Education, Top Stories

Postmodernism and the Decline of the Liberal Arts

The ‘liberal arts’ were so named for their orientation towards free thought, and the foundational claim that they existed to enrich the lives of free people. They are, in other words, dependent on the open-mindedness of individuals wishing to develop their knowledge and understanding by exploring thousands of years of history and literature produced by human civilisation. Despite this, universities in recent years have seen a rapid decline in the reputation and value of liberal arts degrees. Whereas once an education in literature and philosophy was highly revered in academia, setting the world at its students’ feet, today a liberal arts education is widely regarded as a useless endeavour for aimless students, which offers no clear path for the future. This development can, in large part, be laid at the feet of the ever-increasing influence of postmodernism, a superficially attractive philosophy often used to promulgate political and cultural ideas. Courses that have embraced a postmodern viewpoint tend to harshly ostracise any conflicting perspective, thereby eroding the intellectual freedom upon which the liberal arts had hitherto relied.

Part of postmodernism’s allure is that it evades clear definition. Does it exist only in the realm of art and literary theory or is it also a social phenomenon? Like any cultural movement seeking to expand its territory, it seems to have designs on both. Postmodernism, in both the artistic world and the real worlds, is concerned with interpretation and subjectivity, and the deconstruction of overarching ‘meta-narratives.’ Its opposition to these meta-narratives, according to philosopher Stephen Hicks, can lead to a wholesale rejection of the Enlightenment’s salient ideas of reason, logic, knowledge, and truth. One of postmodernism’s most famous thinkers, Stanley Fish, has said of deconstruction (a postmodern technique) that “it relieves me of the obligation to be right…and demands only that I be interesting.”1 This is the essence of postmodern theory—you don’t have to be right, because right and wrong don’t exist.

Since universities are the home of contemporary philosophy, it should not be surprising that they are currently the main hub of contemporary postmodern thought. This manifests predominantly in liberal arts subjects, where postmodern subjectivity is often taught under the guise of ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusivity.’ This is particularly evident whenever students are asked to analyse a work of art. Rarely are they encouraged to research the context in which the art was produced or to draw upon previous knowledge to uncover resonance and meaning. Instead, they are encouraged to fabricate interpretations based on their personal experience and feelings. Needless to say, I am not suggesting that contemplating and critically analysing art is an entirely objective enterprise. Artworks can yield multiple interpretations, and sometimes more than one of these interpretations will be equally valid. However, postmodern analysis takes this a step further; its rejection of grand narratives means it has no grounds on which to say that any interpretation is superior to any other. To say that one interpretation is better than another is not only to imply an objective standard, but also to ‘exclude’ or express ‘intolerance’ towards any interpretations that have been deemed inferior or less plausible.

This becomes especially hazardous when the postmodern approach to art is extrapolated into broader society: if an artwork can have an infinite number of viable interpretations, why can’t life itself? In describing the philosophy of a prominent postmodern thinker in his book, Explaining Postmodernism, Stephen Hicks asserts that reason “does not come to know a pre-existing reality; it brings all of reality into existence.”2 This drives a wedge between empirical knowledge and objective reality, providing the basis for an emphasis on the subjective. It also opens the door to blatant absurdity, because (a) in a world where objective truth doesn’t exist, absurdity is indistinguishable from fact, and (b) if interpretation is entirely subjective, then who is to say that an absurd interpretation is inferior to any other? Consequently, many liberal arts courses are infused with absurdities dressed as ‘tolerance’ that nobody is permitted to question. When university professors say, for example, that “race is not real” or “sexual dimorphism is a myth” nobody questions it. Such statements may have no empirical basis by any objective, scientific measure, but they are taught to students and accepted as mainstream wisdom in higher education just the same.

Postmodernism’s fear of exclusion in the arts and humanities is counterproductive to its aims. Postmodernists see distinctions between people, groups, or things as oppressive, and as a result, they attempt to mitigate marginalisation by blurring and dissolving distinctions. In the literary realm, for example, they “challenge the distinction between high and low culture,”3 hoping to eradicate the ‘oppressive’ and ‘elitist’ label of popular culture as somehow inferior. This pattern repeats itself right down to the pettiest details of language—the word ‘fireman,’ one of my university professors explained, is oppressive because it excludes women. But this philosophy runs into a wall when it stipulates that life itself is a process of exclusion and discrimination. Speaking a word implies the exclusion of all others. Articulating an idea discriminates against all other ideas. We cannot embrace all ideas at once, because each idea is then stripped of its value and meaning. Independent thought itself becomes a currency so devalued as to be rendered worthless.

Nevertheless, many university professors and tutors in the liberal arts will sacrifice real education, critical thinking, and the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of ‘inclusion.’ Every student must feel validated in her thoughts and feelings: there is no good and bad, there is no fact and fiction, and there is no right and wrong. As Dr. Norman Doidge has observed, “since we don’t know right from wrong, or what is good, just about the most inappropriate thing an adult can do is give a young person advice about how to live.”4

But this approach, it turns out, is not especially productive in a university environment. The liberal arts should be a place where students are challenged by their peers and by new perspectives—celebrated when they’re right and contested when they’re wrong. They should be pushed to think critically about new ideas and to reconsider and re-think their existing biases. Instead, liberal arts students are taught that all interpretations are valid, and that disapproval of any idea is evidence of their own narrow-mindedness. This presents a paradox: on the one hand, we are instructed to be inclusive and indulge every student’s subjective experience, regardless of whether it is right or wrong because objective judgments about what is right and wrong don’t exist. On the other hand, this suggests that anyone who does believe in the existence of an objective right and wrong are, themselves, objectively wrong. Inconsistencies like this are often evident in everyday classroom interactions. One of my humanities lecturers, for example, in attempting to explain the complexity of identity, condemned the idea that people should dictate what other people think, and “make anyone who departs from that way of thinking feel fearful and different.” She seemed unaware that the course she teaches is saturated with cultural and political biases that exclude any student who holds differing views. Such is the devious nature of postmodernism in the modern classroom—the ‘tolerance’ only extends to those who conform.

Postmodernism is devouring the liberal arts. Such a deeply entrenched cultural problem cannot be solved by top-down intervention. Rather, reform must come from the individual efforts of dissenting students and professors who presently remain silent for fear of being challenged by the orthodoxy of postmodern culture. Having your ideas challenged is the very essence of a university education, and the origin of the word ‘liberal’ in the liberal arts. The power of individual voices cannot be overstated. As Jordan Peterson has put it: “The answer to the problem of humanity is the integrity of the individual.”

 

Velvet Favretto is an undergraduate literature major at Griffith University, and a member of the Griffith Honours College. She has previously written for Centrethought.

References:

1 Fish, Is There a Text in this Class? p. 180.
2 Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism, p. 47
3 Barry, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, p. 66
4 Doidge, ‘Foreword,’ in Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, p. xix

57 Comments

  1. Lara Andrade says

    ‘Tolerance only extends to those who conform’….so true! Where is our freedom of speech! I hope this article encourages other young adults at universities to have a voice in regards to humanity and it’s integrity. The reality of our lives can not always be theoretically based as per another’s opinion. Great article!!
    Lara Andrade

  2. Tyler says

    “Having your ideas challenged is the very essence of a university education”
    The irony here is that beyond your brutal simplification of something you clearly don’t understand, you end with calling out your straw-man as yourself. Your ideas are being challenged, and yet your ideological arrogance blinds you from seeing something new and critical of what unfortunately is established as a borm. And not surprisingly you end with a quote from Peterson, who also presents a straw-man critique of postmodernism. But that’s only because he doesn’t understand what he’s talking about either.

    Take some time and vigourously study some philosophy, but don’t fall into the poor readings of great philosophers like Marx and Nietzsche that Peterson has. Only a psychologist like Jordan could read Friedrich and Karl with profound ideological ignorance in order to be able to interpret them as neoliberal ideologues.

    • Immanuel says

      Enlighten us, dear sage. Please share your priestly wisdom so that we may clearly understand, instead of brutally simplifying something so complex and profound.

    • R. Jordan says

      Sounds like you’re quite convinced of your interpretation of not only this article, but of postmodernism’s value overall. Unfortunately you can’t possibly expect to convince anyone of your perspective, considering everything is completely subjective (including your opinion). Fun!

    • Tyler is missing the overall point says

      Tyler,

      Sure, Marx and Nietzsche are worth reading in their own right (though Marx is a poor writer, and much of his scientific predictions turned out to be laughably wrong).

      But bigger point: i think if you actually sat through the kinds of classes this author has, you would come to the same general conclusions. Whether we blame post-modernism, or call it something else, is of little matter. The humanities are pervaded with intellectually bankrupt faculty. These are some of the most politically biased and ideologically confused people you’ll meet.

      Sure, not all humanities teachers have lost their marbles, and many of them wouldn’t call themselves “post-modernists,” but they are rightly mocked when they make claims that are scientifically untenable and philosophically implausible. It is the rule rather than the exception to see humanities faculty at elite universities saying and teaching that, for example, race and sex are simply social constructs, capitalism brings more harm than socialism, only white peiple can be racist, we live in a patriarchal society, structural oppression is everywhere, etc.

      I’ve taught at two elite colleges and at both I was told by humanities faculty that obscurantists like Butler and Zizek and Deleuze were regularly read in their courses. This is what the author is getting at. Peterson and Hicks are just ways of explaining his frustration.

      I’d just as soon assign the lyrics to Britney Spears songs than the crap that gets taught in “literary theory” classes. At least Brit’s lyrics are clearly written and will not destroy Western civilization by turning us against the institutions that make our prosperity possible.

      • Becky says

        “I’ve taught at two elite colleges and at both I was told by humanities faculty that obscurantists like Butler and Zizek and Deleuze were regularly read in their courses. This is what the author is getting at. Peterson and Hicks are just ways of explaining his frustration.”

        Are these the only things read in their courses? Are they teaching only Postmodern theorists, or a bit of everything? If they’re teaching only Postmodernism, they’re doing it wrong. Very very wrong. But at least in regards to social sciences (and I imagine the fields of humanities), one would never teach just one theory, or even present one without teaching both the value and the faults of each theory.
        Maybe I just had better professors than others did, but I’ve never seen emphasis placed on post-modernism above any other method.

    • kris says

      ” Your ideas are being challenged, and yet your ideological arrogance blinds you from seeing something new and critical of what unfortunately is established as a norm.”
      Your writing is not clear, but I assume you are saying that seeing something new that challenges your ideas is more important than not seeing it, Just because something is new does not mean it has any intrinsic worth.
      What most people are saying is that Post Modernism maybe a new concept but it challenges no one as it is intellectually bankrupt.
      And I am actually rather fond of brutal simplification, Occam’s razor, much preferable to the deliberate obfuscation of Derrida, Foucault and the like.
      As Robert Frost said Free Poetry is like playing tennis with the net down, the least challenging option.

    • Scott says

      As Jordan Peterson has put it: “The answer to the problem of humanity is the integrity of the individual.”

      Instead of an ad hominem attack on JP, you could have engaged with his idea: The problem of humanity is the dis-integrity of the individual. The self seems to lie partly in others, and that it sometimes seems as if all human qualities can be found in the animal, and also that distinctively human qualities are separable and mutable from the subject. What then is a human?

  3. ccscientist says

    Postmodernism gets one off the hook as an academic from the hard work of scholarship and logic, is a safe haven from criticism, and allows all sorts of absurdity to parade around as important. It allows one to claim that one must not judge non-western societies even if they commit genocide–who are we to judge? And at the same time, postmodernists uniformly assume without proof that western civilization is oppressive and terrible. That is the DO take certain things to be absolutely true, it is just a slight of hand.
    The great thinkers of the past, whether one agrees with them today or not, had a huge influence on the development of culture and society and are therefore useful to study.

    • While I have no doubt that that first sentence is eliciting cheers and raspberries from those who’ve never opened a book of “scholarship and logic” emanating from a contemporary humanities department, it does seem to lack any sort of evidence or, dare I say it, logic to underpin its claims.

      Is this what Trump calls ‘fake news’, or have I got the wrong end of the stick?

      • doug deeper says

        Dear mjw51 (I do hope I didn’t misspell it), I have been trying to find one benefit delivered by the humanities in the last 50 years. So I do think ccscientist is on to something. How can so much be expended, and produce so little? Please tell me about the gifts the humanities has bestowed on us in the last 50 years. What has their use of “scholarship and logic” produced? How has the world, outside of the bloated payrolls at universities, benefited? I am sincere.

        • Daniel says

          I studied in a humanities program; a non-postmodern one. It was challenging academically, and was based on critical analysis. I got used to being wrong – a lot- and to adjusting my thinking to accomodate new information.
          It was a positive experience, and I suspect the study of humanities has benefited many people in the past 50 years. The problem is that it is changing fundamentally.

        • Jay says

          Out of curiosity, what happened 50 years ago that removed value from the humanities?

        • Saunders says

          Gee. Doug, you must have missed out on a slew of leading philosophers, literary critics, writers, artists, musicians, and historians who studied and/or taught in American universities over the last half-century. There are mountains of books, plays, artworks, and countless performances that have resulted. This work comprises a large portion of the intellectual and artistic life of our country during this period.

          Are you claiming that all of this is worthless? Or that you simply don’t know much about history, philosophy, art, and so forth, and have no interest in it?

        • Saunders says

          Doug Deeper,

          Let’s take philosophy. Could you please let us know if you believe that all the fairly recent philosophers (a small sampling) have produced nothing of worth over the last 50 years?

          Peter Achinstein
          Robert Brandom
          Stanley Cavell
          Arthur Danto
          Donald Davidson
          David Detmer
          R. M. Dworkin
          Saul Kripke
          Thomas Nagel
          Robert Nozick
          Hilary Putnam
          Willard van Orman Quine
          Jahn Rawls
          Richard Rorty
          Michael Sandel
          John Searle
          Jerrold Seigel
          Leo Strauss
          Charles Taylor (if I might include a Canadian in this list)
          Stephen Toulmin

          I’ve barely touched political philosophy in this list, but I have included philosophers of quite different orientations and political views.

      • Eric the Half Bee says

        @mjw51 Could you perhaps point me in the direction of a book of “scholarship and logic” emanating from a contemporary humanities department that would repay study?

        • Can I suggest you start with the paper I linked below?

          Taking on a whole book might not be wise until you get a sense of what humanities scholarship is all about.

          • Eric the Half Bee says

            Could you perhaps answer the question I asked? And please do not presume to patronise me – you have absolutely no idea what prior knowledge I bring to these issues.

          • I suppose I “presumed” that having to ask for a recommendation in such a situation was a pretty clear indicator of a lack of familiarity. Or a silly game, which, giving the benefit of the doubt, I decided was unlikely.

            My favorite books emerging from the despoiled garden of the humanities recently include

            Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital by Vivek Chibber@NYU

            Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen @Notre Dame

            Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire Duncan Bell @Cambridge

            But that paper I linked to reminded me of a book I bought on Kindle recently to reread, having sold my library before moving to SE Asia a dozen years ago. It isn’t recent but it is a towering achievement, as they say

            Shelley: The Pursuit by Richard Holmes @not sure where he was. Might have been a post-doc at the time.

            I haven’t kept up with the lit-crit and theory I buried my nose in throughout the 80s because that is pretty much specialist literature and holds little interest for me since I left academe for a career at Pizza Hut then English Language Instruction.

            I do keep up with a lot of academic writing about Thai politics and culture but that too is sort of specialist in nature, so wouldn’t bother mentioning here.

            Now please have a run through the article I linked and let’s see how it manifests what these undergraduate Petersons have been claiming is the death of scholarship in the humanities.

  4. Apparently there is a school of thought that believes that the way to improve university-level education in the humanities and save it from the scourge of post-modernism is to hand the teaching of the English literary tradition over to undergraduates whose commitment to open inquiry and free thought does not quite extend to their willingness to entertain the notion that they may have something to learn.

    The spirit of ’68 lives on!

    For any of the readers of this site who have never read an example of contemporary literary criticism, I found this after a two-minute Google and it looks about right to me:

    https://ravonjournal.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/ravon62art02devenot.pdf

    Maybe we could have one of the young scholars whose capacity for critical thought gets the Quillette stamp of authority go over this essay in detail and help us all see how it represents the evils they are so vigorously struggling against.

    Please note that there is a rather extensive list of works cited (even though apparently postmodernists just want personal experience to anchor critical work) and it would be wise to have at least some familiarity with them since they are, as is the case with scholarly work in the humanities, an integral part of the deceptively short paper.

    • The author is right says

      mjw51: I don’t see the point of posting the paper above.

      The author is right that there is a trend in the humanities. The fun version is embodied in the postmodern essay generator at elsewhere.org

      The depressing version is exhibited by virtually any lit professor at Duke (where the English dept teaches literature, and the literature dept teachers Marxist/Freudian interpretations of texts, and encourages students to become revolutionaries). Just download their books or papers and tell me they’re engaged in a clear-headed search for the truth; that they’re willing to revise their views when new evidence comes in, that they’re open to new ideas politically, etc.

      Sorry dude, I wish it were different. But a lot of this is a secular cult but without all the fun stuff like group sex and manual labor to satisfy our primal needs.

      • The point is to have one of you “experts” read it, engage with it, critique it,

        Otherwise I’m getting the “English prof who says science is just ideology” vibe, if you know what I mean.

        • Alistair says

          mjw51,

          Let me summarise your paper for the lay reader who may lack your erudition and patience:

          ~~~~

          “Percy Shelley had mixed views on political reform versus revolution. However, his writings were widely disseminated by various means. This favoured his more political writings, which became part of the new radical “cannon”. Shelley was aware of and at least passively assented to this. Shelley should be seen as more politically active than previously. His politics and aesthetics are still relevant for unspecified reasons. ”

          “The growth of the radical cannon, including Shelley, was enabled by two factors. Firstly, crudely-censored political outrage (the Streisand effect is real). Secondly, a reduction in copy-protection following a critical court case. New printing technology, growing low-market competition, and mass literacy was also important.”

          “Foucault’s death of the author claims are exaggerated in popular understanding (people who don’t read us are plebians). But Shelley’s work is still an ownerless social construct. So I don’t need any solid evidence that Shelley was aware of any of this. The cake is nice to have and I am eating it”

          ~~~~

          Wow! See how easy it is to write this stuff in actual, you know, English?

          To the flames with it.

    • Alistair says

      Well, I read that paper, just to see what I was “missing”.

      What a badly (over) written piece rubbish.

      The first thing you notice is that there is actually no literary criticism, at least as far as discussing an actual text. The work belongs in the politics or history department, not the English one.

      The second thing is that it exhibits all the symptoms people complain about in the modern English department; self-indulgent and over-written. The appeals to authority. The grandiose claims without evidence. The anecdote masquerading as data. The rambling structure. The verbosity. The “death of the author” crap. The belief that long, overly-complex sentences make the writer appear clever. (Well, it probably does to other IQ 110s and below living in the Eng Lit fishbowl). It’s actually painful to read in many parts.

      There’s a reasonable bit of actual history scattered throughout, but it’s inferior or cribbed wholesale from work economic historians have already done on the growth of literacy in the 19th century.

      If that’s your best attempt to dissuade our adverse convictions of “contemporary literary criticism”, it is counter-productive.

      • So, Alistair, do recommend a better piece of literary criticism taking on the same subject, seeing as it is something 110 IQs have been writing about for decades and decades.

        Or perhaps you could give us your own take on Shelley’s politics as they illuminate the poems.

        • Alistair says

          Indeed, mjw51, I have humbly submitted my own meta-text above.

          Seriously, I get what the author is trying to say (I think). There is the bones of a serious argument there (though I think unsound or at least massively over-claimed).

          But Oh My God; What a mess. What an awful, obscurantist, badly (over)written, politicised mess. It does really belong as a history or politics essay; there’s no “literary criticism” in it, as the term is commonly understood. I am a bit puzzled by the message you hoped to send with it.

          I appreciate you are trying to be honest in your posts here (is “authentic” the term de rigeur?). But we’re just not buying your argument. Your proffered example was counter-productive. Your position is not misunderstood, I hope, – it has been considered and rejected.

        • Alistair says

          …and I’ve just noticed my spelling of “cannon”. Apologies for the spelunk. Force of habit for my usual 19th century writings.

        • So, Alistair, do recommend a better piece of literary criticism taking on the same subject, seeing as it is something 110 IQs have been writing about for decades and decades.

          Since you have just presented us with an example of pure bollocks in order to refute the argument modern humanities produce nothing but pure bollocks it isn’t up to us to present better evidence to support your argument.

          That’s not how it works.

      • Sorry, Alaistair. I know that when you get a solid C and lots of negative commentary you are going to say “See. These postmodernists are just full of it!” like a good snowflake who knows better than teacher.

        By “literary criticism” you appear to mean something like what we used to call ‘explication du texte’ or possibly ‘close reading’. That is just one specific practice that was in vogue for a while and that people grew weary of because just how many times do you think we need to have a poem like Alastor “explicated” again? These poems are 200 years old and people have been writing about them for almost that long. As David Byrne says “Say something once, why say it again?”

        The article we are responding to complains that postmodernists don’t read texts in their historical context. This paper does that. But you object and suggest that that makes it a history paper. But it doesn’t at all. These poems are 200 years old (did I mention that?) It is an important element of any analysis of old texts that historical context be invoked.

        You also complain that it uses secondary sources for its historical references. Whereas that might be a bad thing in a history paper, this is a piece of lit-crit and using secondary sources is SOP. That is because it isn’t a history paper.

        It goes without saying that the kind of ‘explication’ or ‘close reading’ that you seem to think is “literary criticism” (because it was all the rage in the 50s and 60s with peak Modernism?) makes no reference to either an author or historical context. It pretends the work exists in some Platonic ideal space outside of time and social-historical life. The kind of solecism this form of reading can lead to in unskilled hands is truly awful. It fits the criticism leveled against post-modernism better than the paper I linked to. So-called New Criticism denied the relevance of author and history well before postmodernism reared its headless head.

        The article we are responding to complains that students are taught to respond only from their own experience rather than being pushed to study what others have said about a work. The article says this leads to a subjective position wherein every opinion is as good as every other opinion.

        The way literary criticism gets around this inevitable subjectivity is by situating a work in a frame of past critiques and analyses. This is how we are able to judge stronger and weaker readings. You call it “appeal to authority” as if this were some pure logic exercise and referring to past readers and an interpretive tradition is a fallacy of some sort. It isn’t. This is how llit-crit is done.

        The article complains that Stanley Fish’s quip that postmodernism frees a critic from the burden of being right and creates the demand that she be interesting is somehow a sign of weakness. The absurdity is patent. What in the world would it mean to be “right” in a particular interpretation of a phrase of Shelley?

        “To hope till hope creates from its own wreck the very thing it contemplates” is the kind of Shelleyism that no intellectually honest person will every claim to have exactly “right” but it certainly can be deployed in interesting ways in a discussion of Shelley’s particular take on politics.

        Bottom line, Alistair: you don’t know what you’re talking about and neither does the author of the article in question. The solution is to study something else and avoid reading literary criticism.

        I know I do.

        • Daniel says

          @mjw51,
          You wrote: “people grew weary of because just how many times do you think we need to have a poem like Alastor “explicated” again? These poems are 200 years old and people have been writing about them for almost that long. As David Byrne says “Say something once, why say it again?”

          It’s a university! Explicating a poem might have been done before, but it is a worthwhile experience for the student doing it – unless they are writing the same analysis for the same poem again and again.

          Of course grad-level and doc work needs to be original, so your point has good traction there. This is where the current lack of excellence (read: logically coherent, interesting) is most felt. Who could possibly want to compare a contemporary poet with Shelley? Who would spend a whole dissertation on a contemporary short story? They should be the material of the next generation of scholars, but not enough people consider them worth studying.

          It is a vicious cycle, because if people today knew their poems, stories or novels would be excoriated as nonsense drivel, boring fluff and a waste of time, respectively, they might write better stuff.

          • @Daniel Maybe I wasn’t clear. That comment was a response to Alistair’s critique of a paper written by a contemporary lit-crit person. I absolutely agree that doing “explications’ is a valuable part of teaching and learning and should be part of every lit student’s experience.

            I’m not sure what the rest of your post wants to say. Shelley is a Romantic, and Yeats and Wallace Stevens can be read as Romantics. A poet like Robert Hass can be fruitfully read as a Romantic. The whole postmodern thing can be read as an extension of both Modernism and Romanticism.

            You don’t like contemporary writing I take it.

            There is a real “my 7-year-old does better” and “I may not know art but I know what I like” vibe to much of the discussion of postmodernism and the humanities on Quillette that smacks of a hilarious irony.

            Pomo is justifiably excoriated for stepping outside its “proper” place in the purely discursive realms of the liberal arts and looks ridiculous when it says foolish things about science. When people who obviously despise the humanities pontificate about how things should be done there it looks pretty much identical.

            I am personally very critical of postmodernism. As a leftist, I see its reactionary potential as a threat to my preferred politics. When I was in academe I argued that it should not be a primary approach when teaching undergrads in the grand old survey courses that provided the basis from which students could move into deeper engagement with individual writers or more restricted ‘themes’.

            But then as something of a reactionary myself where “standards” are concerned, I think that neoliberal-conservative defunding of humanities plus the outrageous increase in percentage enrollments has created a perfect storm wherein course contents have been gutted, expectations on students have collapsed to the point of non-existence and postmodernism is the least of the evils unleashed upon our traditional liberal arts.

        • Alistair says

          mjw51

          Well, that’s a total straw-man of my position. You either didn’t understand or ignored my objections.

          I am entirely happy with reading an author in historical context. Yes, I have a history degree amongst other things, so please don’t presume you’re revealing some novel craft to me.

          My objection is that it is a BAD paper on the merits you describe, as a reading of the author in context. The central argumentative logic is flawed or incomplete. The (minimal) data presented does not support the argument, from whatever source (I didn’t mention over-reliance on secondary sources at all – I said it had appeals to authority for its central claims). It is just bad scholarship.

          And over all, it is badly (over) written. I’ll hammer home this point; why is the paper so badly written? Why the unnecessary jargon? The interminable sentences? The endless subordinate clauses and secondary main clauses? The poor paragraph structure? Why is it so obscurantist? There is no need, no need at all, for the text to be so unreadable to get its point across. Compare my précis with the actual paper’s précis. Why can’t this English literary student write in comprehensible English?

          It’s written that way because that is the way IQ 110’s think IQ 140’s write. It’s written that way to signal conformity to the nostrums of the field. It’s written that way to disguise the lack of scholarship.

          I can comfortably pick up most journals and with a bit of effort work my way through most papers in history, economics, physics, politics, medicine, law, psychology, philosophy, and on a good day – some maths. The only field I don’t seem to be able to read without excruciating effort, pain, and cognitive dissonance is the POMO stuff from whatever branch of English, sociology, or gender studies that it has crawled out of. Now, I must consider that either POMO stuff is deeply clever and complex and incomprehensible in a way that puts field theory and every other discipline to shame. Or that substantively it is all BS.

          I know where my money is. Thanks for offering your “best shot”; I do worry that I am unfair to my opponents sometimes and missing some subtlety of their argument. But that has not been the case here – your explanations really are “uh-huh; already knew that”. I understand your position and reject it.

    • I think what’s going on is that a lot of postmodernism is what Dan Sperber calls a relevant mystery. When we are told things that don’t make sense, we store them away for further processing if we have reason to believe that they contain important information. For example, a child is told that there are male and female plants, but given their understanding of sexes — which they contextualize to humans — they can make no sense of the claim about plants. However, if they are told this by someone who they assume to be competent — a teacher or some other competent adult — they store the message away for further processing to figure out how it makes sense. Not deeply buried in long-term memory, but much closer to consciousness (in metarepresentational format, but that’s a long digression). It’s closer to consciousness so that we can work on it further. Now, in this case (male and female plants) there is a conceptual resolution and so it doesn’t get stored this way for very long. However, in some cases like: “Mary had a virgin birth”, “We secretly lust over our mother”, or a large amount of pomo text, the message is riddled with insoluble contradictions, etc. (Another really good example of this is the film, Sans Soleil, which employs other tricks to achieve relevant mystery as well). So what happens is that we never do resolve the contradictions but continue to work on it because it is close to consciousness — i.e., readily available for further processing. But because we do continue to work on it, we bring the ideas to bear on other things, unrelated to the original message and notice connections to other things — likewise typically half comprehended. As a result these incoherent messages seem deeply meaningful because they seem to relate to many things, but they don’t. It’s just a cognitive illusion that results from our endlessly trying to make sense of them. However, this doesn’t happen to everyone. What it requires is the recipient to grant the speaker the benefit of the doubt, that they conveyed an genuinely meaningful message that it isn’t inherently contradictory, etc. If you don’t assume that the speaker is competent, then you simply dismiss the message as incoherent gibberish. That’s why believers, those who grant competence to the speaker, find these relevant mysteries to be deeply meaningful even though they make no sense to the believers themselves. Christian believers themselves don’t think Mary’s immaculate conception makes perfect sense. It’s not that what nonbelievers consider incomprehensible gibberish makes perfect sense to Christian believers. It doesn’t. But they do find it highly meaningful in that it seems relevant to many different things in a half-comprehended way. By contrast, those who do assume the speaker is competent just dismiss it as incomprehensible gibberish of no particular significance to anything. For a completely outside look at this phenomenon at work, just read the comments on Sans Soleil on IMDB ( https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084628/ ) some people find the film deeply meaningful, whereas others find it to be incomprehensible gibberish. Depending on how much competence you are willing to grant to the film-maker it can be either.

      • oops, can’t edit this sentence: “By contrast, those who do assume the speaker is competent just dismiss it as incomprehensible gibberish of no particular significance to anything.” Tht should be: By contrast, those who do not assume the speaker is competent just dismiss it as incomprehensible gibberish of no particular significance to anything.

  5. Eric the Half Bee says

    Thank you. (This ought to appear below your response beginning “I suppose…”, but the ‘reply’ button isn’t where it should be.)

  6. Stanley Fish isn't even interesting says

    I was fed a load of this nonsense in graduate school (in the 2000’s) and currently teach at a university department filled with these sorts of “people” (they seem to me more like “automatons”, or perhaps “inpatients” is more accurate) you can barely imagine, spouting ideas that are, in many cases, quite literally insane. There is no education among my postmodern colleagues; just indoctrination.

    But perhaps the most Orwellian aspect of Postmodernism (as I see it) is that it begins, with some legitimacy, as a critique of meta-narratives. Rather than offer such critiques, postmodern “thinking” has become little more than chanting shorthand terms for their own sort of meta-narratives, like: patriarchy, white supremacy, toxic masculinity, etc.

    Of course, to even call any of these an “idea” is an insult to clear thinking; they are, rather, articles of faith and first principles of belief, promulgated without any sense that they need to be explained or defended. This reversal is remarkable to me, and a sign that, as many commenters seemed to have experienced first-hand, it is unclear whether those of us in the humanities go to work in a university or, rather, as in a kind of Cartesian dream-fantasy, are really just characters in a dystopian novel.

    • Perhaps you could “look” at the “paper” I linked to above and point “out” how it fits your description? These detail-free repetitive chants really don’t say much.

      • Stanley Fish isn't even interesting says

        The one you prefaced with, “For any of the readers of this site who have never read an example of contemporary literary criticism, I found this after a two-minute Google and it looks about right to me”?

        Did you not read my post? I’ve read more than enough postmodern lit (broadly conceived) in my graduate studies. So, no, I do not need to read something you found in a Google search.

        Also, as others have pointed out in their own experiences, in keeping with the author, there is an aspect of experience here, in addition to scholarship, that is relevant (since the university is supposed to be a teaching/learning environment). Postmodernism, and precisely its eschewing of reality, objectivity, or even other academic disciplines, creates a “learning” environment that is authoritarian, anti-intellectual, and controlling ( = illiberal).

        When I was teaching a class on love and sexuality, with two postmodern-oriented graduate student TA’s in my department, a few undergrad students asked me why what the TA’s discussed in their breakout groups about sexuality was contradictory to what they learned in their evolutionary biology classes. Do you see what a bizarre position this puts me in? Of course, I told the students to trust their evolutionary biology professors–but not within earshot of the TA’s, who would have complained to the department about my thought-crime (and, yes, could certainly effect my job status, as I am not tenured; in fact, one DID complain to the dept. chair that I just didn’t ridicule Christian notions of love enough for her taste…). This sounds like something out of East Germany or 1984–and NOTHING that should be found in a university.

        • I just asked you to show us how that paper exemplified these vasty airy rhetorical flourishes you claim have more of the reality of postmodern lit-crit than a concrete example. I’m sure you’ve read enough of it to do that little thing.

          • tibbles says

            I remember reading a few years ago a student submitted a paper written by the Postmodernist essay generator and managed to get B+

        • Alistair says

          SFiei,

          Exactly. This kind of rubbish isn’t concerned with enquiry after truth, it’s about power and control. Their claims are highly politicised but never defended. There’s endless dissimilation, distraction, and bad faith.

          I’m tired of the Motte-and-Bailey stuff from mjw51 – every time he is called on some crazy claim he scuttles back to his “ah, well, that’s not REAL POMO. We’re just misunderstood seekers after truth who do things in a different way…”. He doesn’t engage with the data.

          It reminds me (strongly) of Marxists who denied the evils of communism even as the bodies piled up in the east. Funny, that, POMO types reminding me of Marxists…. we’re not supposed to notice the “coincidence” that their politics all skews hard left.

          • Saunders says

            Aha, Alistair, that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? It’s a grand Marxist/leftist conspiracy.

            Unfortunately, this reveals one of the biggest blind spots of much of this anti-“postmodern” discourse: it really isn’t clear what postmodernism means. You should realize that the French writers usually labeled “postmodern” were usually ex-Marxists, non-Marxists, or even anti-Marxists. Foucault and Deleuze, for example, were opposed to Sartre and were never really in the Marxist camp. Especially later in his career, Foucault was fascinated with free-market economics. If you’re going to attach a political label to Foucault, the best one would be “Libertarian”. Stanley Fish was politically conservative. Postmodernism in the arts has served primarily to validate commercial culture, which is about as un-Marxist as you can get.

            Sorry to disabuse you of your mistaken assumption.

      • Alistair says

        mjw51.

        I did read it – and it exhibits many of the charges SFiei brings. It’s a mediocre (at best) piece of scholarship for the reasons previously stated. It is full of appeals to authority and political claims (I had to grit my teeth every time “radical” was quoted approvingly).

        Do you have a response to that, and especially the charge of terrible, pretentious writing? Or are you just going to continue to pretend we’re all philistines who can’t possibly grok the deep, deep wells of your modern literary criticism?

        • @Alistair: If you had spent more time on the history portion than the “among other things” portion of the degree program that made you the polymath you self-identify as today, you would know that ‘radical’, as it is used roughly 28 out of 31 times in that article, refers to a distinct political movement of the time, known. oddly enough, as “radical”.

          Other history majors could be expected to know enough to tell you that these ‘radicals” who make you grit your teeth constituted but one major tributary to the grand effluent known today as ‘liberalism’. The early 19th century was a long time ago and many things have impinged on that term in the intervening years.

          I think we should leave this now. Yours is not a “good faith” contribution I suspect.

          • Alistair says

            mjw51,

            Well, the early 19th century is not my main area, but I know enough to spot abuse of terminology. The paper is grossly careless in the use of the term “radical”, conflating just about everyone from middle class reformists to romantics to aristocratic whigs and urban poor into the “radical class” – an interesting (and Marxist) choice of phase not in common use by mainstream historians. So please, don’t presume that you know more than I do in this area. Or at least, that you know sufficient to deceive me at this level of resolution.

            But let me quote from the paper to give a sense of its politics, and to share with other readers what a fine example of modern Lit Crit you have given us:

            ~~~~~~~~~~~~

            “The notorious pirate Carlile, who would go on to issue similar piratical publications as a strategic form of class warfare”

            “The stakes are political and transhistorical; in aligning my work with Shelley’s own, my intent is to manifest the very thing that I am here treating as objective subject
            matter …..Truth is made as it is spoken…..and in so doing to consciously align myself with an
            emancipatory struggle much larger than either of us.”

            “The world is even more hyperconnected today thanks in part to the internet and international capitalist imperialism, which means that a radical class has even more opportunity to unite against the forces of tyranny.”

            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

            Class warfare? Transhistorical stakes? Truth is made as it is spoken? Forces of tyranny? International capitalist imperialism? Radical class? The author pretentiously engaged in ‘Emancipatory struggle’? Seriously; is this literary criticism? Or is it a Marxist political screed masquerading as scholarship?

            Did you honestly think this sort of thing would impress people here?

            Don’t dissimilate. Your paper is an inadvertent example of the POMO/Cultural Marxist mash-up the article alleges (to be fair; a debased screed stripped of its broken economics which would, I think, be unrecognisable to the old fool). For what it is worth, I strongly suspect you are a Marxist too, but don’t expect you to admit as much. If I was hiding behind a philosophy that caused so many deaths, I’d be ashamed to.

    • A cave on the seabed says

      My observation and experience has been that nuance on many important topics has given way to a more style over substance, or style dressed up as substance rhetoric. Lots of talking past one another, no real engagment in the actual debate.
      This is occurring with people and commentators from across the political and socio-economic spectrum, not just the radical-left-postmodernists, though they tend to be the most publically visible/vocal.

  7. Becky says

    Why is a non-social scientist writing an article criticizing statements made in social science? The people of Tumblr have a better grasp on these concepts than the author does. (For example, “race is a social contruct” is based on scientific and historical fact. There is more genetic diversity within a “race” than between them. And what race a person is defined as varies from culture to culture and time period. Remember the one drop rule?)

    While the certainly raises valid points, it ignores that post-modernism isn’t the only social theory taught in universities or utilized in research – any social scientist will tell you that would be a terrible idea. It also ignores that the definition of post-modernism varies based on the field of study – what it means in art vs. history vs social science, etc, and instead applies one definition as the blanket definition for all fields.

    • Alistair says

      (For example, “race is a social contruct” is based on scientific and historical fact. There is more genetic diversity within a “race” than between them. And what race a person is defined as varies from culture to culture and time period. Remember the one drop rule?)

      Becky,

      You are wrong.

      Human genotype mapping and datasets have advanced massively in the last 50 years. I can tell you your (self-described) race from a drop of blood and without laying eyes on you. (if it race is merely “socially constructed” how could I do that? Hmm?).

      But I don’t even need your self-described classifier; I can classify and group you from the data alone – no human interpretation needed. The intra-vs-inter variance fallacy is a classic sign that you don’t understand intermediate statistics, much less principal component and clustering analysis. It’s a 30-year canard without scientific meaning. I suppose you could plead that race still remained socially constructed in the same way that a “table” is socially constructed – a name that people give to observed phenomena. But you’d look like an ass going around denying the existence of tables.

      I do assure you that humanity does genetically cluster into genotype sub-groups, which exhibit substantial phenotype cross–variation. Or is it a bizarre coincidence that all 100m finalists come from west Africa and all marathon finalists come from East Africa and that the Chinese are strong at swimming and Ashkenazic Jews have so many Nobel prizes? Or a thousand other examples.

      This may not be the world you want to live in, but nature is as it is. “Race” is a real thing, though you may call it be a different name if it soothes your sensibilities. See David Reich’s NYT article recently where the impeccably liberal Professor from Harvard painfully, apologetically, and painstakingly tries to explain the unfortunate nature of reality the readership there. i.e. nearly everything you wanted desperately to believe about “race” is false.

      • Becky says

        I’m not denying that race exists, but how it is defined varies from culture to culture and throughout history – that’s what it means when we say “social construct.” For example, there was a time in the south where you were considered black in one state, but all you had to do was cross a state border, and you would be considered white.
        Or the “one drop rule” I cited. If your ancestors for the last 10 generations were all white, but your great great great great great great grandmother was black, there were areas that would label you as black, whereas others would see you as white.
        Or take a survey from people from the Indian subcontinent: you’ll get some who will say Asian (because they are in SE Asia), others who will say caucasian (based on where they originate in relation to the Caucus mountains), and others will say black (if there skin is darker in tone).
        Or consider the term “Middle Eastern.” Some consider it a race, others will separate individuals from the ME as white, others as black. Middle Eastern isn’t even an option on the US census, though that is likely to change. That change itself is evidence of the social construct of race. It wasn’t considered a unique race before, but now it is.

        And in regards to genotype sub-groups: is that really a matter of race, or ancestral geographic origin? Do marathon finalists come from East Africa because “East Africa” is a race, or because of the elevation where they live and practice? Do Ashkenazic Jews have more Nobel prizes because there is gene for it among them, or is it because they come from a culture that more highly values such endeavors?

        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC139378/
        https://genome.cshlp.org/content/12/4/602.full
        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1275602/

      • Becky says

        I’m not denying that race exists, but how it is defined varies from culture to culture and throughout history – that’s what it means when we say “social construct.” For example, there was a time in the south where you were considered black in one state, but all you had to do was cross a state border, and you would be considered white.
        Or the “one drop rule” I cited. If your ancestors for the last 10 generations were all white, but your great great great great great great grandmother was black, there were areas that would label you as black, whereas others would see you as white.
        Or take a survey from people from the Indian subcontinent: you’ll get some who will say Asian (because they are in SE Asia), others who will say caucasian (based on where they originate in relation to the Caucus mountains), and others will say black (if there skin is darker in tone).
        Or consider the term “Middle Eastern.” Some consider it a race, others will separate individuals from the ME as white, others as black. Middle Eastern isn’t even an option on the US census, though that is likely to change. That change itself is evidence of the social construct of race. It wasn’t considered a unique race before, but now it is.

        And in regards to genotype sub-groups: is that really a matter of race, or ancestral geographic origin? Do marathon finalists come from East Africa because “East Africa” is a race, or because of the elevation where they live and practice? Do Ashkenazic Jews have more Nobel prizes because there is gene for it among them, or is it because they come from a culture that more highly values such endeavors?

        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC139378/
        https://genome.cshlp.org/content/12/4/602.full
        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1275602/

      • Becky says

        So it seems my original reply broke the internet, as the kids say these days, because it’s not showing up. Which stinks, because I thought we would get on to an interesting conversation.

  8. The Last Real Greener says

    Petersonian individualism is the flipside of Stanley Fish’s “hermeneutic mafia” mercantile notion of being interesting being more important than being right. Fish didn’t have e-celeb opportunities in the 1980s, but he was a demon for the conference circuit.

    Neither formulation leaves space for people to identify with, extend, and seek to transmit the unique genomic and cultural interplay bequeathed to them by their ancestors.

    Well, unless you’re black or Jewish or whatever, then you get to invent history and demand others believe it upon pain of laws that punish heresy.

    The whole point of Petersonian individualism and postmodernism is to mine power from civilization. It is an extractive-resource-based enterprise, no less than the South African mining or rainforest clearcutting they excoriate.

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