Or, as We Say in Argument Clinic


“… that’s a label.”

Is this the right room for an argument

HJ Hornbeck offers a good explanation [reprobate] of why atheists, scientists, and skeptics should avoid using the label “postmodern” in an attempt to dismiss ideas that are confusing or counter-intuitive, especially if they are confusing or counter-intuitive because the reader has failed a “privilege check.”

HJ’s posting is a demonstration of how to destroy an opponent’s argument when they make the strategic blunder of engaging in labeling: you exhaustively decompile the label and demonstrate that they were arguing dishonestly by using a label instead of offering a real argument.

Shorter form:

In Argument Clinic we consider engaging in a battle of bafflegab to be intellectually dishonest. But, since we’re all moral nihilists here, go ahead if you see fit. The problem is, once you start slinging labels and nonsense, someone’s always going to come back at you with:

Go read HJ’s post, it’s better than this.------ divider ------

Note: some of you may be reading “atheists, scientists, and skeptics” as a label, in a posting about how unclear labels can be, and thinking “gotcha!” but, no, I just put that there to test your acuity. Pats on the back all ’round!

All that said, here’s a good joke:
Q: What do you get when you cross a stereotypical mobster with a stereotypical postmodernist?
A: You get an offer you can’t understand.

Since HJ has comments disabled on his postings, I’ll post my comment here:
HJ Hornbeck writes:
“modernism rejects prior systems of knowledge, and views society as continually progressing”

Modernism was teleological and post-modernism didn’t reject it, per se, as much as it demonstrated that social teleology is social
darwinism is – inevitably – ${whatever}-supremacy.

Postmodernists are on our side!

Comments

  1. says

    Modernism was teleological and post-modernism didn’t reject it, per se, as much as it demonstrated that social teleology is social darwinism is – inevitably – ${whatever}-supremacy.

    Trying to understand such ^ gives me a headache. The more a sentence turns into a string of labels, the higher my confusion, and desire to yell “just say what you mean, please.”

  2. Brian English says

    Trying to understand such ^ gives me a headache

    It just makes me realize I am unable to parse guffleblerg well. I love to read Hume because he’s lucid and generally on the ball. Kant is a headache’s headache, but generally interesting, if wrongish, in a right sort of way. Some of those continental philosophers were just taking the piss is the only conclusion I can arrive at.
    Teleology just means concluding there’s an end or purpose to some process. Like, evolution produced Humans, aren’t we special, this is why were advanced, unlike those animals with a ‘primitive’ body plan, that have been around for a 100M years. Or, The purpose of a woman is to be a mother, otherwise, stone the witch!
    I guess “Social teleology is social darwinism is – inevitably -“. is erm….
    Anyway, I figure social teleology means society has an end, which is equivalent to socal Darwinism, (the application of survival of the fitest to those who judge there own cohort – white, colonial, predatory – to be the fitest and exterminate the rest), is – inevitable – white supremacy. Do I get a prize?

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Postmodernists are on our side!

    Whaddya mean “our” side, $[___ist]?

    I probably could count, but won’t, the number of evangelical christians I’ve debated had discussions with who’ve resorted to po-mo tropes while (attempting to) deny scientific facts/historical exegeses which contradict their assertions.

  4. says

    Pierce @ 3:

    who’ve resorted to po-mo tropes while (attempting to) deny

    That’s another thing – everyone wants their own definition of all the labels, until the whole mess devolves into a gluey mess of label stew with no substance at all.

  5. says

    Brian @ 2:

    It just makes me realize I am unable to parse guffleblerg well.

    I know what the words mean, and I can parse the guggleblerg well enough, I just don’t care to do so. Mostly, I can’t stand idiots who give themselves airs for polluting all discourse with their label stew, thinking they have a point, when they don’t.

  6. says

    Caine@#1:
    Trying to understand such ^ gives me a headache. The more a sentence turns into a string of labels, the higher my confusion, and desire to yell “just say what you mean, please.”

    Good point; I really overcompressed that one. Here’s a better version (pretty much what Brian English said at #2):

    Some people appear to hold the view that civilization is a process of cultural self-improvement; that societies become wiser, more moral, more sophisticated as time goes by, mostly as a result of accumulated learning and understanding. That’s not an uncommon atheist/secular humanist view (I think) The problem with saying society improves is that it presupposes there is some kind of yardstick we can apply to say what is better, which is a problem because “improvement” in a culture is a circular argument (what a culture thinks is good is good, therefore we need to do more of it and we’ll be gooder) – that implicitly dis-empowers those that aren’t part of the cultural mainstream, in other words it fosters a form of social inequality. After all, if some people are getting “better” over time, that implies that there are other people who aren’t and are remaining or growing “worse.” That division will inevitably, I believe, lead toward a form of supremacy based on whatever axis the society assesses its civilization as improving along.

    Social teleology: the idea that society has an ‘end state’ (whether achievable or not) that represents improvement.
    Social darwinism: the idea that society’s improvement is a form of evolution or survival of the fittest.
    In the context of social teleology, you almost always wind up with a watered-down form of social darwinism in which the good people/wise people/enlightened people pull society in the “right direction” and drag along a few miscreants or isolate them and wait for them to die out.

  7. says

    Me@#6:
    Another way of looking at it is that right now, in the US, we are in a dialogue of sorts about whether racism is a deplorable, regressive, and inappropriate set of belief systems. As we improve our society, we want racists to stop being racists and ‘get with the program’ and become decent, well-meaning members of a flourishing civilization. We see this as an improvement. (I think it is!) and, assuming society moves in a direction away from racism, those deplorables become increasingly marginalized. They see that movement as supremacy of SJWs or egalitarians, and it fuels new heights of resentment – basically it justifies their beliefs that they are being oppressed. One view is that, by standing still, they are oppressing themselves. Another view is that, since culture has no objective value system and its value systems are the totality of all its attitudes and beliefs, they are being marginalized and being marginalized may be inherently unfair.

    Now, what I did there was pretty nasty – I turned the moral argument for social equality into “what about the poor deplorables?” but absent a way of saying what is right and wrong, it places civilization in a tough place: do we respect the deplorable beliefs of a few? Or do we correct them, which means defining their beliefs as incorrect. If we believe there is an objective moral truth out there, somewhere, that we can judge them by then we can say “they are in the wrong” and marginalize them. But that is basically what they were doing, themselves, when they were on top.

    The modernist project was to make an understandable world, built on rationality: one could construct one’s moral systems using moral facts and moral calculus and could build a better world when everyone became more enlightened and understood better. The modernist view was that, once everyone got with the program, and understood then we’d all become constitutional democratic socialists, or whatever. Modernism is the train of thought that leads us to things like scientists claiming that advanced civilizations will, by definition, have outgrown war and colonialism and that in the future everything will be better understood. My view is that modernism was the tail-end of the enlightenment and scientism of the victorian era: we’ll all get smarter/better/more moral as we eventually figure out what Kant was saying, and stop believing in god and political parties. The problem with modernism was that it was constructed atop an imperialist and colonialist world-view: it’s impossible (argue many post-modernists including perhaps myself) to pretend that the ever-improving civilization was not the British Empire or the United States. It is impossible to miss the fact that “the white man’s burden” is inextricably intertwined with the idea of improving civilization world-wide.

    I think post-modernism asks some very important questions – in a skeptical tone. Also, the backlash against it is really hard to distinguish from defense of the status quo, and it uses the techniques of the establishment: demonization and labelling. That should be suspicious.

    I don’t think I am being unfair to align “white man’s burden” with post-enlightenment thinking and modernism. But some may feel it is.

    Also, disclaimer: I am throwing labels around for convenience. “Not all post-modernists” and “not all modernists” apply. It’s dangerous to try to pick out broad intellectual trends and not to stereotype them while doing so.

  8. consciousness razor says

    Some people appear to hold the view that civilization is a process of cultural self-improvement; that societies become wiser, more moral, more sophisticated as time goes by, mostly as a result of accumulated learning and understanding. That’s not an uncommon atheist/secular humanist view (I think)

    But what that has to do with “modernism” is anybody’s guess. It may have a lot to do with strawmen, though.*

    The problem with saying society improves is that it presupposes there is some kind of yardstick we can apply to say what is better, which is a problem because “improvement” in a culture is a circular argument (what a culture thinks is good is good, therefore we need to do more of it and we’ll be gooder) – that implicitly dis-empowers those that aren’t part of the cultural mainstream, in other words it fosters a form of social inequality.

    Bullshit. Why would you be treating disempowerment and social inequality as yardsticks, if there are no such things that we can apply?

    In fact, our society did improve when we abolished slavery, for instance. Feel free to deny that, if you really think you have to, but it isn’t a presupposition.

    After all, if some people are getting “better” over time, that implies that there are other people who aren’t and are remaining or growing “worse.”

    No, it doesn’t. If some are, that simply doesn’t imply the rest aren’t. What would imply it is that not all people are getting better, which isn’t the same statement, because “some” is just a subset of “all” — what’s true of a whole set can obviously be true of a subset.

    That division will inevitably, I believe, lead toward a form of supremacy based on whatever axis the society assesses its civilization as improving along.

    If we assess ourselves on the basis of social inequality, does that inevitably lead to a form of supremacy? If so, what form of supremacy would that be? If it is unavoidable, why is that so, and should this be a concern? Why would we be concerned about anything, including misguided beliefs people may have about inevitable progress or the inevitability of anything?

    *I’m inclined to say all of this talk about postmodernism is just as meaningless, all of the fake distinctions made and the confused posturing that accompanies it. Here’s a choice quote, via wikipedia:

    When it becomes possible for a people to describe as ‘postmodern’ the décor of a room, the design of a building, the diegesis of a film, the construction of a record, or a ‘scratch’ video, a television commercial, or an arts documentary, or the ‘intertextual’ relations between them, the layout of a page in a fashion magazine or critical journal, an anti-teleological tendency within epistemology, the attack on the ‘metaphysics of presence’, a general attenuation of feeling, the collective chagrin and morbid projections of a post-War generation of baby boomers confronting disillusioned middle-age, the ‘predicament’ of reflexivity, a group of rhetorical tropes, a proliferation of surfaces, a new phase in commodity fetishism, a fascination for images, codes and styles, a process of cultural, political or existential fragmentation and/or crisis, the ‘de-centring’ of the subject, an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, the replacement of unitary power axes by a plurality of power/discourse formations, the ‘implosion of meaning’, the collapse of cultural hierarchies, the dread engendered by the threat of nuclear self-destruction, the decline of the university, the functioning and effects of the new miniaturised technologies, broad societal and economic shifts into a ‘media’, ‘consumer’ or ‘multinational’ phase, a sense (depending on who you read) of ‘placelessness’ or the abandonment of placelessness (‘critical regionalism’) or (even) a generalised substitution of spatial for temporal coordinates – when it becomes possible to describe all these things as ‘Postmodern’ (or more simply using a current abbreviation as ‘post’ or ‘very post’) then it’s clear we are in the presence of a buzzword.

  9. says

    Brian English@#2:
    Some of those continental philosophers were just taking the piss is the only conclusion I can arrive at.

    I kinda mostly sort of agree. Derrida, for example, sounds like he’s an AI that has been programmed with a mix of Deepak Chopra and Kant, with a bit of Henry Rollins thrown in. Like with the output of many neural-net trained AIs, the output is statistically indistinguishable from the input: it’s like he’s remixing politics into mush.

    Where it hurts my head is when I step back and look at it and realize it’s all mush.

    For someone like me, who is prone to bouts of linguistic nihilism, listening to post-modernist lectures I feel like my vocabulary has been destroyed. I am left wondering what “is” is, in this context. As someone who wants words to mean what I think they mean, that makes me very uncomfortable.

    The idea of “deconstructing” something is, I believe, valuable. Like “Marxist dialectic” or “existentialism” it has achieved a special status of “oft-talked-about but mostly caricatured” But, if I understand approximately correctly, the idea is to look at concepts and challenge them in their cultural context, peeling back the layers of social presupposition from which they are made. If someone wearing a black beret, skinny over-dyed black jeans, and smoking a Djarum says “I wish to deconstruct the meaning of your Persian cat” they are most likely a poseur who is doing the pre-internet version of sealioning a concept. But when someone says “let us deconstruct the implicit assumptions in political attitudes toward medical care” I think that’s pretty legit.

    Post-modernists are easy to caricature and dismiss (as I did in my joke!) as obscurantists. But I think their general attack on the modernist ideal world is good and valuable.

    There’s an interview with Derrida on youtube that I saw once, and it was enlightening. Not because of what Derrida said, but because of the questions he was asked: “What about Love?” Derrida, appropriately enough, tried to laugh off the question. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the wonderful footage of Bob Dylan being interviewed by the press in San Francisco a zillion years ago: they were asking him stupid guru-level questions and he just started throwing back stupid guru-sounding answers. The funny thing is that, when you’re Derrida, presumably you cannot just reply “WTF?” to a stupid question.

    Anyway, I figure social teleology means society has an end, which is equivalent to socal Darwinism, (the application of survival of the fitest to those who judge there own cohort – white, colonial, predatory – to be the fitest and exterminate the rest), is – inevitable – white supremacy. Do I get a prize?

    Yes!
    (You now have 15 Zorkmids)

  10. consciousness razor says

    They see that movement as supremacy of SJWs or egalitarians,

    I have no idea what “supremacy” is supposed to mean here, nor do I know why we should seriously believe the way they “see” it is somehow a correct perspective on reality.

    and it fuels new heights of resentment – basically it justifies their beliefs that they are being oppressed.

    No, it doesn’t. They might think it does. The fact that they believe it doesn’t justify the claim that it’s true. (Did someone mention skepticism?) You routinely confuse these things; it infects so many of your claims/arguments…. I’m fairly sure it isn’t just you misspeaking or using casual or metaphorical language. The statements are substantively wrong, then in a completely misleading way they’re taken seriously, and of course things go off the rails from there.

    I don’t want to psychologize too much. But maybe it feels safer talking about how things “seem” from a perspective all of the time. Hard to be wrong about that, although on the other hand, it’s generally vague and a moving target. Anyway, that’s not a substitute for the way things actually are, nor does it license you to conflate them with one another. If you’re not too afraid of being wrong (as obviously you could be about the way things actually are), then sometimes you just have to say something that might be wrong. And if you find out that you did, then there’s something you can try to fix or address, rather than saying the same load of nothing no matter what may come.

    One view is that, by standing still, they are oppressing themselves. Another view is that, since culture has no objective value system and its value systems are the totality of all its attitudes and beliefs, they are being marginalized and being marginalized may be inherently unfair.

    Racists aren’t being marginalized. Making things more fair isn’t inherently unfair. That is just a blatant contradiction, and there’s no reason whatsoever to accept it.

  11. says

    consciousness razor@#9:
    But what that has to do with “modernism” is anybody’s guess. It may have a lot to do with strawmen, though.

    I’m trying to explain a view of post-modernism, I’m not necessarily sympathetic to all of the various post-modern positions or even the main stereotypical ones. I don’t like the label, either. As you point out, it depends on a definition of “modernism” that is itself a caricature.

    As far as the construction of the label, it seems pretty similar to “anti feminist” today: the people who call themselves anti-feminists are probably “anti- a caricature of feminism” or “anti- a bunch of viewpoints that very few feminists hold.”

    I probably would have described post-modernists in terms of their particular views and avoided a label as much as possible. I would describe Derrida as a skeptic about society and language. I would describe Foucault as a skeptic who was concerned with epistemology and language. etc. There is a great big difference between their views, which is often concealed under the covering label (the same way that, say, Sartre and Camus are both called ‘existentialists’ yet have very different views) If I recall correctly, Foucault didn’t like being called a post-modernist; he probably saw the label rightly as an attempt to pigeon-hole him.

    Bullshit. Why would you be treating disempowerment and social inequality as yardsticks, if there are no such things that we can apply?

    I don’t think they’re useful yardsticks. That’s the problem: these things are incredibly squishy.

    No, it doesn’t. If some are, that simply doesn’t imply the rest aren’t. What would imply it is that not all people are getting better, which isn’t the same statement, because “some” is just a subset of “all” — what’s true of a whole set can obviously be true of a subset.

    Yes, that’s right. I don’t see the problem here. If everyone as a whole’s standard of living is improving, except for a marginalized group, can’t we say that that group is falling behind everyone else?

    If we assess ourselves on the basis of social inequality, does that inevitably lead to a form of supremacy? If so, what form of supremacy would that be? If it is unavoidable, why is that so, and should this be a concern? Why would we be concerned about anything, including misguided beliefs people may have about inevitable progress or the inevitability of anything?

    Well, you picked a contradiction in terms, so, clever you. Unfortunately, it mis-characterizes what I was saying, which was:
    That division will inevitably, I believe, lead toward a form of supremacy based on whatever axis the society assesses its civilization as improving along.

    Suppose we have a civilization in which the social values we judge people on are pious displays of nationalism, and bowling scores. If those are how we “score” people as good citizens, or bad citizens, we are implicitly disenfranchising people who can’t bowl. We might tut-tut at people who need prosthetic bowling-fingers because of accidents, and we might disproportionately reward the bowlers who can afford tutors and endless practice. Unless we can argue that whatever measures we place on an individual’s social value are somehow not simply a social construct, then we’ve got to confront the fact that it’s a social norm and we’ve got a circular definition of value.

    I’m OK with that, for what that’s worth.

    […] when it becomes possible to describe all these things as ‘Postmodern’ (or more simply using a current abbreviation as ‘post’ or ‘very post’) then it’s clear we are in the presence of a buzzword.

    Yes, I agree. It’s a label. I clearly said that.

    If I were head of the Labelling Committee I’d have labelled the people many call post-modernists as skeptics of various forms, and fired whoever came up with the buzzword.

  12. says

    consciousness razor@#10:
    I have no idea what “supremacy” is supposed to mean here, nor do I know why we should seriously believe the way they “see” it is somehow a correct perspective on reality.

    I am not defending the view. I was using it as an example.

    No, it doesn’t. They might think it does.

    I am not defending the view. I was using it as an example of how this particular thing plays out. And you’re doing a good job of arguing the other side. I should have used fondness for LOLcats or something more obviously an example as an example.

    Racists aren’t being marginalized. Making things more fair isn’t inherently unfair. That is just a blatant contradiction, and there’s no reason whatsoever to accept it.

    I am not defending the view. Perhaps I was straw-manning a bit, though I don’t think I was being unfair.
    Hopefully, you’ve observed racists or religionists arguing that “you are oppressing me by taking away my power to oppress others” – that’s what’s going on in my example. We can chalk it up to some people seeing certain social properties as zero-sum when they are not (is equality zero-sum?) (I say no because “equality” is too vague, but some people appear to think it is)

    Let’s recast that as LOLcat fans, then. Imagine a society in which we collectively decide that LOLcats are in bad taste, and are pointless and boring. Now, as a civilization, we turn almost entirely away from LOLcats. Some of the more radical among us advocate punching people who post LOLcats. There are social consequences for posting LOLcats, even if it’s just mockery and self-loathing on the part of the LOLcats fans, who are a dwindling and marginalized minority. By our definition, since we have decided that LOLcats are in bad taste, society has become slightly better and more tasteful. The greater good outweighs the perversion of the few LOLcat lovers, and non-LOLcat supremacy is, by definition, achieved.

  13. consciousness razor says

    Well, you picked a contradiction in terms, so, clever you.

    I think what you said in this statement is wrong, in several ways:

    The problem with saying society improves is that it presupposes there is some kind of yardstick we can apply to say what is better, which is a problem because “improvement” in a culture is a circular argument (what a culture thinks is good is good, therefore we need to do more of it and we’ll be gooder) – that implicitly dis-empowers those that aren’t part of the cultural mainstream, in other words it fosters a form of social inequality.

    I do not recognize this “problem,” and the idea that we “need to do more” of the same comes out of nowhere. It isn’t a necessary part of thinking about what would be better. If what we would do is something different and it would reduce inequality, then very trivially, it isn’t the same and isn’t fostering inequality. Not trying to be clever here — you made some assertions, and there is no reason to believe them.

    If those are how we “score” people as good citizens, or bad citizens, we are implicitly disenfranchising people who can’t bowl.

    But if not, then not. Do you see how choosing your examples to be patently ridiculous counterfactuals is not helpful? They are that easy to reject as irrelevant.

    The minute I come up with a fairly reasonable proposal, then suddenly I’m somehow being wrong-headed, and it’s just assumed (without argument) that it couldn’t possibly be reasonable. I don’t know why … because you say so.

    Anyway, if you weren’t making sweeping claims in the first place, then this “mischaracterizing” that I’m supposedly doing wouldn’t happen.

    Unless we can argue that whatever measures we place on an individual’s social value are somehow not simply a social construct, then we’ve got to confront the fact that it’s a social norm and we’ve got a circular definition of value.

    People feel pain and pleasure. They need food, shelter, clothing, educations, healthy and peaceful lives, etc. Nobody constructed that, because no gods made us or this world. Our biology and our environment gave all kinds of things like that to us. That’s how it is.

    Besides, how would the fact that something is “social” imply it’s circular? I still don’t any circles in there, even when that’s what we’re talking about.

    I am not defending the view.

    But you’re drawing conclusions from it. If it isn’t true, then we have no business worrying about what follows from its being true. If you’re supposed to be getting those conclusions from somewhere else, then you’re not explaining anything about how they got into the discussion or why we should believe them.

  14. Pierce R. Butler says

    Caine @ # 4: … the whole mess devolves into a gluey mess of label stew with no substance at all.

    This aptly describes much of the post-modernist agenda, at least as applied by many.

    And an indeterminate fraction of contemporary French philosophy, plus some of the Anglophone variety.

  15. says

    consciousness razor@#13:
    I do not recognize this “problem,” and the idea that we “need to do more” of the same comes out of nowhere. It isn’t a necessary part of thinking about what would be better.

    That’s an interesting view. It seems that it follows that if something is better, we should do it – isn’t that implied by “better” and perhaps “should”?

    Also, I kind of want to go all Bruce Lee on you with the “consider a finger pointing at the moon” and the guy he’s talking to keeps staring at his finger. I was attempting to describe what I said clearly was a simplification of a viewpoint some call modernism – I was not trying to argue that viewpoint is right or wrong or anything in between. So it doesn’t make sense that you’re trying a skeptical challenge about my assertions; I believe I already made it clear that I’m not asserting this stuff. I am (as I believe you already know) skeptical that we can have a meaningful discussion about what is “better” or “worse” for a society or an individual unless we collapse it down to the individual’s opinion. Since I was trying to present a thumbnail sketch of modernism, I take it that you’re quibbling with my sketchwork, which is fine. To resolve that we’d have to dig through whatever “modernism” is and I’m probably unconvinced by the lot of it.

    If what we would do is something different and it would reduce inequality, then very trivially, it isn’t the same and isn’t fostering inequality.

    I was trying to demonstrate that it becomes a circular argument, and you’re arguing that it’s a circular argument. I think we agree.

    Not trying to be clever here — you made some assertions, and there is no reason to believe them.

    I’m not going to demolish my ability to communicate by writing in phyrrhonian style just for you. I could have said “it appears to me now that modernists appear to believe something that may look like this if we can appear to agree on that appearance blah blah blah blah.” Let’s not do that, because it appears to destroy our ability to use language.

    I willingly accept your assertion that I appear to have made some assertions because I appear not to have adequately larded my statements with +5 Waffle-Plates of Deflecting Skepticism.

    Do you see how choosing your examples to be patently ridiculous counterfactuals is not helpful? They are that easy to reject as irrelevant.

    Sure, because the principles are completely different somehow because – relevance? What is “relevance” except your presupposition of a thing’s value? It’s easy to make a moral argument when using an example like slavery, because we’re mostly going to presuppose that it’s bad and that people supporting it are bad, etc. That’s that cultural context that the post-modernists are trying to break, because that cultural context is sometimes imperialist, sometimes racist, sometimes flat-out wrong, and sometimes it’s right. “Patently ridiculous” counterfactuals is presupposing that the counterfactual is ridiculous; more circular argument.

    People feel pain and pleasure. They need food, shelter, clothing, educations, healthy and peaceful lives, etc. Nobody constructed that, because no gods made us or this world. Our biology and our environment gave all kinds of things like that to us. That’s how it is.

    Way to completely miss the point. In a society, things like food, shelter, education, health, peace, are controlled by society. That is what “society” appears to be, and nothing more. When we talk about “unfairness in education” we are talking about a social interaction. “IGNORANT” is not a social interaction; trying to get an education is.

    Besides, how would the fact that something is “social” imply it’s circular? I still don’t any circles in there, even when that’s what we’re talking about.

    I was referring to social values as circular in the case where someone argues that what is good is that which is good for society. Well, yes, but how is that decided? Society. How? By doing society, presumably.

    But you’re drawing conclusions from it.

    Yeah, so? I’m not claiming I’ve got a grip on some absolute truths; I’m offering my opinions about things. I draw conclusions from things. Don’t you? Like I said, I’m not going to pyrhhonist-waffle and skeptical tapdance for you.

    If you’re supposed to be getting those conclusions from somewhere else, then you’re not explaining anything about how they got into the discussion or why we should believe them.

    Maybe you should stop trying to act as though I’m delivering a philosophy lecture, when I’m talking about thumbnail sketches of someone else’s caricature of someone else’s belief systems. I didn’t expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition.

  16. Hj Hornbeck says

    consciousness razor @8:

    But what [continual improvement] has to do with “modernism” is anybody’s guess. It may have a lot to do with strawmen, though.

    Paul Klee’s book lays it out fairly well, though it helps to know a bit of art history. Up until modern art, artists in the Western tradition tended to focus on replicating nature or natural scenes. Portraits of people, scenes from the Christian Bible, bowls of fruit, that sort of thing. Much of the skill was devoted to capturing subtle features of light, such as the slight colour shifts of skin or indirect illumination bouncing around the scene.

    Klee in particular, and modern art in general, chucked that out.

    The creation of a work of art … must of necessity, as a result of entering into the specific dimensions of pictorial art, be accompanied by distortion of the natural form. For, therein is nature reborn.

    The goal of art is not to duplicate nature, according to modernists, but to ascribe to or convey an ideal. This meant duplicating the reductiveness found in science to break the medium into its essential elements, then from there building back to an ideal. One which didn’t previously exist.

    First, [the artist] does not attach such intense importance to natural form as do so many realist critics, because, for him, these final forms are not the real stuff of the process of natural creation. For he places more value on the powers which do the forming than on the final forms themselves. […]

    The deeper he looks, the more readily he can extend his view from the present to the past, the more deeply he is impressed by the one essential image of creation itself, as Genesis, rather than by image of nature, the finished product.

    Then he permits himself the thought that the process of creation can today hardly be complete and he sees the act of world creation stretching from the past to the future. Genesis eternal! […]

    Your realist, however, coming across such an illustration in a sensational magazine, would exclaim in great indignation: ‘Is that supposed to be nature? I call it bad drawing.’

    Does the artist then concern himself with microscopy? History? Paleontology?

    Only for the purposes of comparison, only in the exercise of his mobility of mind. And not to provide a scientific check on the truth of nature.

    It’s all terribly utopian: make a clean break with the past and grasp for the future, for something better. For something that doesn’t exist yet.

    We must go on seeking it!
    We have found parts, but not the whole!
    We still lack the ultimate power, for:
    the people are not with is.

    But we seek a people.

  17. says

    I think I figured a better way to explain it:
    Marcus tries to make a point about how labeling confuses people.
    Then, that point is abundantly illustrated in the subsequent confusion about labeling.

    Pyrhhic victory! (Not by Pyrrhonians, tho)

  18. John Morales says

    Me, I think the discussion above mixes up art and sociology and philosophy into an unpalatable stew.

    (Also, I don’t read blogs where I can’t comment, but I did attempt to read that turgid piece. Ugh)

  19. Hj Hornbeck says

    Pierce R. Butler @14:

    This aptly describes much of the post-modernist agenda, at least as applied by many.

    That’s like saying all of gender studies is defined by Judith Butler. If you want something more palatable than Derrida, may I recommend Laurence Lessig? Personally, I prefer DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash.

    Mainstream DJs played the hits – the “A cuts” on an album – but Herc played “the D cut, the F cut, the cut nobody gave a shit about. People came from all over to hear Herc play jams.”

    “There were other DJs doing stuff along these lines but the innovations stemmed from Herc,” says Hermes. “He was the guy who everybody revered. Herc put records together with a logic that Jamaican DJs would use: cut-and-paste.”

    An electronics geek with scant funds, Flash constructed a stereo system using parts scavenged from scrapyards and discarded cars and asked the girls he dated if their parents had any records they didn’t want. He was good at finding breaks – the “get down” parts – but they were never long enough. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, this is the best part of the record! Why is it so short?’ That really pissed me off. I heard this 10-second break as 10 minutes in my mind.”

    Hip-hop is the quintessential postmodern artform; it takes the best of what came before and combines it into a form the original authors never intended. It puts everything under a critical microscope, from the connotations behind the beats it borrows to the society it lives within.

    John Morales @18:

    Also, I don’t read blogs where I can’t comment, but I did attempt to read that turgid piece. Ugh.

    Awww. Maybe a video would help wash it down?

  20. John Morales says

    Hj, as I noted, I found your melange turgid. Watching a documentary film about copyright issues won’t change that.

    “A central point of the documentary is the thesis that “creativity itself is on the line” and that a balance needs to be struck”. Heh.

    (That you attempt to explain postmodernism by referring to art is also amusing to me)

  21. John Morales says

    I mean, come on!

    “Modernism isn’t well-defined, because the only commonality is the rejection of what came before.”
    and
    “This is where post-modernism steps in. As a reaction to modernism it inherits the same vagueness, but if there is a unifying factor it’s the critique of modernism’s axioms.”

    So it’s axiomatic but ill-defined. Gotcha.

  22. Hj Hornbeck says

    John Morales @21:

    That you attempt to explain postmodernism by referring to art is also amusing to me.

    Modernism began as an art movement. Postmodernism is a reaction to it. Ergo, references to art are cricket. Don’t believe me? Let’s consult the philosophers.

    Several postmodernist thinkers, while arguing for, or against, the legitimacy of the postmodern aesthetic, have pointed to the fact that hip-hop may have originated as a postmodern art form. Russell A. Potter goes as far as to argue that hip-hop actually conceived of postmodernism before the writings of philosophers such as Derrida had time to permeate the contemporary literary landscape; hip-hop, in this sense, is inherently postmodern in its resistance “against the economic and philosophical bulwarks of slavery and colonialism.” (Potter, 6) As postmodernism is a reaction against modernism, and, as Cornel West argued in “Black Culture and Postmodernism,” a reaction against its Eurocentric nature, so is hip-hop a reaction to the displacement, fragmentation, and reintegration of African-Americans (the terminology here being revealing enough).

    John Morales @22:

    So it’s axiomatic but ill-defined. Gotcha.

    You missed a critical bit of context:

    As a reaction to modernism it inherits the same vagueness, but if there is a unifying factor it’s the critique of modernism’s axioms. Is newer always better? Must the relation between artist and audience be so dictatorial? And aren’t we just replacing old gods with new ones?

    Those axioms are fairly small, thus there’s a lot of flexibility in how they are expressed. As I put it,

    Modernism isn’t well-defined, because the only commonality is the rejection of what came before. There isn’t an over-arching theory behind it all, hence why artists as diverse as Jackson Pollack and Andy Warhol can both be considered “modernist.”

    You might wanna take a bit more time and re-read my piece, it seems you missed key details.

  23. John Morales says

    Hm. Let’s just admit postmodernism is an essentially contested concept, and leave it at that, instead of playing language games.

    I think that the issue at hand is not whether labeling (contra Marcus) something is an insufficient dismissal (whatever the label), but whether the label is applicable to what is labeled.
    When people can’t even properly define the label’s referent, it’s an exercise in futility.

    (Also, in these discussions I typically see modernism/structuralism used interchangeably, which also amuses me)

  24. John Morales says

    PS
    Actually, Hj, I do find it interesting you care to discuss your post here but not in your own blog.

    (Obviously, I can only speculate as to your motivation for that)

  25. Pierce R. Butler says

    Hj Hornbeck @ # 20: That’s like saying all of gender studies is defined by Judith Butler.

    Uh, you did notice the multiple qualifiers (and no “all”) in my # 14, no?

  26. Hj Hornbeck says

    John Morales @24:

    Hm. Let’s just admit postmodernism is an essentially contested concept, and leave it at that, instead of playing language games.

    I’m happy to admit that on the academic level there’s a fair bit of argument over what postmodernism is. But academics focus on corner cases in order to properly demark the whole, which makes the definition appear fuzzier than it actually is. In reality all labels applying to the real world carry some level of fuzziness, so if you dig deep enough all of them become contested.

    I’d argue postmodernism is oddly easy to grasp, relative to similar labels. Here, I’ll list three solidly postmodern works and let you tell me what they all share in common.

    1. The Grey Album, by DJ Danger Mouse.
    2. No 1 Poultry, by James Stirling.
    3. The Bernie or Hilary? meme.

  27. Hj Hornbeck says

    Pierce R. Butler @26:

    Uh, you did notice the multiple qualifiers (and no “all”) in my # 14, no?

    And did you notice I said “like?” The analogy wasn’t exact, and I’m happy to admit to that. But “much of the post-modernist agenda, at least as applied by many” sets off all sorts of alarm bells. What is Girl Talk‘s agenda? Or the agenda of YouTube Poop? Or Lushsux‘s agenda? The vast majority of postmodernist art is made well outside of an art gallery, by anonymous or obscure authors, most of whom don’t even realize they’re making postmodernist art.

  28. Pierce R. Butler says

    Hj Hornbeck @ # 29 – You name examples which I do not recognize even slightly, leaving me at a total loss for reply … except that I started out with a critique of po-mo getting applied to science and history.

    I don’t deny that (some of) the approaches known as post-modernism can produce useful and worthwhile insights when used to analyze such subjects, but I hope you won’t deny that (some of) such approaches serve only as smoke ‘n’ mirrors, or (to mix my metaphors) a cloud of cephalopodic ink emitted liberally to assist a quick getaway. I would rejoice to see a rigorous delineation between the two, but fear any such attempt would fall into the murky pit at the center of the tug-of-war over the “post-modernism” label.

  29. consciousness razor says

    Marcus Ranum, #15:

    I do not recognize this “problem,” and the idea that we “need to do more” of the same comes out of nowhere. It isn’t a necessary part of thinking about what would be better.

    That’s an interesting view. It seems that it follows that if something is better, we should do it – isn’t that implied by “better” and perhaps “should”?

    I think this is just a misunderstanding. When I say “let’s do something better,” I almost never mean “let’s do more of the same thing we are already doing.” Because I’m not saying that what is good/better just is what is in fact already the case right now. From experience, I know it usually isn’t the case that the status quo is good/acceptable. Plus, the whole point of a comparative word like “better” is that it isn’t identified with the thing to which it is being compared (whatever that may be: our current situation, some other hypothetical alternative, etc.).

    In fact, we can contemplate doing things other than what we’re currently doing, and can decide to do so instead of continuing our current activities. That isn’t impossible — merely thinking about what we’re going to do, about what is valuable or what would be better, doesn’t imply we have to do the same thing we’re already doing. Likewise for fostering inequality. Your claims to the contrary were of course unsupported, but beyond that, they’re not remotely plausible after even a cursory inspection. I think you could just concede the point, that your reasoning was poor and not worth defending, and move on with the discussion with no great losses.

    So it doesn’t make sense that you’re trying a skeptical challenge about my assertions; I believe I already made it clear that I’m not asserting this stuff. I am (as I believe you already know) skeptical that we can have a meaningful discussion about what is “better” or “worse” for a society or an individual unless we collapse it down to the individual’s opinion.

    I think it should’ve been obvious that I’m challenging that view. Since you put it on the table, I’ve been responding to it. Whatever else you think I’m challenging, about the meaning of modernism/postmodernism and so forth, is (as you seem to understand) a separate issue.

    I was trying to demonstrate that it becomes a circular argument, and you’re arguing that it’s a circular argument. I think we agree.

    No, we don’t agree. First, because there is no circularity in that. What I offered is simply a thing we could do. Secondly, it is a counterexample to your claim that all evaluations we could possibly entertain must inevitably result in certain effects (i.e., being the same as we were already doing and fostering inequality). That isn’t inevitable, and your chosen examples (opposing non-bowlers and LOLcat fans) are clearly not exhausting the possibilities, nor do they have anything to recommend them.

    Way to completely miss the point. In a society, things like food, shelter, education, health, peace, are controlled by society.

    But the fact that we all need those things isn’t a social construction. You asked for something not socially constructed, and you got a whole lot of obvious examples which are unmistakably relevant to what we should and should not value. So you’re worried about a non-problem, because you’ve taken social constructivism too seriously as something far more all-encompassing than it actually is.

    Hj Hornbeck, #28:

    Compare that with a similar list for modernist art:

    1. Sonatas and Interludes, by John Cage.
    2. Fallingwater, by Frank Lloyd Wright.
    3. No. 5, 1948, by Jackson Pollock.

    I don’t see the connection. If I had to guess, I would’ve said Cage’s and Pollack’s works would be branded as postmodern, in contrast to artists/musicians from the first half of the 20th century who are taken to be modernists. But I know a thing or two about art history, musicology, and so forth — maybe that’s my problem. There’s nothing substantial to get a grip on here, so guessing is the only option. I can’t examine a work and figure out for myself that it is “postmodern,” using intelligible criteria of some sort. (Well, I could do so, but that’s being discouraged.) I just have to be told that it goes into one list or else in another, for no apparent reason. I have a problem with that.

  30. consciousness razor says

    Correction:

    Plus, the whole point of a comparative word like “better” is that [its referent] isn’t identified with the thing

  31. says

    consciousness razor:
    Secondly, it is a counterexample to your claim that all evaluations we could possibly entertain must inevitably result in certain effects

    I did not make any claim in the form of “all evaluations we could possibly entertain…”

    I am not trying to present logical arguments with carefully crafted words that will resist semantic nitpicking; I said that at the beginning, and again, in a comment partway through this thread. I am using terms loosely and I’m not interested in trying to defend them because the whole point of this posting is that I think defending them is going to fail. So please stop jumping up on a stump and pointing out that I failed to defend them by treating a casual comment as categorical dogmatic statements. If it makes you feel happy to score a few points, fine, here’s 10 points, go do with them what you please.

    That isn’t inevitable, and your chosen examples (opposing non-bowlers and LOLcat fans) are clearly not exhausting the possibilities, nor do they have anything to recommend them.

    I was trying to illustrate a social dynamic, not propose a logical system. This is not Philosophy 101 – I was not trying to exhaust possibilities (which would be stupid, anyway – why would I attempt that?) If you don’t like my example, I really don’t care if you don’t understand me at all. I was not proposing some kind of rule-system about social axioms that I think I can reasonably expect you to already know I don’t accept as coherent ideas in the first place.

    Summary:
    Me: “I don’t take this idea seriously, but…”
    You: “Yes, well you’re wrong about blah blah”
    Me: “No kidding!”

    But the fact that we all need those things isn’t a social construction. You asked for something not socially constructed, and you got a whole lot of obvious examples which are unmistakably relevant to what we should and should not value.

    Show me where I asked for anything! I threw out a couple examples of some things that are socially constructed. I was not trying to exhaustively define any of this stuff.

    I understand, you’re going to say “when you said X, it was an assertion and therefore I was expecting that you meant it was true for all X” and “when you offered an example, you implicitly invited counter-examples…” As I said, I am not trying to debate those issues. Would it help you if I just give you another 20 points and a little crown of victory and can we go back to talking in generalities, like one is supposed to when talking about art, culture, morals, and labels?

    because you’ve taken social constructivism too seriously as something far more all-encompassing than it actually is

    I don’t recall ever saying anything about “social constructivism” or taking it as encompassing anything.

    Perhaps what’s going on is that I’ve accidentally trampled on some terms of art that have different or higher levels of meaning to you, and consequently I’m confusing you?

    When I opened by saying that this posting was about how using labels like “post modern” to dismiss ideas that were confusing or counter-intuitive, especially when those ideas were confusing and counter-intuitive, are you commenting with confusing and counter-intuitive comments in order to show me how easily confused I am? Because, it worked.

  32. Hj Hornbeck says

    Pierce R. Butler @31:

    I don’t deny that (some of) the approaches known as post-modernism can produce useful and worthwhile insights when used to analyze such subjects, but I hope you won’t deny that (some of) such approaches serve only as smoke ‘n’ mirrors, or (to mix my metaphors) a cloud of cephalopodic ink emitted liberally to assist a quick getaway.

    Gladly! I hinted at something like that in my original piece, in fact.

    I like to think of post-modernism as skepticism re-discovered by non-skeptics. It can most certainly get things wrong, especially when it amounts to blind opposition or the lack of something (sound familiar?). But when done right, it encourages critical thought and challenges orthodoxy, and isn’t afraid to turn that critical lens on itself.

    It’s not an exact match, but within a stone’s throw. If I seem a bit a bit defensive of postmodernism, overall, it’s because there’s a lot of fake news floating around it (remember this thread, John Morales?)

    You name examples which I do not recognize even slightly, leaving me at a total loss for reply … except that I started out with a critique of po-mo getting applied to science and history.

    Well, ain’t you in luck! I know of a blog post which talked about that..

    A modernist holds up science as the ultimate arbitrator of what is true; a post-modernist looks at the replication crisis, who our “ideal human” is in scientific studies, and the philosophy underpinning scientific methods, and asks for something better. I like to think of post-modernism as skepticism …

    Citations in the original blog post, FYI.

  33. Hj Hornbeck says

    consciousness razor @33:

    I don’t see the connection. If I had to guess, I would’ve said Cage’s and Pollack’s works would be branded as postmodern, in contrast to artists/musicians from the first half of the 20th century who are taken to be modernists.

    That… was kinda my point?

    I’d argue postmodernism is oddly easy to grasp, relative to similar labels. Here, I’ll list three solidly postmodern works and let you tell me what they all share in common.

    So failing to see a common connection between modernist art is a minor win in my column. The key to recognizing them as modernist is to remember the key axioms: break things into fundamental atoms, build back up to something new and original, and have a clear Author with a Vision. Pollock’s drip paintings nail all three.

    During his lifetime, Pollock enjoyed considerable fame and notoriety. Jackson Pollock’s greatness lies in developing one of the most radical abstract styles in the history of modern art, detaching line from color, redefining the categories of drawing and painting, and finding new means to describe pictorial space. […]

    In November 1939, The Museum of Modern Art in New York City mounted an important Picasso exhibition entitled: Picasso: 40 Years of His Art, which contained 344 works of Pablo Picasso and his famous anti-war mural, Guernica. The exhibit led Pollock to recognize the expressive power of European modernism, which he had previously rejected in favor of American art. He began to forge a new style of semi-abstract totemic compositions, refined through obsessive reworking.

    I almost went with John Cage’s 4’33” instead, but I thought there were too many postmodernist elements to it. Sonatas and Interludes instead breaks down music into its fundamentals by placing heavy emphasis on silence, avoiding the standard Western scale, and even using numeric sequences to structure the notes. You can’t even play it on an ordinary piano:

    Cage’s masterwork is quite different from this: it is a big piece with a quiet voice. The very instrument he writes for, the prepared piano, undermines the grand statement. This is an instrument that operates entirely by muting: by attaching objects to the strings of the piano, Cage has altered their sounds in various ways. The results are different from note to note — some resonant, some dry, some metallic, some wooden — but they are always, always quieter than before. The prepared piano is an instrument that is personal and intimate; the music written for it must by necessity be music for a small space, music between two people. Even when the sound is “loud” it is the sort of loudness that is more a function of intensity than of amplitude. […]

    Instead of working by force, he quietly and patiently built his large piece out of short structures. By constructing the work on the timeless foundation of Hindu aesthetics, he could make each piece perfect and unhurried; the focus could be on the subtle modulations of his voice. At its premiere some criticized the work for its monotony, but the lack of contrast is its strength. His earlier dramatic works speak loudly to grab our attention; this one instead speaks quietly to draw us in. It is as if we are sitting in Cage’s loft, straw mats on the floor, listening to him explore this softly-colored world.

    While the “prepared piano” dates back some thirty years, Cage took it a lot farther than prior artists. They would dampen it by placing paper or cardboard in it, or pretend it was a harp; his grocery list included screws, bolts, bits of rubber, plastic, nuts and a bit of eraser. It has a heavy element of surrealism, and that is a form of modern art.

  34. John Morales says

    Hj @36

    It’s not an exact match, but within a stone’s throw. If I seem a bit a bit defensive of postmodernism, overall, it’s because there’s a lot of fake news floating around it (remember this thread, John Morales?)

    I do now.

    Good times :)

  35. consciousness razor says

    Marcus Ranum:
    Since you’re just bullshitting about all of it (seems to be a decent summary of your reply), then I’ll just leave it be and try to forget that we had anything resembling a conversation.

    Hj Hornbeck:

    That… was kinda my point?

    You said they were modernists, as opposed to postmodernists, and your point was actually that they’re postmodernists as I described them? If that had been your point, I don’t think you expressed it well.

    Sonatas and Interludes instead breaks down music into its fundamentals by placing heavy emphasis on silence, avoiding the standard Western scale, and even using numeric sequences to structure the notes. You can’t even play it on an ordinary piano

    All of that has absolutely nothing to do with modernism in music. A few points:
    1) What’s “fundamental” and what isn’t is heavily contested in theory. There is no such thing as breaking it down into that.
    2) Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Hindemith — this list of modernists could last a very long time — those people were not avoiding “the standard Western scale” … whatever the hell that is. The diatonic modes, perhaps, like major and minor? Presumably not the chromatic scale. Is this supposed to be a distinguishing characteristic of what modernists do and what postmodernists don’t do? How would this relate to music from other parts of the world, or for that matter folk traditions within Europe which don’t use “the standard” scale and obviously predated modernism by a long shot?
    3) People have used numeric sequences to structure notes for about as long as there has been music. Thousands of years at least. That isn’t “modern” by any stretch of the imagination.
    4) The “ordinary piano,” as we know it now, is very much a modern instrument. But you say “modernists” are the ones supposedly don’t use it. Again, would this be something that you’ll say postmodernists don’t do?
    5) Related to the previous…. If you look at music from around the world throughout history, what do you find? Definitely not “ordinary pianos.” People love playing with timbre, altering their instruments and playing styles to get bizarre new sounds out of them. This is an entirely ancient practice as well.

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