If only…

I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time. Over at Prospect Magazine, Edward Docx has written an article titled “Postmodernism is Dead.” In fact there are quite a few articles out there that proclaim the same thing: here and here, for instance.

That would be welcome news. Unfortunately, I think these diagnoses aren’t taking into account the deeper-seated disease of which postmodernism is perhaps the quintessential symptom. A disease that is very much still with us. I quite honestly believe a major driver of the postmodern movement is laziness, in the form of a lack of intellectual rigor. Postmodern relativism is a natural refuge for those who wish to achieve artistic or academic status, but who don’t have, or don’t want to invest the time and effort in cultivating, real skill or insight. Indeed, this article begins by stating as much.

A sub-driver, if you will, is, I think, a naive conception of “fairness.” Anything in pomo-land can be worthwhile, as long as you dream up a slick, post facto rationalization for it. Nothing should be “privileged”; nothing should be judged. This particular feature of postmodernism is infuriating because: 1) of course art and philosophy should be judged! Despite the frantic cries of postmodernists, we are not living in a world constructed entirely of subjective perception. The objective, real world is out there and can serve as the source for objective standards by which to judge art and philosophy, along with all sorts of other thought in other disciplines. And 2) it represents rank hypocrisy. Terry Eagleton (yes, I know – a surprising source for actual wisdom) wrote about it:

For all its vaunted openness to the Other, postmodernism can be quite as exclusive and censorious as the orthodoxies it opposes. … It is a thoroughly orthodox heterodoxy, which like any imaginary form of identity needs its bogeymen and straw targets to stay in business. … It is animated by the critical spirit, but rarely brings it to bear upon its own propositions.

But getting back to the article I linked to first. The interesting thing about Docx’s piece is that it’s a sort of eulogy for postmodernism. He waxes positively wistful about some of the wonderful things we’re throwing away by allegedly abandoning it. This, for instance, is supposed to be profound postmodern insight:

Different groups of people use language in different ways, which in turn can lead to looking at the world in quite separate ways.

Polysemy is not a profound concept. When we wish not to be misunderstood, we can take greater care to be more precise with our language. Conveying our intended meaning is not impossible.

Another important (and alleged) postmodern contribution he cites is that postmodernism is responsible for improving the way we treat our fellow humans:

Postmodernism has helped Western society understand the politics of difference and so redress the miserable injustices which we have hitherto either ignored or taken for granted as in some way acceptable.

How can this possibly be when postmodernism challenges paradigms indiscriminately? What if the dominant paradigm, or worldview, or narrative, or whatever you want to call it, is a good one? Postmodern relativism is explicitly not about determining if one way of doing things or treating others is better than another way. How could denying our ability to ascertain objective reality lead to something we could all call an improvement? No, improvements in inter-human relationships stem from just the opposite: discovering natural and objective phenomena, most often via the scientific method. Modern biology can show that there is nothing intrinsically better about any given race, or about either gender. It can also show that many discriminated against conditions, for instance, homosexuality, are not perversions of nature, but part and parcel of it. Therefore, bigots have no real recourse but to admit their bigotry. Getting in closer touch with reality is how we improve ourselves, not by divorcing ourselves from it.

I think postmodernism has been a tragedy. It has conferred a kind of legitimacy to all sorts of nonsense. People might indeed quit calling the relativistic stuff they produce “postmodern”, but despite the pronouncements of death, I think we will have something like postmodernism with us as long as we have intellectual laziness and naive egalitarianism with us.


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