“(It) may be the most loathed concept ever to have emerged from academia” – Aaron Hanlon
A right nice recommendation, one might say. Even the title of this recent article from Quartz, “Everyone hates postmodernism – but that doesn’t make it wrong,” paints a nasty picture. Perhaps a deeper look might be in order, especially in light of my post just days earlier on the General and Special Bubble Theories.
The Quartz article by Ephrat Livni (@el72champs) warrants a complete reading, but in the interest of speed and time, I will just quote some relevant passages, adding some commentary and noting which lengthier portions of the essay merit some attention.
Postmodernism – What is this?
Livni bluntly summarizes it as “the messy and bewildering philosophy that emerged in the late 20thcentury – which considered everything relative and the meaning of all language subject to debate – (and) led to the breakdown of reality, according to its critics.” Aaron Hanlon’s perspective (above) follows immediately thereafter. They have a valid point.
Postmodernism1, generally speaking, is
Defined by an attitude of skepticism, irony, or rejection toward the overarching beliefs and ideologies of modernism, most often calling into question various assumptions of Enlightenment rationality (Blog: basically the fundamentals of Western civilization we’ve all been taught).
Common targets of postmodern criticisms include the notions of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, language, and social progress.
Postmodern thinkers frequently call attention to the “contingent” or “socially-conditioned” nature of knowledge and value systems, viewing them as the results of particular political, historical, or cultural (societal) attitudes and hierarchies. (Blog: in other words, Regression to the Cultural Mean).
Accordingly, postmodern thought is broadly characterized by its tendencies to self-referentiality (Blog: i.e., naval contemplation), epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, subjectivism, and irreverence.
In other words, the rejection of any and all existing cohesive and overarching group values and their foundations. The vacuum thus created then begs to be filled by the only remaining seemingly important entity: the individual. You. Solipsism (“What About Me?!?”) on steroids.
The frightening truth is that, when thoughtfully considered and as Livni states, postmodernism is not wrong.
It’s just that it is incomplete. And no one would realize it unless they understood The General and Special Bubble Theories.
Some observations from the article follow (indented), along with my thoughts. The article itself is well worth a full read, if for no other reason than to better understand what’s happening in the world.
“How is it that we can share a common reality, yet experience it so differently from one another?”
That is THE question. It is a puzzling question if one assumes we all share one common reality, and that reality is the only one. In this case, it makes sense to regard one’s own perception of “reality” as “truth,” and everyone else’s as incomplete, erroneous, or just plain false. This is a prime example of our innate Either/Or way of thinking being reinforced by the acceptance of a simple but incorrect assumption.
However, becoming aware that there is one common physical “reality” (the General Bubble) and that each of us individually experiences his/her own cognitive “reality” (their Special Bubbles, embedded within the common General Bubble) helps answer the question.
There is then the possibility of multiple and incomplete perspectives, whether overlapping or not. As a consequence, we should move into the more complex and challenging growth mode of And/And thinking and learning to accept the limitations of Incomplete Information. Alas, most of us are unwilling or unable to try this.
The article continues,
“But postmodernists didn’t create the new fractured reality; they merely described it. The French academics of the 1970s, particularly Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Francois Lyotard, saw the flaws in modernist thought – that old-timey Enlightenment-era notion that we all shared values, approved the same truths, and agreed on the facts.
Instead, they acknowledged that reality is complicated. They recognized the changes happening in the late 20thcentury – the erosion of authority, the ascendance of individual perspective – and developed the vocabulary to describe it.
This relativist view … is as close to a description of reality as we can muster …”
Trying to describe a multi-Bubble reality starting with the assumption that there is only One reality (and not even a Bubble at that) would of course be difficult and unnerve everybody. However, this option seems to be the only one considered to date by all concerned, with inevitable inconsistencies showing up,
“But after two world wars and the collapse of colonialism, budding postmodernists saw that the assumption of inevitable human progress (due to science and technology) was false.
Likewise, the concept of universal truths no longer applied in transforming societies where language didn’t mean the same thing to everyone.
They searched for ways to describe an emerging world with a din of voices and viewpoints, in which biases based upon backgrounds and experiences dictated alternate realities and undercut the supposed shared vision of what is right and good.”
If one means by inevitable human progress a rising tide that lifts all boats uniformly, then indeed there is an issue. Historically, all boats haven’t risen the same amount, but they have risen. And historically, the thinking is that if my boat hasn’t risen the same as your boat, I’m going to grumble, especially if the expectation is equal outcomes as opposed to equal opportunity.
Another eye-opener was postmodernists concluding that all truths and values weren’t universal, especially where languages differed (and therefore expressed things differently) and “shared values” differed even on a local basis.
If the basic assumption is that there is only One common reality, this becomes an issue. Either/Or thinking leads to a downward spiral: either there are shared fundamental values and truths, or there are not. Since we experience many differing values, the conclusion must follow that there are not any fundamental shared values or truths.
“… this also conceals the fact that there is no shared reality; actually there isn’t a single thing that can be called this American life.”
While historically there have always been individualistic thinking and self-interested behaviors, these have mostly been fairly contained and subdued by a general belief and attempted adherence to broader common values and truths geared for the greater good.
With the advent of postmodernism, however, there arose a philosophy that justified the unleashing of the dogs of hell: full frontal self-justified individualism and associated behaviors.
In essence, this is the perfect (but unrecognized) description of the outcome of Special Bubbles.
However, the concept of Special Bubbles does not require the abandonment of shared values and truths purposed for the greater good, but that seems to be the single conclusion derived from the assumption “One Bubble for All.”
The utilitarian concept of the greater good does allow for the fact that some people will not immediately benefit – but the expectation of equal outcomes precludes that. Utilitarianism does not preclude additional approaches to address those outside the greater good. Our education system attempts to lift all boats, but also includes specialized tracks, both remedial and accelerated.
The result of this One Bubble for All, and All for One Bubble approach is that instead of working to grow our reality based on the facts we continue to experience, we flipped to generating facts to fit the “reality” we are comfortable with.
A very interesting and timely example from the article is the following,
“Take an incident that arose at Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings in the Senate this September. The judge’s former law clerk, Zina Bash, sat behind him. On the first day, some viewers accused her of making a white power sign while resting her hand on her arm. (To people unfamiliar with the sign, this just looks like an “ok” symbol.)”
I am unfamiliar with this interpretation of a common sign, much less to the brouhaha and Twitter storm that erupted around it. The incident as related in the article is worth the read to see what some people are willing to distort in order to coerce “truth” to fit their limited Special Bubbles.
“Reality, then, is a kind of literary fiction which we all create based upon our experiences and the (Incomplete) information we encounter.”
Through a glass darkly, and even looking deeper, one can see the literary fiction (Special Bubble) that results when we only consider our own limited experiences and information, choosing to ignore all that is Missing.
This does not mean our Special Bubble is wrong, just decidedly incomplete. And we are unwilling to accept that.
“In The Atlantic’s October issue, editor Jeffrey Goldberg admits that this is “a moment in which truths that seemed self-evident are in doubt.” He writes that US democracy is in crisis, but cites the nation’s founding fathers and constitutional principles as a source of hope. Americans at one point held certain truths to be self-evident, or so wrote the powerful white men who drafted the Constitution.
But when you look at the facts, matters were complicated even back in the day. No one asked the slaves in the US about their values or their definition of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The powerful were indifferent to women’s rights, too. Our shared values were espoused by people out of touch with many of us. …
That doesn’t mean we should trash the Constitution. But it does highlight the fact that the relativism of postmodernism existed before the vocabulary for its discussion formed. …”
Lots of thoughts here.
I think most of us still hold to the belief and common value that certain truths are self-evident. We could talk of truths that are self-evident in the physical General Bubble (things such as gravity, Newton’s Laws, sun rise, sun set; things that cannot be denied to us), but I think it is self-evident that these are not the self-evident truths meant by the founding fathers.
We are more focused on truths in our cognitive Special Bubbles; truths that could be subject to availability and variability depending upon outside forces (events, and in particular, other people), and internal forces (opportunity, motivation).
These truths are still self-evident; they just might not be uniformly achieved. Equal outcome isn’t in the Constitution; equal opportunity is.
The rising tide has lifted a lot of boats. We have the world’s strongest economy (although it is still subject to storms2), and enjoy a world of freedom and opportunity the envy of the rest of the world (but also stormy). Our focus on human rights around the world is example of our still holding to certain unalienable self-evident truths and values. And continued belief in these truths, values, and opportunities is why more people still want to come here than we want to go elsewhere.
Don’t blame the tide because not all the boats float. (Yes, we have to accept that there will always be bad actors, some of whom scuttle boats; there certainly must be ways of dealing with these. But the solution is neither to stem the tide nor to continuously replace all the ill-attended boats).
Yep, don’t blame the Constitution (too easy), or conclude from a plethora of “truths” and “values” that there are no fundamental ones (mindboggling, but still easy).
We have to remember that we were not born with shared values; they are not innate. We were taught these by Regression to the Cultural Mean within the families and cultures in which we lived.
Remove these fundamental truths and values and you deny the existence of any bedrock to build upon. Building upon bedrock to withstand wind and storm is not a new idea or new value.
[Tent Rocks, NM: Still standing after windblown sand storms and flash floods]
We need to understand the bedrock upon which we built (“shared values”) and continue building upon that.
One bedrock foundation is that democracy was to have an educated populace who could read (and understand and thus make informed decisions). We worked (and still work) to achieve that. Now we have a populace that can read, but the majority of whom only read (and write on) Twitter and Facebook.
Where it once took months, weeks, or days for information to become available, what passes for information is now available instantaneously via the internet, and any processing it to reach understanding is ignored. This is Confirmation Bias run amok, and a major factor in people reinforcing their own Special Bubbles.
Only a few risk the chance to enlarge their Bubble, and not only grow themselves but contribute to the rising tide that, overall, can contribute to humanity’s progress.
Science celebrates people who intentionally notice, pursue and discover Missing Information, and thereby fill holes in our understanding of the world.
The bane of (incomplete) postmodernism is that it provides justification for people to live in their reinforced Special Bubbles and encourages them to pillory other Special Bubbles who may not yet have noticed or discovered Missing Information, and then to “Bork”3 them ostensibly for intentionally ignoring it. The ultimate irony: postmodern thinking that has succumbed to postmodern thinking.
The plea that resonates through The Righteous Mind is, while recognizing we live in Special Bubbles, to stretch them by intentionally engaging in dialogues with others.
And to become the calm that steadies the inevitable storm.
1 Wikipedia. I generally tell my students that Wikipedia is a great place to start (preliminary research), but a lousy place to finish (as a referenced source). I violate that philosophy here for brevity (sic), and admit to using the only two paragraphs of information in the larger article that were not specifically accompanied by an explicit call for further editing and clarification – which is needed: both for the article, and postmodernism.
2 Thoughts on Capitalism will be the subject of a future post.
3 Bork (Oxford English Dictionary), verb: To obstruct (someone, especially a candidate for public office) by systematically defaming or vilifying them. Origin –1980s: from the name of Robert Bork (1927–2012), an American judge whose nomination to the Supreme Court (1987) was rejected following unfavorable publicity for his allegedly extreme views.