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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Lights On, Computer Up

Going back to that post in which I commented that I thought Obama was essentially a postmodernist -

First, a little more information on post-modernism. Wikipedia (this definition made me laugh, because it is so true at times):
Postmodernism is a term originating in art, literature, philosophy, historiography, theology, architecture and culture in general before branching out into a wider range of topics. It literally means 'after the modern'. It has been used in critical theory to refer to a point of departure for works of literature, drama, architecture, and design, as well as in marketing and business and the interpretation of history, law and culture in the late 20th century.

Postmodernism was originally a reaction to modernism. Largely influenced by the Western European disillusionment induced by World War II, postmodernism tends to refer to a cultural, intellectual, or artistic state lacking a clear central hierarchy or organizing principle and embodying extreme complexity, contradiction, ambiguity, diversity, interconnectedness or interreferentiality,[1] in a way that is often indistinguishable from a parody of itself. It has given rise to charges of fraudulence.[2]

There is a school of Marxism, usually called neo-Marxism, which draws on post-modernism. But I don't think Obama is a Marxist.

One of the more hilarious elaborations of post-modernism is feminist epistemology:
It embodies a skeptical sensibility that questions attempts to transcend our situatedness by appeal to such ideas as universality, necessity, objectivity, rationality, essence, unity, totality, foundations, and ultimate Truth and Reality. It stresses the locality, partiality, contingency, instability, uncertainty, ambiguity and essential contestability of any particular account of the world, the self, and the good. Politically, the postmodernist emphasis on revealing the situatedness and contestability of any particular claim or system of thought is supposed to serve both critical and liberatory functions. It delegitimizes ideas that dominate and exclude by undermining their claims to transcendent justification. And it opens up space for imagining alternative possibilities that were obscured by those claims.

Although postmodernist themes are often expressed in an obscure jargon, they can be cast in terms more familiar to analytic philosophers. Postmodernists begin with ideas about language and systems of thought. They claim that (what we think of as) reality is “discursively constructed.” This is the linguistic version of the now inescapable (!) Kantian thought that our minds grasp things not as they are “in themselves” but only through concepts, signified by words. “The linguistic sign acts reflexively, not referentially” in a “discursive field.” This is a version of radical meaning holism: signs get their meaning not from their reference to external things but from their relations to all of the other signs in a system of discourse.
Also see critical theory. In general, the later elaborations of post-modernism have stressed the right of classes of persons to "construct" their own visions of the world and versions of events.

If some reader is not familiar with the full-bodied modern explications of post-modernism, the story of the Dartmouth professor who decided to sue her students will serve as an introduction. Here is her version of the problem with her students. Here is an article she wrote about working as a post-doc researcher at Dartmouth Medical School, which may give a hint as to why her students were so, ah, unwilling to assent to her view of the world:
In graduate school, I was inculcated in the tenets of a field known as science studies, which teaches that scientific knowledge has suspect access to truth and that science is motivated by politics and human interest. This is known as social constructivism and is the reigning mantra in science studies, which considers historical and sociological understandings of science. From the vantage point of social constructivism, scientific facts are not discovered but rather created within a social framework. In other words, scientific facts do not correspond to a natural reality but conform to a social construct.

: As a practicing scientist, I feel these views need to be qualified in the context of literary inquiry. My mentor, Chris Lowrey, is an extraordinary physician- scientist whose vision of science is pragmatic and positivist. My experience in his lab has shown me that the practice of science is at least partly motivated by the scientific method, though with some qualifications.

Through my experience in the laboratory, I have found that postmodernism offers a constructive critique of science in ways that social constructivism cannot, due to postmodernism's emphasis on openly addressing the presupposed moral aims of science. In other words, I find that while an individual ethic of motivation exists, and indeed guides the conduct of laboratory routine, I have also observed that a moral framework—one in which the social implications of science and technology are addressed—is clearly absent in scientific settings. Yet I believe such a framework is necessary. Postmodernism maintains that it is within the rhetorical apparatus of science—how scientists talk about their work—that these moral aims of science may be accomplished.
For those of you who cling to scientific method, this is pretty bizarre stuff. But she, and many others, are dead serious about it. If a research finding could harm a class of persons, the theory is that scientists should change the way they talk about that finding. Since scientific method is a way of building a body of knowledge based on skeptical testing, replication, and publication, this is a problem.

The tight framework of scientific method mandates figuring out what would disprove the theory being tested and then looking for the disproof. The thought process that spawned the scientific revolution was inherently skeptical, which is why disciples of scientific method say that no theory can be definitively and absolutely proved, but only disproved (falsified). Hypotheses are elevated to the status of theories largely as a result of continued failures to disprove the theory and continued conformity of experimentation and observation with the theory, and such efforts should be conducted by diverse parties.

Needless to say postmodernist schools of thought and scientific method are almost polar opposites.

Postmodernism can be highly humanistic in purpose, but in practice it tends toward solipsism, and it overcomes that tendency by building mutual narratives among groups with shared purposes.

The reasons why Obama seems quite postmodernist in his approach to me are:
Listen to what he is telling you in the Philadelphia speech, as he quotes from his own book:
"People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend's voice up into the rafters....And in that single note - hope! - I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones. Those stories - of survival, and freedom, and hope - became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn't need to feel shame about...memories that all people might study and cherish - and with which we could start to rebuild."
With Obama, the play's the thing, and he prays for a muse of fire, not in order to correctly depict what has happened on his small stage, but in order to construct a vision which will control the future. He loved the bit about the black Jesus because it worked, not because it was accurate, nor was it even necessary. If you do believe that Jesus is the sinless Son of God, Lord knows there's a difference between him and the rest of us.

*On this latest trip, in Israel saying that the banking committee is his committee.

MoM,these folks are selling candied horseapples.While being organic,biodegradable and naturally high in fiber,they don't qualify as mental health food IMO.Glad you have power back!
I don't think you have to be at all postmodern to understand and use the power of stories. Go back 150 years when the Biblical stories of the Exodus inspired the slaves of the American South. Building a common narrative is what we do--legends tie cultures together by describing the national character and values. America has fewer legends because we are a newer nation, but we need them and we have some of them (George Washington and the cherry tree is a good example--it never happened but as a country it shows that our leaders are h- h- tell the tr.... Oh, I would like to have a President that could not tell a lie.).
Stories do have power,which is why it is important that they contain an element of truth and rationality.
Joy - of course that's true. However the distinctive trait of postmodernist story-telling is that it believes representations of news, current events and even scientific findings should be structured in the same way as myths and legends.

There is a difference. An inspirational narrative is an inspirational narrative, but making an inspirational narrative out of mythic plans to use wind power has remarkably unpleasant real world effects.

Also, it's worthwhile to consider this, because if you look at some of his rhetoric through this lens, it reduces the puzzling nature of his rhetoric and policies.

The soaring narrative is not necessarily an arrogant one in postmodernist terms, because it is an attempt to recognize the reality of the other. Instead, this sort of thing is something akin to humility.

How effective it will be is another question. Among the hilarities of the European visit was this headline in Spiegel as a result of Obama's Sarkozy visit "Europäer sollen für US-Steuersenkungen bluten", i.e., Europeans Must Bleed For US Tax Cuts. The article discusses Obama's request for more Afghanistan NATO participation as purely a measure designed to cut American taxes. (With some justice, because Obama has been constant in his praise of the first Gulf War because of the low cost.)

The funniest part about this is that German troops in Afghanistan are not policing or fighting; not only are they stationed in the relatively stable areas, but they will only shoot in self-defense. See this story and Merkel's reaction:
The official German statement (from Berlin, of course): "This incident will not change our policy of the 'principle of proportionality.' A fugitive like the Baghlan bomber is not an aggressor and should not be shot unless in self-defense."

Needless to say this is not how Germans react to mass bombers in their own country.

I think Tom has a point. One can certainly construct a highly pleasing narrative that produces high levels of political consensus while actually increasing the severity of the underlying problems. It appears as if the German-controlled Afghani areas are becoming something of a safe haven for the various violent groups. After all, they can just walk right through German lines or roadblocks if they've got weaponry of their own.
Stories do have power,which is why it is important that they contain an element of truth and rationality.

Here are 2 examples of fairly recent current event mythmaking. In most cases the widely told tale is factually untrue in part:

Jessica Lynch


Cassie Bernall


We want to believe these stories because they reinforce our beliefs about ourselves, our country, our values. Even if they are not literally true they are part of our public discourse.

I don't think it is rational, even, I think it is subconscious, we make the story into what we psychologically need it to be.
The modernists believe(d) that everything old is worn out and useless, and has to be replaced.

The postmodernists believe that everything new is worthless, too.

One wonders whether Rome in its decline was populated by postmodernists.

Problem #1:

When you consulted wikipedia's entry on postmodernism, did you notice this excerpt:

"Whether ‘postmodernism’ is seen as a critical concept or merely a buzzword, one cannot deny its range. Dick Hebdige, in his ‘Hiding in the Light’ illustrates this:

When it becomes possible for people to describe as ‘postmodern’ the décor of a room, the design of a building, the diegesis of a film . . . ."

He goes on to describe 30 or 40 ways in which the term postmodernism is used, and he concludes:

". . . when it becomes possible to describe all these things as ‘postmodern’ (or more simply using a current abbreviation as ‘post’ or ‘very post’) then it’s clear we are in the presence of a buzzword."

Describing someone as a postmodernist is such a fuzzy, amorphous accusation that it renders your argument meaningless. By comparison, at least the terms socialist or Marxist mean something more concrete.

Problem #2:

I notice you didn't even try to defend your accusation that Obama does not believe in objective meaning. Now you might argue that:

Obama is a postmodernist


Postmodernists do not believe in objective meaning


Obama does not believe in objective meaning

To which I could argue:

Maxed Out Mama is an extremist


Extremists advocate violence to attain their goals


Maxed Out Mama advocates violence

I could easily dress up this argument. Extremist is such a broad term, I could pick and choose definitions and descriptions at will. I could show selected statements from MoM’s blog that are at the extremes of popular views (I would, of course, ignore contrary examples) – I could cite polling data as evidence. I could also cite instances of notorious extremists such as the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Ku Klux Klan.

In short, I could make an argument that MoM (or just about anyone, for that matter) is an extremist.

Now, you could say, yes you made an argument, but it’s not a strong argument.

And that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it?

Putting aside the problems with fuzzy terms such as postmodernist and extremist, how strong is MoM’s argument that Obama is a postmodernist?

For example, how does the anecdote of the Dartmouth professor who decided to sue her students bolster her case that Obama is a postmodernist?

If I described a vicious KKK lynching, would that strengthen my argument that MoM is an extremist?

Problem #3:

When MoM finally gets down to “proving” that Obama is a postmoderist, here’s what she says:

A “He consistently misstates or misapplies facts when necessary to build a convincing narrative*,”

She supplies a single example. No doubt she could cite more, but try this thought experiment. Could you make a case that George Bush consistently misstates or misapplies facts when necessary to build a convincing narrative. Is George Bush, therefore, a postmodernist?

B. “He seems to believe that the process of building a mutual narrative is important, and that the way to reconcile groups is to reconcile their narratives,”

Seems to believe? And you know this how? Remember, you’re the one who believes in objective meaning. There is no evidence cited to support this assertion. Even if there were, what does it mean? Also, could we use this sentence to describe Ronald Reagan or Rodney King?

C. “His own description of the impact Wright had on him was focused on the power of Wright's narrative”

Try this: The description of the impact Hagee (or Reagan or Lincoln) had on him was focused on the power of Hagee’s narrative.

D. “His unwillingness to disavow Wright's narrative (to post-modernists, disavowing a group or individual narrative is equivalent to attacking the group or individual)”

Is there any evidence that contradicts this statement? From the Philadelphia speech alone we find this:

“Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike. I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy.”

Unwillingness to disavow? Could you be more dishonest? Oh, he didn’t disavow enough, is that your position?

Likewise, “McCain’s unwillingness to disavow Hagee’s narrative” works nicely to prove that McCain is a postmodernist.

E. “His actual tactics may have nothing to do with his narrative.”

I’m not following. How does this demonstrate that Obama is a postmodernist? Now if you were arguing that Obama is a hypocrite or a “typical politician”, sure, but isn’t that another argument entirely?

In summary, aren’t you just a little embarrassed that you tried to argue that Obama is a postmodernist who doesn’t believe in objective meaning in the first place?

I would stick to analyzing oil prices.

One last thing. Isn’t it just a little ironic that someone who highlights the importance of objective meaning and the scientific method writes this:

“With Obama, the play's the thing, and he prays for a muse of fire, not in order to correctly depict what has happened on his small stage, but in order to construct a vision which will control the future. He loved the bit about the black Jesus because it worked, not because it was accurate, nor was it even necessary. If you do believe that Jesus is the sinless Son of God, Lord knows there's a difference between him and the rest of us.”

You’re deconstructing Obama. We’re all postmodernists now.

That’s hilarious.

“. . . in a way that is often indistinguishable from a parody of itself.”

Wanted to comment on this:

With Obama, the play's the thing, and he prays for a muse of fire, not in order to correctly depict what has happened on his small stage, but in order to construct a vision which will control the future. He loved the bit about the black Jesus because it worked, not because it was accurate, nor was it even necessary. If you do believe that Jesus is the sinless Son of God, Lord knows there's a difference between him and the rest of us.

As a small-o orthodox Christian I believe that Jesus is the sinless Son of God and also 100% human-- just like the rest of us. That's the beauty and paradox of it all.

Also Jesus wasn't above a good narrative to construct a new reality for his listeners. The gospels are full of such narratives.

A good resonating narrative is a powerful tool, and like I tell my kids, all superheroes have to use their powers for good.
Jesus was a postmodernist.
Might I point out that Jesus didn't believe in objective meaning, therefore Obama . . . wait a minute!

That would make Obama the Son of God!

I thought he was a Marxist!

What the hell!
Joy I think it is subconscious, we make the story into what we psychologically need it to be.

I have been wondering if postmodernist consensual "constructs" don't tend to devolve into sheer childishness. On the other hand, doesn't just about anything when not curbed by some sort of strong outside constraint and dissenting views?

Some examples I've heard and read very recently that I consider cant of the worst caliber:
-free market theory (the idea that regulating banks is bound to make us poor).
-welfare (we can just decide to give everyone a certain amount of income and eliminate poverty that way).
-universal health care (we can just put everybody on Medicare and save a lot compared to now).
-housing prices only go up(Guffaw).
-free markets always produce rational results(hahaaha, see housing prices above).

There is cant on the right and the left. It's time to examine our propositions a little more deeply.
Long-Posting Anon - I'm getting to you. This is about more than you, and there's no particular reason why a random reader of this blog should have much of an idea of postmodernist thought or even scientific method. I'm guessing older people would be more familiar with the scientific method and younger people would be more familiar with post-modernism, but who really knows?

It would be nice if you would type in some sort of identifier if you want a response. It's easy to confuse different Anons.

Joy - yes, but there is a real difference between Jesus and humans. We, who are just human, tend to choose either to be slightly less than human, or aspire to godhood. Jesus, who was both the Son of God and the Son of Man, choose to be a man to serve the purposes of God. Our set of choices are somewhat different according to orthodox theology.
Well, MoM, I think there is hope for our nation if we are debating the philosophical underpinnings of our next President.

Consider the current occupant of the White House couldn't tell a post modernist from a fence post.
There is a difference between Jesus using parable and any serious post-modernist: Jesus used parable to describe universal principles in terms that made sense to relatively unsophisticated levantines 2000 years ago.

Post-modernists use narrative framing to destroy consensus and rebuild a reality tunnel that is more consistent with their current prejudices.

Postmodernism is nothing more and nothing less than the destruction of mutual narrative so individuals can attempt to construct meaning out of an increasingly isolated existence.

I don't even mind its use in science- not as a critical tool for addressing the results of the scientific method but of examining the questions that today's science asks, like "how can we increase the frequency and stamina of the male erection?"

It's a tool. Like the proverbial hammer, the "craftspeople" who use postmodernist techniques tend to see everything as a nail.

Which is of course a penis.
Facts are like... your oppinion, man.

Yo why do you facists even waste time trying to cram thge likes of like Me, Anon and Obmama into a descriptive and rational box? All you have to know is that like, we are self-destructive and partially suicidal in your reality but like awesome and stuff in ours. If you believe there can like be only one reality or truth (whatever!) you should be spending your time thinking of a way to make us all dead or at least unable to ruin your lives.

Time to go burn one and watch price is right, cya!
-ThePM Dude
Well stated PostModernDude.

Thanks for helping our side out.
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