It's like Mardi Gras meets the bombing of Dresden...
Thursday, March 16, 2006
Caught on the Horns of Post-Modernism
I've been reading Cosmopolis by Stephen Toulmin as part of an independent study project I've arranged with my professorial nemesis here on campus (he's trying to steer me toward the dark side and I've been trying to resist), and 100 pages in, my face muscles are beginning to feel the strain from being rocked so freaking hard. From what I've read so far, Toulmin is arguing (well, since I'm on a post-modern tangent here I'll say what I've gathered since authorial intent is impossible to discern) that scientific and philosophical inquiry has been hijacked for the last few hundred years by an insistence on looking for abstract, general truth, instead of focusing on local, specific truth (an example being trying to define the laws of ethics instead of determining what is ethical in certain instances). Toulmin goes on to argue that this shift towards Cartesian and Newtonian broad, overarching theory was a result of the abandonment of skeptical humanism with its lack of absolute truth claims, in the face of upheaval in Western Europe and the onset of the religious wars...

...and I'm totally fine with all of that. I agree that history needs to be contextualized, and I'm fine with Toulmin arguing that social turmoil can lead to grasping for absolutes. Taking things out of context can lead to misunderstanding (like the Book of Genesis? Bingo!) and more information can be pulled from a text more accurately when interpreted in the light of its influences. Does this post seem random? Would context help? How about this- for the most part, I'm surrounded by people who are convinced of the existence of God and are fine with defining absolutes through him. I, however, am not convinced of the existence of God. Therefore, I have no system with which I can derive absolutes (though I'm convinced they exist, or at least should exist). Does this play a role in my reactionary aversion to post-modern extremes? Absolutely.

And there lies my problem. I'm building my framework in a search for metanarratives with post-modern tools and materials, so I'm unsure as to how to proceed when these tools have been marketed as metanarrative destroying objects and the piece of property I bought sits on Lake Derrida. Is it possible to accept post-modernism without eventually falling into relativism? Charles says it might be, but I'm not sure. If you want me, I'll be at Lenin's sipping on apple martinis...


Blogger RedHurt said...

I don't believe post-modernism necessarily leads to relativism. I believe it often can and quite frequently has a tendancy to, and that this is something we must oppose. Yet in the same way I believe modernism leads to nihilism, and that this is something else we should and have opposed.

Post-modernism is not a philosophical framework because it by definition denies systemization, and this is what makes it so powerful. It helps us to realize that there is more to life than the formulas and systems we've created to explain it, and it helps us to appreciate these beautiful and wonderful tools as just that - only tools. Physics is a tool, psychology is a tool, even history is a tool. They have beauty and mystery and discovery and joy in them, but without answering the bigger question of "why" it's important to learn and discover and define, they're meaningless.

Post-modernism gives us the opportunity to accurately address the meaningless-ness modernism discovered. We don't have to - we can ignore it and slide straight into relativism, or we can meet it head on, and start to place value and emphasis on things that are fulfilling, beautiful and enriching simply because they are. That's what post-modernism has to offer us.

Post-modernism shouldn't be used to throw modernism's advancements out, however. Modernism showed us that some things can be systemetized, and that this is very useful for doing things like inventing machines and creating laws. Post-modernism does not inherently advocate that we ignore this - it only suggests that we consider the extent to which these systems have changed the way we view life and consider whether or not it's important. In most cases, like ethics and law and physics, I say absolutely - keep the system, but let us see it as a limited system, and strive to improve it by seeing beyond it's limitations.

now, wasn't that inspiring?

12:36 AM  
Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

I agree with everything redhurt said. Postmodernism is not a system--it's not a discipline, it's not a 12-step plan, it's not even a coherent body of work. You can't take "Principles of Post-modernism" the way you can take "Principles of Psychology" or "Introduction to Engineering" because there aren't any. Richard Rorty thinks (can I write a post or a comment or an e-mail without saying what Rorty thinks? Rorty doesn't think so) that post modernism is best described as a style of writing. That's it--just a way of writing.

With all that said, there are primary sources to post-modernism, and Toulmin's cutesy survey and all those Christian books with titles like "Faith and Everything We Hold Dear Under Attack: The Godless Freakshow of Postmodernism" don't help the situation. The books that started this whole problem are tough, unforgiving tomes--Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, and to a lesser extent your Rortys and your Thomas Kuhns. All of our discussions are relatively uninformed by these thinkers--the caricature is someone who hasn't read a lot of books being told by someone like James Sire, who also hasn't read any of them, that they're a "threat," and then someone like me or redhurt (who have just scratched the surface--of the 9 ringwraiths I named above I've read works in their entirety by 3 and just excerpts and fragments ripped out of context by the other 6) coming along and telling them that it's all okay, that post-modernism doesn't mean they have to give up on life and meaning and Starbucks, etc.

(j. morgan, do you want to say something about this point?)

I suppose a thorough-going postmodernism would be some sort of relativism, but no one who comments on this blog is going to tell you that--we're all going to tell you to appropriate it somehow to add to your sweet objective metanarrative. redhurt got all pragmatist on you with this, and it's an excellent summary of the proper appropriation:

"It helps us to realize that there is more to life than the formulas and systems we've created to explain it, and it helps us to appreciate these beautiful and wonderful tools as just that - only tools."

So sell that Lake Derrida property quick, and order me a Looking Into the Void on the rocks. I'll be down in a minute.

10:06 AM  
Blogger RedHurt said...

Hmm...a way of writing, huh? I guess I'd most easily define it as a general way of NOT looking at the world. It's certainly not a framework, and so this might address the issue more directly: since postmodernism has no structure or framework itself, it's frequently meshed with frameworks with similar perspectives. Relativism is just one of these frameworks - pragmatism is another, or existentialism, or Christianity (Radical Orthodoxy?), or any combination of the above, and many others I'm sure. Relativism is certainly the easiest and most "natural" reaction to modernism that post-modernism has been coulped with, but it's certainly not the only option.

3:11 PM  
Blogger Barnabas18 said...

I'll admit that I'm relatively uninformed on this topic, but my understanding is that a way of looking at post-modernism is a distrust of meta-narratives. That is, post-modernism is a way of thinking that starts by looking at particulars while rejecting the notion that there is an overarching framework of truth.

If this is true, then post-modernism itself doesn't technically rule out moral absolutes, but I doubt you'd ever have true post-modern thinkers who believe in absolutes, because situational ethics do not naturally guide one toward universal ethics unless a framework is first assumed and then tested.

Again, I'm not well read on this subject, but this has been my understanding. Post-modernism isn't relativism, but they correlate so strongly in my mind that I cannot separate the two.

11:43 PM  
Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

barnabas, you're right--to an extent. Post-modernism is a distrust of metanarratives, but that's just the point--it stops there. You write that "Post-modernism isn't relativism, but they correlate so strongly in my mind that I cannot separate the two." Since post-modernism doesn't allow itself to be inextricably linked to anything, let me ask you: what "correlates" them for you--the books? College professors? Amsterdam?

I think there are a lot of people out there like redhurt, who are anything but relativists, but have been able to apply and appreciate some of the distrust or style or whateverness of post-modernism. Are there enough redhurts to outweight the fluff heads who think postmodernism just IS relativism? For me that's an open question.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Jackscolon said...

The correlation is simple. A distrust of overarching truth (metanarratives) seems to equal a reliance on local, relativistic truth. Whether post-modernism allows itself to be linked is trivial, the linking is performed by the observer (something postmodernism definately allows!) who equates the two. That's what I did, and I'm guessing Barny did it the same way.

That said, I've put down my copy of "Faith and Everything We Hold Dear Under Attack: The Godless Freakshow of Postmodernism" and picked Don DeLillo back up. Now instead of feeling angry and distraught, I'm just bored.

Redhurt: "History is a tool." A tool? I'm fine with this if it means we use history to interpret and understand today, but I don't know if I'm ready to throw it out as History, I still think limited objectivity is possible.

1:06 PM  
Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

jackscolon and barnabas: I'm NOT saying that relativism and post-modernism don't correlate easily. That's why I wrote "Since post-modernism doesn't allow itself to be inextricably linked to anything..." and not "I don't think they correlate." I'm simply asking you how you know what you know about it; who have you talked to, what books have you read?

9:25 AM  
Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

Where to begin….

To the extent that we are able to/want to define postmodernism, I think we need to understand it as the culmination of Modernism. What we are calling postmodernism is nothing more than the fulfillment and working out of the Renaissance/Reformation/Enlightenment ideals.

This is Modernism in full bloom. This is the Modernism that can unflinchingly and defiantly look at itself and its legacy.

It is also the fulfillment of Capitalism (a Modernist project itself). The culture that Capitalism (and Marxism, which is a type of Capitalism) has produced in the last 200 years is an/the essential engine of Modernity. There is a quite large body of scholars who call this period (what we have been calling postmodernism) Late Modernity or Advanced Capitalism.

iPods, Derrida, bathhouses, globalization, the social sciences, the homeless, Foucault, interpretation, the War on Terror, apologetics, bum fights, James Joyce, blogs, the student riots of 1968, McDonald’s, Nietzsche, tolerance, etc. are all symptoms and causes of Modernity/Late Modernity/Advanced Capitalism/postmodernism.

Postmodernism, then, can only be understood as anti-culture – an anti-project.

That said, I don’t know what relativism is. If it is a primarily anthropological framework for interpreting knowledge/truth, then, sure, postmodernism is relativistic. If it is some sort of libertine morality and nonsensical hyper-individualism, then no it isn’t (and nothing else is either). My sense is that Barnabas and others mean the latter, which is nothing more than a creation of the Right that has never existed outside of their imaginations.

Now, to respond to your post more directly. If it hasn’t occurred to you yet, let me fill you in: You are a postmodernist. You have been since childhood. Grove City College and The École Normale Supérieure provide quintessentially postmodern education. What I am trying to say is that you know nothing but postmodernism (none of us do). The content – not to mention the medium – of this post is demonstration enough of that.

This is where – what – we are. To the degree that this has led to relativism or other terrible isms out there, then postmodernism leads to that. To the degree that it hasn’t, it doesn’t. I don’t know what else to say.

1:58 PM  
Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

In all seriousness, are Africans and Aborigines and Siberian fishermen not postmodernists?

4:03 PM  
Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

Yeah, I think they are not postmodernists.

8:44 AM  
Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

J. morgan wins.

Flawless victory.

4:03 PM  

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