How To Deconstruct Almost Anything
January 9, 2004 9:34 AM   Subscribe

How To Deconstruct Almost Anything. An engineer visits the world of postmodern literary criticism.
posted by weston (56 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
You beat me to it. I saw this on Slashdot, and was about to post it here. More commentary from the (tech-heavy) slashdot audience can be found there.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 9:37 AM on January 9, 2004


The first argument I ever got into on MeFi (with rodii and n9, no less) was about Deconstruction. I, of course, emerged battered and bloodied and looking stupid.

I am here to report that over 2 years later, Deconstruction still makes my head hurt. But it seems I'm not alone, if this article is any indication.
posted by jonmc at 9:43 AM on January 9, 2004


'Tis easy enough to be scornful of much of what goes on in the academic world unde rthe title of post something or other lit/crit. Fact is, though, many critics who work from these critical perspectives have been picked up by disciplines outside of English literature studies, and what it seems to boil down to is the notion that just about all we do is in fact subjective, constructed cultrually by us at any given time and will change, as the Lion King said, through the circle of life. Now you may argue that there are objective things etc etc that science knows and can study (ah, how many have now been proved worthless or false?), but there are many people who accept the view that culture determines much of what we say, do, believe in. We have (example) gone from a Dante-like vision of Hell to Srartre's "hell is other people" to the Bush White House and agenda is Hell manifested. Deconstruction and allied approaches (deconstrudtion is now passe) views all writing and associated forms as "texts" to be worked upon. The jargon used is often vomit producing, but like much of jargon anywhere, it is a shared code for those of the priesthood.
posted by Postroad at 10:00 AM on January 9, 2004


News Alert:
Apples still don't understand Oranges. Oranges agree.
posted by plemeljr at 10:04 AM on January 9, 2004


Deconstructionism is pretty much going (or has gone) out of fashion even to those to whom it appealed in the first place, which was certainly not everyone in the humanities. A lot of people won't miss it.

That said, it is not meaningless, and a lot of useful information has been gained by applying deconstructionist critical theory.

The article just seems like another guy who belittles what he doesn't understand. In fact, he admits he doesn't understand it, and then goes on to belittle it. Interesting that he deduces it must be a flaw in everyone else and not himself.
posted by Hildago at 10:05 AM on January 9, 2004


Amen, Hildago. At this late date, the articles complaining about postmodernism have become more obnoxious and formulaic than the beast itself.
posted by wheat at 10:23 AM on January 9, 2004


Deconstructionism is pretty much the result of Derrida misreading Heidegger (existentialism is Sartre doing the same). I am dubious it provides any sort of valuable insight that could not be gleaned by simply reading Heidegger himself, but that's another debate entirely. That said, I disagree with the author on his dismissal of Kurt Godel as using a "grammatical trick," because Godel wrote that "grammatical trick" in logical notation.

An in regards to Hidalgo's point, I would quote Lichtenberg "Why is it that when a book and a head collide and a hollow sound rings out, we assume it is the book that is empty?"
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 10:28 AM on January 9, 2004


This article has been around for at least five years. I know I linked to it in '98. That's why it feels so out of date.
posted by pb at 10:28 AM on January 9, 2004


I dunno. It still kinda rings true to me. The whole deconstuction/pomo thing always seemed vaguely killjoyish to me: they'll explain that your enjoyment of your favorite work of art is rooted in your traumatic toilet training or your hidden prejudices. And that seems to drag you into this place that seems smug and airless to me. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not as knowlegeable in this field as some people but that's mainly because every piece of writing I've picked up on the topic has been so impenetrable, which again may be a reflection on my intelligence rather than the work itself.

But the chapter in Cryptonomicon where Randy Waterhouse has the "information superhighway" conversation with his wife's academic freinds sums it up better than I could.

An in regards to Hidalgo's point, I would quote Lichtenberg "Why is it that when a book and a head collide and a hollow sound rings out, we assume it is the book that is empty?"

This gets by back up. Isn't that just an erudite way of saying "Well, the only reason you don't like it is because you're too stupid to understand it!"
posted by jonmc at 10:35 AM on January 9, 2004


Bah.
Sounds like that punk-ass physicist who convinced a PoMo journal to publish his made-up crap - even though they had doubts about it - based on the fact that he was in fact a professor, and insisting the physics was real. Then turned around and mocked them for publishing made-up physics.

Having some contact with both the tech/science and academic postmodernism communities, I think this kind of self-congratulating "I'm just a simple guy, and I really tried to understand what they were saying" shite isn't worth reifying the hegemonic paradigm of a neologistic hyper-reality in the context of - and self-identified with - a non-heuristic trajectory of Newton-Raphsonian discretization of what is, viewed outside the normative formulations of Euclidean Space, a continuous path in the tangent space of a non-orientable manifold.
posted by freebird at 10:45 AM on January 9, 2004 [1 favorite]


a lot of useful information has been gained by applying deconstructionist critical theory

I don't know anything about deconstruction, so this has me curious. Examples?
posted by nicwolff at 10:50 AM on January 9, 2004


Anti-intellectualism marches on.


(I wonder if I should consider getting contacts before the mob decides to go after everyone who wears glasses.)
posted by milovoo at 10:54 AM on January 9, 2004


Anti-intellectualism marches on.

I call bullshit on that. What're you saying, that anyone who dosen't buy this particular theory is "anti-intellectual" and thus some kind of knuckledragging clod?

Dress it up however you wish, but snobbery is still snobbery. Looking down your nose at those less educated or even less intelligent is as tiresome as jocks snubbing the physically inept or beauty queens hating the unattractive. The only difference is that the abnormally smart will be able to come up with better rationalizations for their prejudices.

Interesting how we all are very protective of the particular meritocracies that reward us. Since I have been rewarded by none, I say they can all go shit in their hat.
posted by jonmc at 11:01 AM on January 9, 2004


In my utterly amature opinion, deconstructionism reminds me of people who critique someone's bad use of PowerPoint rather than what the speaker is trying to say. Not every speaker is a graphic designer or information architect, nor should they be. Criticizing presentation technique is important, as we can always benefit by learning to communicate better. It just breaks down when the critiquer or critiquee(?) confuses the critique of the presentation as a critique of the presentation content/intent. It seems that literary criticism of this bent is a means to understand how/why we use language and how we might use it better, but will never have anything to say about what we do with language. When you get to the "what", you step out of humanities and into art or science, from the meta- to the actual.
posted by badstone at 11:03 AM on January 9, 2004


Hildago, wheat, milovoo, anyone else reflexively slagging this piece: did you actually read it, or did you just assume since it's by some technohick who uses words like "bogometer" it must be completely clueless tripe? The guy made a serious effort to understand the basics, and it seems to me he did pretty well. I think his summary is on the money:
The quality of the actual analysis of various literary works varies tremendously and must be judged on a case-by-case basis, but I find most of it highly questionable. Buried in the muck, however, are a set of important and interesting ideas: that in reading a work it is illuminating to consider the contrast between what is said and what is not said, between what is explicit and what is assumed, and that popular notions of truth and value depend to a disturbingly high degree on the reader's credulity and willingness to accept the text's own claims as to its validity.

Looking at the field of contemporary literary criticism as a whole also yields some valuable insights. It is a cautionary lesson about the consequences of allowing a branch of academia that has been entrusted with the study of important problems to become isolated and inbred. The Pseudo Politically Correct term that I would use to describe the mind set of postmodernism is "epistemologically challenged": a constitutional inability to adopt a reasonable way to tell the good stuff from the bad stuff. The language and idea space of the field have become so convoluted that they have confused even themselves. But the tangle offers a safe refuge for the academics. It erects a wall between them and the rest of the world. It immunizes them against having to confront their own failings, since any genuine criticism can simply be absorbed into the morass and made indistinguishable from all the other verbiage. Intellectual tools that might help prune the thicket are systematically ignored or discredited. This is why, for example, science, psychology and economics are represented in the literary world by theories that were abandoned by practicing scientists, psychologists and economists fifty or a hundred years ago. The field is absorbed in triviality. Deconstruction is an idea that would make a worthy topic for some bright graduate student's Ph.D. dissertation but has instead spawned an entire subfield. Ideas that would merit a good solid evening or afternoon of argument and debate and perhaps a paper or two instead become the focus of entire careers.
Now, if you happen to think deconstructionism is the greatest thing since grits, this will doubtless offend you, but I'd like to hear more about where he goes wrong than snobbish dismissal (with optional flaunting of jargon mastery, a la freebird).

And milovoo, if you think this piece is anti-intellectual, you have an amazingly blinkered view of the world.

jonmc: Thanks for the link; that was a great discussion!
posted by languagehat at 11:15 AM on January 9, 2004


Now you may argue that there are objective things etc etc that science knows and can study (ah, how many have now been proved worthless or false?)

ack. that's one of the most painful things I've read on Metafilter. I've hear it again and again by people who say it as if it means something, as if all of science can be dismissed because the things we've learned about the world change over time. Falsifiability is a cornerstone of modern science - when something gets proven false that means that science is working just as well as when something gets proven true. This statement is based on being out of touch in exactly what the author of this paper is talking about here:

science, psychology and economics are represented in the literary world by theories that were abandoned by practicing scientists, psychologists and economists fifty or a hundred years ago.
posted by badstone at 11:17 AM on January 9, 2004


freebird, you're talking about the Sokal Affair, right? Interestingly enough, in my literary theory class we studied the spat in more detail than we did deconstruction itself. All in all, that was a good move on my prof's part, since deconstruction hasn't been The Method in literary criticism the heyday of high theory in the 80s. It's all culture and identity now.

badstone - I don't get why critiquing our means of communication is a bad thing if we want to understand how communication works. But then as a criticism/theory dork I'd take issue with you separating what we say with language from language itself. "The medium is the message" and all that.
posted by amery at 11:23 AM on January 9, 2004


Say, have you seen these Jack Chick comics?
posted by y2karl at 11:26 AM on January 9, 2004


amery - I didn't say it was a bad thing, in general I said it's an important thing. I just said that confusing critiques of the medium with critiques of the message is a bad thing. I think that "the medium is the message" only for people who are professionals with respect to medium - e.g. language theory types. For everyone else, they have some knowledge and intent that they do there best to translate into a communicable medium. There will be sloppiness, mistakes, and vagueness when they do so, do to weaknesses/imprecision of the medium and weaknesses of the writer/speaker. However, I think it's really only the pros that try to make clever or deep exploitations of that wiggle room between intent and expression. To search for that sort of "depth" or obfuscation in the writings of a literary layman is to search for bullshit. It's like trying to find Picasso-esque expression in a child's painting - yes you'll "find" it, but that doesn't necessarily mean much.
posted by badstone at 11:47 AM on January 9, 2004


Dress it up however you wish, but snobbery is still snobbery. Looking down your nose at those less educated or even less intelligent is as tiresome as jocks snubbing the physically inept or beauty queens hating the unattractive.

So everyone should stick to the lowest common denominator of knowledge lest someone else not understand what they are doing and be offended. The jocks and beauty queens that you describe most likely have their own field specific information and might be justified to look down on those who claim to understand their field completely and yet can't tackle or walk in heels correctly.

and yes, I did read the article. I think that this guy just thinks a bit too highly of his own opinions and too easily devalues those of others.
He doesn't leave much room for himself to actually learn anything, before declaring it bogus.
posted by milovoo at 11:47 AM on January 9, 2004


"Looking at the field of contemporary literary criticism as a whole also yields some valuable insights. It is a cautionary lesson about the consequences of allowing a branch of academia that has been entrusted with the study of important problems to become isolated and inbred"

ok, i will sustitute two words.


"Looking at the field of contemporary Criminology as a whole also yields some valuable insights. It is a cautionary lesson about the consequences of allowing a branch of academia that has been entrusted with the study of important problems to become isolated and inbred"

Mrs. Hudson!

(off topic:)
posted by clavdivs at 11:50 AM on January 9, 2004


The study of literature needs to be taken out of the university, and de-professionalized -- like the clergy after the reformation. University administrations should start sharpening their axes, and the rest of us should start thinking about what sort of institutions we can create to study, discuss and transmit our literary treasures and values in coming years.
posted by Faze at 11:56 AM on January 9, 2004


milovoo- snobbery could be defined as thinking a certain trait (in this case, intellect) makes you a superior being. Referring to the rest of the world as "the mob," and assuming that the only reason someone might have to doubt you is "anti-intellectualism," makes it fairly plain that you are a snob.
posted by jonmc at 11:56 AM on January 9, 2004


Anti-intellectualism marches on.

I agree. I would, however, argue that it is the deconstructionists/postmodernists who are the anti-intellectuals.
posted by majcher at 11:59 AM on January 9, 2004


Referring to the rest of the world as "the mob,"

If that had been what I said then perhaps you would be correct, but the rest of the world
is quite a bit larger than the small minority of writers I was imagining.

Isn't that just an erudite way of saying "Well, the only reason you don't like it is because you're too stupid to understand it!"
...
Interesting how we all are very protective of the particular meritocracies that reward us.
Since I have been rewarded by none, I say they can all go shit in their hat.


OK, so I get it already, you are sensitive about people being perceived as smarter than you,
and desire an intellectually level playing field, but have you got anything besides name-calling?

Snob? Is that just the automatic come-back when someone says anti-intellectual? Seems kinda silly.
posted by milovoo at 12:11 PM on January 9, 2004


milovoo - The following is taken as highly useful wisdom by people on the left side of the academic brain:

"You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother." — Albert Einstein.

That's what the "least common denominator" is all about. If your knowledge can only exist within the context of your academic jargon, if it's not portable in some way to humanity at large, it's not real universal knowledge, it's just a pretty arrangement of tokens. There's nothing wrong with pretty arrangements of tokens, but their value will necessarily be abstract and only appreciated by a small subset of humanity.
posted by badstone at 12:12 PM on January 9, 2004


I do this supposedly passe, poststructural stuff as a large part of my living (and no, I am not in an English department), and I wasn't the least bit offended by the linked piece. The author made a good faith effort to come to grips with a particular idea of deconstruction, and while the summary of what deconstruction supposedly entails as a method is a bit simplified, it's not far off the mark considering how it was that Derrida was appropriated by American English departments in the early 80s. So I give props to anyone who, stuck within the language games and modes of thought of one field to try to venture into and think through the modes of thought of some other, radically different field. I would give the same props to anyone in English or philosophy who, when writing about technology, actually attempted to learn something about how that technology actually worked. I may disagree wholeheartedly with his all-too-easy dismissal and reduction of 'deconstruction', but the piece is far from anti-intellectual.

And surely those of us in the humanities can admit that some writers have a tendency to obfuscate as a way to sidestep difficult questions in a text. Of course, one could highlight the same practice in any number of ideological positions, from postmodernism to new historicism to psychoanalytic theory to marxism and so on and so forth. And of course, there are times when obfuscation has a material benefit in that it draws attention to the text as a text - it forces a more thorough decoding, so to speak - in a way that the latest Tom Clancy novel does not. Nothing against Clancy here per se, but reading and yes, texts of all stripes, can produce different results, not just at the level of interpretation of content but also over the nature of our engagement with language.

All that being said, deconstruction is not and never was for Derrida a method or a formula. This is in large part why it is that so many believe deconstruction has come and gone as an intellectual project: it was largely misconstrued and used to publish a bundle of ridiculous tripe that did not understand the political and philosophical stakes of the posstructural project and then folks got tired of doing the 1-5 steps of deconstruction. Derrida describes deconstruction as an attitude of openness towards the ambiguities of a text, and if certain formulae seem to get at those ambiguities, they do so by missing the point - the formula becomes the way of understanding a text and displaces the possibility of a more radical openness to the text itself. Sticking with Derrida, we could highlight the massive differences between his reading of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, his reading of Blanchot's quasi-autobiographical short stories, and his reading of Heidegger's Being and Time. One would be hard-pressed to identify a particular, repeated "method" at work in these readings. Of course, there are a whole group of thinkers who have taken the attitude of deconstruction seriously and written some wonderfully insightful things: Avital Ronell, Jean-Luc Nancy, Phillipe Lacou-Labarthe and so on. Topics for these writers include: the drug war, the concept of stupidity, the sovereignty of the nation-state, the procedures of representative government, high school curriculums, and the internet. Along with Derrida and others, these thinkers are doing fascinating and insightful work, and I think it's unfair to dismiss the project because there are a bunch of crappy hanger-ons.

If we really want to simplify poststructuralism, we might think of it as a celebration of uncertainty, and the concomitant suspicion of grand narratives (like religion or progress) and of grand foundations (like the Cartesian cogito or the Hegelian celebration of rationality or even Plato's insipid reality vs. appearance binary). There are costs to any set of beliefs, and poststructuralism generally tries to make those costs more apparent, and good poststructuralism includes some assessment of its own opportunity cost.

As a final aside, I think the far more anti-intellectual position belongs to Pseudophedrine. Reducing Derrida to a misreading of Heidegger is just plain silly. And whether it's due to a particular ideological blinder or a lack or reading, that's an unfortunate response to the thread at hand. Hell, just regarding the question of technology and technics in general, the two thinkers aren't even close, and their differences stem from distinctions in their philosophical beliefs, not from some arbitrary desire for differentiation.
posted by hank_14 at 12:21 PM on January 9, 2004 [2 favorites]


OK, so I get it already, you are sensitive about people being perceived as smarter than you,
and desire an intellectually level playing field, but have you got anything besides name-calling?


Actually, this is not what I want. The point I was trying to make is that people tend to place the highest values on the attributes which they possess: Smart people will place value on intellect, Beautiful people on looks, Athletes on physical prowess etc. The truth is however, that all of these things, plus other factors like emotional empathy, sense of humor, perceptiveness, moral sense and many others go into making a truly well-rounded human being.
And what I'm sensitive about (perhaps overly so) is that I am not comfortable with the idea of considering anyone my "inferior," for whatever reason, so it irks me when I percieve other eople doing it to anybody.

"You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother." — Albert Einstein.

My grandmother has great difficulty with English, and spent several years being afraid of the snowblower we bought them. It'd be difficult for me to explain a lot of things to them...
posted by jonmc at 12:27 PM on January 9, 2004


Badstone, I did once explain poststructuralism to my grandmother. She found it interesting, but it didn't mean she went out into the world proselytizing. I also once explained the relationship between stratospheric and tropospheric ozone, and she thought it was cool, but far too technical.

My point is just that the fact that science requires just as much semantic gymnastics to come to grips with "nature" doesn't mean that the whole of humanity tosses it aside as a set of pretty tokens, right? Indeed, people like to know that their cars will work, even when they don't understand at all how their engines convert gasoline into something useful.

To push the anecdote further, it might be fun to figure out how and why science achieved its particular cultural authority, where it can be proven technically and/or ethically wrong - or at least insufficient - repeatedly, and with disastrous consequences, and yet it gets a free pass into the arena known as "valuable", and how at around the same time, philosophy fell from the dominant position it enjoyed for over two millennia.
posted by hank_14 at 12:29 PM on January 9, 2004


I can't really see what needs to be said after nate's comments.
posted by raaka at 12:43 PM on January 9, 2004


sorry, hank's comments. hank's.
posted by raaka at 12:45 PM on January 9, 2004


hank_14: Your first comment was great, and I suspect Morningstar wouldn't argue with it. I like people who can look across the divide and treat the other side with respect (even if they can't help raising an eyebrow now and then). But you should have quit while you were ahead:

it might be fun to figure out how and why science achieved its particular cultural authority, where it can be proven technically and/or ethically wrong - or at least insufficient - repeatedly

This is the kind of silly statement that gives the humanities a bad name. It's perfectly obvious why science "achieved its particular cultural authority"—it works, in a practical way that affects real people's real lives, unlike philosophy or lit crit. Your "where it can be proven wrong" is disingenuous; of course it can be proven wrong, and that's exactly why it works, unlike those other disciplines (which can go in and out of style but never be proven right or wrong). Science keeps people from dying; philosophy only keeps them interested (if they're of that bent). And yes, science (combined with technology) has allowed people to be killed more efficiently, but that's the fault of people, not science.

The facts, the equations, are there, in a way that philosophical and literary constructs are not; if you don't accept that, you're part of the problem. It's not all about cultural reception.
posted by languagehat at 12:51 PM on January 9, 2004


I think the reason science gets off so easy is that it usually translates easily and directly into the medium of physical reality (e.g. rockets and lung transplants). "Seeing is believing" is still the most dominant and "best" mode of validation for the vast majority of the world, despite everything we know about using appearances to deceive.

Translating say, Marxism, into physical reality, is a long daunting process, and in the process of doing so, you "translate" the people right along with it. So external, objective demonstration of those sort of concepts is damn near impossible. As to the unseating of philosophy as top o' the heap, who was philosophy dominant among? Only its practioners, the intellectuals. Science proved its practical value to the general public more so than any other mode of understanding. Science really did tell us when the sun would be eclipsed and why the crops fail, etc...

I think its "best" parts of philosophy (as judged by the world at large, not its practitioners) evolved into modern science, economics, law, and the like, and the rest was tossed onto the scorned heap of abstract intellectualism, for better or worse.

Oops, on preview, pretty much what languagehat said.
posted by badstone at 12:56 PM on January 9, 2004


But philosophy "works". Religion "works". In real ways, in real people's lives. And we should remember that science began, not surprisingly, as "natural philosophy". It's the split and the separate destiny that I think is interesting. Anyway, you can't say that science got all its clout because 17th and 18th century science was so decidedly impressive. Take a look at Francis Bacon's Novum Organon and there's a hard sell going on about why folks should suddenly believe that science is worth considering seriously, so it's not like science simply worked and then wala, everyone loved it. Plus, the fact that it works does not explain why people love it even when it works with such disastrous consequences. The atomic and nuclear bomb, which has been detonated at least 1500 times since its inception, killed at a level unimaginable and continues to kill, albeit more slowly and indirectly, today. That was science in action, that was science working extremely well. If people respond to science's "real" effects, you'd think they might take larger notice of the negative half of those equations.

Besides, I'm not disagreeing that "proof" is what makes science great; I'm just curious as to why "proof" became the standard against which disciplines like science and/or philosophy were to be measured. It wasn't always the case (Aristotle, for example, believed empirical data was persuasive, but no more persuasive than logic or the appeal to certain emotions), and so, given the history of the West's intellectual culture, I don't find it entirely "obvious". Moreover, I certainly don't think that posing the question means I am part of the problem - as if questioning is somehow problematic in certain contexts - but instead reflects a different way of being in the world. Twas just a question, after all...
posted by hank_14 at 1:08 PM on January 9, 2004


I wonder if the answer you're looking for is less technical than than the "proof" thing. A major difference between science vs. religion or philosophy, is that it empowers us to do better, whereas religion and philosophy are largely geared to help us be better. Science moved us from being passive subjects of nature or God's whims and on to being actors capable of altering nature to suit our own whims. I think we're still in the "cool new toys" era with respect to science, where we can suddenly run out and seemingly do whatever we want with/to nature, rather than just passively trying to cope well. Hopefully the novelty will wear off before we endanger ourselves much more and we'll seek some sort of reintegration of science and religion as all the trendy "East vs. West" philosophers and science commentators say we eventually will.
posted by badstone at 1:21 PM on January 9, 2004


I nearly choked at the mere mention of Tom Clancy. I am unable to get through any of his novels--I have tried--becasue the writing is just plain bad.

Once had a student who latert on (with new PhD) told me he was a marxist. When I noted that Marxism had failed when it was applied. He agreed but said it was terrible as a practical idea but useful as theory. We no longer speak.

Is there any literary theory prior to postmodernism that does not ultimately focus upon the author or the work whereas Post-stuff shows instead the cleverness of the critic, who uses text merely as gateway to his brilliance?

Marxists still abound. But as things move on, a new fashion is combining evolutionary insights to literature. And from what I have thus far seen, it is an abuse of both fields.
posted by Postroad at 1:23 PM on January 9, 2004


The facts, the equations, are there,

They're there in literature too. But just like in math, you have to learn how to read the symbols and derive meaning from them. Just like in math, you can find a needlessly complex way to say something, or just write 2+2=4.

Science is a way of describing our world and universe. So is literature. So is math. So is sculpture. As new knowledge is gained, old, obsolete knowledge is discarded.

Just as we no longer subscribe to "sun moves around earth" theories, we no longer accept Horatio Alger's novels as valid and relevant. But we can still enjoy these things, even if we don't necessarily regard them as "true".
posted by rocketman at 1:25 PM on January 9, 2004


I've seen obfuscation in computer science quite a bit. I sometimes call it "spagetti code," but it works and maybe some of those confusing deconstructionist phrases can work too.
It is tempting to relegate postmodernism to history's curiosity cabinet alongside theosophy and transcendental idealism, but it has seeped by now into the mainstream of the social sciences and humanities. It is viewed there as a technique of metatheory (theory about theories), by which scholars analyze not so much the subject matter of the scientific discipline as the cultural and psychological reasons particular scientists think the way they do...

And to others concerned about the growing dissolution and irrelevance of the intelligentsia, which is indeed alarming, I suggest there have always been two kinds of orginal thinkers, those who upon viewing disorder try to create order, and those who upon encountering order protest it by creating disorder. The tension between the two is what drives learning forward...

Nevertheless, here is a salute to the postmodernists. As today's celebrants of corybantic Romanticism, they enrich culture. They say to the rest of us: Maybe, just maybe, you are wrong.
-Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

As much as it may annoy us, it is good to have those out there challenging us as to how right we really are.
posted by john at 1:39 PM on January 9, 2004


"science ... empowers us to do better"

You're using "better" in a purely qualitative way. Better to one is worse to another, etc. Scientists typically say one theory is better than another in purely quantitative terms. I imagine you think science is qualititatively better rather than quantitiatively because you are partly a product of your culture -- which brings us back to hank's question.
posted by raaka at 1:48 PM on January 9, 2004


My italics didn't work they were it was supposed to then. I didn't mean it empowers us to do better, I meant it empowers us to do better. See? :) By that, I do mean it entirely quantitatively. With the help of science, we can do more, and do things more effectively and powerfully. That doesn't mean that we're necessarily doing the world any good, or, as I said it doesn't mean we're being better (a qualitative "better"). That's what we need philosophy for, and that's the point of the interest in eventual reintegration.
posted by badstone at 1:59 PM on January 9, 2004


oops. that first sentence should read: "My italics didn't work the way they were supposed to then."
posted by badstone at 2:00 PM on January 9, 2004


Science is a way of describing our world and universe. So is literature. So is math. So is sculpture. As new knowledge is gained, old, obsolete knowledge is discarded.

All true, but beside the point. Science, translated into technology gives the ability to effect change. The humanities translate into culture, and affect viewpoint. Technical changes are direct and swift, a new discovery results in an immediate cure for cancer (say). Cultural changes are slow and unsure. Communism took three or four generations to fail (and yet there are still Marxists!); feminism has yet to fully succeed. Science evolves faster than culture with more immediate benefits, hence its currency.
posted by bonehead at 2:04 PM on January 9, 2004


Postroad, I'm not sure I understand what you're asking. Poststructuralism doesn't actually think of itself as celebrating the critic - that's usually left for reader-response theory, semiotics (a la Roland Barthes), and some trends in hermeneutics (not all). Poststructuralism generally is concerned with the agency of a text (which is to say, language in general) and tries to examine how particular meanings are produced at the expense of others. I can see how this might get read as a clever way to show off critical faculties, and I'm sure that for some people it is, but as a project, poststructuralism is less concerned with the act of interpretation and more concerned with the possibilities inherent in a particular production of meaning. One might also point out that author-centered methods are, in the same roundabout way, just as much about the critic; when one "discovers" the "true" historical reasons why a text was written or the "real" intentions behind it, then that critic announces him- or herself with much the same giddy cleverness: 'I know what they really meant!

Which is, I suppose, just one way of noting that one never really escapes the critic, or the cleverness of one's critical faculties, when it comes to interpretation or meaning or what have you. Other disciplines work in similar ways, I would think. Certainly we don't celebrate Einstein for his ability to "see" the universe through his hard work and due diligence, but instead our belief in a certain quality of genius.

Incidentally, I think new historicism argued that the author was responding (yes, intentionally) to particular cultural and historical currents and that the text should be read as reflecting that historical, material reality and not as an example of a brilliant author. Still a bit authored-centered, but then much in the same way as much poststructural thought, I would think. I think the only difference is that the "posts" know that someone wrote the shit down - Clancy! - but they don't think that the author's intentions ultimately govern the meaning of the text they generated.
posted by hank_14 at 2:09 PM on January 9, 2004


Oh and I'll say it, Consilience is a stupid book, as is the vast majority of sociobiology. Imho, of course :). For a non-posty and still critical reading of it, one can look at Leah Ceccarelli's Shaping with Rhetoric.
posted by hank_14 at 2:15 PM on January 9, 2004


It is tempting to relegate postmodernism to history's curiosity cabinet alongside theosophy and transcendental idealism, but it has seeped by now into the mainstream of the social sciences and humanities.

"According to LINDA HUTCHEON, one of the main features that distinguishes postmodernism from modernism is the fact the it "takes the form of self-conscious, self-contradictory, self-undermining statement....One way of creating this double or contradictory stance on any statement is the use of parody: citing a convention only to make fun of it. As Hutcheon explains, "Parody—often called ironic quotation, pastiche, appropriation, or intertextuality—is usually considered central to postmodernism, both by its detractors and its defenders"

"the postmodern partakes of a logic of "both/and," not one of "either/or." While this move problematizes the postmodern half of Hassan's formulation, it leaves all the negatively marked terms of his left column intact. Modernism remains the essentializing foil of a more fluid postmodernism. So while seeming to transcend a binary model for thinking the difference between modernism and postmodernism, Hutcheon perhaps only adds another opposition to Hassan' s list: modernism "either-or" versus postmodernism's "both-and."
posted by clavdivs at 2:17 PM on January 9, 2004


"Deconstrucing Clancy"

now thats a title.
posted by clavdivs at 2:19 PM on January 9, 2004


Technical changes are direct and swift, a new discovery results in an immediate cure for cancer (say). Cultural changes are slow and unsure.

I disagree, bonehead. Science is just as slow as art. We've been discovering a cure for cancer for thirty years or more, and it's still not here. Similarly, the effect of art on culture and society is gradual. I'll grant you certain breakthroughs in science can be exciting, but rarely do they ever translate immediately into a practical application.

Keep in mind, also, that occasionally a work of art comes along that changes everything and transforms culture. In the end, it's all just knowledge.
posted by rocketman at 2:39 PM on January 9, 2004


Hank_14,

I found it to be anything but stupid. I have not read "Shaping with Rhetoric," but I find such a swipe at sociobiology requires more than the opinion presented in one book.

Is there one example you could direct me to in Wilson's book?

And is there some problem with my quote?
posted by john at 2:41 PM on January 9, 2004


Translating say, Marxism, into physical reality, is a long daunting process

I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry.

Communism took three or four generations to fail

No, communism failed almost instantly; that's why Lenin instituted the NEP—even a hardened Bolshevik could see it was roll back communism or starve.

religion and philosophy are largely geared to help us be better

Or to feel better about ourselves as we do whatever we want, as usual.

In the end, it's all just knowledge.

Sigh. And only a quarter of Americans believe in evolution. Our educational system really has gone to hell in a handbasket.
posted by languagehat at 3:59 PM on January 9, 2004


My point stands.

Perhaps you find it distasteful that I've stripped value judgements out of that statement, but I'll leave it to you to put them back in.
posted by rocketman at 4:24 PM on January 9, 2004


No, communism failed almost instantly; that's why Lenin instituted the NEP—even a hardened Bolshevik could see it was roll back communism or starve.

If using the Paris commune as a early model of Communism, it seems hardly surprising that the NEP was imposed as the conditions where somewhat similar.

In the meanwhile, in spite of their fears, Marx agreed with the method of the Commune, namely, first of all to examine the economic question before making any changes, and not to introduce hasty decrees, which would fail of their object, cause confusion, and finally discouragement. Even if this caution arose more from theoretic uncertainty than from theoretic discernment, it agreed with all that Marx, in consequence of his materialistic conception of things, regarded as necessary, namely, that in the Revolution we must be guided not by mere will alone, but by a knowledge of the actual state of affairs.

After the revolution, with the ruined condition of industry, the working day was not reduced, but lengthened. Workers toiled ten, twelve hours and more a day on subsistence rations; many worked weekends without pay voluntarily. But, as Trotsky explained, the masses can only sacrifice their "today" for their "tomorrow" up to a very definite limit. Inevitably, the strain of war, of revolution, of four years of bloody Civil War, of a famine in which five million perished, all served to undermine the working class in terms of both numbers and morale.

perhaps the 'idea' of communism died at the barricades
posted by clavdivs at 10:35 PM on January 9, 2004


For somebody complaining about post-modern jargon, he's pretty wordy himself. Maybe it's because his mother never loved him.
posted by destro at 11:14 PM on January 9, 2004


Hank_14> Derrida has, in every interview where it's been brought up, mentioned Heidegger as the thinker who has most shaped his thought. Not to get too much into the details, but Derrida's "philosophy" is ersatz Heidegger in its attitude towards death, its treatment of language and ontology, its emphasis on rootedness and relations of care, and so on. Hell, the whole idea of "deconstructing" is itself found in the latter Heidegger's epistemology (this is where Derrida himself has claimed to have come up with it from). However, whereas Heidegger was interested in the question of being, Derrida seems to just want to diddle around with texts. That's the real difference the two men have.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 7:45 AM on January 11, 2004


Aside: The documentary of Derrida was interesting. See it if you get the chance.
posted by milovoo at 11:45 AM on January 11, 2004


We've been discovering a cure for cancer for thirty years or more, and it's still not here.

In the past thirty years, quite a bit has been developed in cancer treatment. My mother just celebrated her fifth year post-surgery, chemo, and radiation. I doubt she would have fared as well in had she been diagnosed in 1968.
posted by beth at 9:10 AM on January 12, 2004


so does that mean he's a postmodern critic? :D or a begineer!
posted by kliuless at 6:14 PM on January 12, 2004


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