24 June 2006

Postmodernism plays a different game

From Arts & Letters Daily, Mark Goldblatt asks, Can Humanists Talk to Postmodernists? It seems that he answers negative.
This might seem paradoxical at first since people who consider themselves humanists do, in fact, talk to people who consider themselves postmodernists every day. They meet, for example, in faculty dining rooms and on payroll lines, and they discuss, for example, whether the cafeteria chili should be avoided or whether their health plans cover anti-depressants.

By talk he didn't really mean talk in the sense of communicate in a mundane way. Goldblatt sets out, then, to define the terms of the argument. He defines a humanist in pretty naturalistic light, saying the humanist is one who believes in truth/falsity that can be ascertained by empirical evidence and "rational principles". The postmodernist is a kind of linguistic idealist who sees empirical reality as a verbal construction rather than an independently existing phenomenon. For Goldblatt, talk means set forth opinions and have them verified or falsified.

Goldblatt offers his most compelling argument when he says that even the most asinine of postmodern claims rely on the logical principals that they seem to deny; i.e., to say, 'My writing explodes logic, causes a rupture in logic and marks an historic event', he already subscribes to logic--the structure of language is a logical structure already. Conversely, if a writer were to explode, elude or evade logic, then he would be spouting nonsense in very literal terms.

If he stopped here, I would have to accept his article part and parcel--he's right. But he goes on further to reject postmodernism because of its inability to talk to humanism; he goes on to exert the dominance of humanism within the humanist framework. This just is not right. He's already acknowledged different arenas of discourse (the cafeteria, the classroom, the academic journal) and it seems to me that he is begging the question of humanism's dominance. He is not right to assert the dominance of humanism as prima facie the best system, the system by which other systems are tested, but he is right about humanism's dominance. To do so would constitute a form of senselessness or to offer a sort of academic platitude.

He puts down postmodernism, which no one it seems takes very seriously, but he doesn't do the deed particularly well or in a very funny way. E.g., Alan Sokal's paper, Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeunutics of Quantum Gravity, which is a real killer. Or even the Philosophical Lexicon's put downs of Derrida and Foucault--those were pretty funny and accurate (except the put down of Foucault--that was just funny). The more interesting issue here is what makes humanism the dominant paradigm. That was the question that Husserl was after. The phenomenological reduction in many ways flouts logic; we would certainly say it brackets out logic. And then he quotes Wittgenstein, who offers the most robust response to Goldblatt's paper.

In On Certainty, Wittgenstein says,
All testing, all confirmation and disconfirmation of a hypothesis takes place already within a system. And this system is not a more or less arbitrary and doubtful point of departure for all our arguments: no, it belongs to the essence of what we call an argument. The system is not so much the point of departure, as the element in which arguments have their life. (105)

which is, I think, a very cogent way of describing a postmodern view. The different systems of discourse--i.e., different language games (yes, play)--are what allow for arguments of any kind. If we shared the same system, the cafeteria, say, and we were playing the same language game, then we would never have an argument. I'm thinking, though, of something like sharing a system meaning aligning ones beliefs and training perfectly with another's. We would never argue about liking or disliking fishsticks if we both liked fishsticks, i.e., shared the same system of judgment w/r/t/ fishsticks. And this is in some ways arbitrary. The first line of Wittgenstein's remark, that all judging already takes place within a system seems true; and it underlies my criticism that Goldblatt already approaches the problem as a humanist, having no system above humanism from which to judge it. Given that, and the apparent irreconcilability of humanism and postmodernism, Goldblatt offers no surprises and nothing new.

Not that I'm offering much in the way of new ideas--but he did write the article. Goldblatt cannot really assert the dominance of humanism so much as dominate with humanism. Our form of life generally confirms an apparent logicality to things. But in many ways it doesn't. Logic seems to elude certain acts, like, say, the Holocaust. (Goldblatt brought up Hitler first, always a bad idea.) World War II generally seems to have been the catalyst for much of postmodern thought. Heidegger, the unrepentant Nazi set down the groundwork upon which Derrida, Lacan et al. tried to make sense of the world. But if the world does not confront them with sense, then the mirror of nature is simply nonsense. (A subversion of the humanist empirical verifiability principal.)

But, to begin wrapping up, there is no necessary correct way of assessing the world; for how would your system of assessment be able to assess itself. The avenue that Wittgenstein seems so far to advocate in On Certainty is the coherence model of epistemology. And he says, "the end is not an ungrounded presupposition: it is an ungrounded way of acting" (110). Testing one's system of beliefs, the coherence of his epistemic values, is not a discursive practice. In some ways, the most damning criticism of postmodernism is that the postmodernist looks both ways before crossing the street. But then again, Roland Barthes was killed by being run over by a laundry truck. Maybe his belief in the causal nexus wavered ever slightly before the accident, and returned before his death.