Saturday, November 10, 2012

Postmodernism and Self-Censorship

Uncertainty and doubt has always been part of intellectual and cultural life--including that exceptionally large doubt as to whether anything is knowable (an issue that seems as old as philosophical speculation itself). Equally, intellectual and artistic expression has always entailed risk. There was always a premium on pleasing "everybody," and offending "nobody."

The difference between our own, postmodernist-influenced era and earlier periods is that a significant portion of opinion elevates incoherence to a virtue, with the result that muddled pseudo-engagement is often taken as something bold and worthwhile, while the muddle itself is taken for aesthetic sophistication.

How did we get here? Certainly part of the explanation is the inescapable irony of the postmodernist outlook, which very easily turns intellectual life into a parlor game. (Indeed, "playful" is a word that comes up very frequently in postmodernist discourse.) Surface is about all we can get at, so that text is assumed to be about nothing but itself, a premise that can reduce politics to hollow theater, culture to a play of symbols.

This makes it especially easy to fall into the frame of mind that we can't know anything, and can't do anything about it--and therefore bear no responsibility. (Philosophers do not change the world; they don't even interpret it anymore.) This being the case, why fuss over ideas? Especially when we can't be sure what the truth is, and thinking that we do is arrogance, pure and simple? (History, in the old sense, is over.) Besides, aren't we always being told that ideas just get in the way of art? ("If you want to send a message, use Western Union.")

But all the same, it's almost impossible to totally escape ideas, to totally escape making reference to the world. At least touching on them sometimes is something writers can't help. And one supposes that touching on them that way can make the parlor game more interesting. It gets attention. People may even call you daring and clever for doing it. (And all that can be profitable, of course. No one's so postmodernist they don't appreciate dollars and pounds, euros and yen, "skepticism" about the existence and value of these interestingly lacking on the part of even those most committed to these ideas.)

And it's possible to play it safe. Just evoke the idea, while studiously not taking a position--not least by turning your "text" into a game with the audience. Or if you do wind up taking a discernible position, so that it is possible to spot the personal "truth" from inside of the bodyguard of what the plainspoken might call lies surrounding it (sometimes writers just can't help it), play it ironically, so that you have that avenue of retreat. If anyone thinks you did say something, you can always say that they're not reading you correctly, that you were being ironic, that you meant to say the opposite. Or perhaps to say nothing at all about anything but THE TEXT!

Play it even safer: say you were being ironic even when the whole thing is an impenetrable muddle.

Are you telling the truth when you do that? Well, what's truth? What's honesty? What's the self? What's memory? You're unsure yourself; your reader will be more so.

Ah, there's that postmodern doubt again, just when we needed it.

A Note on Literary Technique in an Age of Muddle
Of Postmodernism and Conservatism
More Reactions to Paul Kincaid
New and Noteworthy (Spielberg's Early TV Work, The Dark Knight Returns' 25th, Niall Harrison at the Strange Horizons Blog)
Paul Kincaid and Last Year's Best


Prof. David Edwards said...

You might find my ancient (1980) essay interesting:

Unity, Disunity and Pluralism in Science


P.S. You might also enjoy my recent essay:

Einstein's Dream

Prof. David A. Edwards
Department of Mathematics
University of Georgia
Athens, Georgia 30602

Nader said...

Hi Professor Edwards.
Thanks for writing.
It's certainly an interesting argument you make in these papers - not least because of the contrast it presents with the widespread image of physics as the ultimate in scientific reductionism, and the role this would seem to have played in the "physics envy" of thinkers in other fields.
Assuming you're right about the greater tolerance of intellectual diversity of this sort in natural science fields - and this is something I'll have to think about - might it not be a question of the kinds of stakes involved? As we see all the time, the immediate, practical stakes of respectability in the field of economics, for instance, are very high, with obvious consequences for such things as government policy and the material interests of various actors in society. This is less the case in, for instance, mathematics of theoretical physics.
I wonder, also, what to make of this development from the standpoint of two recent arguments: John Horgan's claim for "The End of Science," and Thomas Homer-Dixon's claim for ecology's replacement of physics as the master science in this century. (The image of theoretical physics as rainforest-like in its network of theories seems rather suggestive in this respect.)

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon