Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

We broke our postmodern cage and ran

We're revisiting the 90's right now, partly because Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell just died and partly because some people attempted to replicate the Sokal hoax, publishing a nonsense article full of dense gender studies jargon.  For those too young to remember the glories of the 90's, Sokal published an article full of incomprehensible postmodernist jargon, making some sort of pretentious claim about physics being just, like, your opinion, man.  Or something.  It wasn't really supposed to make sense.  Anyway, these authors published an article arguing that the whole concept of a penis is just an invented concept, or something.  Then they published an article revealing that their first article was never meant seriously, and the fact that it nonetheless got published proves that the field of gender studies is bunk.  Or something.

Now, whether these authors have really taught us anything about alleged problems in the field of gender studies is very much a contested claim, not the least because the article was turned down by an undistinguished journal before being accepted by an even less distinguished journal.  But I'm not interested in dissecting alleged problems in the field of gender studies.  Rather, I want to note a different point, about the contrasts between the fashionable postmodernism of the 90's and the fashionable identity politics of today.

On the surface there are similarities.  The identity studies and identity activist types of today and the postmodern literary theorists and Science Wars types of the 90's both agreed that you can dismiss an idea if it is Western, patriarchal, colonialist, yadda yadda.  Both are ultimately signaling games for people with a certain type of education.  And both are largely rubbish from an intellectual perspective.

Still, there are two key differences:
1) The PoMo guys didn't seem to believe in truth.  OK, they probably believed that Western, male, yadda yadda ideas were even less true than others, but ultimately they seemed to think that everything is just, like, subjective, man.  So, yes, they would reject Western, patriarchal, yadda yadda ideas, but they'd also reject any other idea if you got too enamored of it.

The modern identity politics types, OTOH, seem to believe that they have access to truth.  They don't just want to tell everyone that stuff is complicated and depends on your point of view.  They want to claim that truth comes from the margins and so while my white, Western, male, yadda yadda opinion might be wrong, theirs is right.  There are problems with claiming moral authority on the grounds that truth can only come from the margins, as I've noted before, but they certainly make that claim.

2) The PoMo guys had hard reads.  Foucault is not for the faint of heart. Marx (not PoMo but nonetheless appreciated by a certain type of humanities scholar) can only be read with a lot of caffeine and cigarettes. OTOH, I am pretty sure that you could do just fine with the modern politically correct types if you read a few privilege think-pieces and just nodded along with whatever they said.  They have truth, and as long as you acknowledge that it's good.  There's no intellectual game to be played, no idea to be skewered, just a "yes-and" discussion.  Remember your victim hierarchy, defer to others* the loudest when in doubt, and it will be fine.  You don't need thick books or nuanced arguments, just rhetorical cudgels.

So, as much as I like the 1990's, and as much as I would like to return to them, we aren't there.  We're in a different era.  The PoMos read thick books, and as much as they annoyed me back then I would gladly take them over the current wave of identity politics.

Mind you, the 90's did have political correctness, but that was a different beast, an angrier one than the PoMo types.  And I never had to encounter much of the PC because it had already self-discredited by the time I entered a pretty Republican-heavy college.  It didn't disappear but it dial back a notch.  PoMo was a lesser evil, in retrospect, because it was always just a game, a game that ended the second that we got a Republican in the White House and (more importantly) the EPA.  Science is only a social construct until somebody tries to ignore it.  Then every liberal turns into a raging technocrat.  But while "That's just, like, your opinion, man" gets tossed aside when practical considerations dictate so, identity politics shows little sign of abating.  Alas.

Anyway, the post title comes from a song that was written by Chris Cornell (who died this week) and was covered by Johnny Cash in 1996 (the year of the Sokal hoax).

*My apologies for Othering people :)

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