No chocolate, no compass, no matches

I’ve been wondering what ‘postmodernism’ is exactly. I don’t mean what its claims are, I mean what it is itself. What kind of thing is it? What box does it go in? It’s not a discipline. It’s not a kind of philosophy, like pragmatism or utilitarianism. It’s not a kind of inquiry. What is it? I realize I don’t even know, and I’m not sure other people do either, including postmodernists themselves. Their descriptions of postmodernism tend to be notably vague around the edges. Evasive, a hostile witness might say. Like this one from the hilarious article on the reception of ‘Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences: truth, power and fascism’ by Holmes et al. last summer, the one that quotes comments on a blog as its main examples of that reception.

The postmodernist thinking that has characterised a number of academic disciplines in the last two or so decades of the 20th century – and is still alive and well in some quarters – has played an important role in creating new ways of developing ideas in the arts, science and culture. The relativism on which it is founded, and the ‘liberation’ from sacred cows it seeks, have a place in healthcare and health science…[P]ostmodernism is a response to modernity – the period where science was trusted and represented progress – and essentially focuses on questioning the centrality of both science and established canons, disciplines and institutions to achieving progress. The nature of ‘truth’ is a recurring concern to postmodernists, who generally purport that there are no truths but multiple realities and that understandings of the human condition are dynamic and diverse. The notion that no, one view, theory or understanding should be privileged over another (or that no discourse should be silenced) is a tenet of postmodernist critique and analysis.

The words used kind of give away the fact that there is nothing very rigorous going on here. Postmodernist thinking, creating new ways of developing ideas, the ‘liberation’ it seeks, a response, essentially focuses, questioning the centrality, a recurring concern, generally purport, notion. Tenet, critique and analysis sound a little sterner, but after all those mushy terms they don’t convince. It all seems to speak of…just some people saying some things. So, what is that? What is postmodernism?

Well, whatever it is, let’s have a fantasy. Let’s imagine someone who seriously does question ‘the centrality of both science and established canons, disciplines and institutions to achieving progress.’ Okay? Got the someone? Let’s call it X. Let’s imagine depositing X stark naked in the middle of a trackless northern forest in the dead of winter (now, in fact), and then let us see how long X will want to sustain this questioning. Remember – it’s science that is being questioned. So that means no tool use: that means no making a fire, no building a shelter, no making clothes, no trapping animals, no fishing except with bare hands, no throwing sticks, no snow shoes, no rafts. It also means no existing knowledge – X can’t discriminate between poisonous berries and the other kind, can’t identify venomous snakes, doesn’t know how animals behave, can’t tell what the weather is doing, can’t navigate by the north star or the sun, doesn’t know that water can be full of bacteria. X would be dead in a matter of hours.

Now, X will say, indignantly, ‘But I’m not going to be trapped naked in the middle of a trackless forest in the dead of winter!’ Well no, X, you’re not, unless you’re very careless, but that is my point. You are dependent on science for your very existence at every turn, and you don’t even know it. If you suddenly found yourself in the trackless forest scenario, it would probably become clear to you very, very quickly how ‘central’ science is. In short, you’re a fool.

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