a truce. As long as you let us get on with female infanticide, which is completely unremarkable in our society, we shall let you get on with the domestic violence that figures so richly in your own cultural tradition.”

It reminds me of a Mark Steyn anecdote about colonial India. It was mentioned at the time of the Abdul Rahman apostasy case and the contemporary resonance is pretty obvious:

“In a more culturally confident age, the British in India were faced with the practice of ‘suttee’ - the tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. Gen. Sir Charles Napier was impeccably multicultural: ‘You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks, and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.’”

The problem, of course, is how one can call a truce, as it were, when vividly conflicting beliefs occupy the same territory.


I don't know where you'd place Stanley Fish in the PoMo pantheon. But I remember reading a particularly damning attack on him from Eagleton. Eagleton felt Fish was putting PoMo in the service of the right.

This doesn't surprise me. An 18th century Tory would have probably justified the status quo by reference to tradition and culture. It was the upstart lefties who applied rationalism and universal values to break down those traditions.



“It was the upstart lefties who applied rationalism and universal values to break down those traditions.”

Well, quite. In earlier times the left placed more emphasis on rationality and evidence, and some important points were made along the way. But it’s a big leap from Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell to frauds like Andrew Ross and Sandra Harding. Or indeed to Terry Eagleton or Stanley Fish, who rushed to defend Social Text after the Sokal hoax, and who “playfully” said his theorising “relieves me of the obligation to be right… and demands only that I be interesting.”


"But fashions such as the miniskirt were invented by men, not women. It is interesting to speculate what women would wear if there were no men setting the standards."

I'm intrigued by this point.

The facts of the case are that Mary Quant, who I'm sure was female, invented the mini. So you're wrong on the narrow point, but you make a broader assertion.

Fashion is designed and promoted disproportionately by women and gay men. Moreover this is a community that likes to think it is always at the cutting edge in terms of politics as well as ideas. At the magazines, editorials are determined virtually unanimously by women and as buyers and sellers at the retail outlets, again dominated by women. The vast majority of male partners of women consumers loath shopping in general and fashion shopping in particular. Women talk about fashion to each other and exclude men from those conversations. If this is a hegemony imposed by heterosexual men, we have decidedly few men engaged in the activity either overtly or subconsciously.

The second point relates to the freedom woman have to select their own standards. The fact is that the vast majority of fashions fail to translate from the drawing board to woman's wardrobes. Even accepting that some filtering goes on between design and retail outlet, we have to acknowledge that fashion trends are in the final analysis determined by what people buy. Mary Quant owned and ran her own shop and sold her own designs. They were bought by women. A success was copied by less imaginative outlets who again achieved remarkable sales to women. At the same time different fashions were promoted by both designers, woman's magazines and newspapers that did not sell as well. At what point do we have to acknowledge that this was a free choice by women?

It seems to me that this is just a version of the "false consciousness" theory espoused by Marx. The purpose being to explain away the uncomfortable fact that Marxists ideas are rejected by the people they are intended to benefit. Thus our elite simultaneously claim autonomy over their own thought processes but deny them to anyone who disagrees with them. And then claim they are not totalitarian.


On reflection, I'm going to change "Mary Quant invented" to "Mary Quant is widely credited with inventing".



It is a pity that I shall be hors de combat until tomorrow, because there is much to respond to in what I take to be a thread that shows no signs of dying. But, very quickly, I can't let you get away with calling Stanley Fish and Terry Eagleton "frauds," if that is what you are doing in your last comment. (It is, admittedly, a little ambiguous in that respect.)

I haven't read Eagleton on the Sokal affair, but he actually presents himself as a strong critic of PoMo from the Left. Perhaps you could direct me to the reference in which he defends Social Text--I simply can't find it at present. But Fish, in any case, makes a good point, after defending the PoMo line of enquiry more generally. (Perhaps he, like me, felt that the whole kit and caboodle was at stake, not merely its excesses. And I think, in the case of Sokal, that he was spot on.)

Essentially, he thinks it was a dirty trick. You know my view--that the hoax was salutary--but there is room to suggest that Sokal did trade upon the trust that normally exists among academics to insert his imposture. It might be likened, perhaps, to a critical article on a non-existent author submitted to a literary journal (I seem to recall that such hoaxes have indeed been perpetrated). Fish's concern, in any case, is that this trick brought the entire field under fire, which, quite frankly, I believe to have been Sokal's intention all along.

In any case, a more sober reading of both "sides" in this affair is this one:

Barsky, R.F. "Intellectuals on the Couch: The Sokal Hoax and Other Impostures intellectuelles." SubStance, V.28, No.1, Issue 88: Special Issue: Literary History. (1999) 105-119.

The struggle continues.


Dr Dawg,

“I can't let you get away with calling Stanley Fish and Terry Eagleton ‘frauds,’ if that is what you are doing in your last comment.”

I called Ross and Harding frauds, which they are. And Fish defended Social Text, not Eagleton.

“Perhaps he, like me, felt that the whole kit and caboodle was at stake, not merely its excesses.”

The problem I and quite a few others have is that there’s an awful lot of “excess”. So much, in fact, one might consider it the norm, or a very large part thereof. I refer you to my earlier points about an academic environment in which fraudulence, demagoguery and incompetence are tolerated to such an extent, and even championed.


Karen M,

“It seems to me that this is just a version of the ‘false consciousness’ theory espoused by Marx. The purpose being to explain away the uncomfortable fact that Marxists ideas are rejected by the people they are intended to benefit. Thus our elite simultaneously claim autonomy over their own thought processes but deny them to anyone who disagrees with them.”

Heh. Amen, sister. :) Welcome aboard. It seems to me that the fondness for seeing “hegemony”, real or imagined, is very much part of the problem, as is the quasi-Marxist schtick more generally. It’s a pretty heavy filter through which to see the world. It rather presupposes – and, of course, requires – suitably oppressed victim groups on whose behalf it can presume to act. If no readily available victim group is at hand, or if the victims available are of the wrong sort, then some other category of humankind can be construed as suffering oppression, regardless of slim evidence, or no evidence at all.

As I said before, the women I know well don’t seem to be “oppressed” or “acted upon” in any obviously patriarchal or grievous ways, and I suspect they’d take exception to any such suggestion. But perhaps Dr Dawg would like to tell *them* they’re being “oppressed” by heinous patriarchal forces and that, by implication, their choices and concerns are not their own. If so, I don’t fancy his chances.



"But it’s a big leap from Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell to frauds like Andrew Ross and Sandra Harding. Or indeed to Terry Eagleton or Stanley Fish, who rushed to defend Social Text after the Sokal hoax"

A lot of ambiguity here. What's your critique of Eagleton in this context?

Karen M.:

Interesting points. I'll be back to you on this.

À demain.


Dr Dawg,

“A lot of ambiguity here. What's your critique of Eagleton in this context?”

I don’t see much ambiguity. Perhaps you’re squinting. My comments regarding Eagleton’s more lurid and dubious claims are below:



The ambiguities are two: are you calling Eagleton a "fraud," or just saying that he's no Einstein? And did he rush to defend Sokal, or was it only Fish?

I read not only your two posts, but followed a few of the links. I can see obvious disagreements between Eagleton and yourself. But that hardly makes him a "fraud."

Karen M.:

Let me collect myself after a long trip. At this point, I just want to note that I'm a bit surprised that we are having this discussion in 2007. Why do women wear high heels, but not (most) men? Why is sexuality on display in one culture, but carefully concealed in another? (And please note, I am referring to hijab in our society, where no religious police exist.) Why is it women who perform genital mutilation in Africa?

If "false consciousness" is a category without value, how would you prefer to analyze skin-lighteners and hair-straighteners for Black people?

Anyway, bisy backson.


Dr Dawg,

“I can see obvious disagreements between Eagleton and yourself. But that hardly makes him a ‘fraud’...”

No, it makes him wrong. Read my post of the 27th, 14:33. I called Ross and Harding frauds, and with obvious cause. I have no idea whether or not Eagleton is fraudulent, and I didn’t claim he was. But his quoted statements are certainly objectionable, factually unreliable and morally perverse. Perhaps that Marxist erection is cutting off the blood flow to his brain.

I repeat part of an earlier post to return to a larger issue:

“The problem I and quite a few others have is that there’s an awful lot of ‘excess’. So much, in fact, one might consider it the norm, or a very large part thereof… There are simply too many incompetents, ideologues and charlatans to imagine them to be anomalies. That so many of them survive, even flourish, suggests a dysfunction of the academic environment they inhabit. I struggle to imagine another discipline – say, chemistry, medicine or mathematics - in which comparable bare-faced flummery, incompetence and deception would be tolerated, even championed.”

To elaborate: One cannot simply dismiss the endless rhetorical “flourishes” of Ross, Harding, Marglin, Fegan, Lyotard, Lentricchia, et al, which claim a great deal and insinuate even more, but actually prove very little or nothing whatsoever. What we get, and get very often, are assertions couched in jargon based on a doubtful or unproven premise. Ross’ book, ‘Strange Weather’, is an obvious example, as is his anthology, ‘Science Wars’, the contents of which were drawn from Social Text (and from which Sokal’s hoax was subsequently deleted without explanation).

One might note just how much effort such figures have put into redefining or “liberating” the parameters of academic enquiry, its methodology and standards of evidence. One might also note the subsequent prevalence of unsubstantiated, politicised and fanciful, even preposterous, assertions based on precious little evidence and often shrouded in jargon to look suitably grand. And one might wonder if these two things are related.

[ wheels jukebox into middle of room again ]


Eagleton has written much that is just plain wrong (as opposed to the "not even wrong" of PoMo). But as a writer he's relatively direct and straightforward, and sometimes quite witty and amusing. He doesn't go in for the extreme obscurity of PoMo.

I'm here, alongside Sokal, trying to argue that PoMo isn't really "left wing" at all. I'd like to suggest to David that there's another current in PoMo that may be more relevant. The key element is actually RELIGION.

Consider this. Derrida's later writings became more and more concerned with religion and religious themes. Foucault's later journalism enthused over the then new theocracy in Iran. The "vulgar" PoMo of the grauniad - eg Bunting - has a religious flavour. Eagleton, both a Catholic and a Marxist, is fittingly both pro and anti PoMo. He's written probably the most fierce attack on Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion".

Most of the anti-PoMo camp are atheists, secularists or at least rationalists. Dawkins, Searle, Sokal etc.

There's an argument that's so obvious, I don't know if I should even bother to state it. Religion is the natural home of obscuritanism. Ask a Catholic to explain the trinity, for instance. So there's a kind of gravitational pull, drawing PoMo writers towards the ultimate repository of the obscure...



Hm. As I don’t know the religious subscriptions, if any, of all the figures concerned it’s hard to comment usefully. Though Derrida did acquire shaman-like status among his credulous followers, and Foucault’s enthusiasm for a “perfectly unified collective will” struck me as both fascistic and overtly religious in tone. And I suppose one could draw parallels between forms of egalitarian / utopian belief and religion more generally. I’ve had conversations with deluded Alabama ministers, deranged Islamists and neo-Marxist ideologues, and the differences between them have, at times, not been entirely obvious.


And here I thought the "problem" with PoMo was a distrust of metanarratives. Incidentally, I don't think much of Dawkins' metaphysics either (just another metanarrative). There's a very good review of The God Delusion here: Marilynne Robinson, "Hysterical scientism:The ecstasy of Richard Dawkins"
Harper's Magazine, November 2006.

old blockhead

I don't think it's an alliance between religion and postmodernism 'per se', but rather that both rely for their basic axioms on faith and authority.

Then, both assume an essentialism of reality, ie, an a priori 'will' to exist (Derrida's mystic Writing). Or an a posteriori 'will' (Foucault) of the collective - which is postmodernism's alliance with socialism.

But since postmodernism rejects normative laws, which are universals that function as processes of metanarrative mediation to connect particular instances, then it is left only with a 'babble of random instances'. How does one connect this random babble?

By an a priori or a posteriori essentialist Will. That essentialist authoritarianism has religious overtones. It's this essentialism that enables postmodernists to say anything, absolutely anything, to 'connect the random dots' that are left after they have glibly destroyed the previous universals or metanarrative. So, postmodernists come up with their own causal factors - spurious opinions based on...on spurious opinions.

That is, since postmodernism rejects objective reality then it rejects basic causality and is left with essentialism or randomness as causes. Both move readily into a faith-based conclusion.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that most of the postmodernist are atheists. They are rationalists, they accept objective reality and reason as the basis of analysis, they accept objective causality and reject subjective opinions. After all, the pope is against postmodernism but he's hardly an atheist.

I think the point is the postmodern rejection of reason, objective causality and its insertion of the author's own authoritarian persuasiveness as explanations.


I don’t really want to pursue the specific religious comparisons, but I would say that Marxism and many of its derivatives have a utopian fantasy aspect that isn’t so readily found in more prosaic politics. If memory serves, Richard Rorty once said, “The good left is a party that always thinks about the future and doesn’t much care about our past sins.” Well, if one disregards the past and its lessons, however grim, one can continue to dream the same discredited dream. One can imagine that dream to be workable and virtuous, regardless of its actual consequences, even when demonstrated repeatedly and on a catastrophic scale.


"Let me collect myself after a long trip. At this point, I just want to note that I'm a bit surprised that we are having this discussion in 2007. Why do women wear high heels, but not (most) men? Why is sexuality on display in one culture, but carefully concealed in another? (And please note, I am referring to hijab in our society, where no religious police exist.) Why is it women who perform genital mutilation in Africa?"

Interesting on Friday, dismissive on Monday. C'est la vie.

It's really rather patronising for you to take this elitist attitude. I am incredulous at your claim of "surprise". Whether you agree with the likes of Camilia Paglia or not, you cannot claim to be unaware of a debate. Even the Guardian and the New York Times earnestly discuss whether Madonna's overt sexuality is feminist or not. "Surprise" would suggest you are one of those famous closeted academics.

Even if we assume that in the past the theory was settled, then new contrary evidence must still be dealt with. If we assume that pre-1970, most women were conforming out of ignorance, that excuse no longer exists. Woman reaching maturity today are taught at home, school and college about patriarchy. No one in the west can claim to be completely unaware of the feminist argument. Indeed in the late 1970s/early 1980s there was a noticeable (in Britain at least) decline in the wearing of high heels by ordinary women. Was this a rebellion against patriarchy (or conformism to the ruling college hegemony)? Yet the late 1980s saw a change and many women started to wear them again; educated women included. Why? There's no compulsion. I work in an office where some do and some don't. There's no clear pattern of high heeled women being educated more, earning more, being promoted more or gaining in other ways. Your theory needs to explain why women, who stopped during their college years, started wearing them again despite the influence of feminism. You might also speculate on why I don't wear them!

I assume you approach the problem as someone who believes that all behaviour is a social construct. You therefore deduce that for any woman to emphasis their sexuality in the absence of men doing the exact same is prima-facie evidence of sexism. I understand that Foucault supported (originated?) such a theory. I do not claim to be well read in post modernism and my knowledge of this theory derives from elsewhere. It used to be thought that sexual roles were indisputably a social construct. A proof came from the work of Professor Money, who declared that sexual roles were unfixed within the first years of life. (ie they were social constructs). This meant that baby boy could be given sexual reassignment surgery and grow up as a well adjusted girl. In 1975 he published a paper declaring proof using the case of David Reimer as evidence: "Ablatio penis". Unfortunately for Money, someone followed up and discovered that the evidence was falsified. Reimer grew up exhibiting male behaviour despite comprehensive socialising as a female. Even as he published his paper. Money was aware that his theory was wrong, but he suppressed inconvenient evidence. One would think that the social construct theory was in need of reappraisal, but your comments don't indicate any hurry on the part of the academy.

Some info here:

You conclude with a clumsy attempt to equate normal outward displays of female sexuality with three other things:

Using skin whiteners is an extreme behaviour akin to Apotemnophilia. I put it to you, that you can tell the difference between that and wearing lipstick. I'll just say "slippery slope" and leave it at that.

FGM is a cultural practice that though independent of Islam has come to be associated with it in Africa and elsewhere. If patriarchy deems it preferable in Egypt and the Sudan, why not in Iran or even in England? Why is this practice labelled "male"? It's not obvious why the patriarchal imperative doesn't normalise the incidence in different geographies, even under the same culture dominances. It's not clear why theocratic councils in Egypt, wholly dominated by men, should issue religious edicts against the practice, if it was their construct in the first place.

This study shows that the majority of men don't want their females to be "circumcised":

I've also seen evidence that male's preference for anal intercourse increases when the partner is "circumcised", further undermining the idea that it is done for men's interests.

These facts are hardly conclusive proof for a primarily patriarchal explanation for FGM. One might question the motives of a person who clings to a simplistic explanation in the face of contrary evidence. You might also explain why several western feminists, in particular Germaine Greer, defend the practice of FGM?

Your final point concerns the wearing of hijab/burkah in western society. I can't speak for America, but in the UK, the practice of wearing these (as opposed to a shalwar kameez) was almost unknown until recently. I do not claim to know the motivation behind every wearer and must presume that some do it for purely spiritual reasons. Nevertheless, it is clear that many wear it to indicate solidarity with theocratic extremism. I point to three well known examples:

Shabina Begum: This case entered the High Courts, generating large publicity. It transpired that the girl's advisors (and perhaps her elder brother) were members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an extremist Islamist organisation, outlawed in many countries. There is no evidence that she was forced to comply.

Aishah Azmi: and her father: were found to be linked to Tablighi Jamaat, another extremist group.

Hasina Patel, the wife of 7-7 suicide bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan:

Note that such face coverings are banned partially or totally in many countries including Egypt, Turkey, Morocco etc. It is recognised that they are the apparel of extremists.

There is a western precedent for this. In the 1930s, many wore black shirts on demonstrations to express their solidarity with contemporary fascist movements. Many women supported fascist movements despite the apparent conflict with their own interests.

Insisting on an primarily patriarchal explanation of these phenomena is debilitating rather than illuminating. Unless you widen your scope of enquiry you cannot but fail to explain them. On a different note, comparing the treatment of women in plural western societies with culture originating from societies like Saudi Arabia or Iran and finding them equitable, is part of a regrettable trend in modern critical thinking. Your inclusion of them in this context strikes me as more asinine than profound. Have you never heard of Godwin's law?

In Brazil, Suyá men wear lip plates. This contrasts with the practice of tribes in Africa, such as the Mursi, where the wearers are female. The practice involves the insertion of a large plate into a piercing below the lower lip, which results in distending of the face. It is impossible do this without prior dental extractions. Like high heels, it has a disabling effect upon the wearer; unlike high heels, they can't be removed. I wonder, do the Suyá live in a matriarchal society and the Mursi a patriarchal society, or is it the other way round?


Dr Dawg - I couldn't find the Dawkins critique you mention. I suspect South Park have already done the ultimate hatchet-job on him anyway.

I've just finished listening to Hitchens' audiobook of "God Is Not Great". My impression is, it's easily the best of the recent run of atheist tomes.


Who's being dismissive? You did indeed raise interesting points. But I have a distinct sense of déja vue all the same. The question around Madonna's overt sexuality remains--assertion of strength or caving in to "the man?" (There's a similar debate around hijab, incidentally.)

"Your theory needs to explain why women, who stopped during their college years, started wearing them again despite the influence of feminism. You might also speculate on why I don't wear them!"

I'm not certain that I have a "theory" that fully explains the wheels within wheels on the issue of fashion. You are right, of course, to point out that matters are more complex than women simply being acted upon. I will admit that, in the interests of provoking discussion, I overstated the matter. But I would still maintain that sexual display/anti-display seems to be inordinately worn by one gender.

I'm aware of the Money controversy. This is only one case, almost sui generis. I'm not sure that the notion of gender as a social construct, as "performance," is so easily overturned. One looks at Jan Morris and other "women trapped in men's bodies," and (at least in the Morris case, and in the case of one or two transsexuals I have met) the notion of what it is to "be a woman" seems like a caricature, at least to me.

My reference to skin lighteners and hair straighteners, referencing earlier comments I made, had to do, not with gender, but with "race." I was making what I think is a reasonable analogy--are Black people seeking to look white evidencing something like "false consciousness?" Or is there some other explanation that works better? By the same token, are women who dress to be attractive to men making their choices in the context of a similar dynamic of unequal power relations, which will invariably shape those choices, or is there some other explanation?

Your study of attitudes towards FGM in Sudan was limited to university students. FGM is largely (not entirely) a rural practice. I have read enough on the subject to know that men from Jomo Kenyatta on down have promoted the practice. And that progressive African organizations like AAWORD have tried to find ways to stop it. (Germaine Greer is, quite frankly, scatty. But she doesn't "defend" FGM so much as making a silly equivalence between FMM and male circumcision and claiming that silence on the latter and shouting about the former indicates an attitude of cultural superiority.)

On the issue of kumur or niqab or even the burka, there are similar wheels within wheels. I'd hinted as much a few comments back. I might even agree, in part, with your notion of religious solidarity as the motive for that choice, when choice there is. So we agree that it's not as simple as women just being acted upon--that assumes that women themselves do not have agency--and yet I cannot bring myself to believe that, were there no patriarchy (in their case a religious one), women would choose to dress from head to toe in yards of black cloth in high summer. So, over all, I remain of the view that unequal power relations between men and women will, directly or indirectly, affect the choices that women make with respect to dress.

"On a different note, comparing the treatment of women in plural western societies with culture originating from societies like Saudi Arabia or Iran and finding them equitable, is part of a regrettable trend in modern critical thinking. Your inclusion of them in this context strikes me as more asinine than profound."

I have done nothing of the kind, although one earliuer statement gave rise to that misunderstanding. When I was prompted to qualify that earlier statement, I made it plain that I do not regard the treatment of women under the Taliban (for example) as equivalent to the treatment of women in, say, Canada. I have simply made the observation that, when it comes to women's clothing, women themselves make choices based upon existing power relations, which are not equal. I am not arguing that that's all there is to it, but I would maintain that the sexuality of women is at issue, and patriarchy plays a considerable role in defining and controlling it. In Saudi Arabia, women are supposed to conceal themselves, so they won't tempt men. In the West, women are supposed to reveal themselves, the better to be attractive to men. But men always figure in the equation, right?

"Have you never heard of Godwin's law?"

Why, yes. What kind of a question is that? Whom have I called a Nazi in this discussion?

I knew about the Mursi, but had not heard before of the Suyá, whose men apparently connect the plates with oratory. In any case, I have never argued that bod mod is invariably gendered. Both the men and the women of the Botocudo people, again in Brazil, engaged in the practice. Until recently, it was men who got tattooed in our society. Now women do as well.



Here you go:

old blockhead

If gender is, as the postmodernists claim, a social construct (since everything is a social construct to them) then, doesn't this mean that homosexuality is a social construct - and can be 'educated' out of an individual? The left, strong defenders of homosexuality, would deny this - wouldn't they?

As for women revealing themselves to be 'attractive to men', well, we are a sexual species; we don't reproduce asexually. Therefore, men always do figure in the equation. And so do women. Overt expressions of sexual availability are basic to our species.

By the way, in the Mursi society, it's the men who display their overt sexuality, who paint themselves and display their beauty. I think the Body Shop a few years ago even had T-shirts with Mursi men.


Gosh, where to start. OK: Mursi men use white chalk on their otherwise naked bodies. Is this a sexual come-on? Convince me.

If we are a "sexual species," why don't men dress to be sexually attractive to women by walking about bare-chested and oiling themselves and so on? Why is it women who wear all the make-up, make themselves vulnerable by wearing high heels and so on?

[At this point, a disclaimer. I'm no sexual puritan. I'm part of this culture too; I find women in high heels attractive, for example. I'm simply trying to analyze a phenomenon in which one gender is overtly and consciously sexualized by dress and the other is not.)

As for homosexuality, it is precisely because we don't essentialize homosexuality and heterosexuality that we find the need of some to force people to be "straight" so repulsive. I have no idea what makes people swing one way or the other, or in both directions, but the moralizing notion that one is right and the others are wrong is about as obvious a social construct as it gets.


Morning all. Heh. I do marvel at some of the tangents. This thread is not only long; it has a mighty girth.

Dr Dawg,

“Here you go.”

Um, thanks. Georges, I think it’s meant for you.

[ wheels jukebox into middle of room yet again ]


Morning all.

Gayness is a social construct? I've read arguments to that effect by Gore Vidal and Michel Foucault - both writers most people would think of as gay. Vidal says there are homosexual and heterosexual acts, but no homosexual and heterosexual people.

On the other hand one of my best friends is gay (or says he is), and says he always knew he was from being a young child. I don't think his orientation could be socially constructed - except in the trivial sense that in a Robinson Crusoe like absence of any society, no one could practice either gay or straight sex. In societies where the possibility of heterosexual sex is removed (eg prison) you get straight people taking up gay sex because it's the only sex on offer, of course. Still, I think homosexuality has at least some basis in nature, not just in culture. In the Eagleton quote I posted above, his big criticism of PoMo is precisely that it inflates culture out of all proportion and seeks to suppress nature altogether from any discussion of anything.

Gay culture IS a social construct. Just because a man likes c**k it doesn't follow he also has to like musical theatre or Kylie Minogue. Many gay people I know resent their gayness being seen as the defining fact of their very being. For instance, John Cage was gay. We shouldn't suppress or deny this. But if we're discussing 4'33" as "gay music" then we're really missing the point. I can't see how there could be such a thing as "gay astronomy" (jokes about Uranus aside) or "gay mathematics", even though, of course, there are gay astronomers and mathematicians.


Oh, and another thing.

How has the cultural relativist set gone from supporting Stonewall to supporting stoning of gays?



“In the Eagleton quote I posted above, his big criticism of PoMo is precisely that it inflates culture out of all proportion and seeks to suppress nature altogether from any discussion of anything.”

It occurs to me that the implications of social construction can appeal to rather unsavoury motives. If a person’s tastes and disposition are primarily socially constructed, that person can also, presumably, be remade to suit society and its representatives. Such high-minded Agents of Society might even become “engineers of the human soul”, to borrow Stalin’s phrase.

The idea of innate disposition and talent is in some circles quite contentious, not least with regard to intelligence and its unequal distribution. This seems to cause unease in ways that, say, the unequal distribution of musical or athletic talent does not. It also undermines many conceptions of egalitarianism, which is probably why it causes such a fuss.


I evoked Godwin's law, not because you called anyone a Nazi but because comparing FGM with wearing High Heels seemed to me to be an equivalent analogy. It is the final sentence in a paragraph observing "a regrettable trend...". I thought that meaning was clear in the context but I see was wrong.

I don't have time to fully engage but I will comment on "I'm aware of the Money controversy. This is only one case".

I see you are aware of "falsifiability". We observe that apples fall downwards and might posit a theory that apples will always fall down. This theory will never be proved by a billion apples falling downwards, but it will be disproved by one apple falling skywards. The Money case is surely the apple falling skywards for the social construct theory.



I like that quotation attributed to Napoleon - "you can do anything with bayonets... except sit on them".

Consider this. The nations of eastern Europe lived under Communism for over forty years. During this time every aspect of life was subject to Stalinist ideology. Then in 1989 Gorbachev announced that the Red Army would never again be used to enforce it. Within a few months every one of those governments had collapsed and been replaced. Forty years and still it was only the Red Army holding the ideology together.



Strange how often The Beautiful Dream entails emiseration, beggary and a relentless threat of force. Stranger still that these pointedly “egalitarian” societies should so often have godlike brutes to maintain them, from the Soviet’s “man of steel” to Mao and his radioactive halo.

It’s almost funny, but not quite.

old blockhead

Dr. Dawg - the fact that Mursi men paint themselves to 'show their beauty' to the young women is indeed a sexual 'come-on'. For the Mursi, this painting of the men is sexually attractive to the young girls.

The hiding of women under veils and yards of black clothing in Islamic society is equally sexual, for the desirable woman in that society is one defined as 'hidden' rather than 'open'. The man is set up as sexually desirable if he is 'macho'.

In our society, the sexually desirable male dresses a certain way; he doesn't need to be half-naked, but dressed in a variety of types - from Redford, Wayne-as-cowboy to Connery as James Bond.

The fact of innate disposition is valid, if you believe in objective reality, but since the postmodernists reject objective reality then, they must reject innate dispositions. With this perspective, postmodernists readily align themselves with socialism, which is a utopian agenda of social engineering to 'make' the population into a certain type of behavior.

Dr. Dawg - the social perspective of a certain behavior as moral or amoral may or may not be a social construct, but that is not what we are talking about. We are talking about the causality of the behavior. Can sexuality be changed by 'education'?


So many ideas. So little time.

Apologies for misreading precisely who it was who wanted the Harper's reference. I must have being seeing double at that point. Anyway, comments about the piece would be welcome, from David, georges or anyone else.

On the notion of "gayness," after much rumination I realize that I have caught myself essentializing it to some degree in formulations very much like this one: "On the other hand one of my best friends is gay (or says he is), and says he always knew he was from being a young child." In my own case I realize that, from very young age, the opposite sex attracted me--although it's a stretch so say that I somehow realized I *was* a heterosexual. One central question is whether these feelings are unmediated. I suggest not.

As a quick aside, we shouldn't confuse "social constructs" with choice-making, but there seems to be some of that earlier in the thread. Social constructs are anything but conscious choices. Hence, the notion of "educating" a homosexual out of his or her homosexuality is an odd one: how would we do it? Could we educate a socialized male to become a "woman?" Bourdieu has a few ideas about the complexity of gender in his book on male domination. If I recall correctly, he thought that such phenomena as conscious-raising groups were barely scratching the surface. (I hope I am not confusing him with someone else on that last point.)

Was there any such thing as a "homosexual" until fairly recently in history? Homosexual acts, certainly--they're proscribed in Leviticus. Georges himself raises what Foucault and Vidal had to say on the subject, but goes on to speak of orientation. But what, precisely, is an "orientation" made of? I'm not being facetious: hunger, for example, is real enough in every society and culture, but is expressed differently, named in various ways, mediated. Hence (for example) "gay culture." And that anomalous goal, "same-sex marriage."


I thought that I was being implicitly criticized for minimizing FGM and other such practices by allegedly setting up an equivalence--not defining face-lifts and so on as equally horrendous. Hence the Godwin analogy escaped me--as it should have. I hope I have made very clear what I find similar and what I find excruciatingly different about such comparisons.

The Money matter maybe deserves its own thread. I did find a pretty good overview of the general issue here, from his debunkers: Fascinating reading. I'm still digesting it. The notion of "inter-sex identity" is an interesting one. The research appears to show that the binary man/woman is faulty. Moreover, I don't think that gynephilia, androphilia and ambiphilia come to us unmediated by culture. (What, for example, is a "girl's toy?") But surgical gender reassignment (in this artilce compared to FGM--small world) does not appear to do the trick.

What is most interesting of all, at least to me, is that gender reassignment surgeons are criticized for rigidly policing cultural expectations: "[T]he standard of practice represents, not humility at all, but a striking appropriation by doctors of the authority to use the arts of medicine to police the boundary between male and female in the defense of cultural norms." So much for the notion of gender plasticity and nurture trumping nature: Money stands revealed, not as a cultural progressive, but as a reactionary after all!

But one final speculation, if I may. Money's John/Joan/John lived on with his/her brother and parents, and had a life of therapy including hormone treatments. He/she would have had to have been cognitively impaired not to perceive that "something was going on." Could there be some submerged memories of infant trauma? What cues was he/she getting during this upbringing? Having seen The Pinks and the Blues, about the acquisition of gender, it seems clear to me that these cues are fairly subtle. I wonder what might have happened to John if he had been brought up in some other household where his past was unknown--would he have wanted "boy's toys" and dreamt of being a garbageman during his "young girl" stage?


old blockhead

I don't agree with this:

"The hiding of women under veils and yards of black clothing in Islamic society is equally sexual, for the desirable woman in that society is one defined as 'hidden' rather than 'open'."

If that were true, we'd expect women who exposed more flesh to attract no attention at all from Muslim men. All the available evidence contadicts this. Google has revealed that Pakistan has the highest proportion of internet searches for internet porn of any country in the world, for instance.

No. What the veil means is that, under Islam, women are made responsible for mens' sexual self-control. That's why it's not unusual to hear of certain Imams in Norway and Sweden declaring that women who don't wear the veil - even non-Muslims - only have themselves to blame if they get raped by Muslim men.


old blockhead:

Do you have a reference to suggest that the white body paint is used by Mursi men to attract Mursi women?

I completely agree with you that there is a sexual aspect to the veil. Whether dress hides or reveals, it calls attention to the sexual.

I think I have already commented about the notion of "educating" people out of social constructs that are in fact very complex and run deeper than we know. Such "education" is a fool's errand.

Finally, as a socialist with libertarian leanings, I don't believe in "making" people build a better society--seems a bit of a contradiction in terms.



I disagree with you on the question of the veil. I think old blockhead (damn, these handles are starting to annoy me for some reason) is correct when he sees the veil as sexualizing. The lure of the concealed is, after all, not unknown even in our own culture. It's overly binary to suggest that, in Muslim culture, if the veil has a sexual dimension then a revealed woman must not. Doesn't follow.


Sorry, I put that last comment badly. What I meant to say was that georges is right to observe that the absence of a veil does not mean the absence of sexuality, but I don't think that's what old blockhead's position entails.

old blockhead

Dr. Dawg - you can call me Old B, if you wish.
Yes, there's an educational video on the Mursi, which shows the ceremonies of the young men of the Mursi, and specifically focuses on how and why they paint their bodies to attract young women.

What I meant by the veil is that it defines sexuality in (modern) Muslim society (it's not in their religious edicts). An unveiled woman is equally sexual, but an amoral sexuality. And I completely agree with you, georges, that the imams put the responsibility for morality on the women; the men are viewed as 'savage beasts'. That's equally sexual.


Thank you, Old B. :)

Very much on topic, here are a couple of short extracts from letters appearing in today's Globe & Mail (Toronto), in response to an article advising "proper" dress for women in the office:

"At first I thought it was a joke, telling women at work to cover their breasts completely and even wear nipple covers. But no, the author accepts sexualized hetero-male domination to the point of condoning things that are unhealthy."

"To assume that men are incapable of not looking at a woman's bosom simply because it is not shrouded in silicone cups and opaque cloth is a position that Taliban men have stated for covering women from head to toe. It's not the women's fault that men stare at their breasts: it is the men who need to be reformed if they can't control themselves."

old blockhead

Surely, Dr. Dawg, you don't agree with the sophistry of these letters to the Globe and Mail?

Why is it unhealthy to wear clothing that covers the breasts? And why is this evidence of male domination?

Sexuality is a reality; it's a fact within most reproductive systems on this earth. For a woman to ignore this fact, and show her sexuality while expecting the other sex not to show his (by reacting to her sexuality) is, in itself, an action of dominance over the male. The woman is effectively saying - "Here I am, presented as a sexual being, and you must not react to me unless and until I permit you to do so. You are under my domination".


Dr Dawg

Your argument about homosexuality reminds me of the anti-psychiatry argument about schizophrenia. Szasz argues that a schizophrenic is not suffering from a physical brain impairment in the way that, say, a stroke victim is. She is simply behaving outside social norms. For Szasz schizophrenia is a social construct in a way that CJD or Alzheimer's Disease is not.

I think future developments in science will have a bearing on this argument. Right now, if you show a competent neurologist a brain scan of a patient with late stage CJD, even without disclosing anything about that person's behaviour, she will know that the patient has the condition. I think it's possible that one day Schizophrenia will be detectable like that - purely from MRI scans and so forth. Of course showing that a schizophrenic has something different about the wiring of her brain doesn't mean she has a brain impairment, any more than left-handedness is a brain impairment. But it would prove that Szasz is wrong, and that schizophrenia is not just a social invention.

Moving to homosexuality. First, please note: I am not saying that gayness equals illness. I suspect it's more like left-handedness. Its manifestations may be socially mediated. But I still suspect that there's something in the genes and/or the brain that predisposes some people to homosexual desire.

We all feel hunger. But whether we hunger for pizza, curry, sushi, kangaroo or dog depends on our social/cultural conditioning. True. But not all such cravings and aversions are like this. Everyone with rabies develops hydrophobia, whether they come from the Sahara desert or Bora Bora. The hydrophobia is 100% non-cultural. It's directly caused by the action of the encephalitis on the brain. No doubt a PoMo theorist will say that a French rabies sufferer has Evian hydrophobia, a Swede Rammlosa hydrophobia and so on. It's this kind of argument - that everything is culture and nothing is nature - that Eagleton is attacking - quite rightly, in my view.


The first writer goes on to argue the health issue thus:

"Women's breasts need to move some. There is research suggesting that binding and exerting constant pressure on them is bad for the lymphatic system. Indeed, apart from fashion's constrictions, women don't need bras unless their breasts are big or they are engaged in sports that are rather uncommon in offices. Work interactions aren't determined by clothing alone. If men misbehave because of it, they are the true office boobs."

On the issue of power, I have already noted that these things are never as simple as a one-way mechanistic imposition. I knew a hooker once who insisted that in her work she was in control, giving as little as possible for as much money as possible. She didn't go on to generalize, however. She was acutely aware, for example, that in discussions, an idea from a woman would be often ignored, then heard by the group when a man repeated it.

Do women who fail to shroud themselves in the office impose that kind of control upon men, as you suggest--the "mixed messages" argument? Or are they simply wearing what society accepts as "looking nice," and paying the price of the sexualization that fashion dictates? Do men in cultures where bare breasts are the norm stare at them constantly? Must women (as you earlier noted) take responsibility for men's attitudes?

Women, I recall, were once burned because religious men were aroused when seeing them--obviously the work of the devil. Plus ça change...


I agree that veiling is all about sexual meaning. I just think you've got that meaning wrong. The original formulation was, the more thoroughly veiled the woman, the more insatiable the resulting male appetite - as if a buqua was the ultimate in arousing Ann Summers type lingerie for a Muslim man.

A woman in a burqua is advertising her chastity, her piety and her "modesty". Not her sexual availability.



You've raised the crux of the matter--and, frankly, I don't know enough to be hard-line on the "everything is culture" position. I agree that, in any culture, severing the carotid artery will likely lead to a quick death. That's "pre-social" enough. Conceiving of it, or talking about it, is culturally mediated. But that doesn't mean that in some cultures such an injury would be of no effect.

So, when it comes to sexual desire, are there tendencies and predispositions of the body that are anterior to culture and discourse? Or is it all performance? I am sceptical of the latter. (I believe that Foucault, too, did not reduce everything to discourse.) I do think that it's a good precaution, though, to avoid the "hard-wired" hypothesis for human behaviour if at all possible. That way sociobiology lies.

Incidentally, I think Szasz and Laing had a lot of good insights, and the current psychiatric practice of simply administering chemicals has a lot wrong with it. Having met a schizophrenic, though, I don't see schizophrenia as a voyage of discovery. Perhaps it, like measles, is an illness after all. I rather think that it is.


[ straightens tux and wheels jukebox gently into position ]

Ah, classy.

old blockhead

georges - I hope you aren't attributing to me the opinion that 'the more thoroughly veiled the woman, the more insatiable the male appetite'. I certainly don't agree with that.

My view is that sexuality is a priori, ie, natural; our species reproduces sexually. Therefore, we naturally react to bodily displays.

We then add cultural ideas about 'good' and 'bad' sexuality, which includes bodily displays. These evaluations are linked to the results of sex, ie, children. In the Islamic world, the veiled woman is sexually 'good'; the unveiled is sexually 'bad'.

Dr. Dawg - women are not passive slaves to fashion (which you insist is the domain of men. I know that this 'meme' is part of your stock ideology, but, it's many years out of date.

And women are as capable as men of ignoring ideas from other women, and batting their mascara at a man who says the same thing.

If women in the office are dressing provocatively, then, they have the intention-to-sexually-provoke. They have to take responsibility; they aren't, forever, passive slaves.

By the way, you seem to have a tendency to sit on the fence; you'll assert that it's all a 'social construct' and then, when confronted, you'll back off and accept that some behaviour might be non-social..but then, slip in the idea that if you go too far - that's sociobiology. You are, like the fog, everywhere, aren't you?


I agree. There's a tendency to define unhappiness as a medical condition. What makes me unhappy - a bereavement, an unhappy love affair, being sacked - will alter my brain chemistry. And a drug may counter the effects of that alteration. But having a broken heart isn't the same kind of thing as having diabetes.


I don't think that's particularly fair. I have never stated that *everything* is a social construct, although such things as a severed artery are mediated by the social. I did not say, however, that some *behaviour* is pre-social. I am trying to choose my words carefully--I allowed that something like sexual desire might be, but how that translates into behaviour is entirely social. On women's fashions, my comments indicate somewhat more nuance than you are asserting. "Passive slaves?" When did I say any such thing?

I think any good insight, or set of insights, pushed to the extreme, become blinkers. I reject that all-or-nothing binary approach. If that's "sitting on the fence," so be it.


"I have never stated that *everything* is a social construct, although such things as a severed artery are mediated by the social."

To clarify: we can only conceive of a "severed artery" through images and language that are social in origin. In that sense "everything" is indeed constructed. But we still die when we bleed out.

old blockhead

The symbolic terms we use to refer to that artery are most certainly socially constructed, but, those terms had better acknowledge not only that there is an objective reality out there (that severed artery)but the terms must represent that objective reality in a real, ie, reliable and valid, sense.


Those terms require no such acknowledge--the latter is superfluous. The notion "a severed artery" "danger" death" and so on are sufficient without bringing the Ding an sich into it. The poor fellow would bleed to death while you're off searching for it. :)


"acknowledgement." Sorry.


Trying to see the bigger picture behind this discussion...

I think PoMo is already on the wane. It feels tired and familiar. And unhelpful for the issues we now face.

First there's Global Warming. Whatever your opinion about this, whether you think it's the worst crisis ever to face humanity, or something that's been hyped out of all proportion by green scaremongers, it's forcing nature back to the centre of our thinking.

Second there's the impending energy crunch. Are we nearing Peak Oil? How will the arrival of China and India as major industrial powers add to this? What are the alternative fuels? Again, we're forced to confront the brute facts of nature.

Third, there's the impact new developments in science - especially the life sciences - are going to have on us. Neuroscience and genetics may well change our way of thinking about ourselves in the 21st century as much as Darwin did in the 19th.

I also notice that cultural relativism is going rapidly out of fashion in government. European states in particular, facing rapidly expanding ghettoes of culturally unassimilated Muslims, are reverting to integrationist policies. Would-be immigrants to the previously hyper-liberal Netherlands are now being shown videos of gay men kissing and topless women, as a way of saying "if you have a problem with this, don't come and live here".


The more I reflect upon it, the more that I don't find PoMo an entirely new set of ideas. Look at Hans Vaihinger in 1924: "...the object of the world of ideas as a whole is not the portrayal of reality - this would be an utterly impossible task - but rather to provide us with an instrument for finding our way about more easily in the world." Hear, hear! Proceeding "as-if" isn't that far removed from Rorty's pragmatism. And so we can tackle global warming, peak oil, neuroscience and, for that matter, severed arteries, without having to have a discussion of epistemology and metaphysics first.

We should be wary, I think, of dismissing cultural relativism out of hand. CR doesn't equate to rigid, essentialist notions of "multiculturalism." Nor does it mean moral relativism, nor David's "cultural equivalence." At its best, CR is a tool for understanding a culture on its own terms. Boas rejected the idea of comparative anthropology because he, rightly I think, considered those enterprises in his day to be suspect, and often racist. But that doesn't entail the view that all cultures are the same, or that we shouldn't make judgments about cultural practices. I think I mentioned this some time ago, but were we to take CR to extremes, we couldn't criticize the German tribe in the 1930s and 1940s for perpetrating the Holocaust.

I think forced integration makes no more sense than the artificial boxes created by official multiculturalism. Just let things be, while noting for immigrants what life in their new country offers (and doesn't). The Dutch approach is a little self-conscious, but I'm not sure I have that much difficulty with it.

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