I’ve seen a few articles recently in which people seem to be blaming Postmodernism for ‘fake news’ and Donald Trump, and for a departure from Enlightenment principles into ‘darkness’. This seems rather a stretch to me.
One of the problems with this position, is that it sees both the enlightenment and post-modernism, as single movements, when they are quite pluralistic: Derrida, Baudrillard and Foucault for example, do not have a common project, other than in the sense that people writing at the same time in a similar tradition have commonalities.
I would further suggest that many apparent tenets of post-modernism actually share similarities with people in the enlightenment, and come out of other recognisable modernist sources such as anthropology, linguistics, physics and so on. Cynically, post-modernism as a whole has little interest in the British Enlightenment, because it makes it seem less original as a movement.
Many of the movers of the British enlightenment, which is the Enlightenment I am most familiar with, after a lot of arguing came to what I would claim is the entirely justifiable conclusion that ‘Reason’ was not enough, and that reason without reference to the real world could lead to complete fantasy. If your axioms/assumptions and obvious statements where wrong your conclusions would be wrong. Hence ‘natural philosophy’ and ‘alchemy’ moved into what we call science, in which, as far as possible, statements had to be checked against reality in front of trustworthy, knowledgeable and critical witnesses.
It’s position is we cannot assume things to be true in advance. That will mislead us.
Now, let’s move to a patch of Foucault arguing with Chomsky:
… you can’t prevent me from believing that these notions of human nature, of justice, of the realization of the essence of human beings, are all notions and concepts which have been formed within our civilization, within our type of knowledge and our form of philosophy, and that as a result form part of our class system; and that one can’t, however regrettable it may be, put forward these notions to describe or justify a fight which should — and shall in principle – overthrow the very fundaments of our society. This is an extrapolation for which I can’t find the historical justification.
Foucault’s remark is entirely within keeping with these mainstream British Enlightenment Principles – where are these ‘rights’ that people keep talking about? Are they not enshrined in, and derived from, particular political structures – which as Adam Smith, no less, pointed out are there to defend the propertied and the powerful? It may be that the discourse is not entirely consistent, and can be turned against itself. Rather surprisingly Foucault seems to assume the system must be completely harmonious and self-reinforcing, rather than possibly incoherent. But, even if the system is not incoherent, that does not mean ‘rights’ exist. You would need to show Foucault a historical example of this in action before he might agree to the process working. We are all familiar with the remark attributed to Einstein “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it” – this is more concise and more general than Foucault, but the meaning is similar. We need to change our reason to solve problems.
Likewise Foucault insists that knowledge is intertwined with power. Who would argue that Religion has not been intertwined with power and challenges to power, and the same seems true of science and economics? We know that commercial science is not always as accurate as independent science. That is why some of us fight for academic funding to be determined by academics rather than corporations, and why others want funding and work conditions to be determined by corporations or corporate principles. To deny this relationship between power and knowledge, seems to be to deny a basic political truth, of which Voltaire and Diderot were not unaware.
I’d also argue that power is intertwined with ignorance, I’ll probably expand that point elsewhere, but it should lead us to caution. Burke’s ‘conservative’ defense of British Tradition against revolution and ‘free markets’ is based upon a distrust in reason, and a trust in the empirical complexity of reality. We may not perceive everything which is going on, or how it all interacts and hence the system needs tending carefully not disrupting ‘reasonably’ according to our fancies. The same kind of proposition is found in functionalist anthropology acting as a defense of ‘native’ societies against colonial disorganization – it foreshadows systems theory, which is vital for understanding ecologies and social interactions with ecologies.
Now as it happens, both Hume and Berkeley disrupted this empiricist stand by showing from empiricist principles that we have no direct access to reality, only to our imagining and habits, or to the imagining done by God in Berkeley’s case. Of course there was the ‘common sense’ reaction to these positions, but it was always within this wider framework as discussed. Reason is not supreme. And a belief in the supremacy of reason leads you to serious misunderstanding of human social functioning.
Derrida further illustrates how this failure of reason and understanding can occur through language. One of his main claims to fame is the infamous argument that there is nothing outside the text. For me, this seems to be saying that humans give things meaning immediately – we treat things as ‘texts’. I don’t know why people get upset with this proposition. To some extent, science is about trying to remove the meanings we give things immediately and giving them meanings which are more in accord with their nature. But we are always prone to bend them to our inner psycho-cultural meanings. And the more obscure, or threatening, the explication of science the more this bending will occur. Climate change denialism, can be seen as a triumph of hope and common sense against reality.
Derrida also takes the ‘context dependence’ of meaning seriously. Meaning is delimited by context. That is a fairly standard linguistic understanding. Furthermore, context is unstable; different people bring different contexts to the same ‘texts’, consequently meaning is unstable. If we add difficulties of cross cultural understanding, historical shifts in the meanings of words and so on, then this shift in context and meaning becomes even more of an issue. We may be reasoning from assumptions which are mistaken interpretations of some previous work.
This is fairly obvious to literary critics. Any relatively complex text will have an almost infinite number of interpretations; although it may not have every possible interpretation – as I commonly say the number of people who seriously argue that Hamlet is about the mating habits of African elephants is remarkably small. However, no valuable text is exhausted of meaning by any particular reading. I also don’t know why this proposition often seems to be considered a terrible thing, as it seems necessary to any kind of understanding of understanding.
Indeed one of the problems with understanding Trump and the Trump movement, is that the contexts brought to bear on understanding it’s statements are extremely different; they are so different that people in the same cultural group cannot understand each other. Refusal to accept context dependence, means that much commentary is framed in terms of the stupidity of others, and such statements help to further the separation and lack of understanding and communication.
These positions seem, to me, to be fundamental starting places for political analysis, along with understanding how economic and political ‘truths’ get propagated through organs of power, and they are not hindered by post-modern thought.