Here comes a polemical one ladies and gentlemen, you have been warned.

Years ago, back in high school, I had a teacher who had a poster in her classroom that was an artistic depiction of people celebrating around a fire, and on it was written “other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit” (that quote is by someone famous, though I’m not exactly sure who). Much of the emphasis in this particular class was on understanding other cultures, avoiding ethnocentrism and acknowledging that people have widespread and varied belief systems, and we must avoid holding the view that our own cherished culture and traditions are “better” than others. All of this normative development on the part of the class was fine with me; like the majority of students I knew, I was all for “blending cultures,” “promoting diversity” and “celebrating equality.” What a shock it was to me then, when I learned about men burning their (multiple) wives alive with full acceptance and approval in many parts of the Middle East, the Caste system in India and the Genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia and the Sudan. These practices were not the actions of limited groups of individuals nor were they the actions of corrupt, autocratic governments. Instead they were perpetrated or approved of by many thousands or millions of people, and according to their own “webs of meaning” (according to the fashionable jargon of Social Constructionism) these actions were completely justified and acceptable. In the context of these horrors, I became very cynical about the utopian message printed on that poster; it seemed to me to be something of a bad joke.

My cynicism about this particular “way of seeing things” primarily has to do with what I take to be an obvious inconsistency, which is that it at the one time extols the values of tolerance, equality and diversity while at the same time denying that any set of values has more worth than any other. Of course I do support equality, tolerance, diversity etc., yet the very reason I support these values is that I believe they are better values than, say, inequality, prejudice and uniformity, “better” implying that there is at least some objectivity in terms of comparing values (particularly moral values) to one another. The rejection of this thesis, of course, is specifically the ethical viewpoint known as “moral relativism,” an utterly appalling view that has achieved an unbelievable degree of acceptance in our society today. But the point of this particular post is not to attack that view specifically (I will do so in later posts, just you wait.) Rather, the target of this post is the primary contemporary framework underlying that view, labeled “Postmodernism,” which has latched onto contemporary academia like a vile parasite, and as far as I can tell has not received enough of the criticism it so justly deserves. It would be nice to begin by defining the view that I am criticizing (that’s what you’re supposed to do anyways) but I must confess I am unable to do so, not because I haven’t tried but because the Postmodernists themselves don’t seem to have any idea what their position is. Postmodernism is a perspective spanning the fine arts, architecture, literary criticism, the social sciences and philosophy and in this sense has a remarkable ability morph into some other domain whenever one attempts to criticize it; this also seems to give it the curious characteristic of lacking any real, essential definition. I know this from having taken out books at the library, reading articles in research journals, and asking self-described ‘Postmodernists’ what, the hell, exactly, Postmodernism is, and have, each time, received almost entirely different definitions that seem to have little in common with one another.

But I have come to see that this is the point, in some sense, of the Postmodernists’ position. The Postmodernist is one who rejects hard and fast, rigid definitions, who questions the underlying motivations for adopting the dominant strategies involved in more conventional academic discourse. It’s a sort of ‘Zen’ thing apparently; the answer to the question is that there is no answer; our words are misleading us, our culture and upbringing have biased us and what seems meaningful is meaningless. All that there is left to do, according to the Postmodernist (at least as far as I can tell, from having read some of their papers and spoken to some of their sycophants) is to have fun playing around with nonsense, as well as critique our broader social order and see the ways in which dominant power structures use language and ideology to carefully monitor and control the development of our society. And Postmodern theorists, in many fields, discuss the ways in which all of this takes place. For some reason though, this sacred message would apparently lose all of its force if someone just came out and stated it clearly and concisely. Rather, we need to arrive at it ourselves, as a sort of development that comes from reading the works of the historical ancestors of the movement and meditating on them while we consider their contemporary descendants, along with their often strikingly unclear writing, peppered with big, smart-sounding words used entirely out of context. The language thus serves, apparently, as Wittgenstein put it at the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, like a sort of “ladder to the truth,” that can be kicked away once understanding is achieved. Indeed, the implication of the Postmodernists seems to be that like the Zen student who, after being struck by the master’s stick a dozen or so times, suddenly achieves enlightenment, upon following this noble path we will apparently reach a halcyon point of sophistication where can finally move past our silly, antiquated notions of absolute truth and value and realize that these old ideas were just inhibiting us, enslaving our minds, and that in abandoning them we have at least achieved liberation.

Or, on the other hand, maybe not. Maybe, just maybe, this is really all a bunch of immature nonsense; maybe the Emperor really is just naked after all.  Postmodernism seems to me to be one giant intellectual scam that a portion of the academic establishment is attempting to pull on a generation of earnest young students. About a decade ago, Cambridge University decided to award an honorary doctorate to Jacques Derrida, who is perhaps the quintessential postmodern philosopher, on the basis of his numerous accolades from his colleagues in France as well as his contributions to the humanities and literary theory. Upon learning this, numerous philosophers at Cambridge along with eighteen renowned analytic philosophers from around the world wrote indignant letters to the university claiming that Derrida’s work “did not meet acceptable philosophical standards” and was little more than sophistry. Cambridge went ahead with giving the man an honorary Doctorate anyways (what can you say? They are Cambridge after all) leaving many analytic philosophers indignant, while predictably the reaction from Derrida himself was that his work was attacked because it criticizes “the rules of the dominant discourse, it tries to politicize and democratize education and the university scene.”

This is exactly the sort of stock, arrogant, hobnobbing garbage that many Postmodernists will spew when one dares to criticize their methodology as inherently flawed or deficient, and exposes the way in which Postmodernism is itself nothing more than a dogma desperately clung to by skittish academics rather than a systematic, well thought-out theoretical framework. Notice in Derrida’s reply there is nothing that refers to the semantics, no comment made about the content of the debate itself. Rather there is just a petty, almost whining remark about why the big bad academic authorities are trying to put down a voice of dissent. To one indoctrinated by the Postmodernist creed this apparently seems plausible, but to a person who has not yet achieved enlightenment this is obviously false. Stall the revolution comrades; “the rules of the dominant discourse” in philosophy are not equivalent to the “rules of the dominant discourse” in politics or the government. Believe me, I (and most philosophers I know) really sincerely wish that the common people would defer to our judgment in a whole host of matters (getting paid “the big bucks” sure would be nice too), but in case Derrida or his postmodern apostles haven’t noticed, this isn’t exactly the case. The suggestion that his work would be criticized or dismissed as sophistry on the basis of politics or bias, or preserving some philosophical status quo (which certainly exists but in a very different sense from that which Derrida’s whining alleges) rather than because it is simply unclear, unsystematic and hackneyed, is characteristic of the Postmodern approach to criticism; blame the critic for being prejudiced or “just not understanding,” rather than actually answering the questions asked.

This latter point also betrays a curious tendency amongst contemporary Postmodern ‘theorists’ (I would say “philosophers” but that would be too limited a description); if you read a large enough sample of their work, you’ll find that what looks like a development of striking, radical claims about our intellectual discourse, our ideas and our culture and society (as well as how we ought to read certain texts) is in fact a longstanding pissing contest amongst the foremost Postmodernists in the field. What I mean by this is to simply note the curious way in which Postmodernists seem to attempt to outdo one another in terms of how radical or apparently implausible a claim they can make and get away with it; Michael Focuault suggests that it is ultimately the power structures of the dominant class that determine what is “true” and what is “false,” a radical reinterpretation of the intuitively plausible Marxist thesis that what is a serious topic for intellectual study is determined by the bourgeoisie. Peter Berger one-ups Foucault by originating the idea of ‘social construction’ and with the radical suggestion that any social problem (even the destruction caused by a natural event) is ultimately a ‘social construction’ and does not have any significance in an outsider, ‘objective’ sense. Then you get to the really crazy Postmodernists like Luce Irigaray, a radical feminist psychoanalyst who suggests that the modern field of Fluid Mechanics preserves patriarchal power structures by ‘privileging’ solid, rigid, ‘masculine’ objects (‘masculine’ because the erect penis is solid and rigid, and as Freudian psychoanalysis “definitively proves,” all human thought is subconsciously concerned with sex whether you know it or not) over fluid ‘feminine’ ones. Scoffing at any one of these preposterous suggestions is evidence not of a healthy skepticism, but instead that your mind is enslaved by the antiquated modernist or Romantic notions of absolute truth and value, which we ought to abandon in favor of a healthier, egalitarian nihilism.

I have attempted to be ironic, in this post, by subjecting Postmodernism to something of a Postmodernist critique itself, in paying little attention to that approach’s philosophical content and merely noting the absurd degree of undeserved dogmatic power it seems to wield. I speak to that power from my own experience in secondary education as well as in college; throughout secondary school I was subject to all sorts of “forward thinking” educational programs, their methodology lifted from the latest Postmodernist, constructionist and’ whole language learning’ paradigms, which I now have the good sense to see, upon looking back, were thoroughly mediocre in terms of the amount I actually learned compared to students enrolled in the “Traditional” programs at our schools. It was only until I reached the end of high school that I actually began to question this framework; and at many times in my phase of questioning I felt the way I suppose an Atheist feels at Church, that is, completely out of place. I would debate entire classes of my fellow students, who, upon hearing that I believed certain actions (rape, infanticide, slavery etc.) were simply immoral actions or practices, regardless of who did them and when, and without giving a damn what their “culture” said about the matter, were baffled, and often looked at me as if I had said that I believed I was a space alien. My fellow students and teachers would then play the classic relativist/ subjectivist/ postmodernist (or whatever) card of noting some culture that regularly practiced exactly some action that I find horrifying, and triumphantly ask if I “really thought an entire society could just be wrong,” to which they would again be baffled (and usually a bit irritated) when I would answer with a big, obnoxious “YUP!” As I noted, relativism is, as far as I can tell, a huge part of Postmodernism, and will receive its own bashing within my next several posts, so I don’t want to get into it too much  now. Suffice to say that all of these Postmodern dogmas, relativism, constructionism, structuralism etc., were held to tenaciously like a cherished creed by so many of my fellow students and my teachers (though they frequently didn’t consciously recognize exactly what it was they were clinging to), and one of the most profound experiences of being a deviant has been, in my experience, rebelling against them.

But now for the bottom line; what support does the Postmodernist have for his own position? In this vein I will again, for the time being, ignore moral relativism, since it will be the subject of such vitriolic later posts of mine. Instead of this let us briefly consider “anti-foundationalism,” the viewpoint that all of human knowledge is ultimately without a certain belief or principle as its fundamental basis. Now I’m not keen on this, but the really relevant variant of this view is the sort supported by Derrida’s notion of differance, which argues (in this context) that ‘knowledge’ is always given its foundation from a certain social or political context, in an analagous way to that in which certain words acquire their significance from the context in which they are used (a similar notion to Wittgenstein’s ‘language games.’) Therefore, it follows, apparently, that ‘philosophy’ conceived of in the way that its founders (or its contemporary American, British and Australian practicioners) conceived of it is impossible; the “web of meaning” in which we are trapped is simply too sticky for us to escape, and anyways, our language, on this view, has been radically cut off from the world to which it supposedly refers. Thus what is important to keep in mind about the fundamental difference between any variant of Postmodernism (and what seems to me to be its bare naked distinguishing factor, all of the rhetorical and dogmatic mumbo-jumbo aside) and other “Traditional” philosophical views is that Postmodernist perspectives usually take the stance that we are simply incapable of escaping from some essentially blinding forces, usually social or cultural ones. Thus the postmodernist ultimately believes that the result of our socialization and acculturation has been the complete fixing of even our very understanding and experience of what it is to “know” things, such that we can never “escape” the blinding force of our socialization and must learn to theorize and pursue knowledge within it. Considering the excessive focus on the ‘social construction of reality’ also present within this view (Postmodernism is the most contemporary sociological approach, and ‘social construction’ predated it, but the latter has strongly influenced the former) ‘learning’ takes on a pretty different meaning than it does under a more traditional approach, usually something along the lines of “learning how to create meaning” (the basis of the very popular ‘whole language learning’ approach in reading education, though this approach is highly unsupported by scientific research).

After years of education, mixed with my own research and reflection, this seems to me to be the essential philosophical framework of Postmodernism, which does not consist of arguments per se, but more consists of the implications created by a basically very simple set of philosophical assumptions. Having done my best to present it concisely but accurately, please allow me to now show why this framework is, all things considered, pretty much demonstrably false. In the first place notice that this variant of anti-foundationalism, which is based upon a sort of cultural relativism, is radically self-undermining; it claims that we are trapped by our socialization or upbringing and therefore cannot understand the “objective” state of the nature of humanity and human knowledge, and in doing so claims to understand something about the “objective” state of the nature of humanity and human knowledge. ‘Self reference’ is a problem that plagues all such radical generalizations; simply ask yourself whether the proposition “there is no truth” is true or not and you will see why radical relativism is blatantly false to anyone concerned with having consistent beliefs, rather than having their Postmodernist buddies in the department think that they’re cool. In fact sociology (which I am well acquainted with, and which has contributed greatly to the Postmodernist ‘school’) makes all sorts of ballsy generalizations about people that seem to refer to basic, essential characteristics of humanity; that we are “social beings,” the Thomas theorem, hell even saying that people “socially construct” some issue (deviance, obesity, race etc.) is nevertheless saying that all people engage in a certain process, thereby implying that there’s something about humans, that is, that it’s in the nature of humans to engage in this process called “social construction.” Thus the tough-minded Postmodernists who think that silly talk of innate human nature can be coherently abandoned do nothing more than reveal their own lack of systematic rigour in formulating their philosophy; the very core of the Postmodernist ethos is incoherent, which on its own ought to be enough to cast this view into the gutter.

Obvious incoherence aside, this sort of balls-out social theorizing might seem intuitively plausible, but is obviously a massive oversimplification upon further reflection, such an oversimplification that it can almost be dismissed as simply false. There is a curious idiosyncrasy amongst Postmodernists, which was sort of what my anecdote about my teacher’s poster at the beginning of this post spoke to, which is the way in which Postmodernists seem to extol tolerance, diversity, equality etc. while at the same time doing all they can to demonstrate how people in different areas of the world have such vastly different experiences we are apparently incapable of understanding philosophical issues the same way. To that end, a classic Postmodernist trick is to take some tribe of 20 people on an isolated pacific island and attempt to argue, from this pathetically small sample size, why eliminating any concept of ‘gender’ from our social discourse will lead to a more egalitarian society. The far more balanced explanation, that it is both labeling and biological factors that contribute to human gender categories, and in different circumstances one or the other will play a bigger role, is never even considered because of the dogma of “social construction,” which rules out any such essentialist or naturalist silliness a priori. But this is nothing more than dogma; this sort of ‘explanation’ doesn’t actually explain anything, but approaches a social phenomenon from a particular lens and purports to explain it by ruling out any other perspective as “biased” or “prejudiced” from the start. Thus even if the extreme anti-foundationalist’s position wasn’t utterly self-undermining (which it is,) the arguments given in favor of it certainly do not support the radicalism characteristic of Postmodern approaches, but interpretations that, while true, are far more modest. Furthermore, the differences among conclusions reached, belief systems or the experiences of different peoples’ and cultures are often drastically overemphasized by Postmodern apologists. To take a very good example, consider religion, that one area of human experience that seems to be so widely divergent among different places and times. Yet while it might seem this way, the more philosophical side of even vastly different religions often resemble one another; careful consideration of Vedantic philosophy for instance, can reveal definite similarities with Aquinas’s variant of the Unmoved Mover (and there is the classic philosophical comparison of Confucius with Aristotle.) Of course, most Postmodern philosophy is far too shallow to analyze these great historical works (the Vedas and the Summa Theologica respectively) as their authors intended them, and when it considers these great works usually adopts a stance rather like a crazed artist slathering paint over the Mona Lisa and claiming to be “creating a new meaning for the picture.” Nevertheless, there are often, in my opinion, far more similarities between cultures and belief systems (particularly philosophical belief systems) than the Postmodernists want to let on. When the differences are considered from a calm, systematic standpoint, rather than one eager to come up with the newest, craziest, most counterintuitive interpretation, they serve as evidence of far more moderate sociological and philosophical conclusions than most Postmodernists ever seem to make.  The social theorizing underlying postmodernism therefore, is hardly supported by the observations made, and the philosophy underlying postmodernism is nothing more than a bag of wind, a shell-game that appears exciting and novel, but is irrational down to its very core.

But I know, in the end, that I probably “just don’t understand.” I’m sure some knowledgeable (or should we say rhetorically appealing) Postmodernist could swoop in right here and, with a wave of impressive verbiage, purport to “deconstruct” my writing and show that I’m just another stubborn traditionalist, unwilling to open my heart to this utopian, nihilistic Brave New World of his. But if such a Postmodernist wants to do so I invite him to try, since I’m pretty secure in my belief that all of his creedo, all of his scary deconstruction and big bad Postmodernist language tricks are really just (to really drive the point home) a giant crock of sh*t. And moreover this is the part that I think us in philosophy, or those in the humanities not intoxicated by the deceptive poison of Postmodernism, ought to play in simply walling of Postmodernism as the decadent slum of academia that it is. If the Postmodernists want to play their language games, going in circles and wasting time let them feel free to do so, I will not say a word. However the moment some Postmodernist steps forward to offer another brilliant idea for how we ought to remake society, or with their unsupported, preposterous ideas about “humanity’s place in the world” (ideas that ascribe trivial or simply bad definitions to all of these words), or most of all with some social critique of scientific literature that deigns to ridicule it as “absolutist,” “prejudiced” or in some other way deficient, we ought to pour down the disdain and skepticism that this absurd philosophical obscenity so righteously deserves. The domain of philosophical and intellectual inquiry is a difficult enough world to navigate already, and grasping the truth is a process that takes a long time and a lot of work. We ought not make it all even more complicated by endorsing such poorly thought out a view as Postmodernism, which spits in the face of the very spirit of philosophical investigation.