The skeptical mythology of postmodernism


Ever since I started blogging in 2007, one of the boogeymen of the skeptical movement was so-called postmodernism. Postmodernism, as skeptics understood it, was an ideology where anything goes. It was extreme moral relativism. It was the idea that truth itself was a social construct. It was the idea that no one could know anything, and yet people could have their own personal truths, which may differ from one another. In short, it was one of skepticism’s antitheses.

Transcript: You have your truth, and I have mine. All knowledge is theory-laden. All perception is internal to the perceiver. There is no meaningful "reality." In the shadow cast by this knowledge, I decide for myself what is good and what is not. Caption: Postmodernism is the only explanation for black licorice.

Source: SMBC. I think the best way to describe the skeptical concept of postmodernism is by showing how skeptics choose to portray it in parodies.

Even in 2007, this seemed kind of sketchy to me. I recall writing a post titled “What’s with postmodernism?” wherein I complained that the term was inconsistently defined, and trusted sources offered a completely different picture of what postmodernism really was. Now that I have more experience in academia, and a much greater degree of cynicism about the skeptical movement, I feel more confident in simply calling bullshit. Postmodernism is a villain invented by skeptics, originally based on a real thing, but so far abstracted from reality that it may well be called mythology.

The truth and the myth

The truth about “postmodernism”, is that it’s used in a variety of contexts to mean completely different things. One of the most prominent uses is in the history of art, where it describes a period in the 20th century, and a broad set of ideas that are associated with it. HJ wrote a good summary. But it seems like that has hardly anything to do with postmodernism as skeptics understand it. So where did the mythology come from?

My best guess is that it comes from Alan Sokal. In 1996, Sokal famously published a hoax article in Social Text which applied postmodern ideas to quantum gravity. In the paper, and in the subsequent fallout, the word most commonly used to describe the object of Sokal’s criticism was “postmodernism”.

Now, I have serious qualms about the idea that you can discredit an academic field using a hoax article, and Sokal arguably misunderstood some of the things he criticized. But I would contrast Sokal with the critics who followed him. Sokal treated postmodernism as a real thing associated with a certain set of academics, while later critics would treat postmodernism as an abstraction.

If we understand postmodernism as a real thing, that exists in reality, we have to ask: Where? Who? When? My understanding is that postmodernism cuts across multiple departments in the humanities, but which departments specifically? Do academic postmodernists call themselves postmodernists, or do they group themselves under some other label, or do they not group themselves at all? Can you name an authoritative example of postmodern scholarship? And is this a recent thing, or an old thing? Does it still exist today, decades after Sokal’s hoax?

Sokal, for all his flaws, at least treated postmodernism as an actual thing in reality. He did research, and included hundreds of citations. He interacted with them, and admitted that he was only an amateur. He tracked how “postmodernism” was changing over time, observing that postmodernists seemed to have walked back from some of their extremes during the Bush era. When I first heard him say that, I was shocked because the skeptical movement never gave any hint that postmodernism was a thing that could change over time.

Eventually I figured out that the people Sokal criticized do not go by the label of “postmodernism”, but more frequently go under the label of “critical theory”. Other objects of criticism go under the label of “science and technology studies” (STS). Because skeptics are not aware of these terms, I have often felt that skeptics wouldn’t recognize a real academic postmodernist if they were right in front of them. Case in point, earlier this year, we were all scrutinizing Avital Ronell, a professor who was prominently accused of sexual harassment. Ronell was a critical theorist who used post-structuralism and psychoanalysis, and yet I saw not a single person make the connection between Ronell and postmodernism.

Postmodernists in real life

When Sokal observed that postmodernists had walked back some of their extremes, he cited a specific paper, “Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern”, by sociologist Bruno Latour. I read it and wrote about it here.  So I was very interested when the New York Times did a profile of Bruno Latour. Here are a few highlights.

Facts, Latour said, were “networked”; they stood or fell not on the strength of their inherent veracity but on the strength of the institutions and practices that produced them and made them intelligible. If this network broke down, the facts would go with them.

Still, Latour had never seen himself as doing anything so radical, or absurd, as calling into question the existence of reality. As a founder of the new academic discipline of science and technology studies, or S.T.S., Latour regarded himself and his colleagues as allies of science.

Here we see how Latour and STS have been misunderstood by skeptics. It’s not about questioning the existence of reality, it’s about understanding the institutions and processes that produce scientific truths. If we want to protect scientific truths, then we need to protect and strengthen those institutions. Skeptics also intuitively understand this–they know that you have to fight for scientific truth to be widely understood and accepted, you can’t just let it stand on its own as if merely being true is enough to show people the light.

Of course, there’s the concern that STS scholars provided tools to the enemies of science. Latour himself admitted as much, which was the subject of his paper, “Why has critique run out of steam?” But Latour argues that the post-truth world we live in makes his work more relevant than ever.

If anything, our current post-truth moment is less a product of Latour’s ideas than a validation of them. In the way that a person notices her body only once something goes wrong with it, we are becoming conscious of the role that Latourian networks play in producing and sustaining knowledge only now that those networks are under assault.
[…]
A greater understanding of the circumstances out of which misinformation arises and the communities in which it takes root, Latour contends, will better equip us to combat it.

I also enjoyed Latour’s account of how he performed his research. Rather than philosophizing about what science is or what it should be, he actually joined and observed research groups!

Guillemin later invited him to study his laboratory at the Salk Institute in San Diego, and so beginning in 1975, Latour spent two years there as a sort of participant-observer, following scientists around as they went about their daily work. Part of Latour’s immersion in the lab involved conducting actual experiments, and his co-workers would often gather around to watch. They couldn’t believe that someone could be, as he put it, “so bad and clumsy.” He found pipetting especially difficult.

As a former grad student, I find this so thoroughly endearing. Finally, someone who tries to understand science by sharing the pain of menial lab work. For a long time, I had read skeptics talking about the scientific method as an abstract ideal, untainted by empirical observation of real scientists. I was more than once disappointed to learn how science actually worked in practice, and just a little bit angry about the children’s stories that science enthusiasts would share among themselves. And here I see that Latour, an object of skeptical mockery, actually went out looked at reality! It brings a tear to my eye.

I would still criticize Latour for being a poor communicator (if “Why has critique run out of steam?” is anything to go by). And Latour is not necessarily representative of every scholar in STS (looking at you, Steve Fuller, you’re still bad) or critical theory.  But my overall impression is that skeptics were wrong. Academic postmodernism, or at least some of the people it was originally intended to describe, are a lot more reasonable than we gave them credit for. And by villainizing postmodernism, skeptics not only got it wrong, but also deprived themselves of a tool to understand the very scientific institutions they were trying to protect.

Comments

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    In the way that a person notices her body only once something goes wrong with it…

    Nobody ever notices anything positive, or just interesting, about their own body?

    Whatever postmodernism, or by now post-postmodernism, may constitute, sloppy analogies fail it.

  2. says

    @Pierce R. Butler,

    Whatever postmodernism, or by now post-postmodernism, may constitute, sloppy analogies fail it.

    So, my point is that postmodernism is constructed by skeptics as a mythological villain, with little correspondence to reality, and your point is that postmodernists are failing to explain postmodernism to you?

  3. says

    One of the things that baffles me the most about the post-modernist/ post-structuralist bogeyman as bandied about by the skeptic community is how out-of-date it is: all of the major thinkers most closely associated with the movement (Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, etc.) are all dead– some long-dead– at this point, and the generation of graduates that came up under them must be hitting retirement age at this point, if they’ve not done so already. In terms of its influence on academic thought, it seems to me that it’s well past its peak? Getting bent out of shape about it seems, I don’t know, like getting exercised about the Red Menace or something…

  4. another Stewart says

    Back in the day, an archaeologist explained postmodernism in anthropology as “if you want to understand why people behave the way they do you need understand not how the world is, but how they think that the world is”.
    I refer to the literal “reality is socially constructed” position as pop-postmodernism – it seems to be out there in the culture, and not just as a skeptical strawman – some creationists adopt it to avoid having to face empirical knowledge; I assumed that mainstream postmodernism in academia meant that our understanding of reality is in part socially constructed (but not arbitrary), and choose an unfortunate shorthand phrasing designed to give physicists kittens.

  5. says

    @another Stewart

    I refer to the literal “reality is socially constructed” position as pop-postmodernism – it seems to be out there in the culture, and not just as a skeptical strawman – some creationists adopt it to avoid having to face empirical knowledge

    Yeah, there’s no denying that. I mentioned Steve Fuller in the OP–he used STS to defend intelligent design in the Dover case. That’s inexcusable, and even other academics in STS criticized him for it. Latour also discusses in his paper the way critical theory was coopted by the Bush administration. It’s understandable why skeptics hated postmodernism so much in the 00s, but it would had helped if they had any idea what they were talking about.

  6. says

    In my philosophizing days, I thought a lot about postmodernism.

    First, Sturgeon’s Law applies: 90% of postmodernism is crap, because 90% of *everything* is crap. So it’s always super-easy to find stupid shit that someone has written that one can squint at and find a connection to postmodernism.

    So here is “What Postmodernism Means To Me”.

    tl/dr: Postmodernism is the idea that there is no One Right Way(tm) to The One Truth(tm), which does not mean that there is no way to some kind of truth, and it does not mean that every way is a way to its own kind of truth.

    Postmodernism is a reaction to Modernism, which was the idea that White Northern European Men had more or less Figured Everything Out: the right kind of government (liberal democratic republic), the right kind of economy (capitalism), the right kind of art, music, literature, the right way to do mathematics and science, the right kind of education, the right kind of civil and family organization, the right kind of sexual and personal morality. There might be some room to asymptotically improve, but only at the margins.

    Postmodernists are having none of that shit.

    Marx is, I think, the first “real” postmodernist, not because of his analysis of capitalism, but because of his theory of historical materialism: society’s choices of government, economics, etc. are not some Hegelian convergence on some abstract Geist, but instead are the results of materially and historically situated human beings making choices (and arguing, sometimes violently about those choices) to solve materially and more-or-less immediately situated social problems. So everything the Modernists thought were universal, ahistorical ideals were just the particular choices that White Northern European Men happened to make to deal with industrialization.

    HTH

  7. says

    I think the creationists are not postmodernists, even if they say or think there are.

    The problem with creationists is not really that they’re defending another “way of knowing”, but that they’re trying to use a specific “copyrighted” way of knowing (i.e. Real Science (TM)) in ways that make no real sense. If they were serious about “ways of knowing”, then they would just admit that Goddidit is good enough for them, and we skeptics should stay out of their churches (a request I am always happy to oblige).

  8. KG says

    Yeah… no. I’m well aware of the alternative labels postmodernists give themselves, and it still consists almost entirely of assertions which are true but not new, and those which are new but complete shit – and dangerous, because yes, it really has been adopted and extensively used by the far right. The confusion between what is true (i.e., facts) and what is known evident in the OP, as well as in Latour, is only too typical.

  9. says

    Larry Hamelin @9,
    I would describe this as a pseudohistory, akin to the historical stories that physics professors tell their students (which are more intended to teach physics than history), or the stories that people tell about 2nd vs 3rd wave feminism (which are often intended to get at a distinction between contemporary feminisms). Although, I would be lying if I claimed that I did not also have a pseudohistorical narrative that I use internally to understand postmodernism. Such narratives can be useful, but should only be thought of as useful, rather than true.

    As far as the real phenomenon of academic postmodernism goes, Marxism is frequently cited as one of the things they rejected (see this video). Some authors describe postmodernism as the rejection of meta-narratives, and Marxism is used as the prototypical example of a meta-narrative.

  10. says

    KG @11,
    But could you name one thing in the OP or in Latour that you disagree with? I mean, I read Latour and I can name several things, but then I’m drawing different conclusions from you.

  11. CJO says

    Larry Hamelin:

    Postmodernism is a reaction to Modernism, which was the idea that White Northern European Men had more or less Figured Everything Out: the right kind of government (liberal democratic republic), the right kind of economy (capitalism), the right kind of art, music, literature, the right way to do mathematics and science, the right kind of education, the right kind of civil and family organization, the right kind of sexual and personal morality. There might be some room to asymptotically improve, but only at the margins.

    This is not at all what modernism means. You’ve practically described anti-modernism. Postmodernism was not really a reaction to modernism, either, if that implies a reversal or a reaction against; it was an extension of it, one of the controlling ideas being that modernism’s critiques of modernity were ill-suited to examine its own (that is modernist) cultural products. Once modern art, atonal music, “high modernism” in the visual arts, etc. became the dominant high culture, postmodernism arose as a means to critique the critique as it were. And that critique was nearly the opposite of your synopsis. Modernism as artistic movement and philosophical stance was an examination of the impact industrialization and the rise of the nation state and “big government” had on still essentially premodern humanity. The scale of social and economic transformations left humans broken and adrift in its wake; old certainties were revealed as illusions, old forms of expression were revealed as inadequate to the rate of acceleration of mechanization and dehumanization; the First World War (fought under the belief that White Northern European Men had more or less Figured Everything Out) was a major catalyst of modernist thinking.

    The characteristic mode of modernist artistic expression across media was recursion, self-reference and self-examination. Stream of consciousness novels by Joyce and Faulkner and others abolished the tidy traditional forms of the 18th and early 19th century novel and simulated direct access to the alienated mind faced with the super-human scale and the inhuman implacability of modern social, political and industrial systems; post-impresssionist and abstract art abandoned the illusionist aims of realism and impressionism; atonal music pulled melody apart for a look at the inner workings.

    Now, granted, postmodernism arose, in part, because for all of the validity of modernism’s critique, the cultural capital engendered by it was still, what do you know, the property of those same White Northern European Men who more or less Figured Everything Out, so I think I understand how you arrived at the conception. But in terms of its actual intellectual content, modernism was a reaction against the self-satisfaction of early-modern colonialism and industrial capitalism as modes of progress.

  12. Matthew Herron says

    I think I mostly bought into the narrative that postmodernism was, if not “anything goes,” then at least “science is just one way of knowing, with no special claim to truth or reliability.” I wonder how much energy I wasted criticizing that “mythical villain” (quote quotes, not scare quotes). Thanks for giving me reason to reexamine one of my beliefs.

  13. KG says

    Siggy@13,
    Well from the OP:

    Other objects of criticism go under the label of “science and technology studies” (STS). Because skeptics are not aware of these terms

    I’m a skeptic aware of these terms, so is Sokal, and I strongly suspect, many others. For Latour, my main acquaintance with his work is “Actor-Network Theory”, which absurdly tries to remove the distinction between agents and non-agents. But to quote from the OP:

    Facts, Latour said, were “networked”; they stood or fell not on the strength of their inherent veracity but on the strength of the institutions and practices that produced them and made them intelligible. If this network broke down, the facts would go with them.

    This is the absurd confusion between what is true and what is known that I referred to. It was a fact that the sun is larger than the earth, that 7 is a prime number, that the continents move, etc. before there were any people to understand these facts; and they would remain facts if everyone denied them, or if humanity became extinct. That “scientific truths” are socially constructed is in one sense true and trivial, in another, false and pernicious, as with so much of postmodernism and similar stances (I note that Latour denies being a postmodernist). Of course science is a human enterprise, but STS’s approach is essentially to deny that the distinction between true and false hypotheses needs to be taken into account in order to understand which hypotheses survive and which are rejected – according to STS, it’s all a matter of what social forces muster behind each hypothesis.

  14. KG says

    the First World War (fought under the belief that White Northern European Men had more or less Figured Everything Out) – consciousness razor@14

    Hmm. As I read the history, it was widely regarded even at its beginning as a disastrous failure of the political and diplomatic systems that were thought to have prevented a general war between the European “Great Powers” for a century.

  15. says

    Siggy @12

    I’m not really an historian. I intended my comments to read in a more “spiritual” sense.

    As to postmodernists’ rejection of Marx, well, psychologists now reject Freud, but Freud is still the origin of psychology, i.e. the first to at least *say* that psychology was a science, even if he was a lousy scientist. Marx may well have been a lousy postmodernist, for the reasons you cite (which seem legitimate, according to my extensive but not exhaustive reading of Marx), but I think he’s still the first real postmodernist.

  16. says

    CJO @14
    I will defer to your understanding, classification, and history of aesthetic and artistic criticism, a subject where my interest far exceeds my expertise. Again, I am not really a historian or scholar of philosophy. I’m trying to get at the core ideas, not the historical progression of those ideas.

    You say,

    But in terms of its actual intellectual content, modernism was a reaction against the self-satisfaction of early-modern colonialism and industrial capitalism as modes of progress.

    Again, based on my limited understanding and your summary, this seems like only a sense of, “Well, maybe we WNEM haven’t quite Figured Everything Out, so we WNEM have to try a little harder.” I see the way you’ve described modernism as simply an extension of the colonial project. As you say, modernism “was still . . . the property of those same White Northern European Men who more or less Figured Everything Out:” One metaphor that might be useful is the idea that Copernicus gave us a better One True Coordinate System than Ptolemy, but Einstein denied there was any such thing as a One True Coordinate System in the first place.

    I see PoMo as rejecting the idea that anyone at all has a privileged position to Figure Everything Out. Whether or not there is a Everything to be Figured Out, everyone is figuring things out from whatever particular historical and material position they happen to find themselves in, and they are figuring out how not Great Universal Truths but what to have for breakfast tomorrow.

  17. Pierce R. Butler says

    Siggy @ # 2: … your point is that postmodernists are failing to explain postmodernism to you?

    My point is that starting an argument with “Just as [fallacy]…” thoroughly undermines whatever follows.

    robertbaden @ # 7: … if it is causing pain it demands attention.

    But Latour said explicily [emphasis added]: … a person notices her body only once something goes wrong… Some people do like to interject that word rather meaninglessly; I thought philosophers frowned on that.

  18. says

    KG @16 (for real this time)

    This is the absurd confusion between what is true and what is known that I referred to. It was a fact that the sun is larger than the earth, that 7 is a prime number, that the continents move, etc. before there were any people to understand these facts; and they would remain facts if everyone denied them, or if humanity became extinct.

    I agree that you have located a real tension between PoMo and, well, non-PoMo. As a (self-identified) PoMo, I would say that your stance here is more problematic than it seems.

    The question is not whether or not the sun was larger than the earth before anyone knew it, and will be so after we are all gone. I mean, of course I agree with you, but I suspect a lot of similarity and overlap in our network of… well, I won’t call them “facts”, let’s say belief-forming mechanisms.

    Rather, I would say the the important question is, “How did we come to have such a belief?” What is the actual causal mechanism that causes you to say such a thing and me to agree with you? I once heard an actual professional philosopher say, “I believe X because it’s true.”

    “Really?” I replied, “Just the truth of a proposition is sufficient cause for you to believe it? The true proposition somehow reached out and put those words in your head? That’s the only relevant causal mechanism at work here?”

    The PoMo point is that to say, “I believe it because it’s true” sets up an implicit privilege: the actual causal mechanism is unimportant; what’s important is that the proposition emerged from your (in the rhetorical sense, not you personally) specific causal mechanism, Your mechanism is privileged to determine truth, because, as you say, your proposition is indeed true; why investigate the mechanism further?

    Again the PoMo point is to say the mechanism is if not the most important part (and perhaps it is) at least a very important part. Trying to privilege your mechanism says that your problems are the problems that ought to be solved, and they ought to be solved for the benefit of people like you, with your own history and perspective. Which is not to say that you don’t really have problems, or that your solutions don’t work, but it really is important to see that there are a lot of different problems that need to be solved by a lot of different materially and historically situated groups.

  19. says

    KG @16,

    It was a fact that the sun is larger than the earth, that 7 is a prime number, that the continents move, etc. before there were any people to understand these facts; and they would remain facts if everyone denied them, or if humanity became extinct.

    I think a lot of work is being done by the definition of “fact”. How do you define a fact? How does Latour define a fact? There are at least some definitions where Latour’s discussion makes sense. For example, the very first definition I found on google was “a thing that is indisputably the case”. Well that sounds like something that can only exist when there are people around to know the fact. I mean, you could certainly define a “fact” as a truth about the world that is independent of our knowledge, but I don’t think that’s as accurate to the way the word is used in practice.

    This gets back to *my* criticism of Latour, which is that he’s a poor communicator. He wrote a whole paper about “matters of fact” and “matters of concern” without bothering to define what either of those things were.

    For Latour, my main acquaintance with his work is “Actor-Network Theory”, which absurdly tries to remove the distinction between agents and non-agents.

    Yeah, I don’t really like how he talks about scientists “collaborating” with microbes, what is that even supposed to mean? Bad communicator, like I said. But if I were to take a guess, he’s saying that the scientists don’t produce facts by just thinking and asserting them. They also have to look at, and interact with the world.

  20. says

    Pierce R Butler @20,
    Okay, but I think the analogy was written by the journalist rather than Latour. In any case, what you’re pointing out isn’t even a disanalogy. Yes sometimes you notice the function of your body when it’s working fine. Likewise, some people (like Latour) were studying the sociology of science well before the Bush administration was around.

  21. says

    I’m reminded of a conversation several months ago when my fiance and I were musing about an online quiz asking people to distinguish between “facts” and “opinions”. Okay, but opinions can be correct, can’t they? And if they’re correct, are they facts? If a statement makes an objective claim, but turns out to be false, is it a fact or opinion? Is it a fact or opinion that Beethoven’s first (and last) violin concerto is his best violin concerto?

    This is your brain on philosophy.

  22. says

    Okay, but opinions can be correct, can’t they? And if they’re correct, are they facts? If a statement makes an objective claim, but turns out to be false, is it a fact or opinion? Is it a fact or opinion that Beethoven’s first (and last) violin concerto is his best violin concerto?

    Truly the stuff of philosophy!

    Can an opinion be correct? It seems the answer turns on what precisely we mean by “correct”.

    Is it not the case that the determination of correctness must be a causal process? Your brain must do something, n’est ce pas?, with the outcome that you say “correct” or “incorrect” at the end.

    What does that process look like? How much of that process is contingent and historical, dependent on your own brain’s history and circumstances? How much is universal, such that any “properly functioning” brain would necessarily come to the same conclusion (implying that any brain that came to a different conclusion must therefore be “improperly functioning”)?

    Are there different kinds of processes used to evaluate statements the authors of the online quiz would classify as facts and opinions? Is this classification and choice of process itself contingent or universal?

  23. Pierce R. Butler says

    Siggy @ # 24 – Okay, you got me good on the point of attribution.

    And that in itself may comprise the core of (useful) pomo-ism.

  24. KG says

    Larry Hamelin@21,

    That’s really just a lot of guff which evades the point – only too typical of postmodernism. Who the hell has ever claimed that something being true is sufficient explanation of someone believing it? (I frankly just don’t believe that’s what the unnamed professional philosopher you quote meant.) And why don’t we apply pomo’s own standards to itself? How do you know it’s true that:

    there are a lot of different problems that need to be solved by a lot of different materially and historically situated groups.

    Isn’t that a claim of fact, without reference to how you come to believe it? And isn’t a key part of that causal mechanism, just as in the case of the sun and that of the number 7, that it is indeed a fact? That’s precisely what STS explicitly excludes from consideration.

    Siggy@23,

    Again, typical pomo evasion. However you choose to define a particular word, the important thing – which pomo, STS, “critical theory” etc. all evade or ignore, is the distinction between what is true and what is known.

    Yeah, I don’t really like how he talks about scientists “collaborating” with microbes, what is that even supposed to mean? Bad communicator, like I said.

    If he’s such a fucking useless writer, he ought not to write. Or be taken seriously. And in this, he’s only too typical of the pomo-STS-critical-theory crowd. I have yet to come across one who isn’t a crappy communicator. I strongly suspect that the reason is that if they made what they are saying clear, its falsity or triviality would be obvious. It’s only by being unclear that the ambiguity between true-but-trivial and radical-but-false can be maintained.

    But if I were to take a guess, he’s saying that the scientists don’t produce facts by just thinking and asserting them. They also have to look at, and interact with the world.

    What a profound and original insight! No-one ever realised that before!

  25. says

    KG @28,
    Well it’s not for me to defend Latour’s communication style. But famous philosophers and academics tend to be a parade of distinctly bad communication styles, it seems weird to me to have a hate on for one ill-defined subset of them for that particular reason.

    Look, I was making fun of Latour’s paper too. His discussion of the distinction between “objects” and “things” was laughable, and became an in-joke between my partner and I. I was rolling my eyes through NYT’s glowing profile, which made him out as a great public defender of science, which is a thing that requires good communication skills. But the fact remains that I personally feel burned by the skeptical movement, which quite clearly communicated a different, and incorrect picture of what postmodernism is. It is important to be able to point that out, even if I have no desire to go all out defending critical theory.

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