Thursday, August 16, 2007

Apropos PostModernism

There are lots of things I don't understand -- say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. --- even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest --- write things that I also don't understand, but (1) and (2) don't hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of "theory" that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) ... I won't spell it out.

Noam Chomsky

In the blog biblioklept, there is an interesting rebuttal (though not as articulate as Chomsky), where the author produces yet more quotes on the subject from Noam Chomsky. Here is part of his rebuttal.
Which brings me to point two–Chomsky is primarily a political figure, and really a pragmatist at heart. The core of his argument is not so much that po-mo writing is high-falutin’ nonsense, but rather that it ultimately serves no practical purpose. Here is where I would strongly disagree. The people that Chomsky attacks and their followers are re-evaluating the canon and the very notion of received wisdom. Chomsky attacks them for “misreading the classics”–but just what are the classics, and whose value systems created the notion that the classics were indeed “classic”? If Derrida & co. appear to “misread,” it is because they seek to recover the marginalized knowledge that has been buried under a sediment of givens as “truth.” Yes, the post-modern movement might have elitist tendencies, and yes, the subjects and themes of their work might not have much to do on the surface with the plight of a refugee (cf. MoMo in Jordan in 1948)…but the goal is actually in line with Chomsky’s goal–to make people question the powers that structure their lives.
-Chris Pearson

I suggest checking out the whole post to understand this in context. However, I don't think that Pearson fully comprehends this issue, and given the clearly ambiguous nature of post-modern "philosophy", is not surprising.

But it all boils down to this: The nature of deconstruction (and by extension, post-modernism) is to de-construct, not make anyone question anything. Post-modernism has no goal because that would imply a hierarchy: i.e. questioning is better than not questioning. Thus, the only goal is to have no goal, the only order to have no order, the only logic to have no logic. It is a circuitous, self defeating, paradoxical thought process which begins nowhere and ends nowhere, like the serpent Ouroboros who eats his own tail.

Deconstruction is a process of thought and not a philosophical conclusion.


Steven LaRose said...

where did you find this quote?

New York City said...

Sorry about that. I'll updated with a link to the source.

New York City said...

And if you think that's bad, there's more to be had!

“Some of the people in these cults (which is what they look like to me) I’ve met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible — he speaking French, me English); Lacan (who I met several times and considered an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan, though his earlier work, pre-cult, was sensible and I’ve discussed it in print); Kristeva (who I met only briefly during the period when she was a fervent Maoist); and others. Many of them I haven’t met, because I am very remote from from these circles, by choice, preferring quite different and far broader ones […] I’ve dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish.”


Steven LaRose said...

Thanks. I actually went looking for the quote and got sucked down some rabbit holes. I'm going to collage your post in with another blogger's post about Anekantavada. I am really enjoying your blog, lately. I wonder how your painting is going?

New York City said...

My painting is coming along slowly because I'm working temp jobs at the moment and looking for a teaching position. Don't have much time left at the end of the day.

Anonymous said...

Great posts! This sounds like a challenge to me - i wonder if I can explain these theories in simple terms. I studied them in college, and think I know, but would love to be tested. Perhaps over the phone sometime??

I agree that these theories have done a miserable job of presenting themselves, and you are right do a large degree - they are not theories in themselves - they are parasitic - in that they simply feed off and re-define traditional ways of viewing.

New York City said...

Sounds great, I would love to discuss it. Send me an e-mail at and we can exchange phone numbers.

Anonymous said...

Here is a starter from Wikipedia - pretty good into I think:

"Post-structuralism refers to the intellectual developments in continental philosophy and critical theory which were outcomes of twentieth-century French philosophy. The prefix "post" refers to the fact that many contributors such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva were former structuralists who, after abandoning structuralism, became quite critical of it. In direct contrast to structuralism's claims of culturally independent meaning, post-structuralists typically view culture as inseparable from meaning.

While post-structuralism is difficult to define or summarize, it can be broadly understood as a body of distinct reactions to structuralism. There are two main reasons for this difficulty. First, it rejects definitions that claim to have discovered absolute 'truths' or facts about the world.[1] Second, very few people have willingly accepted the label 'post-structuralist'; rather, they have been labeled as such by others. Therefore no one has felt compelled to construct a 'manifesto' of post-structuralism.[2] Thus the exact nature of post-structuralism and whether it can be considered a single philosophical movement is debated. It has been pointed out that the term is not widely used in Europe (where most supposedly "post-structuralist" theory originates) and that the concept of a post-structuralist theoretical paradigm is largely the invention of American academics and publishers."

Jacques de Beaufort said...

I enjoy post-modern thought if not all of it's cheerleaders. I don't enjoy righteous indignation regarding it's valuelessness and lack of moral rectitude. Post-modernism is not even loosely a movement or even a group of coherent ideologies. It's a method of criticism used to uncover the hidden agenda's and superstructures of all dogmatic ideologies and their cultural and political manifestations.. If you BELIEVE in these dogmatic ideologies then I can see post-modern thought as an irritant, but if you have FAITH in your convictions then you don't need to cling to your values with belief. This implies a certain degree of fear that your beliefs might not actually be true. Neither should one impose or thrust their beliefs and will upon others. If it's good stuff, they'll come around eventually. Talk it up, but don't make it a battle...this turns people off. People do what they Will, not what they're told. Which is why forcing democracy on a nation is something of a farce. Belief is an act of desperation, and I feel for those who are unable to let go and resign to the greater machinations of fate. The human experiment will figure itself out eventually. Scientists don't get attached to outcomes because they need to be unbiased. I feel the same way about man..because I take the attitude of the universe not one particle within it.

New York City said...

You have several good points here. I agree with the humanist thrust of your argument.

However,interesting debate revolves around what we disagree with. So, I'll jump to that.

"If you BELIEVE in these dogmatic ideologies then I can see post-modern thought as an irritant, but if you have FAITH in your convictions then you don't need to cling to your values with belief."

But if you have FAITH in your convictions, you set those convictions as being greater than other convictions (because you have chosen them). Thus you've established a hierarchical system of disbelief, which is self contradicting.

"Belief is an act of desperation, and I feel for those who are unable to let go and resign to the greater machinations of fate. The human experiment will figure itself out eventually."

To some, belief is an act of solitude. It is not inherent in the nature of belief to force it on others. Forcing one's beliefs on others is an act of desperation, but the beliefs themselves are inert. These are separate things.

Fate is a system of belief, and the idealism that humanity will figure itself out implies that it's headed from one point in a linear fashion to some greater point. Again, this contradicts itself because according to the philosophers you enjoy (and I enjoy as well), all things are relative. There is no greater goal, because a goal requires a hierarchical structure where the goal is greater than the alternative. "Something is bound to happen" would be more accurate.

I find it interesting that exactly when post-modern/post-structuralist thinkers attempt to counter the "fascism" of belief, they attempt to take the moral high ground and in doing so undercut their own logic. Their idealistic relativism breaks down because the "logic" has no legs to stand on.

Here's an interesting quote:

"Choosing doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation."
-Yann Martel, "The Life of Pi"

Jacques de Beaufort said...

Where are we trying to go?

New York City said...

I don't think anyone knows where we should go, or where we are trying to go. But I think we all agree that we can't stay here.

But if you're referring specifically to the quote, I think the point is: immobility is not a possible means of transportation and doubt is not a possible philosophy of life.

Jacques de Beaufort said...

the only thing that exists is where we are at this moment.

everything else is an idea.

where you're "going" you'll never get to.

New York City said...

Our perception of the moment is comprised of our previous experiences. We have come from somewhere and it acts upon our consciousness, which is your only true gauge. But the only true constant is change.

However, as you want to break things down to only what you can prove, let's see where your logic leads.

We cannot prove that there is a tomorrow or a yesterday, not ultimately to our consciousness. Yes, all we know is the moment. The only evidence you have is your senses, yet they can be manipulated and often can't be trusted.
Ultimately, you can't prove that anything or anyone else exists in your moment. Does your girlfriend cease to exist when she goes to another room? What happens when you sleep without dreams? Does reality vanish?

Further, you also cannot prove that you exist in your moment. Even your moment, your existence - is built upon assumptions. If you deny all assumptions then there is nothing left.

Yes, I once had great belief in this thought process. But the result wasn't a distilled truth, only isolation and depression. It not only didn't work for me, it negated me. So, I had to allow myself one basic assumption - that I exist.

And it's all re-construction from there.

Jacques de Beaufort said...

but who are you?

a name ?
a body ?
a collection of memories ?

where is the point where they all coalesce into the sum of their parts? Isn't that line abritrary?

do "YOU" grow your own hair?
do "YOU" make your skin and body age?

I'm more interested in apophatic thought because it allows me to see that everything is connected in a beautiful way.

I find the organism environment a better model than the Western idea of reality as a "construct".

When you negate yourself you become something much larger and greater...the Universe.

Peace out Richard, thanks for your thoughts.