Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Snow, Descartes, and Derrida

The most recent comments thread on this blog was a triumph of eclecticism - in the space of fourteen comments, we managed to cover television, Jacques Derrida, Kendrick Smithyman, the alleged ten-dimensional nature of the universe, and that hardy perennial of spammers, Young Earth Creationism.

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.

20 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would find this post a lot more convincing and elucidating if you gave a concrete example or at least some specifics.

You're quite specific with Descartes through to Sartre. After that, though, a vague straw man simply called "the postmodernists" makes a brief appearance, only to be swept away by anecdotal "students and writers" you have known.

Since you seem to have thrown out architecture and art theory (is this part of your drive to separate "art" from "politics"?) we're left "Derrida and his co-thinkers" but with no clear view of what your actual argument is.

Cordially yours, Jean-Jacques Baudrillotardeuze jnr.

4:57 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

You omit to mention that Jack Ross is the Post Modernist par excellence.

This is well argued but you put your own spin on things - post modernism was a liberating breakthrough - not connected to Descartes - who used skepticism to prove - he thought rightly - that God existed. His method was to assume that he knew nothing for the sake of argument.

The greatness (or at least the great interest of) of Barthes and Derrida is their liberating power in thinking.

The down side is their dense obscurity and the use of endlessly unconnected abstractions and long words whose meaning only they seem to know....

The 'danger' is a right wing move as certain over zealous Davisian postmodernists descend into and inside the interminable fog of their own tangle of terminologies and complex jangling jargon - but that can come as much from disillusioned or over fanatical Marxists just as easily.

But you slight Mao tse Tung's philosophy (his great concept of cultural revolution and the constant struggle of the contradiction of opposites - and his dream of "Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend" and so on is still of great significance. But the stricture that all Marxists (including Mao and Lenin) push, that art should only be for political use (a la the Garagologists) or only of or for or engendered by a class, I sadly am dubious of.

And Dr Ross will undoubtedly quote at this disjuncture, how many trillions of people died when Mao raised his index finger on a certain Tuesday in 1952 I am sure ... and Dave will rage on about Trotsky [Bronstein] (who had the stupidity to be ice axed); but Mao;s thought is perhaps even more relevant than that of Heideggers or Wittgenstein's - two philosophers many have called a postmodernists in the making.

The danger is the blind adherence to any single system of thought or religion or whatever. These ideas of Marx or Derrida may be useful in certain circumstances and not in others...

The language poets - who also put theory before practice (or added it to fit the prescribed theories of the various gurus of their sullen arts) have made a great contributions...

They began with radical and utopian politics...many of them have branched away and are doing some energetic work (not all have descended into arcane intellectual miasmas and right wing politics (we all need a dosage of embracing ozonic Orwellianism now and then))...

Hierarchies and Priesthoods form everywhere - there is no progress...
Leicster Kyle said that "Gatekeepers are everywhere..." and unfortunately this has also been the lot of the Langpos and others...


Smithyman wrote (I remember reading) that he read the theory of Marxism but that he realised quite quickly it was was a stupid theory.

I also recall in tutorials how he mused aloud about "Ron [Mason]"... "after he got into politics - it was the end of most of his best writing. Politics seems to (almost invariably) kill creativity.." etc

I think you (too greatly) simplify all this...

What does the Arch Postmodernist Dr Ross have to say on these musings of yours? I recall (albeit through a heavy boozy haze) a soaringly polemical and high theoretical, ferocious, chair smashing, tear filled (where signifiers & deferances; and new and old historicisms rained down in a loud, bloody, heated, ferocious, feral, pugilistic, and near fatal argument at the London bar between you and he ... in your wayward Wittgenstinian days...

This debate is empty of meaning until the great and oracular words of profundity are pronounced {de Credo ex Cathedra de Profundis aeternam} on this (or these) matter(s) by the subtle Dr Ross - only he - despite his Brunoesque and arcane Gothicism, Ovidian Ackerism, eroticism, and the eternal chasing frolic of the butti-flying signifiers ... and his refusal to write for "the many" are issues to be resolved ...

And where, it may be asked, is Titus himself? - he surely lurks here or nowhere - it matters not ex Cathedra sub speciae aeternitatis - but can any of us actually BE here? - with his noise music and his deep attachment to the torquated if not Torquemarded) madness and the strangenesses of Peake and Gormenghast...

Is he still gazing in anger or puzzlement at the strange, wrenched, NZ landscapes you showed him...?

And what of that crazy writer or Divigator in Excelsio residing in East Auckland...?

8:48 pm  
Blogger Giovanni said...

I disagree with Giovanni, and I hope he'll forgive me for explaining why in my usual rambling manner.

You're hereby forgiven. Besides, you wouldn't be the first one who tries to win this particular argument by cranking up the wordcount. And you ramble very pleasantly, you had me nodding (in agreement, not dozing) at several points until you got to postmodernism itself. At that point I'll submit you didn’t quite live up to your statement of intent, to wit, that you took postmodernism 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

You seem in fact to be interpreting postmodenism in turn as the late capitalist condition, or as a function of the debate in the (anglo)academic industry, which is a wretched thing unto itself, or even (most depressingly) as a cocktail party topic. You bring as examples the idiotic pop culture thing of the names for snow, or a student's poorly thought out interpretation of something that Foucault would never have said or even remotely suggested himself. Nowhere you accurately characterise the "epistemology of Derrida and his co-thinkers", certainly not by making direct reference to any of his works. What you are in fact characterising and addressing could at best be called "postmodernismism".

Most strikingly and importantly of all, the idea that 'reality' itself was essentially an epiphenomenal thing, something constructed by our concepts is tosh, and it's time we got past it once and for all. Nobody has ever said that reality 'out there' doesn't exist, but rather that our apprehension of the world is mediated by language and by our instruments of perception; our descriptions are nowhere near as objective as unmediated reality no doubt is, out there. Which is nothing new, for heaven’s sake, Hobbes and even Bacon himself understood it perfectly well. It is, indeed, the least interesting or innovative discovery of postmodernist philosophy. What these fine chaps understood and exposed rather well is how this state of affair reverberates through textuality (Barthes and Derrida), consumer society and the political economy of the sign (Baudrillard), the history of ideas and identity (Foucault). One such history of ideas, as written by Lyotard, has the ‘postmodern condition’ as its concluding chapter, and some have rather ludicrously chosen to read that pamphlet as a postmodernist manifesto, whereas it is rather a description of where we’re at, of how late capitalist culture works, and a highly tortured and problematic one at that: Lyotard in it chooses to address none other than Faurisson, knowing that if the (wretched?) postmodern condition will have to account for anything, enabling or inviting the denial of the crimes of history will be IT, with a capital i and a capital tee.

Now, and again if I may be so bold (bearing in mind I asked you not to draw me into this earlier in the week!) I have to say that if the proposition above was tosh, the idea that postmodernist thinking was somehow implicated in the failure of ’68 is tosher. If anything, the not insignificant victories that progressives won in those years - civil and reproductive rights, the rise of feminism, the end of incarceration on the basis of mental health - are closely aligned with the ideas of a Foucault, and with the kind of radical critiques and analyses that deconstruction and new historicism propose. Need I say that many amongst the more orthodox, faithful to the line Marxists were at first openly inimical to these causes (proving that maybe the seminars on counter-hegemonic thinking you so glibly ridicule might have had their use)? But the brigate rosse, baader meinhof and the turncoats who went from Maoist to anti-communist in the space of a summer... you’re not telling me that any of these fine figures have anything to do with postmodernism now? To the extent that Alex Callinicos and Perry Anderson might be right, when they say that 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, causation doesn’t follow.

As for the eternal and eternally important question “whence, our politics” is concerned, I’m going to have to take strong issue with this conclusion of yours:

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.

Oh, really? And what grand narrative do you propose? I’m asking because if you’re thinking of resurrecting the socialism of way back then, and staging a rematch, I can tell you we’re going to have our arses handed to us - again. And why shouldn’t we? It would mean we didn’t learn anything.

But actually, we learned a great deal. And a lot of it we learned from postmodernists, thanks to all the socialists and feminists and labour and community organisers and disability advocates and students who looked outside of the approved reading lists, and found that of course there was no incompatibility whatsoever between radical political projects and the radical questioning of received ideas and authoritarian thinking. Who would’ve thunk it!

When I happened to come of age in a politically active sense, it was during the “pantera” movement in Italy - late eighties, early nineties - and I think that if you had asked us to label ourselves, to a man (and to a lesser extent, woman) we would have replied that we were Marxists. I still would, incidentally. But if I have to name the single most influential thinker that we held dear and lived politically by, I’d have trouble separating Gramsci from Foucault. And still to this day, I don’t care where you see yourself in the beautiful rainbow of left-wing progressive politics, but if you count yourself amongst the intellectuals in the movement and you didn’t bother at the very least to read Discipline and Punish, and reflect on how power operates through institutions and language, I’m going to take a leaf out of the old book of authoritarianism and say we’re not going to have a lot of use for you.

PS You owe me a 20/20 cricket match.

10:24 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

It's Giovanni in the right corner and Maps in the left and Maps comes out swinging, they dance around, suddenly Giovanni lets fly with a vicious left jab, Maps counters with a right hook and then a realist jab.... they dance around, then suddenly Giovanni with Italianate intensity lashes out with a "this then would not have been a book" round house and...wait not!!! Maps is on the campas, I you we mean he she it is is not on the canvass or the Campas.... he cant be proved!....Logic seners to himelf!! [what's olde Logic not doing here?] = he's dazed - he doesn't know his Lyotard from his Macks - he wants a Mack - and Big Non-contingent Mack I think!!! therefore!!!! its not all.......... over..yes???...a cat is in box... Maps lets it not out!! no!! wait here comes Jack Ross the big heavyweight!!! Is this how things are non going?? History! History is here!! [Who asked history in???] - Giovanni is wary which way will Ross go?? Both are bringing out some huge tomes full of long unpronounceable and beautifully incomprehensible words...b-b=but the words aren't there!!.....Maps picks himself up and thumbs his huge books on Historicism and his massive MetaMarxist tomes... the Jack Ross lets fly with "existential proliferation of comprehensive polyphony as ascribed to Celline via Lacanical Jacobosenism" - Giovanni is vicously not counter hegemonising!!...the cneter cannot not hold!!...Yeats-Pound-Ross is on a back foot! he's stunned!! - he spurts out some Italian and some deep phenomenological analysis for proleptic non-events.....Hamish Dewe wades in with a non look at snow....the phone pretends it is ringing!!.............. everything!!.... contextualisation - Maps swings in with more Marx and a dash... of Wittygenstein...but its Ross...Ross!!! he is wading in!!..he yells "Systemic non chase of of eclectic epistemeliological Grundvisse..." !!..."zzzazzzz" eh snarls &"...y= e cosh x j2345..."... (is he tricking??) ... look not at Ross move!!! He dances!!! He prances!!! - his arms are a blur!!....Barthes rolls in!! ..he is also Epistemic and - words are flung out.... Giovanni doesn't know where to not look...but wait!!!...he makes a non existent non move...!!... but then he realises! No - reality is problematic he cant realise...he non assumes..!!....don't wait! ...he targets Ross into talking in Old Italian - the whole thing is called offf - I mean it is not called on ..I mean there is no meaning...I dont dont mean....... no one can understand anyone - postmodernism is declared the epsitemelogisticalistic winner (except that it doesn't actually exist it is only a construct..or something like that...) but it was wonderful non-fight...Maps lies deconstructing on the canvass calling out for is coach and trainer Lenin Gramsci Trotsky and Dave and: he is or has been de-textualised!!! His last hope is the Mad Panmure Post-Mdst Butcher ... but where is he??!!! ... it is chaos here ...it is chaos the crowd are going deconstruct!! Nothing is real!!!...in fact nothing has happened...no one knows there putated arzez from their suppozzitional elbows
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This hasn't been a broadcast - no wars ever happened - nothing ever......... happened...Shakespear is bunk...death to the word!.... Good night fellow... brain................................ boxes.....Goodnight....no one........ won.......Reality is knocked......... out.........Foucault ................ .....................and snow........
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...............what is............... snow?..........................snot
is not.............................[he derridadeliberates]................... snow?.................................
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12:42 am  
Blogger Jack Ross said...

Pace Richard, I can't say I feel any very strong desire to take sides in this interesting debate ... a lot of stimulating ideas on all sides, really.

I do agree with Skyler, though, that there's no intrinsic contradiction between watching junk TV and reading Smithyman (or at any rate I haven't yet found following Top Chef or Project Runway too much of an affront to the battalions of truth as yet). maybe it's how you watch them that's crucial.

I bristle slightly, though, at Giovanni's accusation that "You bring as examples the idiotic pop culture thing of the names for snow, or a student's poorly thought out interpretation of something that Foucault would never have said or even remotely suggested himself" ... The point about the snow thing is not that it's interesting in itself, but that it illustrates the growth and influence of the pop culture "factoid," even in lofty intellectual realms purportedly free from its influence. And (sorry Scott), I have to say that parts of your Cook's Tour of Western Thought in a a thousand words or less does have an air of the old-fashioned "So-and-so said this, but he was wrong because of that; so-and-so solved that one, but he was wrong because of the other ..." stage one philosophy text books.

That's perhaps unavoidable in such large-scale debates, but it does tend to undercut the validity of one's overall conclusions.

All in all, I guess I tend to agree with Giovanni that you're basically misreading Postmodernism and Post-structuralism through putting too great trust in some very specific examples of the abuse of the philosophy. For me, its greatest achievement has always been providing a rigorous framework for the truth that an intellectual can find an impressive theoretical justification for anything that he or she really wants to do or think.

Derrida exposed the flimsiness of the metaphysical foundations for our thought - the uses to which people put this (fairly obvious) truth were, in the final analysis, up to them. Some saw it as justifying laissez-faire capitalism, others as a good reason for revived utopianism - if you cut away the foundations, the chickens are bound to run squawking in all directions for a time at least before they get back to pecking at each other.

That sounds frivolous, but it isn't meant to. I find your essay on Smithyman's "Deconstruction" both elegant and compelling, rooted (as it is) in the particular - the conflict between the "new" and "old" interpretations of Kiwi culture which did seem to come to a head in the Auckland English Dept in the late 80s. The poem's savour and effectiveness is greatly enhanced (I feel) by the way you've spelled out its background and context.

Giovanni has had the better of this round, though, I think. A great deal of Derrida and Foucault's work is dedicated to demonstrating why one shouldn't trust intellectuals - by definition they don't know what they're talking about, but they tend to sound fatally plausible - to themselves as well as others. Godel's theorem applies to philosophy as well as mathematics.

Like any sacred text, however, their words can be twisted to justify virtually any interpretation the mind of man can suggest. They can't be held responsible for all the words and acts of their followers any more than St Paul is to blame for snake-handling Evangelists or the Buddha for the excesses of the Great Vehicle ...

9:18 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

So the merits of Postmodernism is more in the methodology, the rigour of questioning rather than any particular prescription?

Yes Maps missed saying why you were annoyed at the "snow myth"...

Is it so terrible we live in factoidal world? One problem is that reported science is so simplistic, fragmented and frequently out of date. Journalists seem to be either quite stupid or very limited in their understanding of science, and constantly misrepresent
(or misunderstand) scientists, who are not given sufficient time to explain probabilities fro example.

Aside from that - the snow thing (hundreds of, or many, words for snow) arose I think

a) as the Eskimos (Inuits etc) lived where exact descriptions of ice and snow* were essential for survival. Even now on Ice Truckers, the truckers differentiate from the more flexible black snow ice that forms crystals slowly, and other, formed quickly that can suddenly break...so they will drive on black ice, the crackling of he ice also tells them it is flexing which is good.

b) One of the major ideas of postmodernism was that, as I understand it, certain central "truths" of Western philosophy or even science are not (universal) truths or truths necessarily relevant to other cultures...and also that the world is perceived in or through language (in different ways in different cultures). Indeed Smithyman himself writes "As we live, we live in language." So the experience of snow for an Eskimo or person living near the snow and ice is different to that of someone living in the Carribean or wherever it is snowless!

This leads to relativism and 'multiculturalism' (which Harold "Great Western Books & Geniuses" Bloom is very much against); and positive result is that art by Maori is valid and vital as that by say Picasso...and so on. We see art and humanity in less self-centred or less Eurocentric eyes. We try to understand other peoples.

When I was wrestling with Descartes theory of "the evil genius" etc in Stage One Philosophy I always had the feeling of: "What am I doing with my life!" ... but it was interesting...
Extreme skepticism of course is crazy. One just has to accept that such an initial supposition is inherently non commonsensical.

But as Jack and Giovanni seem to indicate skepticism was not central to Descartes (it was used by him as starting postulate to then disprove, I think he defaulted to "there has to be God" or something) or Derrida either ...

Rather, Derrida, like Wittgenstein, kept questioning and these ides lead to (to quote Jack) "Postmodernism and Post-structuralism ...[their]... greatest achievement has always been providing a rigorous framework for the truth that an intellectual can find an impressive theoretical justification for anything that he or she really wants to do or think." Thus liberating us from any preconceived philosophy or political religion such as Marxism or any other "isms" ... and we are thus "Open [to ideas and to] experience." to quote Smithyman again.

Some of the theoretical writings though of some of the more fanatical Postmodernists are so jargon filled and so obscure...and indeed PM ideas can lead intellectuals into complex arguments as to why they refuse to boil an egg as it is impossible for them, or they justify capitalism (they may be right - capitalism maybe the best we can hope for in this fleeting world - but their reasons are they are good wicket in many cases and simply don't want to rock the boat) or they even begin to justify war or genocide (but religion and other philosophies can lead to that also)... not long following the 9/11 incident: Antin the arch postmodernist and language talk poet...started raving about how Arabs and terrorists were all rats to be exterminated**...and Marjorie Perloff (otherwise a very astute and interesting critic of literature) was also right behind Bush's attacks on Afghanistan etc - Ron Silliman also. The felt that US (mainly) but also Western culture had to survive all there would no art or poetry of value... Not sure if he (Silliman) still is.

But other language posts - steeped in PMdsm - but using Marxist concepts in many cases - produced some interesting and culturally liberating writings - similar things happened in art and some of that art challenged the injustices etc And many opposed Bush et al.

Others rather like Davis and Geraets seemed to disappear in semiotic and Post-structural spasms up their own gold plated or jargon filled rear ends...

So Maps has at least started an interesting debate!


*Probably not different words for snow but different snow conditions which confused linguists, and which (words) would also occur in English.

** I have to concede that I also got into this position myself at first... My first reaction was quite strange - when 9/11 happened I had been right away from politics, oand I rarely watched TV, but my son rang me up on that day very intense and exhorted me excitedly to watch the TV, and we both watched all the excitement - and it WAS exciting!, it was like a crazy Hollywood movie, and I saw the attacks as a terrible assault by Moslem maniacs on Western Culture via NY - a city I was fascinated by and ahve visited - I also advocated exterminating all the Arabs in bizarre moment ... then Pierre Joris sent an email to the Poetics Group I was on - and I realised how crazy I had been (if temporarily) I had been talking not long before to a friend who was going on about how bad and dangerous terrorists were. But I then changed gears, I started think the US had organise it so they could initiate war moves.

5:23 pm  
Blogger dave said...

Pomo rose up to rally the right after political defeats of the 1970s in France, Portugal. These defeats were of the working class and student left who espoused ideas of socialist revolution. Pomo was counter-revolutionary espousing the ideal of the unique individual. Thus they reinforced the bourgeois hegemonic ideology of the sovereign individual.

What caused what? The failure of revolution already has its roots in a failure of counter-hegemony to produce intellectuals organised in a revolutionary party. No Prince is in sight. This is then seized upon as a strength, not a weaknesss by the counter-revolution. Hence pomo celebrates the failure of the Prince and puts revolutionary Gramsci to death, long live the academic Gramsci.

The so-called progressive gains of this period such as the social movements were booby prizes dominated by petty bourgeois posers. Even the working class became just another social movement. They did not challenge capitalist hegemony in the Gramscian sense. The Prince (or Marx) is already dead and buried.

Foucault did not challenge bourgeois hegemony. Power is everywhere and nowhere, it is not class power. Like anarchism, it ultimately adapts to capitalism because it is utopian/fatalist.

Recent events in Greece illustrate this. You can attack state power, but if you refuse to replace its ruling class power with your working class power, you will be defeated as a collection of individuals.

The thing that attracts me to Smithyman is the singular that speaks for the universal. In "Closing the Chocolate Factory" (which I take is Heards in Parnell where I once worked as a student) he talks of Margaret "grieving" for the loss of "character"... "the breath of the true nature, never no more roasting of brazil nuts, raisins, dark energy. On the third day the dove will not return."

What is lost is the "true nature" of making chocolate as a "use value".
A particular raisin, nut, roasted with labour is a use-value or something that meets a social need in the capitalist scheme of things. Capitalism cannot function without such usevalues that are the lifeblood of workers.

Chocolate is a wage good the enters the value of labour power, (sometimes not valued when lumpen workers would stash chocs to scoff during breaks) but was too expensive and "could not compete" during the dereguation of the 1980s and property in Parnell became like gold.

So "old identities won't hear anymore, incomers won't know what they are talking about. These have their own character, their own scents, they smell of credit cards, short term loans, sharp practice, high rise, key monies and foreclosing".

The smell of money and property as the measure of value (tainted like success) that also meets a need in the capitalist schema - for profit.

Here in one poem we have the essence of capitalism the "employee/employer" capitalist relation, the "use-value/exchange value" dual natured commodity.

And all this from the smells of the roasting and of "success".
The closing of the chocolate factory is NZ undergoing the gutting of Rogernomics.

6:30 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Dave - I remember that factory, I raced around once to get a job there but someone had just taken it. A song in my daughters' (Dionne and Tamasin and Mark's) group The Nudie Suits is about Mark Lyon's mother and the fact she had to work for years there - and him waiting for his mother to return late from night shift. That album is great - especially if one knows the stories attached to the songs. It is not consciously political: but it is certainly working class.

My only wonder is - how much did Smithyman _feel_ Rogernomics? He was insulated like most academics in the cloisters of academe - I have worked in many many factories - in Ron Mason's "factory hell(s)" - in a foundry, a cheese factory, a fibre glass factory, the freezing works (where I tried to show workers what was going on in Vietnam) and many other places ... I was pretty fanatical and dedicated in those days - I was at the coal face...

And later in the 80s when I was a Comms Tech at the NZED when they offered us all the great privilege of re-applying for our jobs. I took quite a big sum ... but the CEO of the SOE NZED in 1987/88 meanwhile got himself a 1.5 million dollar house in Remers. Before that, when I was in the Post Office (now Telecom), the Union betrayed us. They said that Labour would not sell off Government assets...those union bastards; they were in with Rogernomics, they and Douglas fucked NZ - I would hang them all right now if I could get hold of them...they acted not like workers but they were suited fat cats (this doesn't mean I am against unions per se - I am for them - but I have come across many unions where the executive were time wasters, using their positions in the union to get up the ladder...to avoid work and to get paid (one place I recall my ex worked the union woman (women were treated and paid very badly and probably still are in factories) was really miserable and just came around to collect union fees - did she pocket them or what? The wages were terrible..) in fact - anything for an aspiring unionist than work in a lolly factory...)

Many, too many, academics have never worked with their hands, they are theoreticians - they often don't see people. And they very often don't see how they don't see people - they don't see themselves. They think work is a joke. They hate workers.

However, we need academics - I know you are in very useful field - I remember the left winger who was a Geology Professor - very nice fellow whatever you think of his politics...and so on ...so I am only talking of some and in some degree. Obviously everyone cant work in factories all their lives!! But some people do.

Smithyman did have a lot of life experience and was open to ideas and so on - and history - and as you say or imply - he had an awareness of current events.

I agree with what you say here about Smithyman's poem - one one level Smithyman's poem, which is in my book of his called 'Autobiographies', is about the loss of identity suffered or experienced by people in communities.

But it also "refers" to the Holocaust called Rogernomics.

"The thing that attracts me to Smithyman is the singular that speaks for the universal."

Yes, he is grounded in reality (although he would be wary of, but not hostile to, that word) and he speaks often of more than one meaning or 'reality' in many things...

"In "Closing the Chocolate Factory" (which I take is Heards in Parnell where I once worked as a student) he talks of Margaret "grieving" for the loss of "character"... "the breath of the true nature, never no more roasting of brazil nuts, raisins, dark energy. On the third day the dove will not return."

What is lost is the "true nature" of making chocolate as a "use value".
A particular raisin, nut, roasted with labour is a use-value or something that meets a social need in the capitalist scheme of things. Capitalism cannot function without such usevalues that are the lifeblood of workers."

Use values and thus Marx's alienation? Also - in other words - human involvement in production - in making? A feeling of use and participation? And Smithyman was a poet, a maker ... (well his Smithy ancestors were!)

Yes - I only met him really in 1968 and he seems to have developed both in his poetics and his world view over time...as the book came out in 1992...not that he was a Marxist per se ... but there wouldn't have been much in ideas he dint know about.

But that said - can we blame Postmodernism (or one movement or idea only?) for the defeat of the revolutions etc - in the 1968 French Revolution one of the main problems was the (paradoxically) right/centre wing - conservative) French Communist Party (infiltrated by Govt. agents) who "ordered" the workers to stop assisting the workers. But for that France might have gone communist.

Many of the Communist parties of that time were weak or tired or corrupt - or so so ossified - they only wanted to keep the status quo - the Italian party almost like our RSA here...the US - the joke there was that the last members - all very suspicious of each other - turned out to be made up entirely of FBI and other right wing agents.

And there is some truth though in your suggestion that Postmodernism filled the vacuum of or after the death of the 60s (and earlier) struggles, when some people actually cared about struggle, the iniquity of war, and justice etc)- as many Derrideans and many Davisians and other academics have never got their hands dirty (except with cash in their hands). They don't know what work or struggle is.

8:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, you evolutionists, you win. My Father is God, yours is a baboon.
Have a banana.

2:37 am  
Blogger maps said...

Ouch! The blows are raining down! Giovanni and Jack make some very reasonable points about the superficialities implicit in my breakneck history of modern philosophy - perhaps my post is the intellectual equivalent of a 20-20 match (and btw, Giovanni, I'm very sorry for costing you Wednesday's match: if it's any compensation, I missed the match too, because I was helping welcome the notorious Hamsh Dewe back to Auckland, and his hatred of all organised ball games is only equalled by his contempt for the detractors of Ezra Pound).

I want to get onto my knees and attempt a weak jab at Giovanni, by suggesting that he has misunderstood the basis of my critique of postmodernism.

I'm not blasting Derrida for claiming that reality cannot be experienced outside our concepts - as Giovanni points out, that's fairly standard stuff - I am criticising him for suggesting that no representation of reality is better than any other. This doctrine is often termed epistemological nihilism. Epistemological nihilism iniquitous because

a) it is a step back from the achievements of Marx, Heidegger and Wittgenstein and a return to the flawed assumptions of Descartes and early modern philosophers, who insisted on probing individual propositions for their correlation to reality (the only difference between Descartes and Derrida is that Descartes eventually rejects extreme scepticism)

and b) if followed consistently, it stops us making any sort of stand on the relative merit of different worldviews and theories.
The Celtic NZ crowd are just as good as the archaeology department at the University of Auckland. David Irving's text are as truthful as those of Paul Celan.

Most postmdoernists don't follow epistemological nihilism through to its logical and absurd conclusions. Instead, they tend to use it to reject any radical systematic critique of the staus quo as a discredited 'grand narrative'. They become quietists or de facto defenders of the status quo.

A case in point is Klaus Bosselman, the outstanding Green intellectual in NZ. Bosselman is a German immigrant, who in his home country co-founded the Green party with Rudolf Bahro and discussed ideas with legendary figures like Gadamer and Habermas. He's an extraordinary intellectual asset to New Zealand, and last year he gave a scintillating address at Auckland University, where he attacked the commercialism and hyper-specialisation of twenty-first century higher education and discussed the flaws of both Western capitalism and the old Stalinist states of Eastern Europe.

Even though he made some fine points, Bosselman got bogged down when he began to construct a detailed account of what he called 'European cosmology', and implicate everyone from Plato to Marx to Milton Friedman in 'anthropocentric' and 'industrial' thinking.

Bosselman appeared to rule out the idea of any social more progressive alternative to capitalism when he characterised every other society that had been set up as equally implicated in the errors of 'Western cosmology'. His lecture therefore ended with a whimper, rather than a bang: instead of explaining how we could build a society that wasn't beset with problems like global warming, pollution, the waste of human resources represented by crime and unemployment, and so on, he suggested that the way forward was the creation of legislation that would effect piecemeal changes to our present society.

Bosselman's belief that every attempt to think systematically about society and work out an alternative to the status quo is fatally infected with hubris - is just another of the 'grand narratives' that Derrida, Foucault et al condemned -
vitiates his political philosophy.

Bosselman is close to some senior Green Party figures like Jeneatte Fitzsimmons, and you can see problems in that party's thinking that parrallel the problems in last year's lecture. At the Greens' 2006 conference, for instance, Fitzsimmons condemned both the left and right of the political spectrum, saying that the solutions advocated for social and environemntal problems by both free marketeers and socialists are equally untenable, because of the parlous condition of the planet. Where, though, does such a blanket dismissal of political ideas get you?

The failure of the Greens to think out a political philosophy and a set of coherent solutions to the problems NZ faces has left them marginalised. They resort to slick PR and stunts to maintain their 'brand', but they only say anything interesting when they ignore Fitzsimmons' proscriptions and draw on the analyses and discourse - the dreaded 'grand narratives' - of the left.

2:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maps, care to comment on the strong ethical dimension to Derrida's work?

Your charge of "epistemological nihilism" seems unjustified in this context.

Come on, this is a man who addressed crowds in New Zealand and in South Africa on issues of "forgiving the unforgivable."

Cordially yours, M. Baudrillotardeuze jnr.

3:33 pm  
Blogger Giovanni said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:25 pm  
Blogger maps said...

I think that Derrida spent the last decade or so of his life focused on political and ethical questions because he felt worried about the nihilist implications of his own epistemology. But Derrida's denial of the superiority of any particular truth-claim over another leaves him unable to find a secure position from which to make judgements on ethical and political questions.

The talks he gave on forgiveness in Auckland and Melbourne a decade ago were waffly, uninformed by any knowledge of the history of this part of the world, and utterly politically uselessness.

I think Derrida's intervention in the controversy about Paul De Man's collaboration with Nazism shows how incapable he was of dealing with political and ethical questions coherently. After Derrida's fellow deconstructionist De Man was posthumously outed for collaborating with the Nazi occupiers of Belgium, Derrida wrote an essay in which he analysed an anti-semitic article De Man had written for a pro-Nazi paper.

Derrida seized upon the sloppy prose style of De Man's article, and its occasional ambiguous formulation, and argued that the text should not really be used to condemn De Man, because its language revealed that he was not wholeheartedly anti-semitic and pro-Nazi. Derrida's 'deconstruction' was supposed to prove that the text was at war with itself, and could even be taken mean the opposite of what it seemed to mean.

Derrida's essay on De Man was widely ridiculed, and rightly so. Missing from Derrida's analysis is any conception of the real-world consequences of De Man's article - namely, the fact that it was published in a special anti-Jewish issue of a mass circulation publication at a time when the deportation of Belgian Jews to the death camps was beginning in earnest. Regardless of whether signs of unease can be detected in corners of De Man's text, the text has to be treated as a political act, and the product of a conscious choice on De Man's part. He was not coerced into writing the piece, and he knew that Jews were being persecuted in Belgium. He can't be allowed to wriggle off the hook because a few of the formulations in his article were sloppy or ambiguous.

Why didn't Derrida simply come out and condemn De Man's collaborationism? He could have done so and still defended the work De Man did after the war, in his new life in America. The fact is that Derrida could not condemn De Man's article wholeheartedly because he had no epistemological grounds for doing so. If no statement is truer than any other, and all political ideologies are equally vulnerable to deconstruction, then who are we to decry anti-semitism and fascism?

4:28 pm  
Blogger Giovanni said...

(edited to remove the most egregious typos - apologies for the previous version)

I'm not blasting Derrida for claiming that reality cannot be experienced outside our concepts - as Giovanni points out, that's fairly standard stuff - I am criticising him for suggesting that no representation of reality is better than any other. This doctrine is often termed epistemological nihilism. Epistemological nihilism iniquitous because...

You know who really gets on my gullet? Heisenberg. This idea that if you know the speed of an electron, you won’t be able to determine its position, and if you can determine its position, you won’t be able to measure its speed, is profoundly dangerous. How can anybody say anything at all about electrons, then? And how convenient for the bourgeoisie!

However, here’s the thing about Derrida, and Heisenberg: they are both right. You could say unfortunately, regrettably right, but right nonetheless. You can choose to characterise either approach as nihilistic, but really it doesn’t make an iota of difference, or rescue your ability to determine, from a hypothetical (and non-existent) standpoint outside of theory and ideology, whether a theory or an ideology is superior to another. Socialism is not inherently superior to national socialism, your wishes and mine notwithstanding. That is the bad news. The good news is, there’s plenty we can do to argue and persuade that one ideology is just, the other repugnant and unjust. Not to mention a plethora of means of analysing and organising and acting politically.

Most postmodernists don't follow epistemological nihilism through to its logical and absurd conclusions. Instead, they tend to use it to reject any radical systematic critique of the status quo as a discredited 'grand narrative'. They become quietists or de facto defenders of the status quo.

You really do need to be hit on the head with a copy of The Postmodern Condition (I’m not advocating any great brutality here, it’s a very thin book).Which, as I was saying the other day, was addressed to Faurisson precisely because Lyotard understood the challenge you describe with regard of how to rescue memory and determine history, say that this thing happened rather than this other thing. And what he proceeded to do was of course to show that Faurisson’s arguments are untenable precisely because they depend on a totalising grand narrative that selectively weaves all manner of spurious ‘evidence’ at the service of an ideologically preconceived conclusion. (Okay, he’s a lot more subtle than that, but the characterisation will suffice here.)

Your and Martin’s recent (and tireless, admirable) refutations of the Celtics in NZ thesis remain perfectly cogent and supportable from a postmodernist point of view - postmodernism doesn’t suspend reason or science. It historicises them, forcing us to regard them critically, and that surely is a good thing. But the epistemological margin of doubt notwithstanding, a postmodernist would have absolutely no trouble concluding that you and Martin are correct, and Doutrè is incorrect. But the case is too easy. It is much harder to determine the exact nature (note the vestigial language borrowed from positivist physics) of a broader historical set of circumstances, or a complex event like the Holocaust. So much so that one could reasonably argue - is this what you’re doing? - that it might be worth rejecting an epistemology that fails to reach true/false statements about such events. If I’m allowed a moment of self-promotion (I bloody deserve it at this point if you ask me) that’s precisely what the last chapter of my PhD is about. Click on my profile and go read it you like - that should keep you long enough to defer any further response till after the 20/20 game tonight.

As for the Bosselman example, it neither surprises nor worries me. Baudrillard was accused of similarly scintillating analyses that didn’t address the “whence, our politics” question. And neither do you, incidentally - you attack postmodernism but fall short of suggesting what grand narrative we ought to subscribe to, and why (not to mention how). Then again, the world is full of people who are doing just that. Out of a large field I’ll select Donna Haraway, a scientist and “unreconstructed Marxist”, and her work on biopower; and Ernesto Laclau and his group. Because while some people were busy cowering and feeling unable to articulate a criticism of capitalism and other means of discrimination and injustice, others understood that political projects are just as available as they’ve ever been. More so, in fact.

6:50 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Giovanni, your post was good, but where do you get this?

"You know who really gets on my gullet? Heisenberg. This idea that if you know the speed of an electron, you won’t be able to determine its position, and if you can determine its position, you won’t be able to measure its speed, is profoundly dangerous. How can anybody say anything at all about electrons, then? And how convenient for the bourgeoisie!"

Of course they can and do say things about electrons!! There is no "profound danger" - quite the opposite.

I have quoted or referred to this theory of Heisenberg's (Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle - derived from such Mathematicians/Scientist/Philosophers as Gauss) which is pretty much a scientific fact - it has huge positive implications for philosophy and any possible human progress.

You are talking (I think) of the (in simple terms) probability density function model of the atom (which is or has been used by e.g. Metallurgy Text books since the 60s) - in which it cannot be predicted where an electron will be at any time. To understand why I say this was a positive development, see my spiels based on Jacob Bronowski and his book (TV series) 'The Ascent of Man' here:

http://richardinfinitex.blogspot.com/2007_03_01_archive.html

http://richardinfinitex.blogspot.com/2007/03/from-ascent-of-man-by-jacob-bronowski.html

Please scroll down through them and (preferably) read it from the bottom up (of course don't if you don't want to or are watching cricket or whatever) - it is not "rigorous - as EYELIGHT is a kind of "poem" text/art project etc Most of EYELIGHT BTW you don't need to actually 'read' closely... [some is irrelevant and can be skipped of course]

It is not rigorous (it is not really a scientific or philosophic or even political work as such) but if you read Bronowski carefully (The Ascent of Man - for me - is a great book) you will see his point (especially about such as John von Neumann and (by implication Teller who wanted - he pushed strongly for and had some support to carry out a preemptive thermo-nuclear strike on the USSR (to destroy all Russians and others - as he was a fanatical anti communist) as soon as he developed the Hydrogen bomb)) - it is error and uncertainty that enables us to avoid concepts of absolutism such as Nazism or Stalinism etc - no one is saying that because you cant make an absolute measurement or that as error is always involved in all scientific outcomes or predictions that we cant "progress" or understand the real material world (quite the opposite if anything) - the reality is that humans can still build bridges and improve medical conditions - the fact is that Newtonian Physics is still mostly used for any or most engineering projects. I mean, we don't get up in the morning and say: "I'm a Postmodernist (or a Heisenbergian) so I don't need to eat" ! Or: "I just killed someone - but I am absolved because I have adopted Quantum Physics over Wave Mechanics"!

We don't use Heisenberg, Gauss or Godel to justify non-action!

Bronowski was very committed to people and life - BTW I didn't realise at the time that he also knew Robert Graves, and (of course thus) Laura Riding, and NZ's Len Lye.

He switched from Physics after the bomb was dropped - Leo Szilard - who invented the chain reaction - tried to stop it. Bronowski moved to biology and the life sciences and became an observer for the United Nations - at Hiroshima and Auschwitz etc

This history of Szilard and his initiation of the Manhatten Project and his petition to stop the bomb being dropped unnecessarily etc is also in "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" by Richard Rhodes which won a Pulitzer for non fiction.

I interjected - otherwise your points are good.

10:01 pm  
Blogger Giovanni said...

I was referring to the uncertainty principle. using an electron as the example (it's the classic example I believe, at least that's how I was taught it) and it states that the more certain you are about speed, the less certain you are about position, and viceversa. I don't for a moment dispute that it's a positive development, but then so is postmodernism :-).

I have no problem with uncertainty, or rather with the impossibility of absolute certainty - in politics or physics.

10:20 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

I see - I mentioned The Uncertainty Principle. It is talked about by Bronowski. But you don't have to know physics (I only know that kind of physics through "interpreters" suchas Bronowski or Sagan etc or Barrow who writes on maths (for the reasonably intelligent lay person) - you just need to have done some practical measurements. (Or thought about the problem of them) All measurements affect the thing measured.

It can also be shown that all measurement is limited. This is partly because measurements are affected by the measurer and the act of measurement. That includes the act of observation of the measuring device and that process is subject to human error...or even android error if we are in Jack Ross's world... (It doesn't matter where the electron is! How often do you want to know where an electron is!)

This predates Heisenberg but he put it into a theory. I wouldn't understand the maths behind it - but it is fairly obvious that absolute measurement is impossible and this has profound implications.

A simple example is the measurement of circle area it is A = pi x radius squared.

Accurate enough but in fact never completely as pi is 1.14xcvbmcvnbmcvmbnmxcnvb.......n with the letters indicating an infinite series of decimal places. Do you wait till you approx infinity before you write down the result?

There are many other conundrums but we can still - to all practical purposes - make good, accurate and useful measurements! But we are always limited by probabilities - there are areas of uncertainty...or uncertainty is a condition of knowledge.

I wasn't debating the merits of Postmodernism - I was just talking of that point.

As to Postmodernism - if I had the choice and I was facing an operation - I would choose a realist doctor over a Postmodernist doctor every time!

12:20 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If YOU Evolved, YOUR Unalienable Rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness are VOID

PS Richard Taylor says himself he is a SATANIST. Don't listen to him!

1:01 am  
Blogger Giovanni said...

As to Postmodernism - if I had the choice and I was facing an operation - I would choose a realist doctor over a Postmodernist doctor every time!

Yeah, I heard variations of that joke when Derrida died of pancreatic cancer. Ah ah ah, the hilarity!

You know what, though? My GP could have been reasonably described as a postmodern doctor. He knew medical science couldn't make quite as many positive statements as it claimed to be able to, and mixed allopatic therapies with less conventional ones when he thought it would be most effective. He diagnosed my mum's brain tumour by - gasp! - believing her when she described her symptoms, instead of dismissing them, as a bunch of other docs had done before him because they didn't fit any of the available templates. He took a holistic approach to health a good twenty years before it became fashionable. We miss him a lot.

9:21 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Giovannni - I didn't know Derrida had died of cancer - I actually like the idea of Derrida and when and I saw him talking on You Tube I really liked listening to what he said (or didn't say!) and indeed, the way he said it - I cant say I understand him (as much as I might) but from what I think I do understand: he used deconstruction to question the world and ideas, or at least as a methodology of approaches to texts (and hence the world), and so on where conventional approaches had been shown to be lacking...

I also like reading Barthes and reading about him but I read him almost as if he were a creative writer than a philosopher...we studied, starting with Baudelaire et al and the rise of Modernism, Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche, Heidegger (another writer whose merit (for me) is his "poetic" writing - the part about Van Gogh's (depiction of!) boots is beautiful - but his rejection of technology and "modernism" I disputed with my lecturer... Foucault interested me - but I have got around to reading much although I would like to read more of his stuff -

now what happened in one of those lectures about 1994) was that one day the lecturer who was talking about Foucault was away and a NZ philosopher came in and challenged his power=knowledge=more "evil" controlling power* formula or idea. He was so insistent (and used straightforward logic that seemed irrefutable) I wasn't sure he was really dismissing Foucault or getting us all to think - he asked if there were any comments - I think I was the only one - as I mentioned the way psychiatry especially the USSR had been used to terrorise people and so on...but that was destroyed...it was strange. If the NZ Philosopher was rabid anti Postmodernist or at least anti Focauist it was strange he waited till the other lecturer wasn't there - or perhaps it had been planned to keep us on our toes...

Sounds like your mother found a good doctor. I think Kathy Acker took things too far going to Mexico when she had breast cancer - there are some things scientists simply DO know about. They knew she was dying and she did die. BUT in fact in China in the 60s/70s they adopted an approach in which the patients and medical people became involved in their own therapy and also they used old and new approaches - there, in that, was possibility for huge change (I see Foucault took a active part in the 1968 French Revolution - helping the students make Molotov cocktails and so on)... and to be fair to Acker she was in dire and tragic circumstances and she indeed made or advocated some valid challenges (in medical or medical-institutional practices etc).

Foucault interested me a lot. Perhaps not in his conclusions but in the challenges he made and his methods - Wittgenstein also questioned things - allowing that openness that I think is the best aspect of Postmodernism...

Which is why I think Smithyman was playing a subtle double game - he was both critiquing 'deconstruction' (as he saw it) but at the same time carrying out a kind of deconstruction himself...possible...Jack and Maps might aver vociferously that this point ...

*Whether it is always "bad" I am not sure - and it is disputable - but the very idea and its contexts is "engendering" of other ideas ... or discourses

2:11 pm  

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