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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

Comments

  1. “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.”

    If there is no truth, then the statement that there is no truth is also not true.

    If truth is only about power, then why should the post-modernists be allowed to have more power than anyone else, and why isn’t all talk of isms or phobias then just total nonsense, because such discourse really only serves as a power play bu those who claim to be marginalised?

  2. What are these things that sit mysteriously,
    fixed, firm. Solemnly, seriously.
    They do not move, shift, nor sway,
    bruise our knees, crowd our way.
    Unmovable, yet jagged and violent,
    cold, heartless, mercilessly silent.
    Amid the darkness, dashed on edges,
    Icey sharp corners and ledges.

    We feel, grope, bloodied and torn,
    lacerated, bludgeoned, shifted and shorn.
    They are facts, irrefutable shapes
    that buffet and bruise the hairless apes.
    They are facts, data, solid, soulless.
    They will not bend, give in, give solace.
    They are facts, motionless storms.
    And we are hurled at the angled forms.

    How do we dwell among these crags,
    that tear away our hands and legs?
    From whence comes a light by which to live?
    Pray, how? Whom? Who has a glow to give?
    Can hairless apes create from naught
    a light to guide? Who will? Who ought?
    Can you? Can I? Cast a radiant beam?
    Can madman? Can genius create the gleam?
    Who will save us from the facts in the night?
    Who will from the darkness create light?

  3. Maybe it’s my shrinking brain cells, but this hurts my head. I can understand that post-modernism is claiming that there are a variety of ways to generate knowledge based on your social, cultural, economic, ect perspective, but I don’t understand how they justify claiming these perspectives have equal validity. That the scientific method was developed by Europeans who had/have power over others does not diminish that the results produced by this method are more true than folk knowledge or subjective experience. In fact, the only reason Europeans gained supremacy over other peoples to begin with is that their ways of generating knowledge were better, allowing them to dominate scientifically, economically, and politically. Power is the product of knowledge supremacy, not its cause.

  4. Thank you, PeterfromOZ. This is so blindingly obvious it seems to actually blind peoples responses, “It couldn’t be that simple could it? That’s too obvious, there must be something underneath…” Your observation must be made often and with great fervor.

    I remember coming across the argument that “nothing is true” the first time, from a friend who was an undergraduate and who’d carried it with him as a precious insight from uni in America when he visited me in Europe. After failing in normal conversation and debate to get him to see its inherent contradiction, i hit on this tactic. Feigning confusion, I said "Let me write this down so i’ve got it straight, " and wrote “nothing is true” on a slip of paper. I then held it up to him and asked, “is this true?” He couldn’t say ‘no’ and he couldn’t say ‘yes’ as either would contradict his argument.

    I can recommend this tactic in both face-to-face conversations and those online.

    Bravo to you for cutting through the obfuscation at the heart of this silliness.

  5. Worry not, Stephanie, you brain cels aren’t shrinking, they’ve just been trained (as a literal neural net) not to accept hypotheticals which contradict the evidence of your senses and are illogical to boot. They place the cart before the horse and consider it a brilliant innovation and as it will never be tested the question becomes only how many carts can be placed before the horse.

    It’s like taking as Truth the old toilet-stall graffito, “The is no such thing as gravity; the Earth sucks”

  6. Lets not forget that Foucault’s Madness and Civilization was one of causative roots of the decision to close institutions to help the mentally ill. In the UK, many people with mental conditions struggle to get treatment of any kind, unless it involves a Monday to Friday nine to five helpline, 70% of our prison inmates have some form of mental illness, and the instances of schizophrenic knife attacks, although rare, occur too frequently to be dismissed as a statistical blip. Mental illness is also a significant factor in homelessness. In this sense, Michel Foucault should be judged not by his contributions to knowledge, but by his victims.

  7. All I can say is, when I read;

    " “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.” "

    I burst out laughing… blithering self serving poppycock from patient zero for the virus that had essentially laid low Liberal arts.

  8. Why do we not see the whole article in ‘forum’ anymore? Hafta go to the open site, read the article then come back here for comments.

  9. The irony is if one criticizes Foucault, the post modernist will rush to his defense proclaiming, “that’s not true.” To which one responds, “Okay, what is true?”

  10. Sorry Reverend, I’m really on your side but just to be pedantic this is a non-problem in logic and it has been understood since the Greeks and why do folks keep bringing it up?

    Nothing is certain.

    As you point out, the statement is internally contradictory and therefore nul and therefore asking for a true/false answer to it is void ab initio. Have you stopped beating your wife?

    However language always contains suppostitions that need not be belabored and this is a good example. Why do we feel like the above has meaning when we so carefully prove that it does not? Because it does have meaning. It means one of two things:

    Nothing is certain (except this statement). There is nothing wrong with making a rule that has one exception: There is only one person in the world who can’t sit in my lap, and that is me. If I say: “Anyone can sit in my lap.” All will understand that the exception of myself is obvious and need not be stated. This is the meaning that will be taken probably most of the time.

    or:

    Nothing is certain (including this statement), in other words it is possible but unlikely that some things are certain but we aren’t sure. So the statement voids itself, but not before reminding us that however unlikely it might be, some things may indeed be certain. It may even be the case that the only certainty is the above, thus returning to the first meaning. So this form does actually tell us something as well.

  11. @dirk

    In English, we only use the word truth for the first meaning you give in your examples, e.g. things that are true or false independently of what people believe.

    The second meaning you mention, to use your example of freedom fighters etc, is more what would be called subjective experience, opinion, point of view. I disagree with your claim that by definition there can be no truthful story however. People of both sides can tell truthful stories, e.g. in the sequence of events that they lived. Maybe their opinions on who was right or wrong, who started what etc may be subjective, but they can be truthful about what actions they made, what were their motivations, and so on. It is for the rest of the world to separate the kernel of truth in the facts of their accounts from their subjective perceptions.

    In English, to use the word truth as in “it is her truth that …” is an abuse of the language that has emerged recently with the far left.

  12. VI was enthusiastically with Werner up to the end of his dismantling Foucault:

    …”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…

    My thought on reading this was that just as words stretched beyond their usual discrete meanings, say “racism,” become vacuous, so too do conceptions like “the total set of relations.”

    And then Werner hammers the Foucault nail on its head so as to drive it into incoherence insofar as Foucault purports to give an ultimate account of how things are:

    …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…

    The only real query I recall up to this point in the essay is: what does Werner mean by “the rhetorical approach to language” in teaching poetry? Does he mean something like the New Criticism or something like the techniques of rhetoric as “one of the three ancient arts of discourse” or something else? But that unclarity didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for what I was reading.

    And his theme became well settled in my mind, that the particular shorn of the universal is ultimately and dangerously limiting, that there is underlying objective truth not bound by its particular circumstances, science and its method being the search for it.

    But after Werner’s nice putting away of Foucault, his essay began eating too many calories and flab set in. To my mind, the flab has two distinct folds that hang over the lost leanness.

    The first is, may I say, rhetorical. Which is to say, we get the basic idea. How many times and in how many different ways need it be repeated?

    The second is substantive and an abiding unresolved tension marks it. In all the endless repetition of his theme, Werner with what he characterizes as universal ironically parallels his complaint about the particular shorn short of the universal. As the latter finally becomes meaningless, a wretched relativism, then too identifying a grand theme that can be the measure of all else itself becomes vacuous by deemphasizing the particular. For example:

    …”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”…

    Werner quotes Glen Love as to the above and says “his argument is my own.”

    What can these airy words mean, however nice they sound? No one sensible will deny that our goal is to live safely, happily and securely in a safe, secure physical and human world. But with which specific conflicting approaches, conflicting policies, conflicting theories, conflicting data, conflicting interests and so on do we go forward; by what criteria do we judge them; how do we even decide on those criteria? And so on.

    These questions take us back to all the roiling that marks all of human life over time. Foucault saw a universality in particularity, was strongly telling in his analysis of power as determinant in human relations but ran into a brick wall in making particularity his universal and giving foundational premises to the Postmodernism against which Werner rightly inveighs. But, big but, Werner, as do others with like pleas, errs in asserting a universal without giving sufficient heed to the particular, such that in the way he frames his desideratum, he begs entirely the question of what is to be done.

    In short, the universal and the particular are always in fraught and dynamic tension. Neither has meaning without the other.

  13. This is exactly what’s going on. You don’t even need a conspiracy to explain it. Even if the postmodernist thinkers were pure in motive ( they weren’t ), it was obvious how their ideas would be interpreted in the wider world.

    For example, this is a passage from Stephen Hicks’ book on Postmodernism, 2004:

    >Postmodern education should emphasize works not in the canon; it should focus on the achievements of non-whites, females, and the poor; it should highlight the historical crimes of whites, males, and the rich; and it should teach students that science’s method has no better claim to yielding truth than any other method and, accordingly, that students should be equally receptive to alternative ways of knowing

  14. Right exactly. I really can’t figure out where this claim that English “lacks richness” comes from. Just because the occasional person misuses a word doesn’t mean the problem is in the language.

  15. Like the author, I thought I’d earn my PhD in English because I wanted to learn more about the works I loved. Also like the author, I earned my MFA in fiction and taught in universities.

    Unlike the author, I fled the scene as soon as it was obvious - which was pretty immediate - that the “study” of literature was actually a means by which the shallow, fatuous egos of a handful of professors could be gratified. It wasn’t about the literature in the slightest,. The vast bulk of essays and discussions a) very obviously misinterpreted the work (but that was fine as long as it generated a published essay); b) took a tiny sliver of the work and pretended that was a huge deal, or c) studied a very esoteric writer no one had ever heard of, in depth, the entire career.

    Essays were filled with nasty backstabbing, strawmen, stupidity, and gobbledigook language using words in a way that no one else uses them, in a word salad that is all smoke and no fire. Sadly, the author himself can’t avoid this, eg with emphases added: “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.” So not sure what this means - what is an ‘environmental realist’ exactly? and no, I don’t think both want to find common ground (assertion without support) - but it uses trendy SJW words and seems to end conclusively. So that’s good.

    At any event, anyone who started academia a decade after I did (I was the 1980s) and claims they had no idea how it was infested, is either extremely naive, diisingenuous, or part of the problem. Trust me, it was very clear what you were (are) stepping into. With a tiny handful of exceptions, it is entirely about petty power, bitterness, stupidity, in the cloak of intelligence, like a donkey wearing spectacles and surrounding himself with other likeminded donkeys, braying to each other how intelligent they are.

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