Postmodernism: The Decline of Truth, by Joshua Landy

Every person is a philosopher by nature; however, we are quickly dissuaded from this delightful activity by those who call philosophy impractical. But there is nothing more practical than knowing who you are and what you think. Try it sometime.

Postmodernism: The Decline of Truth, by Joshua Landy

Postby admin » Sun Sep 25, 2022 4:16 am

Postmodernism: The Decline of Truth
by Joshua Landy
July 15, 2019

Did postmodernism have any part to play in the rise of the post-truth era? At first glance that seems very hard to believe. When we see Kellyanne Conway talking about “alternative facts” or Rudy Giuliani saying “truth isn’t truth,” we don’t immediately assume they’ve been busy reading Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty. Still, maybe the question isn’t quite so simple.

For one thing, there are a few documented cases of right-wingers explicitly drawing on postmodernist theory. Take Vladislav Surkov, Kremlin ideologist. Or Phillip Johnson, one of the originators of the “intelligent design” idea. (‘‘I told them I was a postmodernist and deconstructionist just like them,” said Johnson, "but aiming at a slightly different target.’’) Or Mike Cernovich, an alt-right conspiracy theorist, who actually said the following: “I read postmodernist theory in college. If everything is a narrative, then we need alternatives to the dominant narrative. I don’t seem like a guy who reads Lacan, do I?”

And even when it comes to folks like Kellyanne Conway or Rudy Giuliani—people who almost certainly did not read any Lyotard—there is perhaps a case to be made for postmodernism having an effect, by creating an environment conducive to their flourishing. Kurt Andersen points out that postmodern ideas didn’t stay locked in the ivory tower but gradually circulated in the wider culture, convincing more and more people that each person has his or her own “truth,” and that it’s impolite (if not downright hegemonic) to say that someone is wrong. The result, according to Andersen? “Once the intellectual mainstream thoroughly accepted that there are many equally valid realities and truths, once the idea of gates and gatekeeping was discredited not just on campuses but throughout the culture, all American barbarians could have their claims taken seriously.” And thus “postmodern intellectuals… turned out to be useful idiots… for the American right.”

Andersen's suggestion, in other words, is that postmodernism helped to create an environment in which there was less pushback against the Conways and Giulianis—like a body with a depressed immune system. One or two philosophers seem to agree with this assessment. Daniel Dennett says the postmodernists “are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts”; Timothy Williamson says, “those who think it somehow intolerant to classify beliefs as true or false should be aware that they are making it easier for people like Trump, by providing them with a kind of smokescreen.” There could well be something to this, even if Donald Trump isn’t staying up all night poring over The Postmodern Condition.

Of course, the post-truth era has a host of other causes, many of which may well be more significant: the elimination of the fairness doctrine, the rise of 24-hour news, the internet, social media... But what if postmodernism also contributed, in its own modest way? Shouldn’t that be a reason for us to rethink how great an idea it was, and how vital a contribution to progressive politics? Richard Rorty once wrote that “the very idea of a ‘fact of the matter’ is one we would be better off without,” and that “science as the source of ‘truth’ [note the scare quotes!] is one of the Cartesian notions which will vanish” in the era he was calling for. Well, we’re living in that future right now, and it's not a utopia; it's a hellmouth. The dystopia we’re currently living in should, in my view, make fans of postmodern theory think twice about their enthusiasm. They were wrong to hope for a world beyond truth.

At this point, defenders of postmodernism would probably make a couple of familiar responses. For one thing, they’d probably say that postmodernists were diagnosing the decline of truth, not asserting it, let alone calling for it. Well, that may be true of Baudrillard, but it’s surely not true of Derrida, who famously claimed that words never transmit ideas but just defer meaning endlessly. And it’s also not true of Richard Rorty, who said that “there is no sense in which any [scientific] descriptio[n] is an accurate representation of the way the world is.” (As Bruno Latour pointed out, that kind of attitude is one that would make climate deniers very happy.) Rorty declared that “vocabularies… are not ‘more objective’ or ‘less objective’” and that “objects are not ‘more objectively’ described in any vocabulary than in any other.” Science, in other words, is no more objective than Scientology; astronomy is no more objective than astrology. When it came to "philosophy professors who are seeking the truth, not just a story or a consensus but an honest-to-God, down-home, accurate representation of the way the world is,” Rorty thought it fun to call them "old-fashioned prigs.” And he told us that someone reading a book shouldn’t try to understand it correctly—there’s no such thing—but only “bea[t] the text into a shape which will serve his own purpose.”

And it’s not just what these thinkers said; it’s what they did. Actions speak even louder than words, and postmodernists had a way of revealing just how committed they were to truthfulness. When caught in a bind over an article, Derrida insisted loudly on his rights as an author, forgetting everything he’d said about the evils of the copyright system ("I shall therefore not claim a copyright because this entire matter of the police must be reconsidered”). Similarly, when I once asked Rorty why he kept attributing a view to Nietzsche that Nietzsche didn’t really have, he said “it just makes him into a more interesting and innovative philosopher.” And the journal Social Text eagerly published an article which stated, among other deliberately egregious errors, that pi is a variable. At the end of the day, it’s hard to accept with a straight face that claim that postmodernists were ultimately driven by a powerful love of truth. The fact that today’s defenders of postmodernism are trying to rewrite history in this way—pretending Derrida and company never said the things they said—may perhaps reconfirm the suspicions some of us have that their commitment to honesty isn’t entirely paramount.

The best argument for postmodernism, it seems to me, is that it sought to undermine the hegemony, in the intellectual world, of the white, male, heterosexual, Western standpoint. It revealed that purported claims to universality were often just a smokescreen for dangerously Eurocentric and hegemonic attitudes, and thus opened up a space for other ways of thinking to assert themselves and be taken seriously. This is an extremely noble aim, and the changes that have happened over the past decades have been vital and excellent. It’s just not clear to me that we needed postmodernism in order to achieve this. As Anthony Appiah once put it, “their complaint is not with universalism at all. What they truly object to—and who would not?—is Eurocentric hegemony posing as universalism.” It wasn’t necessary to attack the very notion of universals, in other words, or the very notion of truth. When faced with lies posing as truths, we should just call them what they are, rather than claiming that there’s no such thing as objective truth. Here Du Bois and Beauvoir (among others) can be our models; we do not need the postmodernists.

Did postmodernism contribute to post-truth? We’ll never know for sure. All we can be certain of is that insisting there’s no truth, that claims of objectivity are always driven by interests of power, and that science is no more objective than Scientology is simply not going to help. We need to get the gatekeepers back at their gates. It’s up to all of us.
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Re: Postmodernism: The Decline of Truth, by Joshua Landy

Postby admin » Sun Sep 25, 2022 4:27 am


Main article: Criticism of postmodernism

Criticisms of postmodernism are intellectually diverse, including the argument that postmodernism is meaningless and promotes obscurantism.

In part in reference to post-modernism, conservative English philosopher Roger Scruton wrote, "A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is 'merely relative,' is asking you not to believe him. So don't."[110] Similarly, Dick Hebdige criticized the vagueness of the term, enumerating a long list of otherwise unrelated concepts that people have designated as postmodernism, from "the décor of a room" or "a 'scratch' video", to fear of nuclear armageddon and the "implosion of meaning", and stated that anything that could signify all of those things was "a buzzword".[111]

The linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky has said that postmodernism is meaningless because it adds nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge. He asks why postmodernist intellectuals do not respond like people in other fields when asked, "what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn't already obvious, etc.?...If [these requests] can't be met, then I'd suggest recourse to Hume's advice in similar circumstances: 'to the flames'."[112]

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has said "The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth. In fact, a postmodern culture is an impossibility; it would be utterly unliveable. People are not relativistic when it comes to matters of science, engineering, and technology; rather, they are relativistic and pluralistic in matters of religion and ethics. But, of course, that's not postmodernism; that's modernism!"[113]

American author Thomas Pynchon targeted postmodernism as an object of derision in his novels, openly mocking postmodernist discourse.[114]

American academic and aesthete Camille Paglia has said:

The end result of four decades of postmodernism permeating the art world is that there is very little interesting or important work being done right now in the fine arts. The irony was a bold and creative posture when Duchamp did it, but it is now an utterly banal, exhausted, and tedious strategy. Young artists have been taught to be "cool" and "hip" and thus painfully self-conscious. They are not encouraged to be enthusiastic, emotional, and visionary. They have been cut off from artistic tradition by the crippled skepticism about history that they have been taught by ignorant and solipsistic postmodernists. In short, the art world will never revive until postmodernism fades away. Postmodernism is a plague upon the mind and the heart.[115]

[Elena Ruiz, Director, Contemporary Art Museum, Ibiza] [Speaking Spanish] [When I first started working at this museum, The Contemporary Art Museum of Ibiza, one of the leading contemporary art museums of Spain, we had at that time, two paintings by Elmyr. A fake Degas and a fake Picasso. I thought, yes, we are going to exhibit this piece because visitors to the museum expect to see an Elmyr because he lived in Ibiza, et cetera. So, we decided to display the pieces in what we call the "transitory and confrontational areas," which every museum visitor travels through as a crossroads between the temporary and permanent galleries. In doing this, the pieces are no longer a museum piece, they become philosophical works on which to reflect over and over. If you will allow me this comparison, this is similar to an issue we had with a work by Goya that we weren't sure if it was a true Goya. There is a game in this for us at the museum. Because with an Elmyr, it is clear because he signed it. So, we know it's a fake Degas. However, with the Goya, there was a chance it might be a Goya. I believe it to be a Goya, but I couldn't be certain. I am not a specialist. Not in Goya. Not in Elmyr. But I said, "Fine, let's go investigate." The investigation involved a conference as to why we thought it to be a Goya. But the importance of that is not for now. But by presenting these pieces beside one another, we are able to address a sensitive subject. What is "fake"? What is "real"? What is "legitimate"? Is this work by Goya really by Goya? And if not a Goya, is that what is important? Is the fact it is real or not what is the most important? The painting is fantastic. It's fantastic! Isn't it the same with Elmyr? That's why the idea of the piece being real or fake is simply an idea. It's extremely interesting from the point of view of a historian but also for any other person as a means by which to deeply reflect, "Is it real or is it fake?" We need to unravel the fantastic stories behind these works, as this will legitimize, inclusive of the fake aspect. Meaning, they are no longer simply museum pieces, they become philosophical pieces, metaphysical pieces, that need to be reflected upon deeply. This needs to be considered, even if it's not the most important.

-- The Artist Who Got Rich Forging Picasso & Matisse: Real Fake: Elmyr de Hory, by Perspective

German philosopher Albrecht Wellmer has said that "postmodernism at its best might be seen as a self-critical – a sceptical, ironic, but nevertheless unrelenting – form of modernism; a modernism beyond utopianism, scientism and foundationalism; in short a post-metaphysical modernism."[116]

A formal, academic critique of postmodernism can be found in Beyond the Hoax by physics professor Alan Sokal and in Fashionable Nonsense by Sokal and Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont, both books discussing the so-called Sokal affair. In 1996, Sokal wrote a deliberately nonsensical article[117] in a style similar to postmodernist articles, which was accepted for publication by the postmodern cultural studies journal, Social Text. On the same day of the release he published another article in a different journal explaining the Social Text article hoax.[118][119] The philosopher Thomas Nagel has supported Sokal and Bricmont, describing their book Fashionable Nonsense as consisting largely of "extensive quotations of scientific gibberish from name-brand French intellectuals, together with eerily patient explanations of why it is gibberish,"[120] and agreeing that "there does seem to be something about the Parisian scene that is particularly hospitable to reckless verbosity."[121]

Zimbabwean-born British Marxist Alex Callinicos says that postmodernism "reflects the disappointed revolutionary generation of '68, and the incorporation of many of its members into the professional and managerial 'new middle class'. It is best read as a symptom of political frustration and social mobility rather than as a significant intellectual or cultural phenomenon in its own right."[122]

Analytic philosopher Daniel Dennett said, "Postmodernism, the school of 'thought' that proclaimed 'There are no truths, only interpretations' has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for 'conversations' in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster."[123]

American historian Richard Wolin traces the origins of postmodernism to intellectual roots in fascism, writing "postmodernism has been nourished by the doctrines of Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Blanchot, and Paul de Man—all of whom either prefigured or succumbed to the proverbial intellectual fascination with fascism."[124]

Daniel A. Farber and Suzanna Sherry criticised postmodernism for reducing the complexity of the modern world to an expression of power and for undermining truth and reason:

If the modern era begins with the European Enlightenment, the postmodern era that captivates the radical multiculturalists begins with its rejection. According to the new radicals, the Enlightenment-inspired ideas that have previously structured our world, especially the legal and academic parts of it, are a fraud perpetrated and perpetuated by white males to consolidate their own power. Those who disagree are not only blind but bigoted. The Enlightenment's goal of an objective and reasoned basis for knowledge, merit, truth, justice, and the like is an impossibility: "objectivity," in the sense of standards of judgment that transcend individual perspectives, does not exist. Reason is just another code word for the views of the privileged. The Enlightenment itself merely replaced one socially constructed view of reality with another, mistaking power for knowledge. There is naught but power.[125]

Richard Caputo, William Epstein, David Stoesz & Bruce Thyer consider postmodernism to be a "dead-end in social work epistemology." They write:

Postmodernism continues to have a detrimental influence on social work, questioning the Enlightenment, criticizing established research methods, and challenging scientific authority. The promotion of postmodernism by editors of Social Work and the Journal of Social Work Education has elevated postmodernism, placing it on a par with theoretically guided and empirically based research. The inclusion of postmodernism in the 2008 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards of the Council on Social Work Education and its 2015 sequel further erode the knowledge-building capacity of social work educators. In relation to other disciplines that have exploited empirical methods, social work's stature will continue to ebb until postmodernism is rejected in favor of scientific methods for generating knowledge.[126]

H. Sidky pointed out what he sees as several inherent flaws of a postmodern antiscience perspective, including the confusion of the authority of science (evidence) with the scientist conveying the knowledge; its self-contradictory claim that all truths are relative; and its strategic ambiguity. He sees 21st-century anti-scientific and pseudo-scientific approaches to knowledge, particularly in the United States, as rooted in a postmodernist "decades-long academic assault on science:"

Many of those indoctrinated in postmodern anti-science went on to become conservative political and religious leaders, policymakers, journalists, journal editors, judges, lawyers, and members of city councils and school boards. Sadly, they forgot the lofty ideals of their teachers, except that science is bogus.[127]

-- Postmodernism, by Wikipedia
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