Descriptive Postmodernism

I can’t count the number of times I’ve defended Postmodernism (PoMo) from attack, so I am publishing this, so I can link to it. Perhaps I am not defending PoMo, but my flavour of it, but I’ve read a lot of work published by the usual suspects—some who eschew being lumped into a poorly defined category—or at least a nebulous category.

Before I get too far, I also want to remind the reader to take care to separate the philosophy from the person. One popular attack is the conflating of identity politics and social justice advocacy as PoMo phenomena. In fact, I consider myself to be PoMO—to be defined here in a moment—and a social justice warrior (SJW), this despite contesting the very notion of identity to begin with.

By definition, a summary is a reduction of some thing, but one needs to be careful not not arrive at reductio ad absurdum. Where appropriate, one may also wish to differentiate postmodernism with postructuralism. So as not to create a definition partir de rien, I’ll reference other accessible versions. A critic may disagree with these definitions, but they will serve as the foundation of my position and vantage.

Wikipedia gives us this definition (their reference links retained):

Postmodernism is generally defined by an attitude of scepticismirony, or rejection toward what it describes as the grand narratives and ideologies associated with modernism, often criticizing Enlightenment rationality and focusing on the role of ideology in maintaining political or economic power. 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives us this

That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/

Notice the commonalities. PoMo is a descriptive, critical activity. It’s descriptive. As language and grammar can be approached descriptively of prescriptively, so can philosophy. Some ‘schools’ do both. PoMo is exclusively descriptive. PoMo was born as a reaction to Modernism, especially the unstated foundations labelled by Lyotard as metanarratives—the grand narratives and underlying ideologies of prevailing beliefs that were uncritically taken for granted, many of which that were formed or catalysed in the Age of Enlightenment.

Jean-François Lyotard defined philosophical postmodernism in The Postmodern Condition, writing “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta narratives….”[4] where what he means by metanarrative is something like a unified, complete, universal, and epistemically certain story about everything that is. Postmodernists reject metanarratives because they reject the concept of truth that metanarratives presuppose. Postmodernist philosophers in general argue that truth is always contingent on historical and social context rather than being absolute and universal and that truth is always partial and “at issue” rather than being complete and certain.[3]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodern_philosophy

My defence is that PoMo cannot be for social justice or engage in identity, as it has no positive position on these. It functions to critically deconstruct. People unfamiliar with PoMo concepts often misunderstand this notion of deconstruction. All to often, I see people criticise Derrida for his brand of Deconstruction, but that only illustrates the fact that they never read or simply misunderstand what Derrida means by Deconstruction. Perhaps, I’ll elaborate on that in future.

My point is that PoMo is corrosive—like lye. It eats away at ideologies, dissolves them. It is not meant to construct anything. So where does this constructive expectation come from? It derives primarily from two places.

Modernism

Most people casting dispersion are modernists. They need to construct things. To be fair, this perspective has been an evolutionary advantage, but some people can’t allow a bunch of Lego pieces to remain unconstructed. This is fine, but you need another tool to perform this task. It’s not PoMo.

Ad Hominem

The other challenge is the inability to distinguish between the person and the idea. Michel Foucault was very vocal in the political realm and actively promoted Marxism, but, firstly, Foucault was not a self-professed PoMo—and for several reasons, one could come to accord with his assessment; secondly, in his deconstruction of history, he discovered a foundational component—this activity being squarely PoMo—, but he reconstructed historical narratives employing the lens of power. This rebuilding is not PoMo activity.

Parting Shot

Besides—or in addition to—ignorance, some people have an agenda, and they play ad hominem games, so if they can vilify a person and associate that person to an ideology, it can have the tendency of poisoning the well. Uncritical people won’t even notice the sleight of hand and redirect.

never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance*

Hanlon’s Razor

A textbook example is Stephen Hick’s attempt in Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault to conflate feminism (a positive mechanism) with postmodernism (to reiterate, a negative mechanism). In it he claims that feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catherine Mckinnon are proponents of PoMo thought, but he is apparently unaware that McKinnon has explicitly attacked PoMo as destructive to feminism. A fuller critique of Hicks‘ work can be heard on YouTube. I recommend it highly if you have the better part of an hour to spare. Jordan B Peterson is a celebrity personality whose primary exposure to PoMo is Hicks, so when you understand how off-base Hicks is, you’ll realise why Peterson is so off-base, too.


* Hanlon’s razor is originally cast as “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity“, but I prefer the term ignorance, as it it less value-laden and more broadly applicable. Besides, to be ignorant does not mean to be stupid. Many ignorant people are not stupid. I am ignorant of the Russian language, but I am not stupid.

Utilitarianism

As I read his Utilitarianism, I want to like John Stuart Mill. He seems like such a clever man, but he is a victim of his Enlightenment Age. Attempting to fabricate order created by science’s encroachment on the absolutes of religion and the shifting sentiments toward monarchies, Mill tries to replace this moral compass with Jeremy Bentham‘s utility.

£1 ≠ £1

The problem is that despite (sort of) dispensing of religious doctrine, Mill was still fettered by the dogma of virtue ethics of dignity and duty. To this, he adds happiness. Not to go full-on Foucault, but these are concepts leveraged, like religion, to maintain power—take an elevated system in a constructed society, and the duty becomes a burden to the bottom, save for pretence of duty and dignity at the top.

I’ve had an issue with the concept of virtue and all of its offspring: duty, justice, and so on. I’ll likely write about this later. I expect that I’ll be reading Mill’s On Liberty next, so stay tuned.

Ignoring my contention that Utilitarianism is baseless, I have two other issues, using economic examples, each related to prospect theory (pdf):

  1. Regressivity: A person with less money values an incremental dollar more than a person with more money.

  2. Loss to gain asymmetry due to risk aversion: A person values losing a dollar more than earning a dollar, ceteris paribus.

Pareto efficiency, a cornerstone of Classical economics, does not take this into account. For this theory, all dollars are created (or perceived to be) equal, so it doesn’t matter whether person A, who earns £10,000 p.a., or person B, who earns £100.000 p.a.,  gets £100, but in the real world, person A would give it a higher value, so a transfer from A to B would be an inferior transaction to a B to A transaction.

This said, person B values the £100 more than having gained the amount, but it is not clear how to reconcile (in order to reach perceived parity) what the fair equilibrium would be, allowing that equality of outcome might not be the desired outcome.