Snow, Descartes, and Derrida
I'm not the first Kiwi blogger to raise the heady subject of the seductive power of postmodernist attitudes to language - that honour belongs, perhaps, to Jack Ross, who posted late last year about his quest for the truth about the old story that the Inuit people have a dozen words or more for snow. Jack began his post with a memory:
I remember once at a party at Scott Hamilton's having quite an acrimonious exchange with one of my fellow-guests over the number of Eskimo words for snow. For years I'd been reading in virtually every book of pop-etymology I picked up that the Eskimos so lived and breathed snow, that they had 16 different words for it - or 32 different words for it - or 44 different words for it ("falling snow" - "sitting snow" - "impacted snow" - "wet-bad-driving-snow" - "good-dry-building-snow" etc. etc. etc.)
I'd been enlarging on my theory that this was complete bullshit to the assembled company, mainly because each book gave a different number for these alleged words for snow, but also because none of them supplied any source for this information beyond some other piece of journalism by one of their bonehead colleagues...Scott's friend erupted at this deluge of smartypants scepticism, and claimed that he personally had visited a museum somewhere in the north of Finland (I think it was) - in the Lapp country, at any rate - and had seen inscribed on the wall of the museum a huge plethora of terms which did indeed represent the full range of Eskimo (or Inuit) terms for snow.
I must admit to having no memory at all of the incident Jack recounts. That doesn't mean, though, that the clash didn't occur: I may simply have drunk too much to preserve any memory of the party he describes, let alone the quarrel that was apparently a highlight the party.
I do remember reading a very funny book called The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax by a linguist called Geoffrey Pullum. The book's title essay was, as you've guessed, an onslaught against the notion that the Inuit have a multitude of words for the white stuff: it's remarkable not for its arguments, but rather for the incredible evangelical zeal that Pullum brings to his attempts to demolish the snow myth. Pullum admits to being obsessed with the subject, and to cutting short academic seminars, as well as speeches at weddings, by leaping to his feet and denouncing the dreaded snow hoax at great length. 'Everyone in the room always hates me', he admits, 'but it's worth suffering for the cause of the truth about linguistics'.
I have a lot of sympathy for Jack's efforts on behalf of the truth at that party in the nineties. The Inuit snow myth was very popular in the circles in which I moved back then, largely, I think, because of the popularity of postmodernism in those same circles. Followers of Derrida, Barthes, Baudrillard and the rest of the gang were very fond of citing the snow story, because they believed that it illustrated their theory that reality is linguistically constructed, and is capable of unlimited different constructions. I remember the snow myth being rolled out in several seminars and in many of those scintillating coffeehouse arguments that undergraduate students love to have about books they haven't read. (Bar staff were saved from passive smoking by Labour government legislation: I wonder whether there should also be a law to protect baristas from the small talk of undergraduates in dufflecoats who spend all day in cafes skipping their lectures. The poor staff at Boho haunts like DKDs and Brazil must have suffered tremendous mental damage by involuntarily listening to all our piffle in the '90s.)
In yesterday's discussion about postmodernism, Giovanni made an eloquent defence of the phenomenon, by claiming that it was a one-sided but basically progressive development of the themes of the left and the thinking of innovative philosophers like Heidegger:
A lot of the sins ascribed to the ‘original’ postmodernists, as it were, are a function of the churning of their ideas by professional academics in the anglo world, especially in the States, who made it into an industry and built or deconstructed and rebuilt their careers around the fancy and inherbiating new paradigms, sometimes outbidding each other on who could take them to the most ludicrous extremes. But I think the fact remains that the work of the likes of Derrida, Foucault, Barthes and Lyotard (in a continuum with Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Heidegger, rather than just recycling them) are crucial for an understanding our times, and hardly themselves advocating - any more than a Marxist critic such as Fredric Jameson is - for the delocalisation and internationalisation of culture at the service of late capitalism...
Speaking for students, too, although in a different country at the time, I’d have to say those ideas were fashionable (to use your slightly derogatory term) because they fit in with our political reflections and our activism...
I disagree with Giovanni, and I hope he'll forgive me for explaining why in my usual rambling manner. I think that the phenomenon of postmodernism - and here I take the term to mean the epistemology of Derrida and his co-thinkers, not the plethora of 1980s art movements or the broad 'late capitalist' cultural condition it is often taken to mean - represented a sharp turn away from progressive politics and philosophical innovation.
I think we have to get some perspective on postmodernism by looking at the history of the relationship between capitalism and philosophy. The starting point for a discussion about this relationship must surely be Descartes. It was Descartes who formulated the rules of modern philosophy by creating the ideal of 'absolute knowledge', by rejecting any method which did not yield up such knowledge, and by insisting that the individual - the individual philosopher, to be precise - must attain absolute knowledge on his own, through lonely introspection. Descartes created a chasm between the type of knowledge that can be accumulated and transmitted by the arts and what we nowadays call the human sciences, and the superior knowledge that philosophy and - if they are lucky - the natural sciences can aspire to. Descartes also undermined notions of communities and traditions as repositories of knowledge. Marx argued that Descartes' individualism reflected the beginnings of capitalism, which individuated humans by separating them from the connections that feudalism and other forms of pre-capitalist society had created. Descartes was reproducing ideologically what was happening in the world around him.
The intellectual project that Descartes gradually ran into all sorts of difficulties. In the late eighteenth century, David Hume raised fiendish problems for philosophers by showing that the philosophical justification for the method of induction, which underlay the natural sciences, was inadequate. The dour Scotsman also raised perplexing questions about the nature of causality. Hume's arguments tormented Immanuel Kant, who tried to deal with them by constructing the vast system that is The Critique of Pure Reason. Kant responded to the problems Hume had raised by admitting that pure reason could not arrive at the square root of the universe, and by curtaining off 'ultimate' reality as a 'thing in itself' which could never be experienced directly. Kant's concessions opened up the space in which German idealism, with its emphasis on the gap between the world we experience and an ultimate reality, could thrive.
By the beginning of the twentieth century Western philosophy was in crisis. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 suggested to many philosophers that their crisis was related to a wider social and spiritual malaise, and emboldened a number of attempts to salvage something of Descartes' project. The Logical Atomists, led by Bertrand Russell, were rejecting idealism and returning to the stringency of Descartes by building up an account of the logical structure of reality one sentence at a time. Edmund Husserl and the early phenomenologists were trying to do a somewhat similar thing, although they were determined to examine the mind's apprehension of reality, rather than reality itself. Both the Atomists and the phenomenologists soon became bogged down in debates that appeared, to outsiders at least, positively Talmudic.
A breakthrough only came when the whole paradigm Descartes had put in place was questioned by Martin Heidegger. In his 1928 book Being and Time, Heidegger dismissed the Cartesian notion of an isolated individual sitting down and discovering absolute, eternal truths through a series of deductions or thought experiments. Instead of following such a path, Heidegger tried to draw attention to the 'pre-theoretical' aspects of our thinking - that is, to the presuppositions that we bring to the table when we think about any subject. We do not choose these presuppositions ourselves - they are given to us by our environment, our history, and our traditions. All thought is therefore both social and historically situated.
Nothing seems more absurd to Heidegger than the notion of the philosopher painstakingly accumulating a list of true statements about the world, one statement at a time. In a famous passage of Being and Time, Heidegger aks how we could possibly understand even a simple object like a hammer in isolation from the context of its use. Even if we do a painstaking phenomenological description of the hammer's shape and surface, we will grasp nothing of its nature, because its nature derives from its relation to a whole set of other objects - nails, wood, and so on - and to the uses humans make of it. A hammer simply cannot be understood in isolation; nor, for that matter, can anything.
Heidegger's arguments were repeated (though less interestingly) in the mature philosophy of his contemporary Wittgenstein, and both men echoed, although they did not know it, some of Karl Marx's broadsides against philosophy in texts like the 'Theses on Feuerbach'. Philistine Marxists often interpret their master's claim that 'practice' is the test of all theory as a celebration of political activism as the be all and end all of human existence. But when Marx talked about the primacy of practice, he was not urging his followers on to more paper sales and recruitment drives - he was arguing that the world, human beings, and language exist together in an indissoluble unity, and that it is pointless to try to examine one without reference to the other.
The spectre of radical scepticism which had haunted Descartes seemed to Marx, as it would later seem to Heidegger and Wittgenstein, like a pseudo-problem. It was only because Descartes set the bar for reliable knowledge ridiculously high - only because he accepted only absolute, eternal knowledge, derived through stringently logical thought - that he got worried about such a ridiculous matter as whether or not he existed. Descartes' daily decision to feed and dress himself - his practice - gave the lie to his doubt about whether or not he existed. Wittgenstein made a similar point to Marx's when he compared a philosopher worried by the problem of scepticism to a person who talked endlessly about how thin the ice on a lake close to his home was, and then went out skating on that very same lake.
By focusing on the pre-theoretical foundations of our thinking, which are necessarily social and historically conditioned, Marx, Heidegger and Wittgenstein threatened to bring sociology and history into the privileged space that philosophy had previously held. Can't we, to some extent at least, study the origins and nature of some of the basic presuppositions we bring to our thinking? Although he was ostensibly opposed to the sociology of knowledge, Heidegger connected the 'horizon' of modern thought - that is, some of the presuppositions that we are all burdened with, simply by living in the era of modernity - to the misuse of modern technology and an exploitative attitude to the natural world.
What does all this have to do with the politics of the left? Quite a bit, I'd say. Although Wittgenstein's politics were unclear and Heidegger's were appallingly reactionary, their philosophical inovations had a profound effect on the theory and practice of the left. Heidegger's thought was adapted by Jean-Paul Sartre and other 'existentialist Marxists' after World War Two, and it also influenced Sartre's successor as the world's most famous Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser.
Members of the wave of 'social movements' that arose in the West in the late '60s and early '70s were concerned not only with protest, but with unpicking the ideology of capitalism. When feminists talked about the 'gendered' nature of much academic discourse, and when environmentalists attacked the 'anthropocentrism' of Western culture, they were exposing the theoretical presuppositions that members of Western societies brought to their thought. Marxist sociologists who attacked the popular 'end of class struggle' thesis of Daniel Bell and the hegemonic 'stability' model of social analysis associated with Talcott Parsons were concerned not just with facts and figures, but with the philosophical presuppositions of their adversaries.
As commentators like Alex Callinicos and Perry Anderson have shown, the rise of postmodernism was closely connected with the defeat of the progresive movements of the '60s and '70s and the sharp shift to the political right that occurred throughout the West in the '80s. France led the way in the late '70s, as many of the intellectuals who had espoused a reckless, incoherent form of Maoism in the heady year of 1968 moved to the anti-communist right. Britain and America soon followed, as the Reagan and Thatcher governments moved to smash the unions, pare down the welfare state, and 'reform' the universities.
The postmodernists argued that the relationship between language and reality was arbitrary; 'reality' itself was essentially an epiphenomenal thing, something constructed by our concepts. The evil daemon that had tormented Descartes was back, and his name was language. Although they claimed to reject Descartes and the whole tradition he represents, the postmodernists shared some of the presuppositions of Descartes. Like him, they set the bar for knowledge far too high, and thus fell into the trap of entertaining the nonsensical idea of radical scepticism. Descartes ultimately rejected radical scepticism; the postmodernists didn't.
Postmodernism retained the critiques of the patriachal, anthropocentric, and historically-conditioned 'grand narratives' of Western capitalist society, but it generalised these critiques in an altogether undiscriminating way. Now it was not only the sociology of the likes of Talcott Parsons that was compromised - all attempts at the systematic study of social reality were problematic. It was not only gender-blind historians that were in the dock, but all historians.
Very few postmodernists were merely cynics, who sensed the changing political winds and moved in the right direction. Most of them were reflecting the increased isolation of the intellectual from mass social movements in the 1980s, and the widespread pessimism that swept the left during the decade.
By the time I was studying at the University of Auckland in the mid-90s, and contributing in a small way to the New Zealand literary scene, postmodern ideas had become completely divorced from any sort of political engagement. Almost invariably, the students and writers who were most conversant in the doctrines of Derrida and Barthes were the least interested in social and political issues. I remember going on one of the militant student demonstrations of late 1997, and laying seige to the university's Registry building along with thousands of other students, then bumping into an impeccable Derridean the next day and talking to him about the experience. 'Were you there?' I asked. 'Oh no', he replied, 'I was at a seminar on counter-hegemony'.
I remember a seminar by another student, who was conducting an ardent love affair with Foucault whilst also trying to study gender relations in contemporary New Zealand. After describing the inequalities that still existed between the sexes - unequal pay rates, for instance - in a fairly sensible manner, he lurched into a postmodernist conclusion, and advocated that the government begin paying a special benefit to drag Queens, so as to help them 'break down the hegemony of binary notions of gender' and thereby combat sexism at the 'level of sign and discourse'.
The postmodernist tendency in New Zealand literature, which had been established so enthusiastically by the journals And and Parrallax in the early eighties, had largely exhausted itself by the late nineties. Alan Loney had founded brief to give what he called the 'Other Tradition' a publishing outlet, but the work in the journal was increasingly arid, as the elan that had distinguished the early work of Leigh Davis and John Geraets dwindled into routinism. Davis had become an investment banker, and Geraets had also become convinced of the wonders of capitalism. In a late '90s essay called 'Tete-a-text', he celebrated capitalism as a 'dynamic, progressive' system, in an effort to distinguish his writing from the 'social conscience poetry' of yours truly and Hamish Dewe.
Davis and Geraets saw the chaotic nature of capitalism as an expression of the unmasterable chaos which they believed characterised language and the universe. Any attempt to deny this chaos - by writing in a representational fashion, or intervening in the economy in the interests of social justice - was doomed to failure. To his credit, Geraets did not force his poetics on other people, and when he inherited brief from Loney he opened the journal to new contributors, and thereby helped invigorate it. Jack Ross continued this practice, and the brief of the noughties has borne little resemblance to the journal of the nineties.
The grave events of our decade - the 9/11 attacks, America's new imperialist wars, and now the worldwide crisis of capitalism - have made the prohibitions of postmodernism seem quaint and unattractive, to writers and academics alike. We have no choice but to deal in 'grand narratives' and 'systemic analysis', if we want to steer a path through an era which resembles the tumultuous sixties and seventies more than the quiescent nineties.