blame it on pomo

Postmodernism is the first intellectual movement to acknowledge its own historical partiality. From that spring many of its faults and virtues, not to mention its caricatures. Because for a movement in some ways so arrogant — so insistent on its own epistemic correctness — to insist as well that it was always already partial evokes the kind of unease that many pundits (and social and natural scientists) feel when discussing postmodernism. Unfortunately, it also evokes the caricatures (not to say reaction-formations) that are common among those same pundits and scholars.

Brendan Nyhan’s tweet earlier today expressed a common view of postmodernism and its dangers:

I responded that this was an unfair smear on postmodernism. Effectively, postmodernism is summarized as the claim that all opinions about anything are equally valid. The fact/opinion dualism is abolished, leaving no foothold for claims to truth. A New York Times article (to which Brendan linked) articulates the position:

For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. The bedrock claim of critical philosophy, going back to Kant, is simple: We can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. Claiming to know the truth is therefore a kind of assertion of power.

The problem is, I know of no actual postmodernist texts that reach such vast, nihilistic conclusions. Certainly postmodernist writers such as Baudrillard, Lyotard, and Rorty (not to mention Foucault, who rejected the pomo title but is [appropriately, IMHO] credited with establishing much of the intellectual scaffolding) are very suspicious of claims of privileged access to Truth. In the postmodern historical moment, signs are ripped free of what they signify; symbols are manipulated separately from their material foundations. But there is no claim that these are “mere” symbols. Rather, it is a description of the lived experience of postmodernity. No representations are neutral; all claims, beliefs, symbols are tied up with the structures of power and representation that give rise to them. All that is solid melts into air… [oh, sorry, bad referent there.]

That insight is a far cry from the “all-opinions-are-valid” proposition. It is somewhat more reasonable to label it “all claims are invalid,” but that too erases the variation among claims. Claims rest on power; power rests on the manipulation of symbols; symbols can be more or less successfully manipulated based in part on the intersection of those symbols with other symbols. Those symbols claiming the imprimatur of “science,” for example, display a particular kind of power, but that power competes with other sources of legitimacy as well.

The radical uncertainty this schema brings forward is, as it is meant to be, disquieting. (In what I think was my first published item, I made a related silly argument that I remain oddly proud of in a 1990 NYT letter about Eurocentrism.) But, ironically, it is also accurate. That we know what we know — and that we don’t know what we don’t — is the result of social and symbolic power structuring the processes of inquiry, enabling some such processes while foreclosing others. Any historian or science or STS scholar can tell you that; it’s almost axiomatic. That’s not an assault on truth, it’s a sober reckoning with the empirical realities of truth-creation!

Note, by the way, that even the NYT article doesn’t refute the claim that truths are the products of power and practice. Rather, it bemoans the effect that claim has on the political world. Is that not a great demonstration of the postmodern position? Postmodernism is not wrong, but the effect of its having been right is bad, so we should pretend it is wrong. Watch the same people who, a decade ago, would proudly have carried the flag for the social construction and contestation of science, now proudly marching for concrete facts, not because the construction and contestation have changed but because the power that drives them appears to have shifted.


Arrgh, the crazy ways the myths of enlightenment eradicate the last remnant of its own self-awareness!

In another postmodern twist, the behavior of Trump (and, as Dan pointed out, the NYT in its recent columnist hire):

is based on taking seriously the very same caricature.

So what is a thoughtful pundit or social scientist to do in this context? Embrace the it’s-symbols-all-the-way-down reality, but also the equally-important reality that symbols entail one another in nonrandom ways. Trump’s claim about the wiretaps rests upon his attaching the symbol to another symbol: himself (perhaps the best example ever of a floating signifier). Dickerson’s counter-claim rests upon attaching the same symbol (the alleged wiretaps) to other symbols: a dense web of legal, journalistic, and political symbols. One doesn’t need to deem the latter Absolutely True in order to find Trump’s claim less convincing than Dickerson’s. But that distinction does rest, unaviodably, on power and webs of signification.

Science–both the natural sort and the social sort–is a potent source of symbolic power precisely because it resorts to discursive legitimation that is not based on the character of the speaker. When Brendan makes an empirical point — say, like this one:

he is more believable than my relatives who are absolutely convinced Trump can’t possibly last the calendar year without being impeached. But he’s more believable because the evidentiary apparatus he deploys is more densely connected to other powerful symbols than are the symbols my relatives deploy. In other words: evidence  constrains interpretation, but not under conditions of its own choosing.

(Disclaimer: I’m not a postmodernist, but I do think the movement gets unfairly caricatured.)

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

6 thoughts on “blame it on pomo”

  1. It seems to me that the claim you’re making here, “claims rest on power”, is true enough in terms a claim’s ability to persuade or otherwise impact the world. But that’s separate, or at least ought to be, from what is actually true or not, and that’s what I think gets lost in postmodernism. Which is also why I think the caricature is fair. To go back to Brendan’s point about forecasting, doesn’t it make more sense to say that Brendan is more believable than your relatives because: 1) it’s true that the base rate of impeachment is low, and 2) it’s true that the base rate is generally among the most important factors for forecasting? If we just start talking about the power of the claim as a result of its connection to other symbols we lose sight of whether the claim is true or not, and hence the caricature.

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    1. Charles, I think the point is that “the base rate is low” is also a symbol. It’s a symbol based upon the manipulation of other symbols. Ultimately it is convincing to you (and me) because of the power we invest in those symbols. Do I believe that that makes Brendan’s point “actually true”? Yes, I do. But I can’t demonstrate that, beyond making an argument for the strength of those symbols. I contend that you, too, cannot demonstrate that.

      The caricature is a caricature because it assumes that the lack of an absolute anchor means that there are no inequalities in symbolic power: in other words, that because neither you nor I can sustain absolute truth-claims, all truth-claims are equally (in)valid. This is a misreading of the theory, which really just states that all truth-claims are (in)valid, but not they are the same. Indeed, I think a better reading is that they are all different in many ways, including in their convincingness as truth.

      To follow up on that: postmodernism was hot at the same time that a kind of radical perspectivalism was also hot. This was the political project that stated, essentially, that one cannot understand a claim as anything other than the result of the package of biases (some privileged, others denigrated) that the speaker holds. As a heterosexual white man, I can know only the set of things that are particular to heterosexual white maleness, and so on. This is an idiotic position, and one that deconstructs itself. But it is not postmodernism.


  2. So just out of curiosity, Andrew and Dan, what’re your pomo (or not)-flavored takes on the David Roberts Vox piece that Dan linked to about Mr. Brett Stephens?

    My sense is that Roberts, while right, is missing the point. However, the point is what’s in dispute: we’re obviously in the middle of a reshaping of media institutions and Vox has a certain take on what media institutions should look like and talk like (i.e. the meaning of journalistic objectivity), that’s diametrically opposite to how the NYT has conceived of these same issues; Roberts’ piece is best understood as a salvo in that debate/war. But this is exactly what happens when you take a more postmodern approach, you’ve now changed the topic from “who is right?” to “what (language) game is this particular move a part of?” Now, obviously, I love doing this sort of thing, it’s my bread-and-butter, so to speak, but I can see why it frustrates others.

    All that said, I totally agree with you that you hardly need postmodernism for someone to say: ““I have my own opinions. You can have your opinions”; that strikes me as the kind of thing people have been saying since they started arguing with each other.


    1. I feel like Rorty has addressed this very issue by talking about the necessity of defending claims while being aware of their contingency. I think the problem is that most people talk about the provisionality of knowledge and power aspects of knowledge creation but are too unwilling to acknowledge their own embeddedness in the same processes. Rorty’s emphasis on disciplined conversation as the only thing that is really available to us is probably very relevant here. I think Foucault’s reaction to the Iranian revolution – ie refusing to engage even in a friendly way because that would trigger all sorts of inevitable framings – is another example of a disciplined approach. Derrida’s postcards to Searl are another example.

      Going back to Rorty, I think the key thing he would question is the attempt to make contingency into a hegemonic epistemological principle over the human messiness of the hermeneutic process – which is what we’re witnessing here.


    2. Sure, I see why that frustrates others too. But being frustrating is not the same thing as being wrong. (I think the times I’m most frustrating are when I’m right.) Part of the issue is that readers insert the modifier “just” or “mere” in front of “language game.” But the whole point of the language-game concept (like that of social construction) is that language games are anything but just language games. They are radically constraining as well as enabling, and they have enormous implications by constraining and enabling future language-game actions.

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