Biology, Philosophy, recent

Postmodernism’s Dead End

As an undergraduate studying English at the University of Utah, I was required to take Introduction to the Theory of Literature. The course was a disaster. I was an awful student of critical theory. Like most burgeoning English majors I knew at the time (the early 1990s), I wanted to read and write literature, not to study what people had decided it meant to read and write literature. And then there was the professor who headed the class. He had a pretentious fondness for the French deconstructionist Derrida that I did not understand, partly because I did not understand Derrida himself, and partly because as a teacher this fellow was so single-minded that he could not reach any but the most earnest students. After class, I would often see him in the cafeteria, where he would practice his French with a colleague who also taught theory for the department. I guessed they were talking about Derrida, but who could say? Together, these elements would constitute my introduction to the baffling world of postmodern theory.

I wore the “D” I earned in that class like a badge of shame, but we shun what shames us, and so even though postmodernism of one form or another dominated the department, I managed to earn my degree while still avoiding this man, his ilk, and their “floating head” theories, the relevance of which would cease the instant I closed the book or left the classroom. Perhaps I was lucky. My orientation to literature was, if anything, romantic, and I would continue to entertain this view of language, literature, and life, ultimately, as an MFA student in poetry at Arizona State University. The creative writing program there did not proffer any alternatives. In fact, the only challenge came when I, along with several other teachers-in-training, attended a weekly seminar taught by seasoned rhetoricians. Not surprisingly, the poets resisted the rhetorical approach to language. Indeed, they were suspicious of—if not hostile to—any approach that sought to demystify the medium with which they rendered their personal afflatus. And I am sure that the rhetoric students in the classroom experienced their own unique dismay at what they must have seen as our beautiful but ineffectual and anachronistic conception of language. At the time, both approaches had their own appeal. But that was before I had perceived the world from outer space. Now I see that no subjective view of life is sufficient for addressing the nature and crisis of living in the Anthropocene.

When I started teaching in 1995, writing texts that emphasized multiculturalism were in vogue. More recently, social justice has emerged as the preferred context within which to teach writing, which may help to explain the continued interest in the work of social constructionists like Derrida and Michael Foucault, including the latter’s concept of the “discursive formation,” which is defined as the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences, and possibly formalized systems. Foucault was likely trying to evoke ecology and thereby imbue his ideas with objective rigor with the phrase “total set of relations,” but I am not convinced that he succeeded.

Foucault was concerned with how different groups of people construct knowledge and, eventually, truth. In his view, what is true for one is not true for all: “Truth is always dependent on a particular discursive formation; that is, there is no underlying meaning or truth within or imposed on the things of our world, and the truth or knowledge of something rests entirely within the relations of statements inside a discursive formation.” To the extent that individuals and groups of people generate particular perspectives of the truth, Foucault was right. But the postmodern idea that there is “no underlying meaning” in the world apart from what people may produce is nonsense. That a certain perspective is exclusive and hinders access to other ideas is a comment on the limitations of the perspective, not on the degree to which truth can be known and shared. And yet Foucault’s oversight persists, as evidenced by the popularity of writing texts that privilege subjectivity over objectivity; lived experience over scientific fact; difference over similarity; orthodoxy over exploration.

Although, in principle, challenges to the mainstream tradition are much needed, they reveal a bias toward culture as a vehicle for determining truth: Competing narratives attempt to revise the dominant narrative according to their own particular ideological, racial, ethnic, or cultural experience. The voicing of these perspectives is, of course, long overdue, and because of it we have begun to appreciate the uniqueness and complexity of human experience. But as the work of Foucault and other social constructionists shows, if truth is subjective, and one truth is as plausible as another, as long as there is a dominant group, particular subjective truths will prevail. And where certain subjective truths do not prevail, violence of one form or another will likely ensue. According to this culturally relative view of the world, then, truth is arbitrary and exclusive, rather than evidentiary and shared. The consequence is divisiveness. Thus, the importance of hearing for the first time the distinct voices of silenced, marginalized, oppressed, and “invisible” peoples is coupled with an equally important need for uniting in order to address natural and social ills, a task that exclusive views of the self and world are not equipped to handle.

In his book Everybody’s Story: Wising Up to the Epic of Evolution, Loyal Rue, Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Luther College, explains the challenge of multiculturalism: “A particular story may be mine, and it may be worthwhile, and I may be diminished without it, but it is not a story that speaks for everyone’s experience. And as I discover the limitations of my own story there is born within me a longing to hear the larger story of which my own is a part—the universal story, everybody’s story.” Rue’s remarks speak to the core of the problem: despite having the goal of understanding and appreciating diversity, the various stories of a pluralistic society do not add up to anything we can all share. Similarly, postmodern theories may be useful insofar as they help us understand group dynamics, but as subjective accounts themselves they fail to honor the biological world of which all stories are part, on which all stories depend, and from which all stories ultimately arise.

Thus, Rue asks “Where do we go for a universal narrative account of how things are and which things matter?” His answer: The paradigm of Darwinian evolution. In contrast to the majority of cultural and religious narratives, which are anthropocentric, the paradigm of evolution is ecocentric and based on the fact that we originate from, live in, and depend on a physical world of interrelated systems, and that as the place where all stories happen, indeed, that makes all stories possible, we must care for the natural world above all else. This means that we must begin the difficult work of talking about things as they really are, and not just what we think they should be.

E.O. Wilson explains why this will not be easy: “Culture conforms to an important principle of evolutionary biology: most change occurs to maintain the organism in its steady state.” Understanding this underlying biological uniformity is the key to valuing our individual stories while still acknowledging and repairing their limitations. The world and what we know about it has changed and deepened, but many of our stories do not reflect this awareness. These accounts are therefore largely irrelevant to all except the individuals and groups who support them, which raises the question of what constitutes useful information. If I believe what social constructionists tell me, useful information is relative to the group that generates and shares it. Fine. But information that ignores biological fact, while meaningful, isn’t useful beyond the parameters of one’s subjective worldview. Only when this subjective information is examined in the context of the evolutionary paradigm does its objective relevance become clear: However unique our stories may seem, they are all expressions of a shared human nature.

Equally important is that this new definition of usefulness extends to nonhuman nature as well. Thus, when seen from an ecocentric or planetary perspective, the limitations of subjective accounts of existence are clarified but dissolved. What remains is a sense of biotic responsibility and relatedness. Rue writes: “As we discipline ourselves to take a wider view we begin to appreciate that the overlaps among species are much more profound and important than the differences. From the outer space of a Darwinian perspective life is a unity, a community of shared interest in the conditions of viability, apart from which there is no enduring promise. The driving theme of everybody’s story is to understand these ultimate conditions and to value them ultimately.” As Rue suggests, by emphasizing how organisms overlap, and by valuing what all organisms share—i.e., conditions of viability—the evolutionary perspective provides and encourages a foundation for biotic equanimity.

Relativistic views are helpful to the extent that they describe how individuals and groups of people generate knowledge, but because they do not acknowledge how narratives reflect and are informed by our shared human nature, ultimately they do little more than maintain the status quo. For what does it matter that individuals and groups of people construct knowledge differently if at the end of the day they are still killing each other and using Earth as a battleground? How can knowing how people construct knowledge ever really be meaningful and useful to a person or a group of people who are equally fervent about their own beliefs? Will the dominant narrative ever speak to the needs of everyone and everything else? Will the pre-Darwinian view of life inspire the preservation and protection of the environment? Not according to social psychologist Kenneth Gergen: “The emerging multiplicity in perspectives is undermining longstanding beliefs about truth and objectivity. Many now see science as a sea of social opinion, the tides of which are often governed by political and ideological forces. And as science becomes not a reflection of the world but a reflection of social process, attention is removed from the ‘world as it is’ and centers instead on representations of the world.”

John Alcock, Emeritus Regents’ Professor of Biology at Arizona State University, deals with these relativist claims in his book The Triumph of Sociobiology. There he notes that the claim that Truth and Reality can never be approximated is an intellectual dead-end because it is indefensible by the relativists’ own standards. Alcock also argues that “one cannot brush [sociobiology] to one side with social constructionist claims that scientists operate in a social context, which is somehow supposed to make it impossible to validate scientific findings. Scientific conclusions rest upon the impeccable logic of the procedures that are used to test all manner of potential explanations, procedures that are the foundation for every successful technological innovation in our world.” Cultural relativists must be hard pressed to explain how it’s possible to accept scientific understanding as it pertains to technological innovations, but then to dismiss its relevance to everything else.

We face unparalleled environmental and social stress. This tells me that our current narratives, whether ideological or religious, have failed and are failing. Admittedly, we will always privilege certain knowledge, but if humanity aims to transcend the limits of the status quo and thereby repair social and environmental ills, the knowledge we privilege must be based on what we verifiably know about biotic reality and interdependence. The ecocritic Glen Love makes this point in the Afterword of his book Practical Ecocriticism: Literature, Biology, and the Environment, and his argument is my own: “My contention is that Darwinian evolutionary theory offers the truest basis with which to deal with the perils and opportunities of being human, as that awareness affects not only our work as teachers and scholars, but also our relationship with the nature which binds us to life on this decreasingly commodious sphere.”

Now is the time to tell the story of all time. To this end, postmodern theory has done all it can ever do, as have the majority of the manifold narratives it seeks to privilege. Social constructionists and environmental realists want the same thing: to find common ground. But let us do so in the most realistic, sustainable, and inclusive way possible: Let us begin by looking beneath our feet.


Maximilian Werner is an Associate Professor (lecturer) in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric Studies at the University of Utah and the author of six books, including The Bone Pile: Essays on Nature and Culture and the book of poems, Cold Blessings. You can follow him on Twitter @ProfMWerner