October 3rd, 2007

life of the mind

Ibble Yadda Blap

So I wrote something over at Sadly, No! (it’s about Phyllis Schlafly, so I’ll forgive you if you don’t read it), but somehow it turned into a referendum on postmodernism and its affiliated bugaboos – relativism, post-structuralism, formalism, deconstruction, multiculturalism, political correctness, neo-pragmatism, and the like.

I’ve always been surprised at how many liberals buy into the notion that pomo – and, really, theory in general – is just a bunch of empty-headed, pretentious nonsense dispensed by worthless pseudo-intellectuals to get some tenure tit. I mean, this view doesn’t surprise me coming from conservatives, who tend to be reactionary and anti-intellectual; they simultaneously decry anything written in the last 50 years and embrace anything written in acrolect even if it’s totally at odds with their value system. But the number of liberals who ape that reactionary position is confusing to me. I used to write it off as just a general failure of understanding, driven as much by ignorance as reaction, but now I’m not so sure.

I don’t want to turn this into any kind of extended treatise on what I think the value of theory is; it would bore most of you, other people do it better, and frankly, I don’t really think I’ve got it in me anymore*. But I would like to point out a couple of things that pomo and the other Deadly Sins helped correct:

- The notion that the author’s intention was the most important, or even the only, consideration in understanding the meaning of a text.
- The idea that all texts should exist in a sort of vacuum, as monolithic objects that could only be considered as a Ding an sich, removed from the cultural continuum in which they were actually created.
- The belief that there is a universal, absolute and catholic truth about everything, and all we have to do is find it in order to figure everything out.
- The moral position that everything must exist at a fixed point along an intractable spectrum of good and bad, and that ethical decisions are more or less a game of horseshoes in which you are judged by how close you come to those fixed points.
- Exceptionalism, or the idea that right conduct is based not on whether or not a behavior is harmful or beneficial, but on who is engaging in that behavior.
- The theory that language exists on some magical plane, transcendent of its components and largely incapable of being understood in terms of the things that make it up.
- The spelling of “art” with a capital “A”, and the erecting of armed guards, alarm systems, and flesh-stripping fences around it.
- Not the idea of canon, but the elevation of canon to an exclusionary degree, and the subsequent belief that the admission of new elements into it comprises an attack on culture rather than an enhancement of it.
- The attitude, especially prevalent in politics, sociology and economics, that pseudoscientific ‘laws’ govern the management of constructed systems, and that human behavior has little or nothing to do with them.
- The philosophy that, in general, principle is more important than progress, and that social consensus is less important than tradition.

Aside from battling old, bad ideas, the Seven Deadly Sins of postmodernist theory, moral relativism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, multiculturalism, political correctness, and neo-pragmatism brought in some new and extremely interesting ones:

- The notion that what a reader brings to a text is, if not more important, at least as important as what the writer intended.
- The idea that a text can contain the world and everything that is in it, and that nothing – even the work of other writers – need be excluded from it.
- The belief that it is possible, and even desirable, to create laws and establish ethical beliefs without needing to pretend that they apply to all people at all times and in all circumstances.
- The recognition that all human endeavors cannot help but be influenced by the time, place and circumstances of their creation, and that exploring those circumstances can be extremely rewarding.
- Increased empathy – the belief that a story (whether fictional or a real-life narrative) has more than one way to be told, and that sometimes the most resonant telling comes from the most unexpected source.
- The theory that language is a tool whose workings can be understood, and that we can only understand a universe whose workings we cannot explain without language by understanding language.
- The blurring, if not the outright destruction, of notions of “high” and “low” in art, and the subsequent valuation of cultural product that before had been marginalized by racism, sexism, colonialism and other elitist philosophies.
- The recognition that one can expand the canon to promote diversity without eliminating its most important aspects, and that one can devalorize something without destroying it.
- The attitude that philosophy does not benefit from the appearance of science, but that science can be subject to the inquiries of philosophy.
- The belief that accomplishing a social goal is usually more important than eliminating every possible moral and/or political objection to its accomplishment.

While recognizing that (just like every other set of beliefs) there’s an awful lot of unalloyed horseshit parading around in a sash marked “THEORY”, I find nothing objectionable about any of that; in fact, I find most of it downright essential, and continue in my uneducated belief that postmodernism is the most important philosophical development of the last 150 years. When people object to it, they’re usually objecting to straw men, exaggerations, or extremes that are given very little credence in academia or generality. I guess I don’t really have a conclusion, or even a point, here; it’s just something I’ve been thinking about.

*: Incidentally, another thing that’s surprised me in my philosophical readings of late is the notion that, as a thinker, Jacques Derrida lacked rigor. I basically learned everything I know about philosophical rigor from Derrida; does this mean he’s being underrated for his intellectual tenacity, or that I’m a fucking dumb-ass? I bet I know the answer.