Saturday, December 19, 2015

Obscure Postmodern Language

I try here to outline certain postmodern1 doctrines that, in a full development, might result in one using obscure terminology. None of this is to say that every postmodern writer using polysyllabic terminology is expressing complicated ideas in the most effective way. Nor do I want to argue that it is impossible to ever write clearly2 about (some subset) of these ideas.

People have a tendency towards reification3, towards talking as if certain abstract ideas are concrete realities. For example, they might tend to confuse relationships between people with relationships between things4. And people tend to think dualistically, or at least to categorize things into pre-existing categories. And with dividing things into two categories, one may tend to elevate one over the other, or to define the inferior in terms of the negation of the properties of the superior5. One might think that these confusions become embedded in our language6. It is not as if we have access to a language appropriate for a "view from nowhere", where nature is carved at its joints7.

Furthermore, current classifications and fundamental ideas embodied in current language have a history; our current language does not reflect how people always thought. In looking at past patterns of language and governance, one should try not to read our current way of thinking into the past8.

One might also think current classifications have a functional relationship to class structure, hegemonic9 ethnicities, patriarchal relationships, or whatever10.

I have deliberately been abstract here. But, I suppose, I might mention some examples. In economics, I think one is confused if one looks at capitalism as catallaxy, that is, purely in terms of market relationships, in which all parties are free. Furthermore, many things have been said to be socially constructed. I think here of money11, race12, gender13, and sex14.

In fully trying to explicate these ideas, one can be expected to struggle with bewitchments brought about by language. One might look for multivocalities in past texts. How have current suppositions been read into them? How might they be read from a subaltern position? How might language be expanded so as not to deny normalcy to currently marginalized groups? So reasons exist why academics thinking along postmodern trends might express themselves obscurely.

The above is not to say that these ideas cannot be criticized15.

Update (21 December 2015):
  • Am I agreeing or disaggreeing with what Robert Paul Wolff says here?
  • Noah Smith has a knee-jerk reaction to postmodernism.
  • The blogger with the pseudonym "Lord Keynes" has often complained about left-leaning postmoderns.
  1. For purposes of this post, I do not distinguish between deconstruction, post structuralism, various trends in the social studies of science, etc.
  2. Richard Rorty is an example of a postmodern philosopher known for clear - but not necessarily easy - writing.
  3. The popularity of the term "reification", in postmodern discourse, comes from Georg Lukás.
  4. This is how Marx defined commodity fetishism.
  5. I am thinking of how Simone de Beauvoir, early in The Second Sex, describes women being defined as the Other.
  6. Here I point to Ludwig Wittgenstein's later work, unpublished in his lifetime.
  7. I guess this relates to Jacques Derrida's claim, "There is no outside the text."
  8. Michel Foucault, in particular, offers provocative studies of changing European thought in the classical age, between the Renaissance and the nineteenth century.
  9. The popularity of the term "hegemony", in postmodern discourse, comes from Antonio Gramsci.
  10. As Marx said, "The ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling classes."
  11. This is an example of how something can both be socially constructed and real. Obviously, money has quite real effects in modern societies.
  12. Think of the use of the words "Black" and "Colored" in South Africa and in the USA. In the former, they are not synonyms, while among older Americans of a certain sort, they are.
  13. I gather Judith Butler originated the concept of gender as performative.
  14. Judith Butler also questions whether sex is necessarily a biological division. People might be classified based on chromosomes, hormones, genitalia, and secondary sex characteristics. More than two categories exist in many of these classifications, and they do not always line up. Philip Mirowski observes somewhere that, for the International Olympic Committee (and the International Association of Athletics Federations), these classifications are a quite practical issue. After all, they are structured to find exceptional humans.
  15. For explicit references below, I only give critiques. I am sympathetic to the idea that the popularity of postmodernism among academics was connected to an inability to successfully improve material conditions for many.
  • Samir Amin (1998). Spectres of Capitalism: A Critique of Current Intellectual Fashions, Monthly Review Press.
  • Terry Eagleton (1996). The Illusions of Postmodernism, Blackwell.


Blissex said...

Deconstructing the discourse in which our parasymbolic author injects transreferential meaning between rows of signifiers, this is an amusing parody of a certain style of academic writing, made funnier by its being also serious and meaningful. Congratulations.
Plus many wishes of a happy and relaxed period of seasonal holidays!

Robert Vienneau said...

Thanks. Happy new year to you.

My post was not meant to be a parody. I am not in academia, so these ideas might seem more exciting to me than they would to some academics, who might find them now tired. I like Zizek, who I think is often deliberating clowning.