Words, as they are used, often do not make sense. This does not, however, make those words’ uses nonsense. If I say, for instance, that “we are in deep water, so we had better get a shovel,” this does not make sense, but it is not nonsense. The mixing of metaphors confuses a meaning, but it does not deprive the sentence of meaning altogether.
In light of this very simple premise, I am going to make two points about postmodernism:
- Most of what is called postmodernism, including a great deal of gender studies, does not really make sense, but neither is it nonsense.
- Most uses of the word “postmodern” are themselves nonsensical.
Our first story begins with a wide chasm: on one side, there stand the “ordinary” people, including the empirically-minded, scientifically-grounded. On the other side, we find so-called postmodern academics, residing predominantly in the humanities, especially literature, and the social sciences. Each has studied increasingly complex and semantically-sophisticated texts for at least a decade, and every new conceptually-laden term, of which there is an ever-growing dictionary, widens the chasm. This canyon of divide was started quite a few hundred years ago, by men of the Enlightenment, such as Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau–even though these men would likely find the present-day beliefs of the so-called postmoderns to be unintelligible–for they held as a premise that nature (or fact) and culture (and value) were essentially different and unrelated spheres of human activity, knowledge, and existence.
But empiricist Enlightenment writing, even at its most abstruse, seldom strayed far from the vernacular. It held to a belief in human nature, and in the existence and importance of nature generally, even if it thought this nature was not essentially connected with culture. Their concern in this separation was a practical one: which of the two separate spheres will control the other. Contrariwise, the postmodernists, though still concerned with control, have wandered quite far from common language and nature both. The linguistic obscurity can quite probably be laid at the feet of Martin Heidegger, who should be considered one of the fathers of a genuine postmodernism. The denial of nature is a more complex thread, but one which develops out of Darwinian evolutionary theories, positivism, and the radical events of the twentieth century through which culture rapidly complexified, distancing itself even farther from the natural in ever more-oppositional ways.
I won’t bother with nature, here–too complex. But language…
Heidegger was a controversial figure from the first day he came into the public eye (or perhaps even before). His first major work which was published, Being and Time (1927), quickly became famous and quickly confused a lot of people. It speaks, as you might expect, of being and of time, but with a radical new presentation which sparked no small amount of debate, including whether his work was nonsense. Such accusations were not rare. After all, the man wrote sentences like this: “World-time is ‘more Objective’ than any possible Object because, with the disclosedness of the world, it already becomes ‘Objectified’ in an ecstatico-horizonal manner as the condition for the possibility of entities within-the-world” (Sein und Zeit 419/471). To most people, I imagine, that sounds like gibberish. To someone who has made an extensive study of Heidegger’s other writing–especially his courses and lectures from 1925-1930–it makes more sense. But even with such study, that sentence poses interpretative challenges.
Nevertheless, Heidegger captured the attention of countless thinkers in the twentieth century. His thought was new and exciting. He had an aura of mystery that was not squelched even by a postwar suppression of his ability to teach, on account of his affiliation with the Nazi party. Thinkers still flocked to his work and often strove to meet him when they had the opportunity; even Frenchmen who had suffered at the hands of the Germans, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, who considered himself Heidegger’s ally in thought. But many others, even those who rejected his ideas, adopted his manner: especially the school of Critical Theory, founded by Max Horkheimer–a contemporary of Heidegger’s, who attended some of his lectures in the 1920s. Though Horkheimer fundamentally disagreed with Heidegger, he and his school–comprising such members as Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, and Herbert Marcuse–nevertheless took lessons from Heidegger’s treatment of language. For much of Heidegger’s philosophy revolved around his re-interpretation of common words, his (oftentimes disputable) interpretation of their etymologies, and the easy possibility to construct new, multi-dimensional, compound words in the German language. His was a search for words that would make sense, of difficult and abstract concepts that did indeed deal with multiple dimensions.
But those who followed his style, if not his thought (and many who followed aberrant interpretations of his thought), did so often from the perspective that culture is entirely a social construct, and has no relation to what is natural; from the presupposition that human persons are primarily what exists in the cultural realm, and what they are as biological ought to be forced to adapt to the cultural. Add in a heavy dash of Marxism–keeping in mind that the school of Critical Theory grew up in Nazi Germany, against which one of the cultural forces was Marxist Socialism–as well as the linguistic semiology of Ferdinand Saussure, and the postmodernist “Theorists”, capital T, are born; or, rather, socially-constructed out of intellectual artifice.
The resulting jargon-laden books and articles are immensely difficult to understand, and when understood, often lack clarity or precision. They frequently do not make sense because the objects of their reference have no genuine grounds, like a continual mixing of highly abstract metaphors. But they are not nonsense. The word “performative” sounds silly, because it is, particularly when applied outside the context of artistic performance. But it is not nonsense. Nor is talking about “performative masculinity”; all this means is acting in a way which corresponds to a concept of what it means to be masculine. That actually makes sense. What does not is the presupposition that masculinity is a purely social, artificial construct, and that therefore masculinity is itself constituted through such performance. But even that is not nonsense. It is the result of a theory which, while wrong, is not unintelligible. Presupposing the truth of its foundations, it is quite coherent, and would make sense to someone well-studied in its concepts and terminology.
Consequently, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, in denominating their attempt at a Sokal-style hoax, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct”, as nonsense (a word they use 17 times in their post-hoc report) is counterproductive hyperbole. The Sokal hoax and its follow-up in Fashionable Nonsense likewise failed to aim at the correct target: for while Sokal more poignantly needled the terminological ambiguities of Theory, and particularly exhibited its readiness to accept whatever means promoted its agenda, especially support from science, the problem with Theory is not the conclusions that it reaches (and there are plenty of serious Theorists who do not promote the absurdities you will see from New Peer Review), but the foundations on which it rests.
And so this brings us to our second story: for the foundations on which so-called postmodern Theory rests are not really postmodern at all, in any meaningful sense. To be post-modern would mean to be after what is modern; and from an intellectual, philosophical, academic point of view, modernity is defined by its first and crucial presupposition: namely, that what we know are our own ideas. In other words, the direct object of my knowledge is the idea that I alone possess. Knowledge is therefore essentially private, subjective, and only incidentally and occasionally capable of being shared with others. This premise is equally true of Cartesian rationalists and Lockean empiricists, Humean sceptics and believers in Berkeley, and it is true of the vast majority of so-called postmodernism, as well. Mathematical representations or organizations of empirical observations alone consistently avoid the subjectivization of experiential knowledge which characterizes modern and pseudo-postmodern philosophy alike.
Thus I said that Heidegger could be considered a father of a genuine postmodernism because he patently denies this idealism (even though many, in following him, unconsciously seem to adopt it). His philosophy of Being-in-the-World, of Dasein, denies the initial presupposition of subjective-objective opposition upon which modernity was founded. This includes the denial that the human being’s context-driven development of personhood is independent of (or should be independent of) the biological and the natural, which idea he criticizes implicitly in his lecture on Aristotle’s Physics, his lecture on the “Age of Ideology”, and at length in his Letter on Humanism.
Ironically, the more important father of postmodernity died before Heidegger had written a single word of those texts: namely, Charles Sanders Peirce. The full story of how his semiotics transcends the subject-object divide with more clarity and success than Heidegger achieved is a lengthy one. In short, his theory of signs shows the possibility of an essential continuity of the universe, from the most fundamental particles to the most abstract concepts. As a result, he repudiates idealism: specifically, its nominalistic denial that the mind is capable of knowing extramental relations.
In contrast, what is most often today called postmodernism–authors such as Barthes, Deleuze, Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, Rorty, and so on–is in fact nothing other than ultramodernism. It takes the Enlightenment division of nature and culture, and in consequence of the Darwinian destruction of the concept of fixed natures, runs unimpeded into nominalistic idealism.
Yes: it is absurd. It is far removed from common experience. But so is advanced mathematics, and quantum physics, and neuroscience. The truth is, there are cracks in the foundations of the physical sciences as well. The kind of scientism advocated for by the “New Sceptics” stands on the ground, as opposed to the cloud of abstraction in which we find Theory; were this scientism to look down, though, instead of screaming at the clouds, it would see that its ground is a melting ice floe.
Motes, planks, and eyeballs: you get the idea.