David Thompson


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March 22, 2009


John D

"Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Richard Rorty - are of the far left politically. And it is striking that all four are Philosophy Ph.D.s who reached deeply skeptical conclusions about our ability to come to know reality."

Maybe reality didn't suit their politics so reality had to go.


One area of science where the pomo methodology is used quite a bit is the CO2-global waring debate, where the warmists use all of the techniques described above to try to shut down the "deniers" who are not convinced by the warmists' computer models.

I am an engineer who used to make my living evaluating computer models, and the descriptions that I read for the climate models are laughable. They do not address the fundamental phenomena that drive climate, but the true green believers refuse to accept any arguments or evidence that refutes their claims. They claim that their position is not refutable - is is absolute truth, QED.

So, I would say that the sciences are nto quite immune to this stuff - at least the sciences that depend on grants, where any linkage of the subejct matter to some catastrophic-sounding global warming outcome is sufficient to garner more grant money. It is quite amazing how science has become so corrupt.

carbon based lifeform

Great interview.

"The rejection of transparency as "conservative" is particularly odd, since transparency makes a claim amenable to broad critical enquiry, and thus public correction. Without transparency, what do we have? A private language shared only by likeminded peers, in which one is "free" to assert, largely unopposed? Is that really a marker of progress?"

It's not a marker of progress. It's a marker of *pretending* they've won the argument.


"It's not a marker of progress. It's a marker of *pretending* they've won the argument."

And of giving them the means and the confidence to beat you around the head and shoulders with a rubber chicken and declare you irrelevant.

James S

"Is that really a marker of progress?"

You've made your position clear, THEREFORE you're rightwing, THEREFORE you're wrong.

It's Orwellian progress.

Wild Slutty Womens

You are forgetting the *most* important thing about postmodernism, which is that academic presses pay me to proofread this shit. It's about jobs, people!


“It’s Orwellian progress.”

Yes, there is an Orwellian aspect. And the rhetorical preoccupation with hierarchies, groups, “privilege” and oppression provides those so inclined with a handy template for conjuring grievance. The “post-colonial studies” lecturer Priyamvada Gopal comes to mind, with her studious repetition of the obligatory phrases and an almost total lack of evidence to support her claims. The language itself has almost become a substitute for proof and coherent argument, as if such things were no longer needed. For a more comical example, see how readily Alex Lotorto repeats the standard memes in the video below, as if they somehow validate his delusions of persecution and assumptions of entitlement:


The language is used almost as a kind of talisman, as a marker of virtue by default.

Wm T Sherman

Somewhat related - in fired Ethnic Studies Professor Ward Churchill's lawsuit against the University of Colorado, a parade of witnesses called who implicitly or explicitly reject reason. Pikers, but hey -- Churchill just might win, and regain his treasured tenure-protected hustle in the international grievance industry.

The most pathetic example: Michael Yellow Bird.



By Vincent Carroll

Why so much coverage of Ward Churchill, readers used to wonder during the heyday of the Churchill circus. He's just one rogue professor. Even if he's committed every alleged offense, what does it matter in the larger scheme of things?

It matters because Churchill is not alone, because he stands for a small but aggressive wing of academia at war with the belief that history is reconstructed by sifting through credible evidence to reach fact-based conclusions. To them, history is politics by another name. This mentality has been on vivid display in court for two weeks, where the former University of Colorado ethnic studies professor is suing CU. At times, the testimony has achieved a looking glass quality — and never more so than on Wednesday, when Professor Michael Yellow Bird of the University of Kansas returned to the stand.

Yellow Bird spent much of his testimony asserting that academics are free to embellish history — maintaining, for example, that they frequently "invent possibilities" and "treat them almost as a fact, yes." But he did stop short of openly saying that fraudulence was fine. Yet as his testimony drew to a close, CU attorney Patrick O'Rourke pounced with a Perry Mason moment: Hadn't Yellow Bird once told a CU faculty committee that a "fabricated, made-up account promoted truth"?

As O'Rourke asked, a transcript of Yellow Bird's statement to the committee was displayed on a screen. The professor hesitated, then admitted, "Yes."

Why so much coverage of Churchill? Because if he wins, so do all the other enemies of academic integrity — like Yellow Bird."

More: http://www.pirateballerina.com/


Wm T Sherman,

Keith Windschuttle is good on this subject. See his book, The Killing of History.



Good interview. Can we have more?


David, have you seen this?

"When postmodernists treat fallibilist, always provisional, claims to objective knowledge as equivalent to claims to *absolute* knowledge based on mere authority, they demonstrate that all knowledge *for them* is mere opinion - that for them, indeed, there is no truth."




Yes, thanks. I agree with Norm; there is a sense of retreating from the brash and outlandish claims of postmodernism’s most influential figures. Perhaps they’re now, finally, a little embarrassing. Which is why I made sure to quote some of them in the discussion above.

It’s funny to watch devotees repeatedly employing the same sleight-of-hand when challenged. For instance, the glib conflation of an author’s intended meaning with the “absolute truth” of religion. If you follow the links on Stanley Fish in the exchange above, you’ll see he performed similar manoeuvres in his defence of Social Text. Fish misrepresented Alan Sokal’s actual arguments in a cloud of condescension. But then, he – Fish – once claimed that his righteous theorising relieved him of “the obligation to be right.” And, presumably, the obligation to argue in good faith.


"And it is striking that all four are Philosophy Ph.D.s who reached deeply skeptical conclusions about our ability to come to know reality."
What is actually on display is their inability to come to know reality.
And your engineering reference to the "right-wing bridge" was quite funny. I'd like to see any of the pomo elite attempt to write a computer program.



“I’d like to see any of the pomo elite attempt to write a computer program.”

I’m sure it would generate answers that are ideologically agreeable, if not *actually* correct.

“What is actually on display is their inability to come to know reality.”

Well, a lot of this is based on an assumption of epistemic egalitarianism – a belief that “Western ways of knowing” should not be “privileged” above other, less effective worldviews, especially those of cultures deemed more colourful and “authentic.” As the absurd Wahneema Lubiano says - but never proves - “Western rationality’s hegemony marginalizes other ways of knowing about the world.” (See also Andrew Ross, Sandra Harding or Frederique Apffel Marglin:)


For instance, Western medicine tends to work better than, say, voodoo or chanting and this is terribly “unfair.” The solution, it seems, is to decry the more effective treatment as “patriarchal,” “imperialist” or in some way disagreeable, while romanticising the alternatives as more virtuous and meaningful. Thus, one can pretend that voodoo and chanting are equally valid as “narratives,” if not as actual treatments, while the people who pretend this continue to visit the local doctor, not some mad woman with a stick.




Hey David, Jeff Goldstein of Protein Wisdom has a post up, "Postmodernism and it's discontents" in which he recommends, and links to, your piece. Excerpt:

"Over the last forty-years or so, academics steeped in the descriptive philosophy of postmodernism, have attempted to turn the descriptive into the prescriptive, and we have allowed them to do so by, piece by piece, allowing them to create the conditions for communication: PC language; ownership over narratives by the groups who can 'authentically' lay claim to them; the idea that a text 'means' more than it’s author intended, with that additional meaning either laid at the feet of the author (see 'code words'), or presented as a function of the author’s inability to control textual meaning (response theory, wherein what a text does when acted upon by the agency of the reader is a meaning making that becomes conflated with interpretation).

"This poststructural paradigm, through its very kernel assumptions, eschews the primacy of individual meaning and autonomy. The lone voice is throttled by the 'consensus' of 'interpretive communities,' often nothing more than identity groups in whose interests it is to gain control over a particular narrative, a particular 'interpretation,' a particular truth.

"Which is why it is essential that we not allow processes that, from a linguistic standpoint it is incorrect to call interpretation, come to count as interpretation in the first place."

Two of the brightest lights in the blogo-realm linking to each other -- it's blinding.



Hi, it’s been a while.

Thanks for the heads-up, I saw. I visit PW more or less every day. I very much take Jeff’s point about how supposedly descriptive theories have become prescriptive beliefs and classroom practice, with all manner of other “trickle-down” effects. I wasn’t a fan of the descriptive theory part – most of it, anyway – and its ideological application has given license to a range of unpleasant urges. This isn’t, and never was, just a matter of dry epistemology.


At its worst, postmodernism has given us Lacan’s ludicrous diagrams, Derrida’s Dadaist jive and the incorrigible flummery of Professor Carolyn Guertin. And it’s given us an academic environment in which such things are tolerated, even taken seriously. We also have speech codes, “subaltern studies,” identity politics and other triumphs of irrational tribalism. However, postmodernism has been a generational make-work project for the otherwise unemployable. So hey, it’s not all bad.


> In politicized forms, then, postmodernists will behave like the stereotypical unscrupulous lawyer trying to win the case: truth and justice aren't the point; instead using any rhetorical tool or trick that works is the point. <

Values are subjective. But racism is always bad.
All cultures are equal. But the west is always bad.
Everything is relative. Except postmodernism.

James S

Tolerance is good. But we'll tell you what you can say.


“Values are subjective. But racism is always bad.”

“Tolerance is good. But we’ll tell you what you can say.”

As mentioned above, postmodernist rhetorical strategies tolerate self-contradiction and may even encourage it. If the idea isn’t to be accurate or coherent but simply to win, then self-contradiction isn’t a problem; it’s just another rhetorical tool. (I’m pretty sure Foucault made this point explicitly somewhere.) This is why Madeleine Bunting*, for instance, will dismiss rationality as an oppressive “social construct” and fawn over Yusuf al-Qaradawi (a man who advocates wife-beating as a pious duty), while simultaneously maintaining she’s a feminist of some sort. Likewise, she can berate the “arrogance” of regarding some cultures as measurably better than others, while telling us that ours is a uniquely dysfunctional culture and that puritan socialism is what we all really, really need. And it’s why those who claim to see oppression everywhere, even in private conversations among students, are so often eager to institute speech codes and employ intrusive “dialogue facilitators.”**



In Stephen’s book, Kate Ellis is used as an example:

“Ellis, as she writes in Socialist Review, believes that sexism is evil, that affirmative action is good, that capitalism and sexism go hand in hand, and that achieving equality between the sexes requires the overthrow of existing society. But she finds she has a problem when she tries to teach these themes to her students. She finds that they think like liberal capitalists – they think in terms of equality of opportunity, in terms of simply removing artificial barriers and judging everyone by the same standards, and they think that by personal effort and ambition they can overcome most obstacles and achieve success in life. But this means that her students have bought into the whole capitalist framework that Ellis thinks is dead wrong. So, Ellis writes, she will enlist deconstruction as a weapon against old-fashioned Enlightenment beliefs. If she can first undermine her students’ belief in the superiority of capitalist values and of the idea that people make or break themselves, then their core beliefs will be de-stabilized. Pushing relativism, she finds, helps achieve this. And once their Enlightenment beliefs are hollowed out by relativistic arguments, she can fill the void with the correct Left principles.”

(Explaining Postmodernism, page 188.)


I read your two very informative links and was unaware that you had already touched on my point concerning the role of absolutes in the real world. It's comforting to see that the Big Pond doesn't separate our bemusement in observing the contradictions inherent in modern postmodernism.
In the process of poking and prodding this thing called life, postmodern thinking provides the proof that I'm on the right track in pursuing accuracy of thought: the condescention and confusion that is the hallmark of pomo is the opposite of truth.

James S

David, have you read Paul Gross's 'Higher Superstition'? Here's a bit on Kate Ellis (p.84):

"Her argument for embracing deconstruction… is, roughly, that in instructing (or rather, indoctrinating) her women's literature students in the virtues of a radical feminist critique of society, she finds herself obstructed… In Ellis's view, feminism requires a more strongly destabilizing view of things, which deconstruction fosters: 'It means that no one person or group has the power of totally constitutive speech, and that no subject position can guarantee the truth of the speaker.' As is usual with rationales for deconstruction, the linear logic of Ellis's argument is an implicit rejection of the very position it argues for. Beneath that there lurks a still more curious paradox, for upon analysis, Ellis's rhetoric reveals an underlying cast of mind flagrantly inconsistent with the cool pose of deconstruction. What is undeniable is her strict and unassailable moralism, as steadfast as that of any Sunday-school teacher. For Ellis, gender oppression and class oppression are absolute evils; all her theoretical moves are made with the intent of abolishing them. Whatever persuasive force can be found in her piece derives from her appeal to these values, whose epistemological standing for her is, of course, beyond question."

I wonder if any of her students pick up on this?



“Have you read Paul Gross’s ‘Higher Superstition’?”

No, but I will do.

“I wonder if any of her students pick up on this?”

Well, I’d like to hope so - students are supposed to be clever, aren’t they? But I’m guessing Ellis’ students will also be sympathetic to her conclusions from the very start and so may not be overly concerned with how those conclusions are arrived at. For all the blather about “critical interrogation,” there’s an air of being in church. And believers may not be inclined to register, let alone question, glaring contradictions. If Ellis can ignore those contradictions, and do so repeatedly in public, I’m sure quite a few of her students can learn to perform the same manoeuvre. And I suspect students will often be attracted to such prattle for political reasons rather than intellectual ones. To quote Derrida in one of his more lucid moments: “Deconstruction never had meaning or interest, at least in my eyes, [other] than as a radicalisation, that is to say, also within the tradition of a certain Marxism, in a certain spirit of Marxism.”

Deconstruction and associated “Theory” has made it possible to in effect dismiss as sexist, racist, etc whatever literary works and traditions don’t serve one’s politics (which means, almost always, some subset of leftwing politics). You can claim the author’s meaning is something other than it is, perhaps its opposite, or that what was written was a cover for something else, probably something coded and unpleasant. Meaning is, as they say, “destabilised” and, unmoored from the author’s intent, imagination can run wild. Though oddly enough it tends to run in certain, predictable ways.

For instance, you can claim, based on nothing much, that logic is a “colonising” project designed to oppress more primitive cultures. Or that reason is a tool of “cultural and political despotism” and is thus itself despotic. (Yes, I know, non sequiturs abound.) You can claim, as Michael Fegan did, that postmodernism is intended to “expose” rationality as “reinforcing the cultural tyranny of capitalism.” And so on. If “Theory” really were intended to foster rigorous, non-partisan, open-minded enquiry, it’s odd that its proponents should almost always be on one part of the political map and often mouthing utter bollocks.


Perhaps what pomo tries to tap into is the need many humans have for there to be some meaning to life. Some emotional synthesis of want, need, love, and other un-quantifiable things which only exist in our minds. It might be explainable through science as a biological adaptation which aids our function of reproducing and surviving, but that doesn't really satisfy our own inner experience.

Where I find pomo ludicrous and dangerous is not in the quest to find some meaning to existence, but in the desire to destroy or subvert things which are correct and good. Western civilization isn't perfect by any means, but like democracy it seems to do the least harm while allowing the most good. Capitalism likewise. I personally feel a bit Marxist, but I know it's a pipe-dream born out of disappointed optimism and a desire for a better man.

I believe medicine was mentioned. It's stupid and dangerous to give credence to witch doctors or homeopathy. Both are frauds and don't even make sense given their premises being valid. Both are a manifestation of faith, for lack of a better term. It's a gestalt emotion. It finds its voice in a great many human endeavors. I'm not sure if it's good or bad.

What seems to be the danger is not faith(as defined above) but rather the lack of understanding that faith is only real in your own mind. It has power over you more complete than any other thing. But it isn't *real* the way electricity or germs are. It might give you meaning and comfort, but it cannot feed, clothe, or shelter anyone. Your faith is yours alone. That doesn't make it right. It doesn't make it the only proper choice. It's simply real to only one person: you. Trying to share it is describing sight to a blind man. You can try, but they won't know until they see, and you can't give that to them. The important thing to remember is that you are blind as well.

carbon based lifeform

"You can claim, as Michael Fegan did, that postmodernism is intended to "expose" rationality as "reinforcing the cultural tyranny of capitalism.""

Before I started reading this blog I had no idea how bad a lot of this stuff is. So what happens when he's done "exposing" rationality?


“So what happens when he’s done ‘exposing’ rationality?”

Well, quite. Maybe once students’ grip on logic has been “destabilised,” their soft, accepting brains can then be filled with The Proper Opinions™. That’s what Kate Ellis seems intent on doing, and I’d guess she’s not alone in that. There are other, more personal, advantages too. If you’re a political “activist” / third-rate academic, you can also get away with murder.

I’ve previously mentioned Duke’s Wahneema Lubiano, who describes herself as a “post-structuralist teacher-critic leftist” and sees no reason to distinguish between her role in the classroom and her bizarre, rather paranoid, political “activism.” Lubiano insists that “knowledge factories” and “engines of dominance” [i.e. universities] should be “sabotaged” – by people with views like her own. Her courses in “critical studies” and “race and gender” are construed in such a way that students can be told, at length, that “once white working class people learn that corporate capitalism is using racism to manipulate them, they will want to join with racially oppressed people against capitalism.” Lubiano also says things like this: “Western rationality’s hegemony marginalizes other ways of knowing about the world” - which suggests the West is somehow devoid of poetry, literature, art, music, film, etc, when it is, in fact, the foremost producer and consumer of such things.

Here’s KC Johnson on Lubiano’s lofty academic standards:

“Lubiano still hasn’t managed to complete either ‘Like Being Mugged by a Metaphor’ or ‘Messing with the Machine,’ both of which have now been listed as ‘forthcoming’ books (a designation that refers to completed manuscripts under contract) for at least twelve years. But, according to her Duke website, Lubiano has produced a new scholarly publication: ‘Black Studies, Multiculturalism, and Airport Bookshops: An Interview with Wahneema Lubiano.’ This piece of ‘scholarship,’ which totals all of three pages, appeared in an obscure journal called e3w Review of Books. The journal’s website was last updated in 2007, the year before Lubiano’s latest ‘scholarship’ appeared, and the journal… does not appear in any major scholarly database.

Lubiano’s five most recent ‘publications’ provide a glimpse into her scholarly productivity. Three of the five ‘publications’ are ‘interviews’ — ‘Airport Bookshops,’ which her Duke website mysteriously lists as two separate publications, and ‘Interview with Wahneema Lubiano,’ in The Chicano Cultural Studies Forum. A fourth is her co-authored apologia for the Group of 88… And the fifth is a reprint of ‘Race, Class, and the Politics of Death,’ a short article that was originally published in 2006. According to her Duke CV, the above list contains all the ‘scholarship’ produced by this tenured professor at one of the nation’s leading universities in the last decade…”




Just looked up this title on Amazon. Only copies available are the paperback edition, a snip at £71.95


A typo, methinks.

Incidentally, the full text is now available online.



Ernest Gellner wrote 'Words and things' in 1959, which is a very funny critique of Wittgenstein and analytic philosophy.

It also reads like a critique, aka, a dismantling of, post-modernism.


You can find a George Steiner review of Foucault's 'Order of things' from 1971.


Many academics thought that post-modernism was a load of old tosh from the off. One early reviewer of Said's 'Orientalism' likened it to, 'Athletes in Action', the American title for 'Superstars'. (I am sure you are all old enough to remember Kevin Keegan falling off his bike.)

The question is, how did such a pile of crap become so influential in the first place?

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