Postmodernism at the Post

This is a deeply irritating article in the Washington Post. The guy who wrote it seems to think (as so many postmodernists and ‘theorists’ seem to think) that postmodernism thought of everything and that nobody thought of anything before postmodernism came along, or independently of postmodernism after it came along. But that is not the case.

Sitting in the shadow of the Capitol, on some of the most prestigious real estate in Washington, the new museum has emerged with ambitions far greater than simply putting a sunny face on the kind of anthropology represented by Mead, or becoming a Disney-style happy magnet for native peoples. It is a monument to Postmodernism — to a way of thinking that emphasizes multiple voices and playful forms of truth over the lazy acceptance of received wisdom, authority and scientific “certainty.”

Um. For one thing, ‘the kind of anthropology represented by Mead’ in fact has a lot in common with postmodernism; Mead is to a considerable extent a hero figure to postmodernists. For another thing, Mead’s research has been sharply criticised in recent years for sloppy research techniques, but not by postmodernists. For another, blindingly obvious thing, postmodernists are hardly the first or the only thinkers to question ‘lazy acceptance of received wisdom’ and authority. It is not very difficult to think of others who have done that sort of questioning. A few thousand, in fact. For one more other thing, scientific ‘certainty’ is a straw man. Scientists don’t (on the whole – yes there are no doubt exceptions) talk about certainty, they talk about evidence. It’s the people they’re talking to who have an ineradicable tendency to translate that into certainty, as I’ve mentioned here many times, with examples. (Seriously. It’s a journalism thing. Scientist will say ‘there is good evidence that’ or ‘there is no evidence that’ and Reporter will answer, ‘Okay so there’s proof that’ and Scientist will sigh [and probably weep, tear hair, kick the table, pretend to throttle self with the mike cord] and say ‘I didn’t say there’s proof, I said there’s evidence.’ And 99 times out of 100 [I’m estimating] the reporter will neglect to report that, because it makes the reporter look stupid, which she/he is.)

And that’s only the beginning. The article goes on in the same damn silly way.

When “The West as America” catalogue was published, Alex Nemerov contributed an article quoting Remington on the merits of using violence against unruly minorities…But when the National Gallery presented an exhibition of Remington’s paintings last year — a very popular exhibition — they did so mostly in the absurdly abstract yet ecstatic language of Art Appreciation. The exhibit was focused on the painter’s “nocturnes” — studies in light and composition and surface control. Remington, the cultural and historical actor, was gone, and his reputation was restored to a more convenient category: great artist. In the words of gallery director Earl A. Powell III, “Remington sought to capture the elusive silver tones of moonlight, the hot flame of firelight, and the charged interaction of both.” Getting free of this kind of glossy art-speak, and wresting control of native identity from the legacy of painters like Remington and the hauteur of scientists like Mead, has been a long road.

Sneer sneer sneer. Absurdly abstract yet ecstatic, convenient category, glossy art-speak, hauteur of scientists. All to back up the odd assumption that it is required to talk about an artist as a cultural and historical actor instead of talking about him as an artist. That’s not to say that the cultural actor aspect is not interesting and important, but it is to say that it seems reasonable for an art gallery to talk about art as art, for Chrissake. And then that business about the ‘hauteur of scientists like Mead’ – it’s such a giveaway, that. Oh those pesky scientists with their hauteur, ignoring all the wonderful daring playful revisionist postmodernists who are the first people ever to notice anything – how we hates ’em.

The Heye Center’s approach was a trial run for the current museum, an attempt to put Indian voices on at least an equal footing with “scientific” ones. It would, wrote scholar Tom Hill in a catalogue published at the time, be in the vanguard of a new reordering of museum priorities — a reordering that sounded like the first step in a broader, societal reformation. “Traditional native values can help guide museums as well,” he wrote. “No longer monuments to colonialism, these institutions may be led to a truly new world in which cultures have genuine equality and creators and creations can be seen whole.”

Note the scare-quotes on ‘scientific’ – because we all know there is no such thing as ‘scientific,’ right? Right. And cultures have genuine equality – well in what sense? In the sense that no culture should have all its artefacts casually scooped up and taken away, fine; but one can think of other senses that would not be so fine. It would depend on the cultures, for one thing. The Taliban have a culture. The Mafia have a culture. ‘Culture’ covers a lot of territory, and so does ‘equality’. But that’s kind of a revisionist thing to say, and revisionism is a monopoly of postmodernism, it seems, so maybe I should leave it to the experts.

Then there’s a hilarious paragraph in which the staff writer tells us to note the language of an article in the Baltimore Sun. He’s a fine one to talk! He uses quite a lot of revealing language himself. (Yes I know – even now there is someone somewhere even nerdier than I am, pointing out all the revealing language I’m using in this comment on someone else’s language. Sit still and be quiet.)

Truth is what individual people say about themselves, beyond refute and suspicion — which is perhaps the most powerful, and radical, challenge that Postmodern thought has proposed.


Already, in the new museum’s inaugural book…you can see the dizzying Postmodern playfulness at work…This delightful little game can stand for any number of basic Postmodern conundrums: that truth may lie in what isn’t said, that the right to hide meaning may be more meaningful than anything that could be revealed and that, ultimately, the only real truth in the world is the lack of a single truth. This basic mind dance — a corrective ritual to old, stultifying notions of truth — has been driven out of our society, for the most part, by a conservative intellectual entrenchment. But in the National Museum of the American Indian, it is being reanimated, and grafted onto the remnants of a diverse and ancient worldview. On the run most everywhere else, Postmodernism has a victory arch on the Mall.

Old, stultifying notions of truth. What would they be, exactly? Not playful, of course; not ‘revisionist,’ because apparently no historians ever disagreed with previous historians until postmodernism came along (which would be news to Beard, Gibbon, Hume, Thucydides…), not haughtily and bullyingly scientific, not ‘conservative’.

Mock mock. But it’s beyond a joke, really. Because the thing is, postmodernism is not, as this writer apparently takes it to be, some sort of enabler or precondition for critical thinking; in many ways it’s the opposite, and a preventer of it. If you don’t think you can get at the truth, or that there is a truth to aim at, to get closer to or farther from, how critical is your thinking really going to be? Judging by this piece of innuendo-ridden nonsense, not very.

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