Friday Ephemera

Postmodernism Unpeeled

A discussion with Stephen Hicks.

“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. Sometimes contradictory lines of argument work. Sometimes your audience’s desire to belong to the in-group can be played upon. Sometimes appearing absolutely authoritative works to camouflage a weak case. Sometimes condescension works.”

Stephen_HicksDr Stephen Hicks is Professor of Philosophy and Executive Director of the Centre for Ethics and Entrepreneurship at Rockford College, Illinois. He is co-editor with David Kelley of Readings for Logical Analysis (W. W. Norton, 1998), and has published in academic journals as well as The Wall Street Journal, The Baltimore Sun, and Reader's Digest. His book Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault was published in 2004 by Scholargy Publishing and is now in its eighth printing. He is the author and narrator of a DVD documentary entitled Nietzsche and the Nazis, which was published in 2006 by Ockham’s Razor Publishing. 

DT: In an exchange with Ophelia Benson, I mentioned Explaining Postmodernism and suggested one of the book’s main themes is that postmodernism marks a crisis of faith and a retreat from reality among the academic left. Is that a fair, if crude, summary?

SH: It is striking that the major postmodernists - 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. So one of my four theses about postmodernism is that it develops from a double crisis - a crisis within philosophy about knowledge and a crisis within left politics about socialism.

DT: It seems to me that in its broadest sense postmodernism is as much a rhetorical device as it is a set of theories and political stances. For instance, Slavoj Žižek can dismiss aspects of postmodern theorising while employing much the same manoeuvres in his own writing. Much of what he says is clever in a rhetorical sense, in terms of manoeuvring around a dubious and unproven premise, while being enormously tendentious or simply glib. If you don’t accept the premise - say, a tarted-up rehash of “false consciousness” or an antipathy towards capitalism - then what follows is unpersuasive, even absurd. Geoffrey Galt Harpham pointed out that Žižek’s essays often disregard conventional argumentative structures in favour of stylistic effects and bald assertion:

“[E]ven the earnest reader who begins at page one has the constant impression of having opened to a page somewhere in the middle. This sense of an endless middle is achieved by reducing the conventional middle to almost zero. The typical Žižekian unit of discourse - a wittily-titled passage of between five and fifteen pages - begins abruptly with the kind of confident assertion commonly associated with the conclusion; there is no phase of doubt, no pretence of unprejudiced inquiry, only a series of demonstrations, exemplifications, and restatements.”

A_site_of_resistanceBold yet unsupported claims are pretty much a signature of Žižek’s output - and of postmodernist writing more generally - and this is tolerated, indeed championed, by his more cultish admirers. What seems to matter is a “provocative” conclusion, at least of a certain kind, not how that conclusion was arrived at or whether it can be justified. For instance, we’re told that fundamentalist Islam constitutes a “site of resistance” from which “one can deploy critical doubts about today’s society.” Yet “today’s society” - i.e. Western, liberal, capitalist society – is questioned openly, at length, and as a matter of routine - more so, I’d guess, than any other society in history. However, the societies envisioned by enthusiasts of fundamentalist Islam don’t seem likely to foster similar reflection or dissent; nor do they seem likely to equip their inhabitants with the tools of such endeavours. Yet these basic considerations don’t delay Žižek in his rush to assert.

SH: Pomo is rhetoric-heavy, yes. But rhetoric is a tool, so one can ask how it’s being used and why it’s being used that way. The postmodernists have rejected reason, and along with it concern for evidence and consistency. What then is the purpose of rhetoric? In pomo practice, there are a couple of possibilities.

One is that rhetoric becomes a kind of subjectivist expressionism - you play around with language and hope that something interesting pops out. Derrida is often like this - I think of him as a performance artist of postmodernism. In its darker moods, this approach recalls a line from Kate Ellis, a sympathetic-to-postmodernism commentator, who noted “the characteristically apolitical pessimism of most postmodernism, by which creation is simply a form of defecation.” Whatever’s been processing and churning up inside you - you just let ‘er rip.

The other use of rhetoric is politically-charged persuasion. Pomo rhetoric becomes long on emotionalism, ad hominem, and so on, and it becomes short on logic and evidence. But the point of such rhetoric is effectiveness, not truth.

You mention that much pomo political rhetoric is anti-capitalist and champions unlikely causes such as fundamentalist Islam. Here the pomo are taking a page out of Lenin’s and Marcuse’s playbooks. There’s a long-ish story here that I talk about in Chapter 5 of Explaining Postmodernism: Traditional Marxism said that capitalism would collapse from the inside (the exploited and alienated workers would rise); but when that didn’t happen, Marxists theorized that capitalism had exported its misery to the Third World (Lenin’s idea) or to outcast and marginalized subcultures (Marcuse’s idea). So the new strategy was to cultivate the anti-capitalist resistance in those places.

Like other pomo of this generation, Žižek is an evolving combination of the above.

DT: You say, “The postmodernists have rejected reason, and along with it concern for evidence and consistency,” and I suspect some readers will find this hard to accept. It sounds outlandish. But, as you point out in the book, Lyotard explicitly rejected notions of truth and clarity as being synonymous with “prisons and prohibitions.” Foucault shared these sentiments, claiming “reason is the ultimate language of madness,” suggesting that nothing should constrain our beliefs and political preferences, not even logic or evidence. Frank Lentricchia, another left-wing theorist, said the postmodern movement “seeks not to find the foundation and conditions of truth, but to exercise power for the purpose of social change.” And Stanley Fish, who rushed to defend Social Text after the Sokal hoax, had previously argued that theorising and deconstruction “relieves me of the obligation to be right … and demands only that I be interesting.” There is a pattern here.

SH: It is hard to accept the rejection of reason, especially if you’re outside of academic circles, but it’s no secret inside. You nicely quote some representative statements - it’s also worth noting that the leading pomo thinkers cite Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Existentialists as their forerunners, and the rejection of reason runs deep in those lines of thought too.

Derrida_and_his_hairDT: A while ago, I quoted a chunk of Derrida prose that’s hilarious nonsense. I’ve defied several Derrida enthusiasts to explain what this particular passage means, or might mean if you squint and tilt your head, but so far no-one has managed to tell me. And the essay from which the quote is taken has numerous, equally baffling, paragraphs which could be arranged in almost any order with no perceptible difference. Much of the essay is wilfully incomprehensible, like some Dadaist prank that no-one dares to mention. And there seems to be a taboo against even entertaining the possibility that such a thing could happen, and happen quite often, with little if any protest from colleagues and students. It’s unthinkable that such a con could be perpetrated, and maybe that’s why it goes on happening.

More recently, in a piece about the art world’s reliance on postmodernist rhetoric – what’s often called “art bollocks” - I pointed out that the artist Aliza Shvarts was mouthing opaque gibberish while pretending to be profound. The text she’d written and presented as a key part of her art was clumsy, incoherent and often simply meaningless. It was a kind of verbal flailing and rhetorical camouflage. (It’s difficult to determine exactly how wrong an unintelligible analysis is.) One postmodernist commenter took exception to my criticism - first by accusing me of arguing things I clearly wasn’t arguing, then by saying I was holding “entrenched positions” in which “aesthetic values” (in scare quotes), “scientific reality/clarity” (again, in scare quotes) and my own “reliance on logical consistency” (ditto) were obstacles to comprehension. Specifically, they were obstacles to comprehending Shvarts’ alleged (but oddly unspecified) “arguments of power, control [and] dominance.” The tone was, of course, condescending and self-satisfied. I’m guessing the commenter in question didn’t pause to consider the possibility that one might find pomo bafflegab objectionable precisely because it represents the “power, control [and] dominance” of what amounts to a priestly caste.

SH: A lot of what you’re getting from your various commentators seems like third-raters playing the game, so it’s probably not worth focusing on them - instead of attending to the lessons they’re learning from the leading pomo strategists.

Another clue is that some postmodernists prefer “neo-pragmatist.” Rorty, Fish, and many of the legal postmodernists sometimes use that label. Pragmatism as a school of thought thinks of knowledge, truth, and certainty as chimerical quests and suggests that we focus our efforts on what works.  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. Sometimes contradictory lines of argument work. Sometimes your audience’s desire to belong to the in-group can be played upon. Sometimes appearing absolutely authoritative works to camouflage a weak case. Sometimes condescension works. And so on.

DT: I suppose, then, “neo-pragmatism” is often a euphemism for “bad faith,” or “rhetorical authoritarianism”?

SH: Not necessarily. Some neo-pragmatists take the milder position that truth is hard, our data always partial, and the world always evolving - and so rather than obsessing about truth we should be flexible and focus on working hypotheses and workable results. Susan Haack comes to mind here. That doesn’t have to be bad faith or authoritarianism. But other neo-pragmatists do push hard on the skepticism-about-truth button, as Rorty does, and that takes them into postmodernism.  

DT: It’s interesting to contrast Explaining Postmodernism with some of the material you criticise. The writing is always clear, even when you’re dealing with quite detailed and knotty concepts or loaded obscurantism. I suppose some pomo theorists might consider your prose “unproblematic,” which is a pejorative, apparently. Writing in Innovations of Antiquity, Ralph Hexter and Daniel Selden dismissed “transparent prose” as “the approved mode of expression for the society and values of the newly empowered middle class.” In the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Mas’ud Zavarzadeh denounced “unproblematic prose and clarity of presentation” as “the conceptual tools of conservatism.” 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? 

In the essay linked above, Keith Windschuttle names various academics and educational advisors who claim that truth and reality are “authoritarian weapons” and that disinterested scholarship is merely “an ideological position” favoured by “traditionalists and the political right.” This presents a rather handy excuse to dismiss political dissent without having to engage with inconvenient arguments. Presumably, if you prefer arguments that are comprehensible and open to scrutiny, this signals some reactionary tendency and deep moral failing. On the other hand, if you sneer at such bourgeois trifles, you’re radical, clever and very, very sexy. (Though I wonder what mathematicians and structural engineers would make of this claim. Is there such a thing as a rightwing calculation, or a rightwing bridge - I mean a bridge that’s rightwing because it doesn’t promptly collapse?) 

SH: There’s that line from Nietzsche about obscurantists - they muddy the waters to make them appear deep.

But there is a deeper point about form following function, or in this case rhetorical style matching the content of one’s beliefs. The function of language is to express one’s thoughts. If you think truth is possible, then you work hard to understand the world clearly and completely. But if you doubt that truth is possible, that has psycho-epistemological consequences: you come to believe that the world is at best fuzzy and your mind incapable of grasping it - you come to believe deep down that all is fractured and disjointed - and your writing will tend to the fuzzy, the fractured, and the disjointed. And in consequence you will come to be suspicious of clarity in others. Clarity, from this perspective, must be an over-simplifying.

And there is a cheap rhetorical variant as well: if the data and the arguments, when presented clearly, are going against you, muddying the waters gives you some breathing room, so to speak.

DT: How was the book received by defenders of the faith? Was there any serious attempt at refutation by those whose views you criticise?

SH: It’s been well received and reviewed by realist liberals, conservatives, and libertarian intellectuals. From postmodernists, I have received only a few email denunciations.

Intellectual_curiosityDT: One of the recurrent themes here is the self-inflicted disrepute of large parts of academia. Whether it’s the spread of political lockstep and the consequent intolerance and extremism, or hucksterism and incompetence (and those who champion it), or student “activists” who regurgitate postmodernist clichés while enacting their dreary psychodramas. It seems to me that many of these things are related to the subject of your book. Whether viewed as a set of claims, as a political movement or as a rhetorical device, how would you describe the general fallout of postmodernism?

SH: In the shorter term, postmodernism has caused an impoverishment of much of the academic humanities, both in the quality of the work being done and the civility of the debates. The sciences have been less affected and are relatively healthy. The social sciences are mixed.

I am optimistic, though, for a couple of reasons. One is that pomo was able to entrench itself in the second half of the twentieth century in large part because first-rate intellectuals were mostly dismissive of it and focused on their own projects. But over the last ten years, after pomo’s excesses became blatant, there has been a vigorous counter-attack and pomo is now on the defensive. Another reason for optimism is that, as a species of skepticism, pomo is ultimately empty and becomes boring. Eventually intellectually-alert individuals get tired of the same old lines and move on. It is one thing, as the pomo can do well, to critique other theories and tear them down. But that merely clears the field for the next new and intriguing theory and for the next generation of energetic young intellectuals.

So while the postmodernism has had its generation or two, I think we’re ready for the next new thing - a strong, fresh, and positive approach to the big issues, one that of course takes into account the critical weapons the pomo have used well over the last while. 

It’s a big and interesting world out there. Let the best arguments prevail.

Previous interviews / discussions can be found here. If you enjoyed the exchange above, have a poke through the updated greatest hits. And feel free to make a donation. It makes me feel loved.

Update: Over at The Augean Stables, Richard Landes has some interesting commentary on the above. Well worth reading.