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.
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.