Saturday, September 16, 2006

At the bar: what is postmodernism?

I was sitting in the bar the other night talking to a friend when he asked me, what is postmodernism? I double clutched, then replied, I can't explain it. As we know, postmodernism is like many other broad and deep isms; it defies succinct description and definition.

Besides, if I had had a ready made answer and started to expound upon it, his eyes would have glazed over and within a few seconds he would have changed the subject or found a reason to talk to somebody else. We moved on to other things like the merits of the new Iron Maiden album and how it had zoomed to number 9 on the charts the first week of its release.

The next day I looked up Postmodernism on Wikipedia in hopes that I would find a summary I could print for my friend. Which I did.

I was struck by this bullet point contained in the explanation:
The belief that all communication is shaped by cultural bias, myth, metaphor, and political content.
(see Cultural relativism)

I have always been mystified as to why this postmodernist belief is linked to cultural relativism. It seems as though it is a set of observations that can be verified and a set of propositions that can be proved or disproved. What's relative about that? It seems down right scientific.

What also mystifies me is why so many conservative critics of postmodernism try to make this link to cultural relativism. The selling of the Iraq War and Occupation seems to provide ample evidence for the above claims by some postmodernists and critical theorists. Are these conservatives disingenuous or are they confused and mistaken?

I suspect it is a bit of both, plus other things.


At 10:54 PM, Blogger Renegade Eye said...

Cultural relativism is part of post modern thought, because only your local influences matter. There is no universal thought or consciousness.

At 1:35 AM, Blogger Lynn said...

Renegade eye –

The point I should have clarified about the quotation is that it does not make any large epistemological claims about truth or knowledge. The bullet point talks about how we form beliefs, and not whether those beliefs have a purchase on the truth.

Political discourse tries to persuade another of the correctness of a preferred political position. That seems a rather banal and uncontroversial observation.

Cultural relativism dates back to the ancient Greeks. The truth is what people believe in different cultures and that is the end of the story.

A postmodernist might claim there are no grand narratives such as universal thought and consciousness that arrive at the truth. That puts limits on how we know and what we know, but does it necessarily lead to cultural relativism? Does it lead to the strong epistemological claims that some ancient Greeks made? I suspect not.

At 11:53 PM, Blogger janus said...

A postmodernist might claim there are no grand narratives such as universal thought and consciousness that arrive at the truth.

that is one bit about postmodernism which unnerves me, that nothing is universal, perhaps not even first-order logic. postmodernism seems to ask much of the thinker: that reality is not so reductive that one derives it from an armchair, but to account for cultural relativism, the thinker must immerse himself (herself) and learn the first principles of the culture and how inference is made.

above all else, it seems an admission: there are no easy answers.

At 9:14 AM, Blogger Lynn said...

janus -

I doubt if too many postmoderns would deny first order logic. I think there is a strong reaction against scientism and positivism as grand narratives that claim that everything is explained by science. There are also meaning of life questions that science does not address.


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