Saturday, March 26, 2011

Why post-modernism is hard to learn

I've been curious about post-modernism ever since I was told it existed. Things are funny that way. One day you're living your life just fine, and the next someone comes up and tells you that you are living in the midst of a tectonic shift in human consciousness. How does one process such news?

My reaction was typical, I suppose. The first thing I asked was, "What is post-modernism?" I went forth trying to read and comprehend all manner of writings on post-modernism. Some writings were source documents of post-modernism, others were essays that tried to explain what the source documents were saying, and yet others were surveys and overviews of post-modernism. In nearly all cases I walked away confused and annoyed, often not being able to finish reading a piece because it ceased to make any sense, and my mind ground to a halt.

Through sheer determination, a few lucky breaks, and a background in more sensible philosophic perspectives, I was able to construct for myself a coherent idea of what post-modernism is. Like so many things that are obfuscated in their learning, the payoff is so much less that the effort involved in learning about them. Which means that the most interesting thing about post-modernism is not what it purports to be, but why it is so hard to learn. In fact, the obscurity of it tells most of the tale. The pathology of disease is always more interesting and illuminating than it's victim, whose particular maladies are just so many sad inevitable consequence fatuously set in motion at the moment of infection.

Post modernism is hard to learn about because it is essentially a skeptical take on culture which denies reason, logic, objective knowledge, and the very idea that abstract, unifying ideas can really describe reality. Given this, writers on post modernism do not employ reason, logic, or unifying ideas when they write about various topics, and especially when they undertake to describe what post-modernism is in itself. Given that they deny unifying theories and grand narratives, they are not free to describe post-modernism itself in an elegant and unified way.

The paragraph above would seem to be an outsiders critical view of post-modernism, which is true. But this critical view is exactly what post-modernism says about itself. Post-modernism comes right out and says that unifying theories and knowledge are not possible. The problem comes when post-moderns then try to communicate a broad range of ideas. They bring to these ideas the obscurity demanded by their premises, and so produce confused writing. If their writings were clear, they would undermine their committed belief that clarity is an illusion.

Their writings present a fragmented, non-unified view of the world that is difficult for the reader to understand... because "understanding" really amounts to a unified view of the world... which is precisely what post-modernism denies. In the end, post modernism cannot even be understood as a philosophy, because it cannot represent a unified body of knowledge. Instead, it offers a fragmented collection of observations designed to have us conclude that unified knowledge is not possible. Many of the observations of post-modern thought are not entirely without merit, as they are effective at casting a useful, critical eye on social and cultural institutions and ideas. However, these critical insights do not add up to a philosophy. And despite the examples that post-modernists put forward to prove that knowledge is a suspect quantity, their very ability to do so rests implicitly on their belief that they have discovered the truth... a truth that their skeptical philosophy denies. Again, a contradiction.

It is a well known truism that one cannot make the skeptical claim that "Knowledge is not possible", because whoever says that is claiming to know it. In effect they are saying, "Knowledge is not possible, and I know that", which is self refuting. Whatever aspersions are cast upon knowledge by a philosopher, those same aspersions apply to the philosopher casting them. The moment you criticize knowledge, the knowledge you employ in doing so has to be held to the same criticism. If  you deny knowledge, then your knowledge has to be denied. It's a terrible cycle of pointlessness.

Skeptical philosophies (such as post-modernism) exist only to the degree that the skeptics ignore, evade, or are ignorant of this fundamental aspect of knowledge (that it can't be refuted).  It really is very curious how a philosopher can dedicated an entire theory to describing how knowledge is not possible, yet that philosopher never sees the contradiction in claiming to have such knowledge.  We don't need to fall for this, but unfortunately we are subject to its effect in post-modern writings. And more than anything else, we are subject to it when post-modern thinkers attempt to explain what post-modernism is.

But before we get to any of this, let us first administer a post modernism test. This test will indicate to what extent you are open to understanding post-modernism. The test below presents two sequence of numbers. Choose the list that seems to make the most sense.

A:   4, 7, 3, 8, 5, 1, 9, 2, 6
B:   1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

If you chose A, you can stop reading now. This choice is the post-modernist choice. If an unordered list of numbers makes as much sense to you as an obviously ordered list, then you will not find post-modernism hard to understand.

If you chose B, then you might be confused by post modernism. Read on.

Returning to the two kinds of errors referred to above, let us continue.

Post-modernists don't believe in objective knowledge. They believe that knowledge isn't based in reality, but rather, that knowledge is the name given to the stories (narratives about the world) that people tell themselves and each other. As such, these stories are conditioned by personal bias and cultural conditioning. These stories are true for a person, or for a people, but they are not true of the world. Unfortunately, this comes across as a simple case of skepticism being repacked for modern times.

In its basic form, skepticism is the assertion that knowledge is not possible. The root of this belief, from the time Plato, all the way to last Tuesday, is the desire to define knowledge in absolute terms. But for absolute human knowledge to exist, we would have to be all knowing and infallible. But that is not the nature of human consciousness. We are not all knowing and infallible, and therefore absolute human knowledge is a meaningless category.

We might ask if absolute NON-human knowledge could exist. To assumes that, we would have to identify some form of consciousness that was all-knowing and infallible. There is no such thing. People have supposed that supernatural gods are all-knowing and infallible, but their existence is as yet unproven.

The fact that absolute knowledge doesn't even apply to humans is pretty obvious. So what do we do with this conclusion? To some, this is clear evidence that humans cannot really know things, and so the only conclusion is that whatever humans claim to know is simply subjective and relative... that is... not objective.

To others, the fact that humans are not all knowing and infallible is clear evidence that human knowledge cannot be judged by an absolute criteria. If humans by their very nature are not all knowing and infallible, then this idea of absolute knowledge has nothing to do with the knowledge produced by humans. If it is not in human nature to be absolute, all knowing,  and infallible, then why on earth would you require that of people? Why denigrate the status of human knowledge because it doesn't meet a criteria that is irrelevant to human beings?

This is the problem at its core. It is a philosophic issue... an issue in epistemology. It is not unique to post-modernism. Post-modernism simply applies skepticism to a range of later 20th century issues that are of interest to... post modernists. The issues seem to be centered on highly politicize topics in sociology and cultural criticism, and trace their historic roots to the general Marxist idea that ideology is determined not by truth, but by power.

I can already hear post-modernists howling at this claim... that is, if they deign to take my seriously at all. But if they do, they will insist that I really don't understand post-modernism. However, if I ask them to go ahead and explain it to me, they will deliver to my ears lengthy, cartwheeling, tangent laden, never ending explanations that don't seem to zero in on a clear idea of what post-modernism is.

But here's the funny part... that NOT EXPLAINING is exactly the point. If you put forward a theory that claims knowledge is not objective, then you are skating on thin ice. After all, theories themselves are claims to knowledge. You can hardly put forward a theory that human knowledge is simply a narrative that people tell each other, but that has no objective connection to reality... but then ask that your theory be considered as objective fact.  The theory itself must be understood to be simply a narrative with no object connection to reality.  So your theory negates itself. Simple as that.

Nobody who puts forward a theory wants their theory to be understood to be subjective and relative. Everyone wants their ideas to be taken as objective, that is, as explaining how reality really is. Even when their idea is that there is no objectivity, they want that idea itself to be objective. This is a terrible and pathetic state of affairs to be put into. It reduces these arguments to self-refuting deadends. When all the complexity of the post-modernists issues are stripped away, you are left with people saying simply... "You can't know anything, and I know that". The self refutation in that is so blatant, so obvious, so raw-bone stupid, that one is hard pressed to understand how anyone can accept it. At that point, the reason it is accepted is NOT contained in the argument itself, but rather in the pathology of the mind that accepts it. To claim that making claims is invalid is the self-refuting endless loop of insanity.

So far, this might be making all too much sense. One might be lured into thinking that post-modernism is easy to grasp because this philosophic analysis is making sense. This is not the case. Post-modernism works very hard to not be understood. One way they do this is by NOT engaging their philosophical underpinnings in the way I have above. I can reduce their ideas down to essentials, but they refuse to accept the validity of that. That's no fun. Instead, this modern skepticism is dressed up in a broad range of costumes.... that is... a broad range of socially relevant issues. All of the endless ambiguities and self-contradictions that arise in human society, and that are reflected in sociological and political fact gathering, are beamed back at us as proof that knowledge isn't possible.

And who can deny it. If you walk into a crowd of arguing people, and take what they say at face value, and don't judge it... you end up concluding that there is no truth... because there is no agreement. If several people within the crowd form a faction, and by so doing achieve political power, and by that power are able to sway people to their beliefs, then you end up concluding that there is no truth, because it is only raw power that sways people. So in general, if you look to the crowd (society) as the locus of truth, you probably conclude that knowledge is not possible. 

Classical philosophy has not looked to the crowd to theorize about human knowledge. They looked at the individual, by way of a theory of the mind. The mind was considered as an aspect of the individual. But post modernism doesn't work that way. They look to the group (society). I don't know why they find that so persuasive. Certainly, group behavior is made possible (necessarily so) by aspects of human nature. But human cognition is a function (primarily) of individual consciousness as it perceives the external world. Obviously, we are subject to external pressures and cultural influence, and a person can succumb to those pressures and come to believe a lot of nonsense. However, a person can also not succumb to that pressure, or not fully, and therefore they can pursue knowledge on their own, free from that influence. 

The point that I am aiming to make here, is that post modernists are oddly unable to explain the meaning of what they suggest are their ideas, and that this inability derives from the these very ideas. If your position is that knowledge isn't possible, but you then want to have a cool intellectual career and publish lots of books and articles that claim to be knowledge, then you cannot engage in a clarification. 

Clarity, as a style of thinking and writing, derives from objectivity. To clarify the endless flux of the world, one has to first comprehend the endless flux of the world in terms of ideas, and then arrange these ideas in elegant relationships, so as to gain conceptual control over thinking about the endless flux. If you do not believe that abstract thinking is an objective understanding of the endless flux, then you will not be able to do this. Instead, you will do as the post modernists do.... you will engage in journalistic reportage about the endless flux. But reportage is not understanding. It is simply the act of pointing at things. Post modernists don't have clarity, they simply have a love affair with facts. In place of conceptual understanding, they have developed a kind of poetical, allegorical, and even fanciful manner of writing about the endless flux. A flux that terrifies them.

Let's return to the post-modernist test again. Both lists present numbers of no particular relevance. After all, what does the number 4 or 7 (or whatever) have to do with anything? List A is unordered, and makes the meaningless of the numbers obvious. This list is the endless flux list. List B has been ordered. The act of ordering has imposed human meaning on the otherwise irrelevant endless flux of numbers. The human mind is attracted to such order, because it is the only way to grasp something about the flux.

A:   4, 7, 3, 8, 5, 1, 9, 2, 6
B:   1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

Post-modernism asserts that the imposition of order on the world, and the desire to grasp the nature and structure of things... is a culturally induced fantasy that has no relation to reality. They look at the list above and chose A, not because it makes sense to them, but list B does make sense, but they believe that this sensible ordering of list B is a lie. In their view, they choose the truth of the endless flux over the lie of the ordered universe.

But where is the truth in an unordered list of numbers? There is none. The numbers by themselves don't mean anything. Even in list B, the numbers themselves have no intrinsic meaning. The truth of list B is contained in it's order. Truth is that which humans bring to endless flux, to structure it, to represent it to the mind in a way that allows one to usefully deal with it. The opposite is to have no useful representation, which is simply confusion.

So the question arises... if you want to comprehend what post modernism is... where should you turn? Should you read post modern writers? It would seem you should. It's usually best to engage source materials when studying history. Of course, there is great benefit in reading surveys that are written by contemporary thinkers. This is especially true when the source documents might be a bit too complicated to understand without an introduction to their background. Fair enough.

It seems to be the experience of many people that grabbing a so-called post modern intellectuals book off the shelf, and diving it, is to experience complete confusion. This has been my experience as well. So then one turns to surveys in order to get a background picture of what is going on. But the problem there is that these surveys are written by practitioners of post-modern thinking. This renders the surveys themselves confusing. Having been written by post-modernists, they will lack clarity. They will refuse to define post-modernism succinctly, because succinct definition is exactly the kind of thing post-modernists don't believe in. Instead, they will attempt to survey all the NON-CLEAR things that the source documents contain, but this act will lack clarity as well, for the reasons cited above.

And this goes on endlessly. To engage in post-modern study is to wade into a vast sea of thinkers who recognize no connection between what they say and reality, or between what they say today vs. what they said last week, or between what they say and what some other post-modernist has said. You couldn't invent a more confusing paradigm.

Another tactic that post-moderns use, in order to not be nailed down on an issue, is to frame the issues of post-modernism in terms of what other post-modernists have said in the past.  This diffuses everything through a decentralized collective opinion. The only way to even grasp what the issues are is to engage in a lengthy process of indirect referencing back and forth between what the members of the collective say. But what they "say" is like-wise refracted through this same collective. There is an overwhelming sense of constant indirect references. The rubber never meets the road.

But this is exactly as it should be, given the post-modern mentality. Because in addition to rejecting objective knowledge, and the belief that all that exists is narrative.... post-modernism raises up language as the ultimate authority. Words become reality... or rather... words become the only thing we'll ever know. Since there is no chance that words can frame reality in an objective way.... and since our narratives are all we can claim to know (in a subjective fashion, of course)... and since language underlines narrative.... then the only reality we know is words.

Instead of language existing to represent our objective ideas about reality.... language becomes reality. The means of representation (words) become the object of representation (words again). This is clear enough in post-modern writing, which talks endlessly but seems to say nothing. We keep waiting for statements to come forth... statements about the world. But they don't come. Instead, only more words.

No comments:

Post a Comment