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The Postmodern Bogeyman

I'm not much of a postmodernist. Certainly some postmodern writers have some interesting things to say, and they act as a useful corrective to modernist hubris. On the other hand, they have many things to say that are either wrong or incomprehensible, and often suffer from not a little hubris of their own. What I don't understand, though, is the way many people seem to fear the insidious influence of postmodernism. Or rather, they fear a strawman version of total relativism, making it out to be the greatest threat to our society.

Take Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies. The book is basically an argument against the totalitarian tendencies of Plato and Marx. The basic problem with their political theories, Popper says, is their conviction that they have found an essential and eternal truth that must be served and imposed on the world. The "open society," by contrast, is one governed by the scientific commitment to freedom of thought and recognizes only provisional, falsifiable truths. It seems, then, that Popper is the more postmodern thinker here. His critique of Marx is broadly parallel to postmodernists' denunciations of the grand historical narratives in Marxism. Yet Popper feels the need to use his last chapter to point out that the real threat comes from relativism.

Or consider this paragraph from a review of Big Sister: How Extreme Feminism Has Betrayed the Fight for Sexual Equality. The book is about the totalitarian tactics used by extreme feminists to silence and punish those they deem guilty. The reviewer says:

Boyd is writing about academics, but he does not write like one. That, combined with a certain acerbity, makes Big Sister a good read. (It also helps that it is short.) The book is free of the usual jargon, and it even includes a well-deserved swipe at postmodernism and its pernicious effects on critical thinking. Postmodernism, we read, "encourages a mushy-headed kind of moral relativism," in which "subjective interpretations of reality are preferable to objective interpretations." From this it follows, "If you think you are a victim, you are." Too true.

The language of "it even includes" suggests that, as seems logical, the "swipe at postmodernism" is not central to the book's thesis. Yet it's in there, and the reviewer saw fit to use up some of her limited space to gleefully point it out.

Why does postmodernism seem so threatening? Part of it is an overestimation of the size of the postmodernist contingent, arising from the "this particular order, or chaos" fallacy. My suspicion is that it's because it seems resistant to argument. We like to think that we can intellectually engage with our interlocutors, and demonstrate to our satisfaction (if not to theirs) which is the better case. But between the opacity of the language and the depth of its disagreement with non-postmodern thinking, it's hard for the non-postmodernist to even grasp the argument he's facing. "God told me to blow up this building" and "the free market will solve everything" are nice clear ideologies, which aid us in deciding what line of attack to take to refute them. Understanding postmodernism, on the other hand, requires so much work and such a feat of stepping outside of our established thought patterns that we're at a loss as to how to respond. Indeed, we're at a loss for whether we should respond -- maybe, once you manage to figure him out, Derrida is right after all. It's perhaps not surprising, then, that many people come to the conclusion that the postmodern emperor has no clothes -- that they're all just faking it, stringing together a bunch of blather and buzzwords that don't have any actual content at all. It's a relief to be able to believe that your opponents don't actully believe what they're arguing.


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