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Australia’s wackiest postmodernists
It's easy to laugh off the fashion for PoMo, but harder to find a constructive solution.
Postmodernism is not so much a theory as an attitude. It is an attitude of suspicion – suspicion about claims of truth. So if postmodernists are asked “Aren’t the claims of science just true, and some things objectively right and wrong?” the reaction is not so much “No, because…” but “They’re always doubtful, or relative to our paradigms, or just true for dominant groups in our society; and anyway, in whose interest is it to think science is true?”
Postmodernism in not only an attitude of suspicion, but one of unteachable suspicion. If one tries to give good arguments for some truth claim, the postmodernist will be ready to “deconstruct” the concept of good argument, as itself a historically-conditioned paradigm of patriarchal Enlightenment rationality.
Finally, the postmodernist congratulates her/himself morally on having unteachable suspicion. Being “transgressive” of established standards is taken to be good in itself and to position the transgressor as a fighter against “oppression”, prior to giving any reasons why established standards are wrong. In asking how to respond to postmodernism, it is especially important to understand that its motivation does not lie in argument but in the more primitive moral responses, resentment and indignation.
PoMo at work
To illustrate, let us take a few examples from my webpage of Australia’s Wackiest Academic Websites. Worst results only are shown. We will need to consider later how widespread and dangerous such examples are and hence how seriously the problem should be taken and what should be done about it.
The University of Western Sydney used to be a leader in the field but a couple of years ago their central marketers cleaned up their website and it is now harder to find what is going on. Through the miracle of web archiving, however, one can browse such past gems as the project of Dr Arnd Hofmeister on “Queer embodiment”:
Based on a project with/of the Japanese Artist Erika Matsunamie about masculinities and femininities with German male “Cross-Dressers” this research project seeks to investigate the phantasmatic dimension of embodiment. Embodiment is understood as a highly overdetermined and contradictive inscription of practices in the body with continuously shifting investments. Using in-depth interviews and free association over significant self-portrait photographs modes of articulations over embodied experiences are analyzed to get insights in the heterogeneous processes of gendering and sexing the body.(Let me make it clear that I have nothing against German transvestites. It is just the way they are being used as an excuse for bullshit that is a problem.)
Still very much with us is the oeuvre of Dr Alison Moore, who joined the University of Queensland’s Centre for the History of European Discourses as a postdoctoral fellow in 2005.
Her ongoing project is about the history of excretory taboos in Europe of the mid-to-late nineteenth-century and their relationship to visions of progress, bourgeois class conformity and colonial identification. In this vein she had published `Kakao and kaka: Chocolate and the Excretory Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe’, in Carden-Coyne and Forth (eds), Cultures of the Abdomen: Diet, Digestion and Fat in the Modern World, New York: Palgrave, 2004, 51-69. She is now working on a book manuscript entitled, The Anal Imagination: Psychoanalysis, Capitalism and Excretion.The two “Body modifications” conferences that have been held at Macquarie University included some choice items. The first conference, in 2003, had a keynote paper `A spectacular specimen: hermaphroditic strategies for survival’:
Del LaGrace Volcano (formerly known as Della Grace) is a gender variant visual artist and intersex activist who is the author/photographer of three books, Lovebites (Gay Men’s Press, 1991), The Drag King Book (Serpent’s Tail, 1999) and Sublime Mutations (Konkursbuchverlag, 2000). sHE has been documenting and creating heroic re/presentations from the queer communities sHE belongs to for over 25 years. Film credits include: Pansexual Public Porn (1997), A Prodigal Son? (1998), Journey Intersex (2000) and most recently The Passionate Spectator (2003).Another paper in the same conference was `What an arse can do: affect, time and intercorporeal transfomation’: “Transformations in anal capacity, in what an arse can do, are sought-after … let’s stop there…
Good taxpayers’ money, it must be remembered, is going into this research. Last year’s ARC Discovery grants, the major large grants competed for across all areas, included one to the University of Technology, Sydney for a project on “Local noise: Indigenising hip-hop in Australasia”.
Although “the body” is a favourite topic, owing to its multiple transgressive possibilities, it must be said that most postmodernist writing is much less colourful than the examples just quoted. More typical is this paragraph, the first one on the website of the University of Wollongong’s Hegemony Research Group, which introduces to the interested public what the Group is doing:
The originality of Gramsci’s conceptualisation of hegemony has long been recognized, and is evidenced by the extremely wide-ranging intellectual applications of, and the amazing corpus of published writings organised around, the Gramscian conceptualisation. In cultural writing, historical interpretation and studies of states, nations and global power it has proved remarkably versatile. Gramscian understandings of hegemony have shaped – overtly or implicity – such crucial but diverse studies as Edward Said’s analysis of Orientalism; Louis Althusser’s theory of ideology; Michel Foucault’s concept of the episteme; the writings of social historians such as … etc etcThe idea that a dense thicket of unexplained references to continental theorists is the way to introduce an idea is absolutely typical of the postmodernist mindset.
A 1998 press release from the University of Adelaide shows where this is heading as regards respect for scientific truth. It concerns a course on “Indigenous Australian Perspectives in Science and Technology”. There is nothing wrong with studying aboriginal perspectives on the natural world, but the claims made for it include these:
At Wilto Yerlo we believe it’s important that indigenous students realise Western science is only one way of understanding the natural world. Of equal value is their own indigenous way of knowing the world.That is not correct. Western science is a way of knowing the natural world, but it is the only way of knowing it that is likely to make an impact on the severe health problems of remote indigenous communities, because it has found the unique right way to study causes and effects.
Defining the problem
How serious is the problem? Have humanities departments been taken over by this sort of rubbish?
Not exactly. The kind of people just quoted regard themselves as an embattled minority, and not without reason. There are plenty of humanities academics doing serious work, probably a majority in the older universities. Still, the trickle-down effects of the postmodernist industry are quite serious in a number of areas. Humanities academics of a more respectable persuasion have to spend time fighting for positions and grants against an enemy that never gives up; it is a tiring business. Equally exhausting is trying to persuade students to take serious subjects that will force them to think and to learn something instead of grabbing easy marks from trendy courses that give out high marks for the illiterate pooling of politically-correct prejudices. Since universities allocate teaching monies on the basis of enrolments, lecturers in logic or classics are always at a disadvantage in an Arts faculty that offers Critical Feminist Research Methodologies.
Other effects are felt in school syllabuses, as other contributors to this symposium have described. Schoolteachers themselves generally retain a fund of common sense, but curriculum designers and educationists are not kept down to earth by the discipline of dealing with school students and parents. I do have some positive news to report on this front: I recently marked Sydney Grammar School’s Headmaster’s Exhibition, an essay competition for the school’s top students. I am pleased to say that the standard of argument in the essays was uniformly excellent and there was not a trace of postmodernism in any of them. Undoubtedly, a student with the good fortune to have well-educated parents or to go to a top school will be able to avoid infection by the postmodernist virus. The youth more exposed to corruption is one who moves from a not-so-good school to a second-rate humanities faculty and takes his teachers’ attitudes seriously for want of access to anything better. An intelligent student in that position suffers a grave injustice. It is especially because of the trashing of the talent of such students that I maintain my anger about postmodernism.
The last serious consequence of postmodernism, one that extends well beyond the small clique of card-carrying jargon-laden theorists, is the moralising of public debate on questions that should be factual, such as the “History Wars” and debates on economic rationalism. The relentless assault of postmodernism on truth and its replacement of rational debate with resentful “deconstruction” has, so to speak, given permission for public intellectuals to lead with denunciations and rancour prior to getting their facts straight. The “History Wars” began when Keith Windschuttle wrote a book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, claiming on the basis of his archival research that the Tasmanian aboriginals were not massacred but mostly died of diseases. It is astounding how few of the replies to him bothered to examine his factual claims and the evidence he provided. Almost all of the ferocious attacks on him consisted of denunciations of his alleged racism, abuse about his supposed lack of imagination, comparisons with the Holocaust denier David Irving, and snide remarks about his not having a PhD. Though only one of his major opponents descended to any explicit postmodernist claims about the relativism of truth, the standard of the debate was extremely low, in a way that I believe would not have been tolerated forty years ago before the advent of postmodernism. Something of the same shallow moralism infects the debate on economic rationalism. According to its supporters, a free market is the best method of delivering prosperity to both rich and poor. That may or may not be so, but the way to debate it is to look at economic evidence. It is not to the point to try to short-circuit that difficult economic debate by abusing economic rationalists for “reducing humans to mere consumers” or for approving of “obscene” inequalities of income. Arguments on matters of fact need to be sorted out before moral judgments are made, not, as postmodernism would have it, the reverse.
Facing the problem
If it is agreed that postmodernism is a problem, what should be done about it?
There are four possible plans:
Plan A: Do nothing and hope it goes awayDefeatist though it sounds, there is something to be said for plan A: sit and wait for it to go away. We all have other things to do, and given that postmodernism is not exactly forging ahead, we might well decide to take a relaxed approach and not grant it the oxygen of publicity. And after all, flared jeans and big hair did not disappear because anyone refuted them – they just came to their use-by date and no one bothered with them any more. Still, to take the same approach with postmodernism would neglect the claims of the young whose minds will be corrupted by falling in with postmodernists. And since academia still in most cases provides jobs for life (especially for those unemployable elsewhere), timescales in academic fashions are very long – a present PhD student could still be teaching in forty years’ time.
There have been some interesting recent attempts along the line of Plan B: political action. Brendan Nelson, until recently the Australian minister in charge of higher education, refused to fund about half a dozen of the worst grants recommended by the Australian Research Council’s grant evaluation process, and appointed the conservative editor of Quadrant, Paddy McGuinness, to the panel that evaluated the grants. That is fiddling with the margins, and there seems no prospect of anything more forceful. Since academic freedom is a principle of some value, that may be reasonable. There is an inevitable and largely unresolvable conflict between the principles of academic freedom and quality control. I do not call for anyone to be sacked. (Though I do call for certain persons to resign in shame.)
Refutation, Plan C, would be a good plan in an ideal world where there was a level playing field in the conflict of ideas, where theories fought man to man on the basis of fair arguments. That is not our world. You might as well expect damsels in distress to be rescued by knights in armour. Because postmodernism is not accepted by its followers on the basis of argument, deploying arguments against it is like boxing with shadows. It is just met with a smokescreen of “deconstructions” of the appeal to argument as itself implicated in the modernist rationalist problematic, and so on.
Still, perhaps there is an uncommitted audience out there somewhere, so I have two excellent thinkers to recommend who identified and exposed what arguments there are at the bottom of postmodernism. The first is Raymond Tallis, whose brilliantly-titled book Not Saussure shows how the ideas of such later stars as Derrida repeat the fundamental mistake in the philosophy of language made by Saussure a hundred years ago. Saussure believed that the structured nature of language meant, for example, that the meanings of “black” and “white” were defined merely by their opposition to each other, rather than being tied to our perception of those colours; the disconnection of language from reality that his theory implies has been relied on my all postmodernists since to emphasise the “constructed” (hence political, hence probably wrong, hence open to remaking at our pleasure) nature of whatever we say.
The second thinker to expose the confusions at the heart of postmodernism was the Sydney philosopher David Stove, who in 1985 ran a “Competition to find the worst argument in the world”. The argument had to be both very bad and very widespread. He awarded the prize to himself with the following argument:
We can know things onlyStated as baldly as that, the argument is probably not recognisable. Here is an example that most will recognise. Speaking of the typical products of a modern high school, he writes:
Their intellectual temper is (as everyone remarks) the reverse of dogmatic, in fact pleasingly modest. They are quick to acknowledge that their own opinion, on any matter whatsoever, is only their opinion; and they will candidly tell you, too, the reason why it is only their opinion. This reason is, that it is their opinion.That is a version of the “worst argument” because is says, in effect, “my opinion is just my opinion – created by my genes, education etc – so it cannot be an opinion that there is any reason to believe”. The version that lies at the heart of postmodernism is similar, but more culturally focused:
The cultural-relativist, for example, inveighs bitterly against our science-based, white-male cultural perspective. She says that it is not only injurious but cognitively limiting. Injurious it may be; or again it may not. But why does she believe that it is cognitively limiting? Why, for no other reason in the world, except this one: that it is ours. Everyone really understands, too, that this is the only reason. But since this reason is also generally accepted as a sufficient one, no other is felt to be needed.
I hope it is clear why the “worst argument” is so bad. As another Sydney philosopher, Alan Olding, pointed out, it is of the same form as “We have eyes, therefore we can’t see.”
It is hard to believe that a real live postmodernist will concentrate long enough to take on serious arguments like those of Tallis and Stove. The postmodernist mindset does not bother to reply to objections. So here is my recommendation on what to say if you find yourself arguing with one at a party. You will find that whatever you say is met with an attempted “deconstruction” as just another symptom of your indoctrination by the capitalist rationalist oppressors. So ask this: "What would count as evidence against your position?"
If something is suggested, you have something to work on. Most likely, it will become clear that nothing would count as evidence against that position. But a position that nothing would count as evidence against is vacuous. (If your position is “snow is white”, it is clear what counts against it, such as seeing black snow; if your position is “snow is white or snow is not white”, nothing counts against it because you haven’t said anything with content.)
I have a recommendation also on what to say to the friends of the postmodernist at the party who are shocked by your lack of tolerance and urge you to read all of Derrida and Foucault before you rudely dismiss their important contributions to thought. Ask them: “What is one good idea that postmodernists have come up with?” Ten to one they will be unable to state one idea postmodernists have come up with, good, bad or indifferent.
A better alternative
In the longer term, the answer to postmodernism, especially to its ethical appeal, must rely on Plan D: presenting a better alternative. If the youth are being corrupted by postmodernism through its appeal to their indignation and to their sense that there must be more to life than the pursuit of material gain, then they can only be rescued by presenting a more credible alternative moral vision.
So what vision? Unfortunately, there are a number of fundamentalisms available – Islamic, Sydney Anglican, Hillsong, Environmentalist and so on – which play well in the market. (I use “fundamentalism” here somewhat loosely, for any position that hands down a complete scripture and simply urges “have faith, take it or leave it”.) Fundamentalist leaders are always encouraged by the number of fourteen-year-olds joining up. What do you expect? It is fortunate that an Australian teenager who signs up is not as badly off as one in the Gaza strip who will soon find himself strapping on a bomb, but blind commitment is no way to find the meaning of life. The Catholic tradition does not lend itself so well to fundamentalism, since it has always approved of philosophy, but a kind of Catholic fundamentalism is certainly possible – for centuries, many Catholics said “If the Pope says Galileo is wrong, then Galileo is wrong as far as I’m concerned.” That kind of “loyalty” is not helpful.
Another alternative vision might be called “imitatory” – it is based on presenting models that will inspire the young in the right course: the life of Jesus in the religious realm, literary works with solid values such as Jane Austen’s novels and Harry Potter, stories of real heroes such as medical researchers and peace negotiators. That is a good plan as far as it goes. It is very appropriate for the earlier years at school. The fight against postmodernism, however, is really on the level of theory. There needs to be a positive theoretical vision that will support one’s initial positive reaction to heroes, instead of, like postmodernist suspicion, undermining it.
I have a plan. It is based on presenting the absolute basics of ethics in a way that shows their objectivity, but free from any religious commitment. I have come to that view from a perspective of Catholic natural law ethics, but there are other ways of seeing it – my closest collaborator in this area is Jean Curthoys, author of an excellent book attacking postmodernist feminist theory, Feminist Amnesia. She has a Marxist background and sees what we are doing as a continuation of the “liberation theory of the Sixties”.
The idea is that ethics is not fundamentally about what actions ought to be done, or about rights, or virtues, or divine commands. Ethics does indeed have something to say about those matters, but they are not basic. Where ethics should start is well explained in a page of Rai Gaita’s Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception. He asks us to consider a tutorial in which one of its members had suffered serious torture and that was known to all the others in the group. If the tutor then asked the group to consider whether our sense of good and evil might be an illusion, “everyone would be outraged if their tutor was not serious and struck by unbelieving horror if he was”. Scepticism about the objectivity of good and evil, Gaita says, is not only false but a moral offence against those who have suffered real evil.
Ethics should start, then, with a direct sense of what is good and what is evil. To what things can good and evil happen? The death of a human is a tragedy but the explosion of a lifeless galaxy is just a firework. Why the difference? There is something about humans, an irreducible worth or equal moral value, that means that what happens to them matters a great deal. That equal worth of persons, brought home directly to us when someone we care about suffers loss or when we ourselves suffer an injustice, is what ethics is fundamentally about. Other aspects of ethics follow from that. Why is murder wrong? Because it destroys a human life, something of immense intrinsic value. (And why is it arguable that capital punishment might nevertheless be possible in some extreme circumstances, although it takes a human life? – because there is a possibility that it might deter someone from taking many valuable lives.) Other rules of right and wrong should follow from the worth of persons similarly (together with necessary information about the psychological makeup of humans, which gives insight into what is really good for them). Rights? They follow in the same way as rules: the right to life is just the prohibition on murder, but seen from the point of view of the potential victim; it too follows directly from the intrinsic moral worth of the person under threat. Virtues? The virtue of restraint or temperance, for example, is a disposition to act so as not to harm oneself and others, so it too is directly explicable in terms of the harm done (by drugs, for example) to humans. Divine commands? They must be in accordance with what is inherently right. In the Christian vision, God does support the value of all humans. “Look at the birds of the air”, says Jesus. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Any god or purported god who issues commands contrary to human worth, such as edicts to make war on unbelievers, must be resisted in the interests of humanity.
Much more is needed to explain how that moral vision works itself out in practice. It does not follow from the fact that the principles of ethics are simple that it is easy to decide on ethical questions. On the contrary, the fundamental equal worth of persons itself creates conflicts when there is tension between what different people need. Some of the issues are discussed further in my new book, Catholic Values and Australian Realities. But I hope enough has been said to indicate where to find an alternative, and more optimistic, vision of human life than the simplistic travesties foisted on the long-suffering youth of the world these past forty years by postmodernism.
James Franklin is an Associate Professor of mathematics at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
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