Idle Chat

Let’s talk. Then again, let’s not. Because with certain kinds of talkers, there’s no point. The kind who systematically talk nonsense, and stipulate ahead of time that nonsense is what they will be talking, remove the point and replace it with – ‘play.’

What’s critical to recognize, from a humanist viewpoint, is that [the laws of thought] comprise more than a particular methodological option, for they are invoked whenever a predicate is attached to a subject; the consequences of their rejection, in humanist terms, would be absolute cognitive silence–since the decision to reject the laws could not itself sensibly be uttered except by invoking them.

This is what I was noticing about Violet a couple of weeks ago – there she was flinging scare-quotes around with wild abandon, problematizing truth, evidence, right, wrong, true, false – and yet she went right on arguing, or pretending to argue, or playing at arguing. Well you can’t do both at once. You can’t announce your suspicion of the very idea of true and false and still go on arguing a position.

In Dissémination Derrida states: “It is thus not simply false to say that Mallarmé is a Platonist or a Hegelian. But it is above all not true. And vice versa”…The postmodernist critic Barbara Johnson illustrates the danger of attempting to paraphrase Derrida’s meaning in coherent humanist terms: “Instead of a simple either/or structure, deconstruction attempts to elaborate a discourse that says neither ‘either/or,’ nor ‘both/and’ nor even ‘neither/nor,’ while at the same time not totally abandoning these logics either.”

And not only the danger but the pointlessness. What is the point of talking about anything as lazy as that? ‘It’s not this, it’s not that, but at the same time it’s not not. See?’ Yeah – excuse me, I have better things to do.

If Derrida attempts to dance around the law of non-contradiction, a number of his postmodernist cohorts seem determined to stomp it into the ground. Roland Barthes, for instance, opens his book The Pleasure of the Text with an invitation to imagine the ideal reader as someone “who abolishes within himself all barriers, all classes, all exclusions . . . by simple discard of that old specter: logical contradiction; who mixes every language, even those said to be incompatible; who silently accepts every charge of illogicality, of incongruity; who remains passive in the face of Socratic irony (leading the interlocutor to the supreme disgrace: self-contradiction) and legal terrorism (how much penal evidence is based on a psychology of consistency!)”

That’s the kind of thing that gives lit-crit a bad name (to put it mildly). Just drone on about everything and nothing, declaring everything possible and included by verbal fiat, without bothering to think about anything. Cognitive laziness.

That Barthes is untroubled by laws of thought is evident. When asked by an interviewer about inconsistencies in his writings, Barthes replies, “I explained in my preface why I didn’t wish to give a retrospective unity to texts written at different times: I do not feel the need to arrange the uncertainties or contradictions of the past”.

No, naturally not, because it’s so much easier not to.

For I believe that the postmodern rejection of the law of non-contradiction is strategic: Without the law of non-contradiction, no one can ever demonstrate that you’re wrong. In an argument on any topic between a postmodernist and a humanist, each party will attempt to discover a logical contradiction in his opponent’s case. For the humanist, the discovery of a actual contradiction is deadly; he must abandon, or at minimum clarify, his position. But for the postmodernist, a contradiction is only a contradiction – a sign, perhaps, of the depth of his thought. The postmodernist’s position, in other words, becomes unfalsifiable.

Depth of thought again. The idea that depth of thought is (at least sometimes) somehow the opposite of the more ‘pedestrian’ kind of rational, logical, testing, checking, inquiring, evidence-seeking kind of thought that scientists and rational people go in for. But when you throw logic and evidence and testing out the window and just rely on your own brilliant insight or profundity or intuitive certainty or inner wisdom – you don’t get depth of thought, you get arid, dead-end, pointless, self-regarding blather.

Indeed, the postmodern rejection of the law of non-contradiction constitutes, from a humanist standpoint, not merely a rejection of logic but of the rational element in human nature. The humanist does not view logic as a cultural construct, a pattern of thinking inculcated by years of repetition; rather, he views it as the way in which the rational mind has always worked. To operate rationally is, instinctively, to rely on logical reasoning. There is, for the humanist, no getting around the laws of thought. The claim, often advanced…that the project of postmodernism involves suspending logic in order to call it into question skims over this crucial point: Nothing can be called into question unless it can be affirmed or denied. But to affirm or deny, as we’ve seen, is to invoke logic, to invoke the laws of thought. Just as you cannot suspend the rules of arithmetic in order to do calculus, you cannot suspend the laws of thought in order to do analysis–for these laws precede every rational epistemology.

So unless you’re just in the mood for some dadaist noise-exchange, you’re stuck with the pesky old laws. Suck it up.

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