Saturday, April 19, 2014

An attempt at summarizing my understanding of postmodern thought

Postmodernism is by definition a very plural worldview. There is no clearly identifiable core per se. However, there are some recurring themes which most of its adherents would tend to agree on. I think that the primary thrust of postmodernism is literary, social, political and historical. It is not directed at sciences or their critique. This took me a while to come to grips with. When I realized this, some confusion went away. 

Postmodernism has often been introduced briefly by borrowing Lyotard’s statement – “postmodernism is the incredulity towards all metanarratives.” Rightly so. If there is to be one one-sentence summary of postmodernism, this would be it (for now.) What does it mean? In short, it levels the field between all competing worldviews. At the same time, it also declares all of them to be ‘untrue’ in some sense. This is a very nuanced point and is often mistaken by na├»ve critiques of this statement.
The postmodern stance with regards to the earlier worldviews is that they are epistemically partial at best and hollow at worst (not because of any inherent issue but more so because of the very nature of human epistemic apparatus). The worldviews/meta-narratives might contain grains of factual ‘truth’ (using the convention of collective agreement and reproducibility for empirical matters and collective sense of ‘logical’ for a priori matters). Besides these, the worldviews routinely contain articles of faith, belief, opinion, stand etc. The overall construct includes some ‘true’ facts, some ideas, some interpretations and so on. This collective is not necessarily ‘wrong’ or ‘incorrect’ (in fact, postmodern stand is that such a statement has no meaning.) However, competing worldviews are routinely calling each other so (‘wrong’, ‘incorrect’, ‘inhuman’, ‘oppressive’, ‘cruel’ etc.) Postmodernism enters this tournament and tells them that the prize is a hoax.
Let me go beyond the colorful analogy. Postmodernism does not take a stand on right, wrong, just, correct and so on. It has a good reason to do so, which we will come to later. However, in not taking a stand, it also declares that the stands taken by everyone else are also arbitrary. This is not a light charge on the stand-taking in the spirit of “I am not taking the stand because I am confused and hence it is only fair that nobody else should take a stand too.” There is more to it. That is what we come to now.

Postmodernism draws a lot on its critique of the role of language in human life. While earlier worldviews took language as simply a tool to express thoughts and ideas and rarely doubted its neutrality, postmodernism got into the depth of this toolbox itself. The modern stance regarding language is understandable. In fact, that continues to be the stand taken by majority of humanity even now. Language is language. It has a structure, words, grammar and so on. Someone uses it to construct stories, someone else for poetry, yet someone else for a political speech and someone writes erotic novels with it. It is malleable, universal and (while nobody bothers to check it) impartial to all who use it. In fact, we rarely bother to even stop and question this. It is too internal to us. It is a part of who we are. Questioning language is like questioning our nose or liver.

And yet when any sensible person reviews the role played by language in our discourses, it is hard to miss that language does not merely clothe our thoughts, it builds them. Without language, there would be no thoughts in the conventional sense that we experience them. If you do not believe me, try it right now. Hold off reading, close your eyes and try to think without language.

While we think we use language to ‘express’ or ‘articulate’ our thoughts, we always use language to ‘construct’ them. Even if that were true, what of it? One might argue that language used for everyone on collectively agreed principles to communicate thoughts. Where does the ‘incredulity towards all metanarratives’ emerge from this?

Here, we need to take a slight detour to revisit Wittgenstein – in his study of linguistics, the nature of logic and his eventual claim that language simply cannot address some questions. (
Excerpt from Wikipedia entry: He alleges that the problems are traceable to a set of related assumptions about the nature of language, which themselves presuppose a particular conception of the essence of language. This conception is considered and ultimately rejected for being too general; that is, as an essentialist account of the nature of language it is simply too narrow to be able to account for the variety of things we do with language.

What this leads us to is a dead end of sorts. What are we to do if someone asks us – ‘is it right to let one person die to save two?’ We get into ‘rational’ evaluation and get somewhere. We argue vociferously – some would say it is the individual’s ‘right’, others would say it is ‘pragmatic’ to do this and so on. Ultimately, if it came to action, the actor would decide based on a combination of factors, including some situational ones, some unconscious ones and some ideological ones. What Wittgenstein claims is not that this action is irrelevant but that the debate is. Our use of language to address such questions is too ambitious. The structure of language is not equipped to deal with this. Thus our thinking is unable to 'answer' these questions logically. What seems 'logical' is merely a product of some assumptions which are themselves questionable. 

There is more. It is not that we are dumb or our language can be ‘improved’. These questions are simply invalid. They are not in the realm of thinking and evaluation. They simply belong to the domain of activity.
This is the fatal blow to the meta-narratives referred to earlier in this essay. To the extent that a metanarrative has no such statement barred by the Wittgensteinian inference above, it can at least claim to be valid. However, it does not take much to realize that anything amounting to a useful worldview is unlikely to be simple enough to be free from opinion, faith, belief and ideology. Hence all substantial metanarratives are untrue. They are not 'incorrect', they are simply 'untrue'.

Postmodernism does not offer one more metanarrative to replace these. It simply states that any such attempt it based on invalid grounds.

There are three nuanced points here.
  1. 1 This incredulity is extended only to metanarratives. The smaller units of discourse such as a logical sentence and a fact of nature are dealt with differently. See below.
  2. 2.   Most postmodern thought also includes a conjecture on why these metanarratives came to be in the first place and why they are so visible even when they are manufactured.
  3. 3.  The critique of postmodernism on the ground that this itself is a metanarrative misses the point. There are multiple levels of organization of thought and each higher level can make claims about the lower levels.

1.       Naturalism is a metanarrative and so is feminism. The statement that “2+2=4” or that “2 is the only even prime” are not. Postmodernism is raising a question about the credulity of naturalism or feminism. It is not questioning the validity of “2+2=4”. No doubt, it has an attitude towards the latter as well. That is interesting and somewhat liberating. What we consider logical is based on our structure of language and conventions. In a slightly different language of base 3 for example 2+2 = 11. Now if you know a little bit of mathematics, you will say that 2 stands for two instances of something – say two men. Addition stands for combing them while retaining their identities and distinction. Hence when we say, two plus two, we are saying bring two men first and then bring two more and start counting them. What they make as a result is same – referred to as 4 in base 10 (actually in any base larger than base 5) but 11 in base 3.

The postmodern response is not to refute the logic of these claims. It is simply to point out that this is how we construct our language. This is how we build our conventions of it – formal language like mathematics and logic or informal language like English. All of these are systems of rules. Once we take the rules as a given, the ‘truth’ of some claims and ‘falsity’ of some others will follow.
Another example is empirical. In Euclidean geometry, angles of a triangle add up to 180 degree (or two pi radians). For triangles drawn on the surface of a sphere, they add up to more (anywhere between slightly more than 180 degrees to say as high as nearly 540 degrees – think of a triangle with one point at north pole, other two points near each other on equator and the line connecting these nearby points being taken across the globe.) Again a matter of frame of reference or the rulebook. Hence “2+2=4” (or for that matter “2+2=11”) is not fundamentally or a priori ‘true’ as much as ‘internally consistent’ with the rulebook of that particular sign system. Is this a big deal? Have I simply replaced ‘true’ with ‘internally consistent’?

It is a big deal, especially considering the veneration we accord to ‘the’ truth. In our fantasy, ‘the’ truth is independent, self-referential, profound and all such. ‘Internally consistent’ is far shorter a claim. It is a claim of observation. It has no profundity and more importantly no finality. Perhaps the most important aspect of ‘internally consistent’ as against ‘true’ is that it is not unique. There are many ways to construct an internally consistent geometry for example. None of these are true or false. None are fundamentally any better or worse than each other.

To summarize: postmodern claim about metanarratives is that they are not credible. As regard analytical ‘truths’, postmodern stand is that they are products of the language they are constructed in – and are thus ‘internally consistent’ instead of the magnanimous ‘true’. As regard empirical truths, they are simply the latest theory of how things work. (I have not elaborated on this last point, but a quick review of Karl Popper’s falsification principle would explain this with great lucidity.)

2.       At the beginning of this essay I made a claim that the primary thrust of postmodernism is socio-political, historical and literary rather than empirical. I had a reason to say so. Postmodernism arose in reaction to the modern notion of how society should be organized, how new ideas from scientific advances should inform our worldview and how we should view our place in the universe. It is a critique of these human matters rather than any philosophy of science.

Postmodernism came up as a reaction to what seemed like the use of metanarratives for oppression and exploitation. To that extent, postmodernism - for some its adherents - tends to have political under-currents. It seems to prefer an anarchist society and tends to view worldviews and metanarratives as ploys deployed by vested interests to their own ends.
I do agree with the critiques of postmodernism when they claim that postmodernism seems to contradict itself in this sphere at times by taking a political stand. A true postmodern attitude to politics is in fact absence of a recommendation regarding opinion. Hence any opinion could be admitted insofar as it did not have overarching claims regarding where its legitimacy came from.

But therein lies the rub. While fighting the general proliferation of competing metanarratives, it is hard to push through a view of incredulity towards metanarratives without taking a stand. While I referred earlier in an analogy to the tournament where postmodernism enters to declare the prize to be a hoax, in real social discourse, one gets heard only when one has something to say. The construct of language does not allow a well defined postmodern rhetoric to flourish in the current social set up, at least.

Nevertheless, for those that sense what the spirit of postmodernism is, its political implications are simple enough. Postmodernism may not stand a good chance in a social fight outside of the individual. However, within a given individual, it can warn her that all metanarratives are power-plays. The subtlety, (because of which it would fail to gather followers in a popular sense), is that postmodernism has no recommendation regarding how to form your own worldview. In fact, this might be its Achilles’ heel. For a budding intellectual, postmodernism is sterile. If I seriously follow the thought of following no metanarrative, I suddenly find myself unhinged. The postmodern response to it is vague. Different adherents have said different things. Foucault for example says that maximizing one’s own pleasure is a good guiding principle. That seems too narrow to begin with – although that is where a thoughtful journey might end. It also fails to inspire – something that a serious worldview has to do in the context of current cultural and social set-up. A worldview as sterile as postmodernism then is starting out with a huge handicap. But I digress. Coming back to the main point of its political recommendation, postmodernism can be seen as the liberating first step. The second step is then to find out what you would like to use this liberation for.

3.       Some critiques point out that ‘all metanarratives are invalid’ is itself a metanarrative and hence self-contradictory. I would argue that it is not. Firstly I have explained earlier that a metanarrative is different from a statement of logic or empirical finding. Some would say that ‘all metanarratives are invalid’ is a pretty strong ideological stance and has a fair amount of belief in it and this could qualify to be a metanarrative itself.
This is partly true. Hence I am adding a qualifier to Lyotard’s statement. ‘Postmodernism is incredulity towards all first-level metanarratives.’ Is this simply a language-game, where I raise this statement to the second level metanarrative state and thus claim it to be valid? It might seem so but it is not.
Any system of signs does not operate at a single level. For example, when I claim the validity of “2+3=5”, I am using the higher (or lower, whichever, but different) level assumption about what 2,3,+ and = mean. Once this higher level assumption is considered valid, I can gauge validity or invalidity of 2+3=5 and 2+3=7. Without the higher level assumptions or system, the lower level statement cannot be evaluated. A simple demonstration is trying to read a language you don’t know. The symbols don’t mean anything. You don’t have the higher level assumptions.

As regards statements about metanarratives and worldviews are concerned, one can similarly see the relevance of such a higher level system. I would say the following statements are all competing approaches to worldviews/metanarratives (merely an illustration.)
a.       There is exactly one correct metanarrative/worldview. All other worldviews are false.
b.      All worldviews and metanarratives are correct. In their given context, they serve the useful purpose of helping an individual live with the vagaries of life.
c.       All metanarratives are invalid. They are constructed using the language to serve specific purposes of their users.
These are all higher level statements about metanarratives. Say, the first one does not implicitly mean that it itself is that one correct metanarrative. Similarly the third one does not become invalid as a metanarrative in itself.

Seen from the other side, i.e. the contents of the typical metanarratives, this becomes even clearer. Most metanarratives are systems that assume some things, repose faith in some others and follow some ideological stance. These particulars are ‘real’ – in the sense that they deal with human lives. At a core level, a typical metanarrative at the first level does not bother to make too much of a statement about the nature of metanarratives, language and its limitations and so on. Of course, it might contradict another first level metanarrative (e.g. Theism vs Naturalism). But it does not aspire to make too many claims about epistemology and construction of worldviews in the first place. In short, a typical first level metanarrative is generally not self-referential. In fact that is the appeal of most of these. They are seductive for precisely that reason. By avoiding any reference to self, they remain clear of any criticism by followers. A faithful follower of some of the popular first level metanarrative would rarely come across a contradiction in it. These systems tend to be internally self-consistent. (There might be others that did not manage that and thus perished – sort of survival of the fittest logic for ideas!) In precisely this characteristic of these systems lies the means of exploitation. When the Jihdist is sent on a suicide mission, he believes that he is going to meet virgins to copulate after death (not all for sure, many simply do it for the money their families receive.) The constructors of their metanarrative exploit this unquestioning faith. Much less visible and less extreme examples abound in our daily lives. More on that later though.

In summary: first level metanarratives generally serve specific purpose of providing individuals and societies with internally consistent rulebook of living. Second level metanarratives are not very common nor popular. Postmodernism, even if considered as a metanarrative, is a second level metanarrative and is thus not self-contradictory.

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