Thursday, March 03, 2005

Postmodernism in the blogosphere...

Some folks in the Evangelical blogosphere are fond of saying they live in a ghetto. It's somewhat true: memes produced by them circulate ad nauseum through their realm. At the same time some things that are taken for granted- obvious- in the reality-based blogosphere, are "news" to the Evangelicals. Such an example is here, where Joe Carter seems to be surprised- surprised- that transplantations across species have problems with retroviruses.

But that did point me to one Catez Stevens. And that pointed me to this post on "The Post-Modern Explained" [sic].

I quote:

Most people understand post-modernism to mean a type of relativism - truth is relative to each person or each different cultural group. In post-modernism my truth does not have to agree with your truth - but both are valid. It makes me smile to see relativity misapplied in this way. Einstein's theory of relativity never proposed that everything is relative - but actually states that some things are relative when measured against some things that are constant and absolute....

In 'The Post-Modern Explained', Jean Francois Lyotard, one of post-modernism's foremost promoters, briefly summarises modernism - which he states began with the Enlightenment at the end of the 18th century, and continued on for the next two hundred years. Lyotard proposes that the ruling idea behind modernism is the emancipation of humanity, and that to this end reason and rationalism have combined with technology and resulted not in liberation, but in totalitarianism. He cites Stalinism and capitalism as examples of types of total dominance. In simple terms, Lyotard's view is that we see an end goal, we make a blueprint of a project to achieve that goal, and then we set about making others comply with the project... Lyotard is in effect criticising the modern world's march of progress through rational humanistic systems....

One of Lyotard's objections to metanarratives (the story behind the story) is that they begin by stating what people should be. On this basis he sees Christianity as a modern and authoritarian system - because in his view it tells a person what they should be rather than letting them discover who they are and allowing them to be different. In Lyotard's analysis he rejects modernism and its systems - be they political, social or religious - yet he cannot avoid falling into the very thing he argues against. He creates his own story behind the story. In Lyotard's metanarrative difference is the key. In essence he begins with we should be different. He also prescribes a type of anarchy in which there are no absolute truths or laws. So he is saying there should be no absolute truths or laws....

In my view Lyotard would have us in a perpetual state of childood - always questioning but never arriving at any conclusion. His post-modernism is a philosophy of scepticism and doubt. Jesus on the other hand provides us with a child-like renewal, but does not then expect us to remain there.

Now I quote this at length because it illustrates quite well the fundamentalist objections to post-modernism: while at the start it is an attack on a straw-man, it is clear that the opening of a question- the existence and acknowledgement of a question -and a doubt- is anathema to this kind of position. I hesitate to even call it a religious position, as any mature religious position must be grounded in a recognition of doubt as well as faith. It is rather a denial of doubt, a pretense at faith, but not, in my estimation a mature faith.

Here's what Stanley Fish would say instead:

Now, I would not be misunderstood. I am not saying that there are no universal values or no truths independent of particular perspectives. I affirm both. When I offer a reading of a poem or pronounce on a case in First Amendment law, I do so with no epistemological reservations. I regard my reading as true--not provisionally true, or true for my reference group only, but true. I am as certain of that as I am of the fact that I may very well be unable to persuade others, no less educated or credentialed than I, of the truth so perspicuous to me. And here is a point that is often missed, the independence from each other, and therefore the compatibility, of two assertions thought to be contradictory when made by the same person: (1) I believe X to be true and (2) I believe that there is no mechanism, procedure, calculus, test, by which the truth of X can be necessarily demonstrated to any sane person who has come to a different conclusion (not that such a demonstration can never be successful, only that its success is contingent and not necessary). In order to assert something and mean it without qualification, I of course have to believe that it is true, but I don't have to believe that I could demonstrate its truth to all rational persons. The claim that something is universal and the acknowledgment that I couldn't necessarily prove it are logically independent of each other. The second does not undermine the first.

Once again, then, a postmodern argument turns out to be without any deleterious consequences (it is also without any positive consequences, but that is another story), and it certainly does not stand in the way of condemning those who have proven themselves to be our enemies in words and deeds. Nor should this be surprising, for, after all, postmodernism is a series of arguments, not away of life or a recipe for action. Your belief or disbelief in postmodern tenets is independent of your beliefs and commitments in any other area of your life. You may believe that objectivity of an absolute kind is possible or you may believe that it is not, but when you have to decide whether a particular thing is true or false, neither belief will hinder or help you. What will help you are archives, exemplary achievements, revered authorities, official bodies of evidence, relevant analogies, suggestive metaphors--all available to all persons independently of their philosophical convictions, or of the fact that they do or do not have any.

I would add what will also help is a certain "mental disposition," it is an attitude that has openness as opposed to deliberate fingers-in-the-ears ignorance.

Now this is of interest to me because of the relationship of postmodernism and Buddhism. Postmodern arguments are prevalent in the Prajnaparamita literature, Nagarjuna, etc. , where they actually lead to a way of life, in contradistinction to what Fish is saying.

Although I can't necessarily logically convince you to tinker with the relationship between a privileged set and a marginalized set in some way, I still have to share the earth and its resrouces with you while we're still alive, and experientially the Voidness/Absoluteness/Impermanence of experience indicates to me the necessity and efficacy of reducing suffering. I do this from the authority of my own experience, as authoritatively as a Christian speaks from the authority of their own faith experience.

It is a pity that posts like Catez's (and a follow up here) have to rely on straw-man interpretations of postmodernism; although it is not surprising.

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