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October 20, 2010 / compassioninpolitics

Disadvantages of Postmodernism as Philosophy and Worldview

The Disadvantages, Dangers, and Challenges of Postmodernism in Legal and Political Thought

I’ve been thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of postmodern thought for political though and action since about 1996. While, it offers some interesting (but perhaps limited) insight into the human condition–it seems that most of those advantages can be secured and perhaps secured better through a modified modernist framework. The historical evidence for change based on modernism is much more robust. (and its probably the case that any advantages of post-modernism are evident within a blended framework anyway). What constitutes the best blend is the subject for further research, exploration, and investigation. But given that postmodernism seems to cut off political struggles and groupings at the knees with respect to communication, collaboration, and political institutional change the bias in favor of acting via the modernist framework seems self evident. (thus if the subaltern were to speak she might say….modernism is bad….but i will rely on modernism to solve my problems. the text theory alone–without substantive change will leave me enslaved, persecuted, and hungry. post-modernism without a check of modernism results in just as oppression and fundmentalism–not to mention the crippling effects of its hyper-individualism that has modernist roots in the first place). This article from Karla Mantilla of “Off Our Backs” summarizes the problem at its core:

What I find most interesting about postmodernism is not what postmodernists say about it, but how it functions in the real world (and I’m assuming there is one) in terms of social change. The effects of the intimidating and obfuscating writing style, of inhibiting generalizations and so the formation of commonalities between people, of ruling out binary thinking and so eviscerating impassioned convictions, and of overemphasizing individual rather than collective action is to create a multilayered system of disconnection, silencing, and disempowerment.

From my perspective, this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg for the tremendous disempowering and debilitating problems that result from the post-modern worldview.

Inability to speak to condemn evil-genocide, rape, slavery and oppression are to be condemned. Many strains of the Postmodernism worldview tend to relativizes values such that ethical standards like (do no harm to others) fall by the waste-side. Feminists like Catherine Mackinnon (in “Points Against Postmodernism“) have come out against this practice (the womyn who is oppressed in developing countries or developed countries for that matter –may be left no language, recourse, or way to solve her problems). While some practices vary from culture to culture, its important to have core standards–an ethical vocabulary in order to protect the fundamentals of human dignity. Second, this ethical relativism offers no reason to prefer itself over other alternatives. Relativism relativizes itself. Any ethical language it provides is ultimately the outgrowth of modernity.

Post-modernism ignores “truth” and Truth. Post-modernism causes us to ignore real human suffering while condeming institutional bureaucracies in solving them. It over-determines the role of the text and erases the subjectivity and context of the person who spoke the text into being.

Too much focus on the text-postmoderns are too trapped in language games. Postmoderns tend to have a “let them eat text” mentality which robs reformers of any ability for constructive change. What good is a theory which can’t change the trajectory of the status quo. It literally takes away the toolbox of reformers of the 60s in creating rights, establishing justice, and creating protections for human dignity.

Postmodernism is just an acceleration of identity politics. Postmodernism sees itself as a response to identity politics, but to the contrary its a hyperindividualism which destroys group cohesion and identity. These identities as the communitarians would suggest are important to us “as members of a nation and cause.” Part of our DNA as humans is in groups.

Postmodernism eats itself-postmodernism is a totalizing critique of totalism. Postmodernism even seems to deprive itself of a language or platform from which to reject the cruelest and worst forms of modernity (at least modernity can do this from the inside–even if it doesn’t often do so).

The critical edge of postmodernism is debilitating-those who see -isms everywhere deprive those who have made it to the middle class of any ground to stand on. Must we always see things from the bottom? Is hyper-perfection a necessity before action is possible? (modernism at least has “intent” and “pragmatism” and “democracy” to check its fundamentalism, but postmodernism seems to lack a check on the sheer terror that can result from its pronouncements and evaluations)

Using the masters tools against itself-postmodernism as a general rule deprives us of this ability to perform judo on bad/evil power structures. Post modern mumbo jumbo means very little to “Joe Six Pack” Its hard to start a movement without a language that has populist appeal. The value of endless critique may pass for valuable in the halls of the ivory tower, but from Calcutta to Cairo to inner city chicago, pragmatic reformism is generally far better. Failure of reform is not a failure of modernity–but the answer isn’t endlessly critiquing power structures–but actually doing something about it. Which helped end the Iraqi and Afghanistan war more: millions of pages of post-modern jargon or the anti-war movement using old style conciousness raising and investigative journalism? (there may be an argument to be had that these philosophers did change minds and they were perhaps doing what they were best at–but I’m not sure you can draw a substantive line between one and the other–which somehow seems troubling.)

This isn’t to say postmodernism doesn’t offer some interesting insight–but rather that its errors in evaluation deny it of any critical or progressive capacity:

1) the importance of language & worldviews
2) the importance of listening
3) the importance of respecting the other and the margins of society
4) the importance of honoring diversity
5) the importance of decentralization
6) honoring creativity in a way that modernity might not

It ultimately becomes an interesting evaluative tool, but one which should be used–if at all–with extreme caution.

Can the Enlightenment have its Cake and Eat it Too?
Am I saying the modern worldview has everything figured out–hardly. However, as a political language it seems modernity can assimilate the critique of postmodernism and encapsulate respect for the other and looking at the consequences of worldviews on our decisions far, far better than postmodernity can do with modernity. Postmodernism produces interesting thought experiments–while (parts) of modernity create tangible change which fights oppression. Also, modernity can be used to critique itself–while still producing action (ie it happened during the war and various critiques of capitalism and greed) . Postmodernism can critique postmodern thought–but I’ve never seen any politically progressive result from such an ideological end run.

Can the enlightenment/modernity survive the critique?
It may be that a re-prioritization of values within modernity is all that is necessary. Modernity does seem to place a high value on consumption, greed, and access. However, the environmental movement was born out of modernity itself. (In the world of the post-modern worldview–we are immediately paranoid and worried about the environmental movement.) Perhaps a further re-ordering of our values around dignity…around respect….around mutual respect between human beings and virtuous living would serve as a counter-critique if you will of modernity from within modernity itself.

Key Caveats:
Admittedly, this criticism does rely on what are the “core tenets”–if there are such a thing for postmodern theory and the post modern worldview. I realize this doesn’t apply universally to every person who labels themself a postmodern–however its at least as useful as a criticism as the work of Richard Rorty (even if not as literary) in addressing as a group the problems at the core of the postmodern worldview.


Leave a Comment
  1. compassioninpolitics / Oct 20 2010 10:58 pm

    As a passing side note….does it really take 15 to 30 pages or more to prove the Bush regime was biopolitical? It seems the larger question is how can we resist those discourses AND practices–not just the discourses.

  2. compassioninpolitics / Oct 20 2010 11:13 pm

    Also if the only 4 components of postmodernism that we can save are:
    1) language creates reality (which is only partially true)
    2) we should protect the other/the margins
    3) we should listen and be humble
    4) modernism = capitalism and greed

    I think 90% to 100 of that we can get from the principle of dignity and respect. Other virtues may also be viable in combination including compassion, love, and fellowship and community.

  3. compassioninpolitics / Oct 21 2010 3:16 am

    Also we can think about “worldviews” and “ideological lenses” and “bias” without making reference to post modern theory. In fact, I think modernism is better when you are forced to make estimations and comparisons of the relative %. Post-modernism isn’t as equipped to make comparisons–not to mention value based decisions or political action needed to rectify them.

    In a world where the map doesn’t fit the territory–giving up on the world and communication is not the answer. Unfortunately, post-modernism reads the allegory of the cave wrong. Its a reason for striving….not for abandonment or giving up.

    Also, postmodernism seems to ignore the co-creation involved by authors, speakers, and audience. Each has a role–so the author doesn’t die–perhaps they loose a limb or hand….but they don’t die.

    This points to the other problem with postmodern language–its inability to deal with nuance in any way shape or form. Its hyperbolic language results in polarizing rhetoric (ironic, given that it purports to do away with or transcend dualisms–but apparently only be re-creating other dualisms).

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