Strange anti-anti-‘postmodernism’ is cropping up everywhere today. (Okay three places that I’ve seen. That’s postmodernist for ‘everywhere.’) The scare-quotes on postmodernism are because the postmodernism in question seems in every case to be some kind of weird ragbag or catch-all term that is so elastic it means pretty much nothing, or anything, or just ‘whatever I feel like making it mean for the purposes of this particular sentence or this particular non-argument.’ But the fact that the word is being used as a ragbag doesn’t mean it doesn’t function as a sower of suspicion of dastardly enemies of (unspecified and very very blurry) postmodernism. (The word is also being used, confusingly, to mean ‘various forms of skepticism and critical scrutiny that have been around for twenty or thirty centuries at least but that I, because I haven’t read very widely, think are all the invention of something called postmodernism.’)
Iain Macwhirter on Stephen Law’s new book for instance.
Now, postmodernists and structuralists might say that Law is naive and reductionist and that he fails to recognise the social context of morality. It’s all very well laying down absolutes, but you have to take into account people’s different viewpoints…Law is impatient with all this. “Postmodernists accuse me of authoritarian conservatism; that as a white male I shouldn’t be telling people how to live. But I don’t have a lot of time for that.” Perhaps he should find the time, because as an author of popular philosophy he can’t ignore the most influential strand of modern philosophy in British universities. “Structuralism” doesn’t even appear in Law’s index, and there is no discussion of the popes of postmodernism, such as Louis Althusser or Michel Foucault.
But part of the reason ‘postmodernism’ is ‘influential,’ if it is (which depends for one thing on how it’s defined, and for instance whether or not one considers Althusser a postmodernist), is for the same sort of reason the head of the MCB is ‘influential,’ which is that newspapers like the Telegraph keep calling him influential. This business of being influential is very much a self-fulfilling prophecy – very ‘constructed,’ in fact, in good postmodernist (according to some ragbaggy definitions) fashion. And the more newspapers and journalists keep repeating that one ‘can’t ignore’ postmodernism because it is influential, the more influential it will become, thus making it even more mandatory that one not ignore it, in a tightening spiral of influence and mandatoricity and thou shalt not ignoreism, all quite independent of any merit inhering in postmodernism itself. And is Althusser really a pope of postmodernism?
Then there’s Marc Mulholland, commenting on the utter inanity of a Florida law barring the teaching of ‘revisionist’ history.
This is outrageous. Historical knowledge is approached by the interplay of evidence, scholarly protocols, and veracious argument. The state has no useful function to play in determining academic procedures. This seems rather to confirm my long standing concerns regarding the obscurantist uses the mundanities of militantly anti PoMo can be put to use.
But know-nothing fits about ‘revisionist’ history in the US have no need of postmodernism. Such fits have been going on for decades, and they don’t necessarily have anything to do with putative postmodernism at all. They simply boil down to ‘any interpretation of history that I don’t like.’ Again, one needs a terribly ragbaggy, capacious, sagging, world-size definition of postmodernism to make it central to this issue. One also, perhaps, needs to adopt this irritating and uninformed idea that putative postmodernism invented every single skeptical or critical thought anyone ever had in order to think it is central to this issue. One, postmodernism has no monopoly on either skepticism or critical thought, and two, postmodernism often abjures and even reviles critical thought rather than recommending and embracing and making use of it. Norm has a comment here; I saw the post via his.
And there is the (very interesting, I must say) discussion at Inside Higher Ed, where the ‘postmodernism thought of everything and without it we’d all be credulous robots’ line keeps coming back, along with a repetitive insistence that people who defend the idea of truth don’t mean truth but Truth or Absolute Truth or certain truth. No matter how many times I say ‘no, just truth,’ the capital letters and transcendent adjectives keep returning. Like the repressed.
One of [Foucault’s] mind blowing and truly innovative arguments centers on the creation of homosexuality as a social category. Foucault contends that the articulation of homosexuals as a distinct and scientifically identifiable group occurred in the late 19th century; “homosexuals” were “created” in 1870s. This doesn’t challenge the “truth” of same-sex attraction or its pre-1870s history. BUT, it suggests that the scientific way of understanding same-sex eros is history-bound and culture-bound. The sexologists in the late 19th century didn’t suddenly just “get it right” by turning sexuality into an object of scientific inquiry. As I see it, that’s the “post” of the “postmodern” part; after reading Foucault, we don’t have to slavishly buy into a modernist/scientific reading of sexuality – a reading that’s likely to be reductionist, determinist, essentialist, and some other bad word.
As if (as ‘we’re all scientists now’ points out) we would have had to before reading Foucault. Sometimes (often) one wants to stop arguing with self-declared postmodernists and just urge them to read more widely. A lot more widely.