This is a continuation of Lawrence Belluci’s reflections on postmodernism, which he first wrote about here. In this article he addresses a criticism that defenders of postmodernist and post-structuralist thought often employ.
As the interest in the debate surrounding postmodernism grows outside of academic confounds, more and more examples of postmodern “scholarship” are being exposed to the general public. The hilarious Twitter handle @RealPeerReview offers the public service of posting abstracts of some of the most absurd research performed in postmodern departments. Far ranging academics — from Camille Paglia to Daniel Dennet to Noam Chomsky — have also spoken out against postmodernist and post-structuralist thought.
While accounts such as @RealPeerReview and the various academics voicing their concerns are important and useful in bringing public attention to the problem of the continuous downfall of academic standards, you can bet that these criticisms attract a type of person — a type of person I will label the “postmodern sympathizer.” The postmodern sympathizer is intent on defending their faith, or, at the least, eager to defend a field/fields which they believe are under undue attack.
I think it is important to clarify what I mean by “postmodernist” and “postmodern departments” since the term is not a technical one: I am calling “postmodern” any author or researcher who does not present justifications for their claims; who fails or neglects to explain how they got to their often extraordinary claims — and who gets away with it by hiding their vacuity behind an absurdly convoluted jargon. It is for these reasons that their words tend to sound like absolute nonsense.
In my previous article (a brief description of my experiences in a postmodern PhD program) I addressed that point in greater detail, since the fact that “postmodernism” is not a technical term in philosophy is (quite surprising I might add) a main argument presented in defense of postmodern authors. In this article, I would like to address another common argument presented by defenders of postmodernism.
When faced with criticism (especially if directed toward something one holds dear), there is a very common reaction of redirecting blame toward something else; in Law we call this the tu quoque defense and in plain English it is often called whataboutery. In this regard, postmodern sympathizers will often use some impervious quote or another — from quantum physics — to try to make the point that postmodern researchers are simply using the appropriate terminology from their field. If put side by side, a selected sentence from a modern physics article may read as absurdly as a postmodern book, the postmodern sympathizer might say.
More than that, the postmodern sympathizer will say, this brings us to a very important question: how can someone who is not into academic stuff have any idea of what postmodernism is about? Isn’t it possible that the (apparently) “ludicrous” postmodern jargon hides some important form of knowledge, just like in quantum physics? After all, most fields have some sort of technical language that is more or less hermetic to an outsider.
In response to these positions, what I’d like to do in this article is try to offer a few pointers that will help us take a look behind the curtain, so to speak, and, if I am allowed to mix my literary references, show that the king is naked after all.
But before moving on, there are some points about which the postmodern sympathizers are right, and I’d like to acknowledge them. First, it is true that just quoting the silliest parts of Michel Foucault or Gilles Deleuze’s texts is not enough to invalidate their work. After all, it is perfectly possible that an apparently absurd quote is explained somewhere else in a book or some other work. Now, I unfortunately have read all of Deleuze’s What is Philosophy (the source of the passage I quoted in the previous article) and can say that there is no explanation for anything there (as a matter of fact, there are precious few meaningful statements at all), but, as the postmodern sympathizer will tell you, the problem is that I could not grasp Deleuze’s brilliance!
So, how to proceed? People like my professors will tell you that you have to acquire a PhD on the subject if you want to have an opinion on the matter; on the other hand, if you do go ahead and get a PhD in a postmodern field and come out quite certain that the whole thing is a scam, they will still say that you should have no opinion on the matter as you are going against the majority of the research and consensus. Surprisingly, people can be very stubborn when neglecting arguments that question the validity of their meal tickets.
So, spending the next few years to get a PhD in a postmodern program is both an unreasonably difficult solution and one that offers no guarantee of actually getting us any closer to the answer we are looking for. What else could we do to figure out how postmodern ideas are different from quantum physics, if at all?
There is a simple solution that you’ve probably heard before and that is a reasonable starting point for our inquiry. That solution is that quantum physics works. So much of the tech we use in our daily lives owes its existence to science. On that fact alone we would be completely justified in getting into a STEM field and spending the next decade (or more likely, the rest of our lives) trying to catch a glimpse of the fascinating and complex corpus of its scientific literature; by studying and applying science we can go to Mars or create a supercomputer. By studying Derrida, on the other hand, we can talk about Derrida (not very well, mind you).
While that is a decent and short answer, I don’t think we can leave it at that. This argument has a considerable hole: it says nothing about fields that do not have technological application; fields like history do not give us airplanes or aspirin but shouldn’t be put in the same category as postmodern nonsense. And even if we only consider the hard sciences, they too deploy considerable stretches in their theories that have never (and are extremely unlikely to ever) produced technological advancement.
Yes, it is true that quantum physics, as well as some other fields, do have some heavy terminology, but in these fields terminology serves a very clear purpose: to deliver the maximum amount of information in the minimum amount of words. And more importantly, the meaning of their terms is made as clear and as public as possible. This has not been my experience in my PhD program.
Let’s think of an example. Let’s imagine that a postmodern sympathizer quotes the following from an actual quantum physics article by authors Priyabrata Bag and Santanu Dey:
“To any quantum stabilizer code of length n, i.e., codes on the p n -dimensional Hilbert space H = C p ⊗ · · · ⊗ C p, there is an associated subspace of F n p × F n p and this subspace can be treated like a classical code.”
I don’t think there is any denying that this small quote has some hard to understand (and awesome sounding) terminology in it. In fact, it may contain even more technical terms than my favorite postmodern gibberish quote:
“It is the horizon itself that is in movement: the relative horizon recedes when the subject advances, but on the plane of immanence we are always and already on the absolute horizon.”
Since both quotes are hard to understand — my imaginary postmodern sympathizer might ask — maybe, then, I should be as skeptical of quantum physics as I am of postmodernist and post-structuralist thought? Well, not really. Even putting aside technological contributions and focusing on the terminology alone, we can see some clear distinctions between the two.
Let me choose one term from each quote for a brief demonstration; from Deleuze’s let’s look at “plane of immanence” and from quantum physics’, “Hilbert Space.” The most notable distinction is that, while “Hilbert Space” is a widely applied term both in Physics and Mathematics, Deleuze’s terminology was invented by him and almost exclusively applied by him or in reference to his work — which is something you could easily verify with a couple of Google searches. That alone is quite damning to the postmodernist, and raises a question that none of my professors have ever gotten close to responding to: What is the use of coming up with these elaborate words that no one else (even other postmodernists) seem to care about? It is almost like the excessive jargon is meant to hide a lack of substance….
Moreover, while “Hilbert space” is undeniably a technical term whose definition is not at all intuitive or easy to understand, it is nonetheless defined explicitly and, more importantly; it is defined in terms of simpler concepts. Just let’s see how fast we can go from this completely alien concept to a completely familiar one (and if perchance a mathematician is reading, I apologize for the oversimplification): a “Hilbert Space” is a special kind of vector space. If you are not into mathematics you probably do not care about what a vector space is, so how exactly is it simpler than a Hilbert Space? Actually, it is objectively simpler, as a vector space must follow eight rules (in mathematics these kinds of rules are called axioms) while a Hilbert Space must follow the same eight rules and a few more on top of them. Of course, to understand what a vector space is, you need to understand what vectors and vector operations are, but those are defined in terms of numbers and ordinary operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) you already know.
My point here is that while many of the definitions are hard to grasp and it would take a couple of college courses before moving from adding natural numbers to identifying a Hilbert Space, you can invest the time and energy knowing that there is a linear path that starts with concepts you already know. And, by the way, you can also skip the college courses and learn it all online by yourself — and a mathematician will be able to tell you’re familiar with a subject, without asking to see a diploma.
Despite the sympathizer’s insistence, postmodernist jargon is not in the category as physics terminology. After years in a PhD, surrounded as it is by professors who not only adore Deleuze and claim to understand his works — not to mention having wasted considerable amounts of my time reading his books and his interpreters myself — I am yet to find someone who can point me to a route that goes from simple concepts I already know towards understanding his postmodern vernacular.
Deleuze’s “plan d’immanence,” for example, can hardly be understood simply by combining “immanence” and “plane.” And all attempts to clarify its meaning tend to be just as obscure as Deleuze’s own so-called explanations:
“The plane of immanence, upon which the dissolution of the actual object itself occurs, is itself constituted when both object and image are virtual. But the process of actualization undergone by the actual is one which has as great an effect on the image as it does on the object.”
By the way, the problem with this kind of sentence is not so much that it has strange words in it — actual and actualization are part of regular philosophical parlance — but that they are used in sentences that seem to disregard their usual meanings without offering explicit alternate definitions.
Naturally, a postmodern sympathizer could easily prove that this jargon has a meaning by explaining what it means. But, for some reason, they seem more interested in talking about quantum physics.
I don’t think it will surprise you to know that my professors, as well as most defenders of postmodernism see this lack of clarity as proof of philosophical depth.
“But,” I can already hear the postmodern sympathizer say, “not all terminology in quantum physics is so easy to justify. There are other quotes from that same article that I could choose and those would be much harder to decipher than the one you chose.”
And that is true. I chose the quote that mentioned Hilbert Spaces out of convenience. I was previously familiar with vector spaces and knew that there are only a few steps from regular old numbers up to Hilbert Spaces. Other terms such as “negacyclic code” may take a longer path, but they ultimately can be defined in terms of common words.
“Ok” — my imaginary postmodernist would now say — “maybe the jargon is not very clearly defined, but you can learn it just by hearing it being used, just like when you learn a new language by living in a different country. Besides, this whole idea that words have to be defined is colonialist, anyway.” And yes, it is possible to get the hang of the postmodern vernacular by “immersion,” so to speak. I certainly got pretty good in imitating my professors’ lingo — which is not the same as the writers, by the way, as professors need to maintain at least a semblance of comprehensibility.
Even if the jargon is unnecessarily complicated, if it can be learned, shouldn’t we look beyond it and see what those fields have to offer? While that would be ideal, the problem is that looking at the jargon is the best we can do by ourselves. In order to look at the arguments (or theories or doctrines) behind it, we would need someone who claims to understand them.
Why can’t we do it ourselves, you might ask? I want to be very clear in this point: I am not claiming that post-colonial studies or gender studies (and all the other postmodern, post-structuralist fields) have a few cases of bad research; neither am I claiming that they have a lot of bad research. No, my claim is that these fields have very little, if any, good research.
But there is just no way to check every published article and book in these fields and show that it is not good research — besides, even if we could check every book and article, no matter what kind of analysis we performed, if we concluded that the quality of research is lacking, the postmodern sympathizer would say that it is our fault for not understanding. For the postmodernists, the only acceptable criticism of a work is that it holds unacceptable (i.e. insufficiently left-leaning) views.
That is why, in order to analyze beyond the jargon, we would need a postmodern sympathizer who was both able and willing to present us with an example of good postmodern research: some argument (or theory or doctrine) that is not simply common sense and is more than just the author’s opinion (it must include a justification and a reason why the argument/theory/doctrine is more likely than alternative explanations).
Over the years, I have thrown this challenge to any and all defenders of postmodernism (a challenge that I reiterate here): give me a simple example of a postmodern argument/theory/doctrine that is not merely common sense and that has a justification. And mind you, I am not restricting justification to simply empirical evidence (even though that is not an absurd demand). No, all I am asking for is a reason why the postmodern theory should be preferred to another explanation. That is such a low bar that it is almost unbelievable that the postmodern sympathizer cannot deliver a couple of examples. And yet in most responses I get to this challenge, the “theory” presented is simply some (often false) statistical data dressed up with the ludicrous jargon.
The idea that the “gender gap” is caused by the patriarchy, for example: those who would propose that, or something similar, as a “theory” fail to give any reason why it should be preferred to the much simpler and commonsensical idea that different life choices lead to different incomes. My challenge does not set a very high bar. I am not a physicist, but I could offer five examples from physics from the top of my head. Alas, at this moment, the postmodern sympathizer often goes silent.
Or else they tell me why that is a very unfair thing to ask. After all, why shouldn’t the research only convey the researcher’s opinion? After all, all opinions are equally valid, so why should the author bear the burden of justifying it? Obviously, that doesn’t hold up against a modicum of scrutiny. Just ask them, then, if all opinions are equally valid, why should someone bother to join a postmodern program to begin with? Why not just publish your opinions as they are beforehand? Or, if you really want to get under their skin, ask if pro-life views on abortion are as valid as pro-choice. Or if pro-capitalist views are as valid as pro-socialist — but do not blame me if they start screaming at you.
Other times they will misunderstand the challenge and act as if I am asking for a theory that does not mention any commonsense notion at all. But that is a short-lived stratagem. All that is necessary to neuter it is to emphasize that the argument/theory/doctrine must go beyond common sense, not ignore it — it might, for example, expand on commonsense or explain its origin or offer a non-commonsensical proof of a commonsensical intuition.
Once I was told by a professor that what I asked was impossible as, in his words, the theories of the great thinkers could not be “translated” lest they became mundane. What a fantastical solution that effectively turns the postmodern writings into documents written in a dead and lost language!
If the theories put forward in postmodern departments have no justifications behind them, what are they exactly? What are people doing in these departments anyway? And if it is so vacuous, why did postmodernism became so prevalent in the humanities? These are very good questions I have heard asked, and, if the opportunity arises, would very much like to answer. But I believe that discussing their rhetoric is also important and I hope I have given you enough for now to at least consider the possibility that the emperor is naked.
Most people have no reason to endure this kind of absurdity, and would just tune out after being hit with a quote from Foucault. But if you are thinking about joining a postmodern program (or if you are uncertain if your chosen college course is postmodernist), I truly urge you to look carefully before committing yourself to it. If nobody from your future field is able to tell you what you are to learn from the program other than its fashionable dogma, how likely it is that the program has got anything to teach you?