Discovering Postmodernism

Postmodernism seems to have as many definitions as the number of people who encounter it, and that’s just not very useful. It’s less useful still when people with ulterior motives control the narrative. I’d like to take back the narrative and offer a succinct definition or description and offer reasons why some of the competing definitions are fundamentally incorrect. My journey commenced on my Descriptive Postmodernism post.

Each year, I start with a new notion to explore. For 2021, it’s postmodernism. I identify as practicing postmodernist, but it seems to have a nebulous definition, and many people assume it means different things. Some definitions seem to comport and others are curious takes. I am well-aware that some people in this space have opinions at least as strong as mine, and many have deeper and/or broader exposure than I do. Nonetheless, I feel confident that my logic will resonate.

As I pursue this definition, I will explore a line of inquiry that I hope will help to frame the issue.

These are my initial questions:

  1. What is the core definition of postmodernism?
  2. Why hate postmoderns?
  3. Why can’t postmodernism be constructive?
  4. Why do postmoderns deny Truth?
  5. When did postmodernism, a critical, dis-integrative concept become identified as being integrative?
  6. How does one parse the theory of postmodernism from the personality who espouses a perspective on it?

Postmodernism can be viewed as a reaction to so-called modernism, but it’s not so cut and dry. Postmodernism as an intellectual pursuit was in full force in the 1970s and 80s. But Modernism was still the main thrust, as is remains today. Post- is likely an overstatement, as it did not supersede. In comparison, post-Enlightenment thought—reason and logic—still competes with pre-Enlightenment thinking—metaphysical and superstition—, but even persons holding post-Enlightenment views still cling to traditional beliefs. Contrarily, people holding modern beliefs are not likely to simultaneously hold postmodern beliefs and vice versa. For moderns, postmodernism is a hot button, trigger item. For this cohort, any association will set them off.

What is the core definition of postmodernism?

From early on, postmodernism has been used as a pejorative term by its detractors. Many academics associated to postmodernism do not identify as postmoderns. They have been categorised as such, as something they have said or written is heretical to the Modern orthodoxy.

These days—if not from the start—postmodernism is nebulous. It has long since lost its brand to detractors, and its definition is undergoing some revisionist history by this cohort. What started as a perspective or lens to disintegrate content and context is now seen by many as possessing a point of view for constructing, for building.

The Condition of Postmodernity
Before defining philosophical postmodernism, let’s first exclude a possible source of confusion: postmodernity. Postmodernity is a periodical distinction, a cultural state where it occurs chronologically subsequent to the period referenced as Modernity.

Postmodernity is a condition or a state of being associated with changes to institutions and conditions and with social and political results and innovations, globally but especially in the West since the 1960s, whereas postmodernism is an aesthetic, literary, political or social philosophy, the cultural and intellectual phenomenon, especially since the 1920’s new movements in the arts and literature.

To be fair, the philosophy of postmodernism is a reaction to the philosophy of Modernism, but there was a diversion of the periodic reference from the philosophical. If we adopt this definition, the only requirement for inclusion is to have been active in this period. Since Feminism and Marxism were coincidentally prevalent phenomena, it would be easy to include these by virtue of chronology, but it doesn’t follow that these fall into the philosophical notion of postmodernism. It may be a simple matter of the ambiguity of language.

Some social theorists and sociologists—Scott Lash, Ulrich Beck, Zygmunt Bauman, and Anthony Giddens—deny that there is a postmodern condition. Instead, they suggest that modernity has simply extended into a state of late or liquid modernity.

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward meta-narratives.

Jean-Francois Lyotard

To establish a grounding and because he got there first, let’s see how Lyotard defines it in the introduction to his Postmodern Condition:

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward meta-narratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds, most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it. The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements – narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on. Conveyed within each cloud are pragmatic valencies specific to its kind. Each of us lives at the intersection of many of these. However, we do not necessarily establish stable language combinations, and the properties of the ones we do establish are not necessarily communicable.

The simple definition is captured by the first sentence. The rest is exposition. But let’s rewind for a bit and establish a frame. Admittedly, even at the start this is ‘simplifying to the extreme‘. Moreover, the context is relative to hard sciences. Lyotard admits he was over his head. In fact, he later referred to the book as his worst. But books have lives of their own, a sentiment with which Barthes might agree.

The central point here is to question metanarratives. Period. Full stop. The next task is to ask how a postmodern might accomplish this task and what might be their perspectives and tools?

In Reclaiming a Scientific Anthropology, Lawrence Kuznar claimed that « the primary tenets of the postmodern movement include: (1) an elevation of text and language as the fundamental phenomena of existence, (2) the application of literary analysis to all phenomena, (3) a questioning of reality and representation, (4) a critique of metanarratives, (5) an argument against method and evaluation, (6) a focus upon power relations and hegemony,  and (7) a general critique of Western institutions and knowledge. » [See end note 1]

Postmodernism is a disintegrative system. It disassembles, deconstructs, atomises, and lays bare. It is suspicious of underlying metanarratives—and I’d be willing to argue that it is equally suspicious of stated narratives as well. It questions who is served by a given narrative, who gains and loses power by one interpretation over another.

[tools and systems]

In the end, a reader may disagree with what I am proposing here, and the reader may even be correct in claiming that my definition is too reductive. Perhaps, I should abandon the postmodern label and simply recast my definition as Disintegrationism or some such. Deconstruction is already taken, so why not?

Why hate postmoderns?

One problem I notice is that postmodernism, long being applied as a pejorative term in a similar vein to the use of SJW, is a way to discredit personalities and ideologies they disagree with. We see entire ideologies being besmirched as postmodern theories. We might see Stephen Hicks misrepresent postmodernism and conflate feminism with it. Moderns are by nature traditionalists or conventionalists, so whether postmodernism, feminism, Marxism, and the like, these are unconventional. It may be a simple heuristic trick to paint all of these with a broad brush. Nuance and difference be damned. [See end note 2] Jordan Peterson‘s bete noir is cultural Marxism, that he insists is part of the blight of postmodernist thought.

Many have attempted to conflate social theories with postmodernism, whether Marxism, feminism, identity politics, and so on. But this is inherently wrong. Lyotard provided postmodernism with its original definition in his book, but detractors have been annexing other unpopular concepts to it in order to create a sort of critical mass for the uncritical opposition.

Why can’t postmodernism be constructive?

Postmodernism necessarily can’t be constructive, because after one disintegrates a perspective into its primitive elements, any reconstruction needs another narrative to serve as a foundation. It is true that one may reconstitute a disintegrated narrative through a different lens, as cited above Marxist, and so on, but all this does is to shift perspective, point of view, and creates a new power play.

There is nothing wrong with this approach, but neither is there a reason to privilege this interpretation over the original or some other. A Marxist perspective may resonate better with Marxists, and Feminist perspective with Feminists, but this doesn’t make the interpretation better or more generally applicable. It just brings it into clearer focus for that cohort. As near-sighted lenses help the hyperopic and far-sighted lens aid the myopic, neither is inherently better outside of the defined context. And each solution would create a distortion for a person neither near- or far-sighted. There is no lens that is all things to all people.

On balance, I think it’s fair to say that postmodernism is descriptive and not prescriptive, so whilst one can play at disintegrating and reintegrating, but this is simply to gain a new perspective and new insights. In literature, we might consider, say, Philip K Dick’s, The Man in the High Castle. In this, Dick explores what might have been if the Axis led by Nazi Germany had prevailed. This alternate historical rendering can be evaluated as a postmodern exercise. Dick is not promoting this outcome, he is merely playing what-if—reordering the actors to create speculative new narratives. Although the Amazon.com version takes liberties and injects additional narrative perspective, the reintegration is still evident.

As well, postmodernism cannot be constructive because it would be infinitely recursive. For each construction, there would exist a deconstruction. All that’s occurred is a rearrangement. From the same Lego pieces, we apply a new map—a new narrative. From the position of purpose, one construction may be deemed better or preferred, but this is not likely to persist from another.

Disintegration – Reintegration Cycle

Whilst I am more interested in the philosophical, postmodernism has much application to literature. This might be better defined as poststructuralism.

Why do postmoderns deny Truth?

Some people have argued that postmodern thinkers don’t believe in the notion of Truth.

There are a few things to clarify first: the definition of truth and the context of a truth claim.

There are different and competing theories on what truth is—whether correspondence, coherence, or some other version—but that’s beyond the scope of this content. Some people use ‘truth’ as a synonym for ‘fact’, but in the name of clarity, we should separate the two concepts even if idiomatically the terms can be used interchangeably. [See end note 3] In creating this bond, it’s easy to see how these people might be confused. Virtually no one is proposing that ‘facts’ are not ‘facts’. It may be that postmodernism should have a weak and a strong version.

If the colour red is defined as the reflection by an object having a wavelength between 625 and 700 nanometres and a corresponding frequency between 400 and 480 THz, and a ball as a 3-dimensional object where every point on the surface is the same distance from the centre, and all of the incumbent terms are similarly defined and accepted with concordant definitions, then a sighted person with no colour vision perception deficiencies in an environment with natural full-spectrum lighting, will agree with the fact that the sphere is red. If one prefers to label the correspondence of a red sphere and the perception of the red ball as true, then this trivial relationship is valid.

2-dimensional render of a 3-dimensional red sphere

It may be a correct assessment that some thinkers deny all truth, but it’s more likely that these thinkers are suspicious of the person claiming to know the truth because of the relationship between truth claims and power. Although Lyotard’s commentary was directed at hard science and underlying metanarratives such as progress, most postmoderns are more concerned with claims of moral truths.

This is related to the context of a claim. Per Foucault, if one context gives me power, I am more apt to adopt that perspective in order to manifest that power. I am not going to delve into some political discourse at the moment. Apart from this, Truth—where synonymous with fact—is contextual.

Using a typical example, one can evaluate the moral claim that killing another human is immoral. In fact, many—not all—people may agree with this as a general principle. But when we apply context—say, self-defence, military action, or capital punishment—, we discover that some of the same people now evaluate that killing another human is moral. So, we arrive that this moral assessment is subject to be either true or false depending on the context it’s evaluated in. Myself, being a non-cognitivist, I find moral claims to be lacking truth aptness, but that’s another story.

When did Postmodernism become a constructive rather than decompositional philosophy?

I’ll reserve the option to finish this section later. A quick internet search finds that David Ray Griffin coined the term constructive postmodernism. Griffin appears to have an agenda to return to modernism, particularly, it seems at first glance, Pragmatism.

My initial thought is that it was not thinkers fully invested in postmodernism; rather it was people with ulterior motives. Infusing Christian elements appear to be the most common thread. This line of thought is entirely speculative, so please stand by for an update or retraction. Metamodernism appears to have similar attributes, though perhaps simply metaphysical rather than Christian in nature.

How does one parse the theory of postmodernism from the personality who espouses a perspective on it?

Many people identified as postmoderns don’t self-identify as such. Kuznar labels postmodern anyone whose thinking includes most or all of these elements, but there is a compositional challenge inherent in this claim.

There are several compositional problems. First, one can apply postmodernism to a narrow domain and operate fully as a modern in the rest—perhaps even the majority of situations. Second, one can apply a postmodern lens theoretically, but be more pragmatic in more mundane matters. Third, one might apply a postmodern lens among many lenses, defending each in turn. Fourth, one may have had strong postmodern tendencies at one point in life but not held this perspective at other points.

Taking Foucault as an example—as well as one who eschewed the postmodern label—, he did disintegrate history and did question the underlying narratives, hitting all of Kuznar’s touchpoints. For one, I would categorise him as a postmodern thinker. Moreover, his disintegration led to the discovery of a common power thread throughout. Much of his writing was focused on this power relationship and illustrated how it was manifest.

Foucault was also a vocal Marxist. This is a constructive (integrative) worldview. This perspective gives privilege to Marxism, which is antithetical to postmodernism. As a rational interpreter, Foucault determined that this was a better form of government—but clearly, that’s because he accepted the underlying narrative and historicity proposed by Marx. Does this invalidate his postmodern credentials? Do we revoke his PoMo card?

Disclaimer

Excuse me for occasionally using this space as a scratchpad, but it serves the purpose well. I’ve never delved deeply in to critical theory, though I suppose I suppose that at least some of it resonates with me.

Note that I approach this as a stream of consciousness. It’s not meant to be a robust academic treatment. Although, I do cite source documents in some cases, many of my points are anecdotal or pulled from memory, understanding fallibility and so on. I expect to return to flesh out some details, but I figure I’ll publish my thoughts now and make updates in future. I may even correct spelling, grammar, and redundancies.

My goal at the start was two-fold (at least). First, is to describe the domains of postmodernism from the perspective of a proponent (as opposed to accepting a definition imposed by detractors). Second, is to assess where critical disintegration diverged to an integration theory. It’s obvious that you hold that deconstruction and discourse analysis fall within the domain. They are certainly orthodox post-structural concepts, so I suppose a third goal might be to define the boundaries of poststructuralism relative to postmodernism.


Endnotes

[1] Postmodernism and Its Critics, Daniel Salberg, et al.

[2] This modern cohort has a similar tendency to paint any form of Socialism as Communism, and they see the Soviet Union’s failed experiment of whatever they attempted to do as Communism. Therefore all forms of Socialism are destined to fail. The failure to appreciate nuance and detail is the common thread. I might posit that it’s similar to the phenomenon where, on average, women tend to perceive more colours (or colour names) than men.

[3] Aping logical empiricism, idiomatic language allows for broader definitions of truth and allows it to be synonymous with fact. This is similar to the idiomatic similarity of sex and gender, though this distinction is necessary for technical and academic discussion.

Pragmatism and Samsara

I was engaged in a conversation in a Facebook Philosophy group for Pragmatists. I feel that these groups take me as adversarial because I question their system of belief. To the extent that I accept any categorical distinction, I consider myself to be a Postmodernist first and foremost and a Pragmatist second. In a similar fashion, I am at once an atheist first, but I operate as a Buddhist. I am a nihilist first, but I operate as an Existentialist. In any case, in explaining this, I hit upon an analogy that I hadn’t considered before.

everything just ‘is’

Pragmatism is Samsara. In Buddhism, there is the concept of Samsara, which contains the realms we reside in before we reach Enlightenment, the state of realising that everything just ‘is’, is , and is undifferentiated, at which case we either exit the system or remain as aware (woke anyone?) Bodhisattvas.

everything is a constructed illusion

The ‘just is’ is the postmodern condition. Nothing is as it seems and everything is a constructed illusion. There is no good, no bad, no right or wrong—not even black or white. This is all perception of difference, but there is no difference.

I am a Buddhist in the same way I am a Pragmatist. I know that this is all a cognitive construct—or constructs—, but I am still stuck in the middle of it, ‘thrown in’ (Geworfenheit) to echo Heidegger, and I attempt to make the best of it. None of it is real, but, as with people of the Matrix, I can’t perceive my way out of it.

The risk for Pragmatists is that they are empiricists. They trust that the past will ostensibly operate the same as the future. It’s been generally that way thus far, and we’ve misinterpreted how things operate in the past, but we’ve corrected this interpretation, and we’ll correct and refine these interpretations in future. That’s the employed logic. I’ve not got a better plan, so as shoddy or rickety as it might be, it’s my life raft replete with holes, but I’ll patch them as swiftly as I can and hope my history of having not encountered any sharks or tidal disruptions or undertows persists.

none of this exists

All the while, my core beliefs are that none of this exists—not in a solipsistic way, just not as we imagine it does. It’s the wall constructed of atoms and molecules that is more space than not, and yet we can’t pass through it. If only we could all be Neo and overcome this misperception.

Fashionable Fascism

So, it started with this video.

Video: The fascist philosopher behind Vladimir Putin’s information warfare — Tim Snyder

I’d never heard of Ivan Ilyin, so the entirety of my knowledge derives from whatever Tim Snyder conveys in this clip. The risk is that he may misrepresent Ilyin’s message, much like Stephen Hicks misrepresents Postmodernism in his work. So, if you’ve got a deeper understanding of Ilyin, apologies in advance, but I am only reacting to this clip without much intention of reading his published work not performing additional second-hand research. Sue me.

Snyder raises three ‘important ideas’ from Ilyin:

/1/ Social advancement is impossible

Each person is like a cell in a body, each having it’s defined function or purpose. So, freedom means knowing one’s place, which function to perform.

/2/ Democracy is a ritual

People vote, but they only vote to affirm their collective support for a leader. The leader is not legitimated or chosen by votes. Voting is just a ritual by which people people endorse a leader every few years.

/3/ The factual world doesn’t count

The manifest world is not real. It’s a mishmash of facts, which have no intrinsic value, but these facts cannot be unified into some larger whole.

Nothing is real, or what is real isn’t important. The only things that really matter are preferences and biases.

Through this, Ilyin surmises that the only true thing is Russian Nationalism and its role as saviour to bring order back to the world.

Of course, this conclusion is precisely the one to which the US arrived except that its American Nationalism is the correct version.

. . .

As to points 1 and 2, I can’t disagree with the base statements. Social advancement is impossible because we’ve got nothing to measure it against. As I’ve said before, we move recognise change and a sense of movement, but movement is not progress.

As I’ve already admitted, I don’t enough about Ilyid, so I am taking Snyder’s statement at face-value, but it does not follow that because social advancement is impossible, we need to adopt some deontological position that freedom means knowing one’s place. It’s a bit of a forced non sequitur.

Democracy is a ritual. It’s a failed experiment, and the only thing that remains is the shell of an empty promise. I do think that the voting serves to legitimise the representative figurehead. There are persons who debate the legitimacy of, say, Bush-43 or Trump-45—or perhaps just their competencies—but this is a twenty-first century phenomenon, as US politics have become more and more divisive.

That the factual world doesn’t count is difficult for me to buy into. In many ways, it is easy enough to manipulate people with non-facts masquerading as facts, but I am not convinced that this contingent is large enough to gain critical mass in the long run. I understand history well enough that these anti-fact forces have run roughshod over entire civilisations, whether the Inquisitions or witch-burning or current religious organisations and other snake oil hawkers.

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

Like the characters in Orwell’s 1984 or Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, there is still resistance. I’m not even trying to make the claim that my vision of a world absent of superstition is the true world or the right vision. I am only claiming that my vision of a world without it is more pleasant to me.

But, then again, that just confirm’s Ilyid’s point that the only thing that matters is preference, and there is no separating bias from preference.

Rorty on Truth

To a comment on Death of the Metanarrative, I responded about the notion of truth relative to the map and the terrain. Although my rambling response was lengthy, I thought I’d share Richard Rorty’s view on this from his Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. According to Rorty, rationalists and empiricists turn claims about the world into the world—convincing others that a map of the world is the world.


We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there.

—Richard Rorty

“We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.


Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there.

Richard Rorty

“Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world in its own—unaided by the describing activities of human beings—cannot…

“The world does not speak. Only we do. The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot propose a language for us to speak…

“It was Nietzsche who first explicitly suggested that we drop the whole idea of ‘knowing the truth’. But in abandoning the traditional notion of truth, Nietzsche did not abandon the idea of discovering the causes of our being what we are … In his view, in achieving this sort of self-knowledge we are not coming to know a truth which was out there (or in here) all the time. Rather, he saw self-knowledge as self-creation. The process of coming to know oneself, confronting one’s contingency, tracking one’s causes home, is identical with the process of inventing a new language … So the only way to trace home the causes of one’s being as one is would be to tell a story about one’s causes in a new language…

“[O]ne can—fruitlessly, in my view—come at [the question of knowledge] by way of anthropology and the question of whether there are ‘cultural universals’, or by way of psychology and the question of whether there are psychological universals. [There is an] indefinite plurality of standpoints, [a] vast number of ways of coming at the issue sideways … It is central to the idea of a liberal society that, in respect to words as opposed to deeds, persuasion as opposed to force, anything goes. This openmindedness should not be fostered because, as Scripture teaches, Truth is great and will prevail, nor because, as Milton suggests, Truth will always win in a free and open counter. It should be fostered for its own sake. A liberal society is one which is content to call ‘true’ whatever the upshot of such encounters turns out to be.”

Husky Meme – According to this book, I can’t read.

Death of the Metanarrative

Until I recently read Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge I never quite understood why Moderns accused Post-moderns of being anti-science. I’d heard Jordan Peterson complaining, and I’d read forum and blog posts with the same attacks.

As it happens, postmodernism eschews the meta-narrative or is leery of it. This includes the meta-narratives underlying science and the Enlightenment more generally. If you’ve read my posts over the years, you’ll see that this is a common complaint of mine, that everything is a human construct. Although Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition, I only read it this week.

To be fair, I sought it out. I have been attempting to find some other philosophers who have asserted that Truth (and other notions like Justice and Progress) are nothing more than the result of a rhetorical victory. And although Lyotard does not come out and say this (at least not in this book), I feel that he would not disagree with the notion. I may have to read some more of his work.

The least one can do is find the underlying narrative. Feel free to operate day to day as per usual, but be aware. The inscription at Delphi was not exactly right. There is no self to know, and narratives change, but to ‘know’ the prevailing narrative of the day seems it might at least allow one to better assess what’s happening above ground. The Matrix trope may be overplayed, but it’s a fitting metaphor for seeing what underlies. There is no Truth, but for what it’s worth, there’s another data point.

We live on the map, but the terrain is inaccessible. The postmodern doesn’t hate science or progress. We merely question the veracity. One cannot assess progress without a vector, without velocity and direction, so we contrive stories to serve as a foundation.

The founding of these stories don’t need to be sinister or nefarious. They can grow organically. But the ones who understand the rules, Wittgenstein’s language game, can wrest power, and s/he who can bend the rules through convincing rhetoric, perhaps as Locke and Rousseau, can change to course of history. But this course can be changed again. When Marx tried to change the narrative, it threatened the status quo, so they try to delegitimatise it at every turn—primarily through the dissemination of disinformation in a sort of corrupt meme machine. Marx tried to embrace and then co-opt Capitalism, but the Capitalists were not ready to cede power. One hundred and fifty-odd years later, they still aren’t. And it might be that a different narrative is adopted before Marx’s vision is even able to take root.

I was a bit confused by Lyotard’s quip about utility being the arbiter under modern Capitalism in lieu of Truth, as I am not sure how many postmodernists embrace the notion of some objective Truth. To be clear, I don’t.

Lego Blocks

In the end, I feel it is better to deconstruct the concept of a knowable reality. The trick is not to try to reconstruct something from the pieces. It’s like deconstructing a Lego model and rebuilding a different model from the pieces whilst making the claim that this reconstitution is the true manifestation when in fact any construct is as ‘good’ as the next, but good cannot be determined until you’ve defined a context. Such is the role of the metanarrative. Once you define an end, you can then evaluate utility in light of it, but there is nothing to assess the choice of one end versus some other ends save by preference. And of course preference can be manipulated by rhetoric.

Fables of the Deconstruction

To some extent or another, humans appear to need order—some more than others. Societies are a manifestation of order, and we’ve got subcultures for those who don’t fit in with the mainstream. Humans are also a story-telling lot, which helps to provide a sense of order. Metanarratives are a sort of origin story with a scintilla of aspiration toward some imagined semblance of progress.

Some people appear to be more predisposed to need to ride this metanarrative as a lifeboat. These people are typically Conservative, authority-bound traditionalists, but even the so-called Progressives need this thread of identity. The problem seems to come down to a sort of tolerance versus intolerance split, a split along the same divide as created by monotheism in the presence of polytheism.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Won’t Get Fooled Again — The Who

In a polytheistic world, when two cultures collided, their religious pantheons were simply merged. In a blink, a society might go from 70 gods to 130. On this basis, there was a certain tolerance. Monotheism, on the other hand, is intolerant—a winner takes all death match. The tolerant polytheists might say, sure, you’ve got a god? Great. He can sit over there by the elephant dude. Being intolerant like a petulant schoolboy, the monotheists would throw a tantrum at the thought that there might be other gods on the block. Monotheists won’t even allow demigods, though there is the odd saint or two.

This is a battle between absolutism and relativism. The relativist is always in a weaker arguing position because intolerant absolutists are convinced that their way is the only way, yet the tolerant relativists are always at risk of being marginalised. This is what Karl Popper was addressing with the Paradox of Tolerance.

In a functioning society, a majority of the metanarratives are adopted by the majority of its constituent. On balance, these metanarratives are somewhat inviolable and more so by the inclined authoritarians.

A problem is created when a person or group disagrees with the held views. The ones espousing these views—especially the Traditionals—become indignant. What do you mean there are more than two genders? You are either male or female. Can’t you tell by the penis?

I happened to read a tweet by the GOP declaring their stupidity:

America the Stupid

The Vice President, a living anachronism and proxy for the American Midwest Rust Belt superimposed on the Bible Belt, he tells his sheep that “The moment America becomes a socialist country is the moment that America ceases to be America…” Americans as a whole are pretty dim, and it seems to get dimmer the higher one ascends their government. Pence seems very firm in affirming a notion of American identity, but not accepting that identities change. He may become upset if he finds out that George Washington is dead—in fact, there are very few remnants of the original United States aside from some dirt, trees, and a few edifices—and the country is still the county. Some people have a difficult time grasping identity. It makes me wonder if he fails to recognise himself in the mirror after he gets his hair cut.

The idea behind deconstruction is to deconstruct the workings of strong nation-states with powerful immigration policies, to deconstruct the rhetoric of nationalism, the politics of place, the metaphysics of native land and native tongue… The idea is to disarm the bombs… of identity that nation-states build to defend themselves against the stranger, against Jews and Arabs and immigrants…

Jacques Derrida

Interesting to me is how people complain about this and that politically. Most of this is somewhat reflexive and as phatic as a ‘how are you?’, but some is more intentional and actioned. Occasionally, the energy is kinetic instead of potential, but the result is always the same: One power structure is replaced by another.

What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a new master. You will get one

Jacques Lacan

As Lacan noted, as people, we believe ourselves to be democratic, but most of us appear to be finding and then worshipping some authority figures who will promise us what we desire. We desire to have someone else in charge, who can make everything OK, someone who is in a sense an ideal parent. I don’t believe this to be categorical, but I do believe that there is a large contingent of people who require this.

As an aside, I’ve spent a lot of time (let’s call it a social experiment) in the company of social reprobates. What never ceases to amaze me is how these social outcasts seem to have a strong sense of right and wrong and how things should be. Conveniently, they exempt themselves from this scope, so if they steel to buy drugs, it’s OK, but if someone else gets caught, they should get what’s coming to them.

About a year ago I was chatting with a mate, and I shared an observation that the biggest substance abusers in high school—”the Man’s not going hold me down” cohort—are the biggest conservatives. A girl a few houses down from me became a stripper, but her political views are very Conservative, an avid Trump supporter.

One woman I know is a herion-addicted prostitute. In her eyes, she’s fine (sort of—without getting into psychoanalytics); other women are junkie whores. A heavy dose of assuaged cognitive dissonance is the prescription for this, but it confounds me.

Getting back to the original topic, people who need this order are resistant to deconstruction and other hallmark notions of poststructuralism. They need closure. This translates into a need for metanarratives. When confronted with the prospect of no Truth, they immediately need to find a substitute—speculatively, anyway, as denial and escalating commitment will kick into overdrive.

The same problem mentioned above comes into play here. A few years ago, there was an Occupy Wall Street group, and like atheists, there are myriad reasons why people participated. One of the commonest complaints by the power structure and the public at large is if you don’t like the status quo, what status should replace it. None of the above was never an acceptable response.

It doesn’t matter that in this universe we occupy there is more disorder than order, and entropy rules, pareidolia is the palliative. And religion remains an opiate of the masses.


Please ignore my clear misappropriate of the classic R.E.M. album.

Paradox

How can one simultaneously be an SJW (Social Justice Warrior) and be a non-cognitivist? How can one who doesn’t believe in the notion of identity nonetheless defend it? How can someone who doesn’t believe in the notion of justice seek it? And how can a conscientious objector apply a ‘warrior’ title to his own identity?

(Viscerally, I am an SJW—at least I consider myself so (because I just said so, right?). As a non-cognitivist, in particular, an emotivist (Ayer), an expressivist (Moore), and a prescriptivist (Hare), why should I care? And isn’t this somewhat paradoxical or perhaps hypocritical?

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

I used to consider myself an Existentialist Nihilist, and I still have a fondness for this particular worldview. In many ways, at a more mundane, pragmatic level, I operate as an Existentialist, but that’s only because, in the realm of workaday political philosophy, one cannot be so ethereal, as it were.

Even though I don’t believe in any higher purpose for humans or life, I still have an urge for survival, and I recognise that no man is an island, that there is safety in numbers. At least this is my adopted metanarrative. I don’t feel that I am some rugged individual. I rely on others, and I’d prefer amicable relationships over adversarial.

I’ve always valued a sense of personal identity and autonomy, but only as an emotional response. I’ve also never felt the urge to control the identity co-opted by others. This means that if you are gay, straight, trans, pan, or whatever, it doesn’t matter to me.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Jesus, Sermon on the Mount

If you are a CIS-male and want to wear a dress or enhance your breasts, it’s none of my concern.

FULL DISCLOSURE
Although I respect a person’s choice to, say, be trans in whatever shape or form, I don’t consider myself to be pansexual, so I wouldn’t presume that I am going to date that person. Whether this is a prejudice or preference, I am not going to argue the semantics.

Anyhoo….

Despite understanding that identity doesn’t ‘really’ exist and in the end, it doesn’t even matter, I will (and do) vocally defend the ‘right’ of a person to express this identity.

So, perhaps also paradoxically or hypocritically, I’ll comment on someone’s fashion sense —and trust me; I am no fashion maven. So just because I won’t deprive you of your ‘right’ to express yourself the way you chose does not mean I have no opinion (positive or negative) about how you present yourself, and it doesn’t mean that I won’t make a joke or make light of how you express. I am not a fan of politically correct (PC) speech, a trend American Liberals are on the wrong side of.

Intersex Person

In the end, there is the space of objective reality and the space of workaday life. For some accident of history and evolution, I have been thrust into a world where I need to interact with people who believe there is more then there actually is and they subscribe to some metanarrative. Unfortunately, unlike Neo in the Matrix, I am not able to cut through the bullshit, and so my dominant strategy is just to play around. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

As an emotivist, I am an SJW because it is visceral to me.

As an expressivist, your sense of morality expressed through mores and customs hold no water, and I won’t abide by the restrictions they impose.

As a prescriptivist, I think that you should share my emotion in the spirit of do unto others…

Interestingly enough (or not), I am a fairly typical (albeit eccentric) white male. My self-expression differs more in my beliefs and speech than in my physical person or attire. Talk to me for more than a few moments, and this will become immediately apparent.

Gimme Some Truth

John Lennon wrote this song in 1968 and released it as a solo artist, post-Beatles breakup, but he clearly was no post-modern. He embraced truth. He searched for it. To many, he had found it; following Heidegger’s logic, Lennon was authentic; not living the life someone else designed for him; living up to his potential.

This is quaint. I’d always loved John. He was my favourite Beatle. Paul was always too saccharine for me. I liked George, but his mysticism went off the rails. And Ringo—well, Ringo was Ringo. What’s not to like about the guy?—as long as you’re not talking about his prowess as a drummer.

I watched a YouTube video, and felt compelled to write a response—one I’ve recast and embellished here.

What is Postmodernism – Armored Skeptic

To a postmodernist, there is no objective truth. End of story. There is no further discussion. To postmodernists, a claim that there is some objective truth is parallel to hearing a proponent of religion who claims there is a God just because s/he says so. Truth is like God: it doesn’t exist. Period. End of story. And so like the religious who will ramble on for days about their God, so the modernist do the same.

Like the notion of God, Truth is a construct of human language, and they’re both fictions. People often confuse facts with truth. Facts are descriptive attributes about things or ideas whereas truth is about some inviolable, absolute notion. But facts are analytic or tautological: the car is red. Sure, we’ve constructed a term ‘car’ and a term ‘red’. If a thing exists that is both a car and red, then the statement is factually correct, but there is nothing true about it. It provides no additional information than ‘all bachelors are unmarried’.

The problem with truth is that we are attempting to make some universal claim, so let me pick an easy one: Thou shalt not kill: killing is bad. As an emotivist (post-modern philosopher AJ Ayer’s term), this translates to ‘Boo, murder’ or ‘I don’t like murder’, but there is no truth component to be found. Moreover, when it is brought to my attention that I abide with killing very frequently—by means of eating meat or vegetables—, I can attempt to limit the scope: Thou shalt not kill people. Of course, there are all sorts of escape clauses from this, whether wars, police action, capital punishment, euthanasia, abortion, and what have you. Each of these is differently good or bad subject to the observer. Why? Because there is no objective truth behind the claim. It was fabricated in the same manner Gods, governments, and other human institutions were fabricated.

So, the claim is that there is no basis for the status quo, which clearly jeopardises the standing of the status quo, so they pull a yellow card and argue that you are not allowed to argue without accepting their notion of truth. Otherwise, how can they win the argument? This is akin to arguing when you are stranded in the desert without fuel in your vehicle that there has to be fuel or else you can’t progress. And so the status quo has no fuel, and so it whines that the postmodernists just aren’t fair. In fact, they are accused of speaking nonsense, which sounds a lot like what the church claimed about heretics all those years ago. Only now, the modernists are the church holding onto a past that never was.

Finally, grouping all of these different postmodern disciplines together is like lumping all atheists together—they may have little in common save for the disbelief in God and gods, but their rationale and path may be orders of magnitude apart.

But all I want is some truth…

John Lennon – Gimme Some Truth

Stephen Hicks’ Strawman

I’ve been reading and listening to Conservative Stephen Hicks’ Explaining Postmodernism. He’s made it free on YouTube and as PDF. It’s important to note that the book is a decent read, but Hicks makes little attempt to remain in a neutral voice. It’s clear that he is critical of it, so his explaining is not to articulate to the generally interested; rather, it’s to impose his worldview on the topic matter. Read or listen, but keep this in mind. If you lean Conservative, you’ll eye-roll in unison with him; if you lean to the Left, the eye-rolls will have a different significance, as he mows down one strawman after another.

In this clip (bookmarked from the full audiobook), he attempts to make the case that postmodernists—which is as motley a crew as a group of atheists—eschew the notion of rationality for the comfort of feelings. Sure, I suppose some postmodernists do make this argument, but it is hardly a universal position. Taking myself as an example, I have no illusion that most people can register let alone understand their feelings.

I recall being in a corporate-sponsored (human resource-sponsored) interpersonal communications class where the instructor made the claim that one should defend your position by invoking feelings:

  • Your loud voice frightened me.
  • I feel sad when you shout at me.
  • I feel anxious when…

My reaction then is about the same as it is as I write: Whilst I may not understand what the other person may be feeling, there is little reason for me to believe that this person has identified and named this feeling. There is also little reason to presume this person is conveying to me a correctly-interpreted feeling in lieu of a more hyperbolic version for maximum effect. Moreover, some people seem to be offended by pretty much anything. And there’s one thing I’ve learnt along the way:

A person looking to be offended is pretty much guaranteed to be offended.

So, absent context, I have no reason to take this person at their word. Call me a curmudgeon, if you please.

Like Jordan Peterson, a personality who promotes Hicks, standing up and knocking down strawmen seems to be their raisons d’être, but this is sloppy philosophy and lacks the integrity these people claim to admire. In any case, forewarned is forearmed. Caveat emptor.

EDIT: The more I read of Hicks, the less I like it. He misunderstands or at least misrepresents postmodernism in a big way. I am not sure whether it is intentional or through ignorance, but a certain expected academic neutrality is absent to the brink of malpractice.

Here is a fuller critique of Hicks’ misrepresentation of Postmodernism.

Meaningless

Whether in English or in French, I don’t believe Foucault ever uttered the words, ‘It is meaningless to speak in the name of – or against – Reason, Truth, or Knowledge‘*, but I don’t think he’d disagree with the sentiment.


“All my analyses are against the idea of universal necessities in human existence.”

Michel Foucault

Foucault was a postmodernist, and on balance, political Conservatives (Rightists?) dislike the notion of postmodernism. Evidently, a lot of Postmodernists are also Leftists (Progressives or Liberals in the US), so somehow critics such as Jordan Peterson conflate the two clearly distinct concepts.

A basis for Conservatism is the notion of an objective truth, and despite recent sociopolitical trends, they at least say they are guardians or truth and purveyors of knowledge. Conservatives (OK, so I am broad-brushing here) are staunch individualists who believe strongly in possession and property, of material, of an objective reality. Fundamentally, the are aligned to a monotheistic god or at least some discernible (and objective) moral compass.

On the Left, especially post-Enlightenment, they’ve substituted God with some anthropomorphic Nature. In fact, they find comfort in natural laws and human nature. Science is often their respite because science is objective. Isn’t it? Leftists are friends or Reason, and one can’t acquire enough knowledge. Moderation need not apply here; the more the merrier.

This being said, evidently, many on the Left seem to have abandoned this comfort zone. Of course, this may be because the Left-Right dichotomy doesn’t capture the inherent nuance, and so they were miscategorised—perhaps, much in the same manner as persons are miscategorised in a binary gender system. No. It must be something else.

In any case, both side claim to the parties of knowledge, reason, and truth because the opposing parties are clearly abject morons. There is no hint of irony in the situation where each side claims some objective notion of truth—whether divinely granted or self-evidently reasoned—, yet they can’t resolve what the true truth is. If only the other side were more rational.

By now, we are well aware of the demise of homo economicus, the hyper-rational actor foundational to modern economic theory. In reality, humans are only rational given the loosest definitions, say, to (in most cases) know enough to get in the shade on a 37.2°C day. However, as behavioural economist Dan Ariely noted by the title of his book, people are Predictably Irrational. Ariely is just standing on the shoulders of Kahneman and Tversky and Richard Thaler. My point is that humans are only marginally rational.

As I’ve written elsewhere, truth is nothing more than a rhetorical endpoint. It is hardly objective. It’s a matter of opinion. Unfortunately, systems of government and jurisprudence require this objective truth. In truth—see what I did there?—, social fabric requires a shared notion of truth.

A shared notion doesn’t imply that this notion is objective, but if it’s not objective, how does one resolve differences of opinion as to which is the better truth. Without establishing a frame and a lens, this is impossible. The problem is that frames and lenses are also relative. Whether the members accept a given frame or lens is also a matter of rhetoric. It’s turtles all the way down.

Turtles all the way down

Even if all members agree on all parameters of truth at day 0, there is nothing to prevent opinion changes or from new members not to share these parameters. Such is always the problem with social contract theory. [How does one commit to a contract s/he is born into with little recourse to rescind the contract, renegotiate terms, or choose a different contract option. The world is already carved up, and the best one can do is to jump from the frying pan into the fire.]

In the end, the notion of truth is necessary, but it doesn’t exist. Playing Devil’s advocate, let’s say that there is a single purveyor of Truth; let’s just say that it’s the monotheistic Abrahamic God of Judeo-Christian beliefs. There is no (known) way to ascertain that a human would have the privilege to know such a truth nor, if s/he were to encounter, say, a burning bush of some sort, that this entity would be conveying truth; so, we aren’t really in a better place. Of course, we could exercise faith and just believe, but this is a subjective action. We could also take Descarte’s line of logic and declare that a good God would not deceive us—sidestepping that this ethereal being was good, as advertised. I’m afraid it’s all dead ends here, too.

And so, we are back to where we started: no objective truth, limited ability to reason, and some fleeting notion of knowledge. We are still left with nothing.

Enter the likes of Jordan Peterson, he with his fanciful notion of metaphysics and morality—a channeller of Carl Jung. His tactic is to loud dog the listener and outshout them indignantly. His followers, already primed with a shared worldview, are adept (or inept) cheerleaders ready to uncritically echo his refrain. To them, his virtue-ethical base, steeped in consequentialism awash in deontology, Peterson speaks the truth.

He also potentiates the selfish anti-collective germ and rage of the declining white man. He’s sort of a less entertaining Howard Stern for the cleverer by half crowd. He gives a voice to the voiceless—or perhaps the thoughtless. He uses ‘reason’ to back his emotional pleas. He finds a voice in the wilderness where white Western males are the oppressed. If only they hadn’t been born centuries earlier—albeit with iPhones and microwaves.

Those would be the days.

* I believe this phrase attributed to Foucault was a paraphrase by philosopher Todd May.