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:
The retreat into postmodernism: “I have my own opinions. You can have your opinions” about matter of FACT where he made v serious allegation https://t.co/ip1J4QK2Wh
— Brendan Nyhan (@BrendanNyhan) May 1, 2017
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):
— Dan Hirschman (@asociologist) May 1, 2017
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:
But the #1 lesson of forecasting is to remember base rates – impeachment/resignation are very rare and re-election is frequent. https://t.co/3AcfGbnhQU
— Brendan Nyhan (@BrendanNyhan) May 1, 2017
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.)