Post-Modernism: The Ivory Tower & the Presidency

Post-modernism shaped academic thinking for the last decades, providing the rationale for two, not unrelated, modes of thought that led to but may not survive this year’s crises. It won’t disappear – its methods are millennia old: intense skepticism and an argument words are but references to words reappear regularly. But, for a while, such evasions may go underground. Accepting its premises means budgets like Paul Ryan’s no more describe reality than does Obama’s “budget.” Free lunches, then, are possible & the debt is only a word. And voters – well, the post-modernist sees identity as category – no self-made post-modernists. However, the reality remains and it is the rational founders who accept the nature of man and post-modernists who distort it. I’m betting on the old guys – perhaps in new suits. I’m not betting on the illusionists.

For, surely this is twilight for post-modernism. Franklin’s thrift is rational & enlightened; five-year plans and Obama’s solar subsidies are post-modernist. In Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, Stephen Hicks argues such skepticism solves the academic’s dilemma: “the failure of socialism made postmodernism necessary.” Accepting socialism, let alone Marxism, means ignoring evidence in the predictable pattern from Russia to China to Cuba to Cambodia to Venezuela. But it also means life in the west is bad, its agriculture and innovations not life-giving. The post-modernist solves the problem – all is illusory. Longevity, which we might think would trump all, is less important to the less rational post-modernist – we understand longevity objectively. But we experience death subjectively – each of us feels our death, feels our loved one’s death. So, if India after the green revolution has dramatic increases in life expectancy, NPR bemoans the greater incidence of cancer. American women live longer, their later years filled with relative wealth, but by postmodern alchemy they nurse their “feeling” of oppression. The Marxist world has failed – but, surely, they argue, that is only an illusion. The founders’ open market of ideas and commerce brings goods, encourage autonomy. In theory, this may be good, but post-modernists explain, it is all illusory. Of course, absences so striking in a communist state, are no great loss. Presence or absence – of goods, of rights, of plenty or freedom – has no importance if all are illusions.

If public life is illusory, so, too, is the private self. Indeed, how large can that private sphere be when we are but category. Hicks contends for the post modernist the education that helped Frederick Douglass define his own autonomy “is replaced with the view that education is to take an essentially indeterminate being and give it a social identity.” We become our category – gender, race, ethnicity, age.

Then, the trick is to gain the power of an aggrieved category. And what are the consequences of encouraging bitterness, of devaluing strength? In 1620, Bradford understood. Robinson warned the Pilgrims: bitterness and pride eat away solidarity and respect; the small colony would be tested (50% of them die that awful first winter). Their duty, he says, lies not only in not giving offense, but, as importantly, in not taking it. Centuries later, Hicks describes “ressentiment postmodernism” – instead of encouraging sympathy and loving kindness, post-modernism encourages a soulless solidarity of category.

We are not, then, surprised by the bile of comments on Cheney’s heart transplant or Tony Snow’s cancer or . . . . These seem to come from obdurate hearts – made so by such theories. If real love intrudes then a theorist like Andrea Dworkin stands by with a systematic categorization – sex is really rape; if moments of racial understanding happen, a critic such as Bell brings forward Critical Race Theory. We might think a relationship is real and not a power struggle, but, well, do you want to believe your lying eyes or theory? The stunting of sympathy is a horrible thing; the sense that all is illusory is as well. Eventually, as the communists of the thirties and forties defended the indefensible (their loyalties to Russia, what Russia was), the post-modernist defends a new indefensible – perhaps because it is the opposite of Enlightenment thought or perhaps out of this very ressentiment. So arguments arise that defend or see little difference between Western life and the misogyny, homophobia and genocide of the jihadists.

Indeed, this thinking produced an American Secretary of State who could argue categories reign – that women’s free access to contraception trumps all. Of course, such thinking narrows the mind as well as the heart. Hicks contends the theorists “put Nietzschean power struggles at the core of our being. And especially in the cases of Foucault and Derrida, most major postmodernists will abandon Nietzsche’s sense of the exalted potential of man and embrace Heidegger’s anti-humanism.” Clinton’s trials and beliefs have had public platforms, we see her categorize and we see how she constructs these as illusions and as ways to stake out power: from her choice of Lani Guinier to her latest speeches on women’s rights. And we see how she need not consider the humanity of those outside her limits. She has clearly subtracted from that privileged category “woman” others – women with certain religious beliefs or ones whose politics is conservative, or, indeed, women who sleep with her husband. She has taken naturally to beliefs that value power and devalue truth, that have little sense of exaltation.

And as the campaign begins, we listen to the budgets offered, the categories to which politicians consign us. We would seem to have a post-modernist president; I hope we don’t have a post-modernist country.

Lex & Post-Modernism

7 thoughts on “Post-Modernism: The Ivory Tower & the Presidency”

  1. Ugh … post-modernism and the power of being in a permanently-aggrieved category; this is why I have begun to really, really, really like the 19th century. People had optimism and confidence in themselves and society, even in their technology improving their lives.
    There may have been ugly imponderables in it … but at least, they could see and have hope in such imponderables being fixable at some point.

  2. Achh.

    It’s simple, and it’s like this: there’s no such thing as capital-P “Progress”. No historical inevitability. No prescribed endpoint of what an ideal human society must be.

    We don’t shape our reality and as a species we don’t improve, not on any scale meaningful to day-to-day existence.

    Nothing in our human nature today divides us from 1776, or 1066, or A.D. Zero, or five thousand years before that. It’s as close to us as yesterday.

    You’re born without asking for it and you die despite your best efforts: those are the ground rules. Wordplay can’t fudge it.

    It’s terrible; and exhilarating.

  3. “Nothing in our human nature today divides us from 1776, or 1066, or A.D. Zero, or five thousand years before that. It’s as close to us as yesterday.

    You’re born without asking for it and you die despite your best efforts: those are the ground rules. Wordplay can’t fudge it.

    It’s terrible; and exhilarating.”

    Interesting comment. There is a theory, promoted mostly by Joel Mokyr, that the knowledge base was present in the Roam Empire for the Industrial Revolution to take off. The missing element was ownership of intellectual property. Nobody remembers who thought of the windmill, for example. Few know that the windmill was improved by adding a bearing the allowed it to pivot with the wind direction. It is true that no one knows who invented the horse collar or the plow, or the stirrup, but the time was not far off when Eli Whitney and Silas McCormick could build fortunes for their families. There was a working steam engine in 400 AD, The inventor was named Heron.

  4. Sgt. Mom – why do you think I love teaching lit through the Civil War – 2nd half not so much? Those old guys (and gals) were tough – in their perseverance, in their politics, hell, even in (or especially in) tneir theology. I can’t go all the way with them, but sometimes I wish I could. They knew how to live.
    Early drafts of this quoted Prufrock (“there will be time”): our generation thought we could always push the “re-do” button – no-fault divorce, drops when we’d screwed up in college, liability tort threats and birth control/abortion that made us less vulnerable at work and play. But we can’t endlessly revise: Prufrock is wrong, much isn’t reversible. (Except, an older Eliot might say, through religious redemption.) But, on the other hand, knowing the risks are real does make life deeply exciting as Tortch observes.
    Thanks Kennedy for the insight. And it all hangs together, doesn’t it?

  5. Michael, I’ve heard of Mokyr’s theory before, and it’s very interesting. Whether or not a lack of reliable intellectual property law prevented it, I do think the Romans, at least for a while, possessed the technical capacity for something like the industrial revolution to happen. It probably was contemporary economics and social institutions that wouldn’t allow it – or I guess more accurately, didn’t allow a nifty invention like a steam engine to be seen as something other than a nifty invention.

    Ginny, I would guess my generation is one younger than yours – “Gen x”, I guess; in the late 80’s and 90’s we wanted the “Alternative” to everything. Just how, really, did people expect to get around working to support yourself + family? A new industry based on irony and vacations? It was all so vaporous I could never buy it, even when I wanted it to be true. So now I’m a lawyer. Heh!!

  6. “I do think the Romans, at least for a while, possessed the technical capacity for something like the industrial revolution to happen.”

    They didn’t have the math. They didn’t have a base ten numeric system with zero.

    “The full system emerged by the 8th to 9th centuries, and is first described in Al-Khwarizmi’s On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals (ca. 825), and Al-Kindi’s four volume work On the Use of the Indian Numerals (ca. 830).”

    The Arabic works were translated into Latin in the 10th century, but the real European breakthrough occurred in the 13th Century with the publication of Liber Abaci (1202) by Fibonacci.

  7. Romans and the Industrial Revolution…

    The Romans did know about waterpower, and built at least one impressive installation (for grain milling) along with several smaller mills…but they didn’t really pursue this technology very seriously, probably largely on account of the devaluation of work owing to cheap slave labor. Waterpower *was* intensively developed in the Middle Ages, not only for milling but for operating furnace bellows, fulling cloth, etc. Significant amounts of this work were accomplished in monasteries. I’m not sure how much math was involved–mostly trial and error, I would suspect.

    The early stages of what is usually considered the Industrial Revolution centered on equipment for automatic spinning and weaving of textiles…originally powered by water or even by hand (in the case of the Spinning Jenny) rather than by steam…I bet these devices also involved very little math. But from a Roman point of view, why bother with such things when you have hundreds of thousands of slaves available to do the work?

    Hero’s ancient version of the steam engine, though, was basically a turbine…a pinwheel, really…and building a steam turbine that can generate useful power would indeed involve considerable math, as well as metallurgy and machining.

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