the clouds of not knowing

The following article is Chapter Ten of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race which I am posting, beginning today, chapter by chapter throughout this year. Since blog posts are stacked in a reverse time sequence (always with the latest at the top), I have decided that the best approach is to post the chapters in reverse order.

All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a brief introductory article about the book itself and why I started writing it.

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According to the postmodernists there is no such thing as absolute truth, so why should we believe them?”

question submitted to the regular Notes & Queries column in The Guardian.

*

Postmodernism is a slippery subject and one I’ve long endeavoured to get to grips with.

For a while I just tried asking dumb questions (applying a method of inquiry recommended by physicist Richard Feynman). “What exactly is postmodernism?” seemed like a good starter, although as I soon realised such a front-on assault wouldn’t get me very far. Quasi-mathematical answers floated back about ‘signs’ and ‘signifiers’ from the arcane sub-discipline of ‘semiotics’, or else esoteric reference to the foreign fields of ‘post-structuralism’ and ‘deconstructionism’. I also had to understand such important issues as ‘false consciousness’, ‘the death of the author’ and ‘the end of the grand narrative’. Slowly then, I learnt about this complex spaghetti of postmodernist theory, a theory more beloved by English Literature professors than readers of philosophy, yet a theory pushed by its outspoken advocates who regard it as the only rightful context for all other intellectual inquiry.

*

After years of discussion with defenders and proponents of postmodernist theory I have come to an understanding that there are basically two main strands often twisted into one. Here, however, I must confess that I find the majority of writings on postmodernist thinking to be dense, jargonistic and for the most part unintelligible, so I do not claim to be an expert by any means. But, in this regard I was very happy to discover that I was sat in the dunce’s corner with, amongst other dullards, that otherwise academically esteemed professor of linguistics, Noam Chomsky. Here’s what Chomsky has to say:

“Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I’m missing, we’re left with the second option: I’m just incapable of understanding. I’m certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I’m afraid I’ll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I don’t understand – say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat’s last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I’m interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. – even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest – write things that I also don’t understand, but (1) and (2) don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures.

“I would simply suggest that you ask those who tell you about the wonders of “theory” and “philosophy” to justify their claims – to do what people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn’t already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can’t be met, then I’d suggest recourse to Hume’s advice in similar circumstances: to the flames.”1

*

With this in mind, please allow me to unravel the two strands of postmodernism (as I find them).

i) postmodernism as a contemporary aesthetic.

On the one hand postmodernism promotes the idea of a new aesthetic. An aesthetic born from the ashes of modernism that it usurped. The fall of religion, of classical physics, as well as of other established and seemingly apodictic systems, had sparked a fin de siècle revolution around the turn of the twentieth century, and in consequence, artists looked for new modes of expression. The aftermath of two world wars heightened this need for a new awakening. One artistic response has been to recognise that the loss of a grounding on the basis of some kind of universal referent is intractable, and thus to turn inwards. To search for inspiration in the exploration of relationships between the artist and the subjective unreliability of their own account. To elevate context above meaning, subtext above text, and to make style and form themselves, the primary subjects of the artist.

Now I think that this is a perfectly reasonable place for artists to go. Artists after all are free to go as and where they choose (as are all citizens in any healthy political climate). Within the bounds of legality and, aside from the important issue of earning a living wage, artists are bounded only by the development of their creative and imaginative faculties. Choosing to explore the world as they find it (in realism), or of their own emotions (Romanticism), or what is discovered in the unconscious (surrealism), or even ideas in and of themselves (conceptualism) is therefore a matter wholly at the discretion of the artist. Whether they take on board styles from the past or other cultures, manipulate and meld them into a new eclecticism, or else, like Duchamps, point with irony at the question of what is art itself, then good for them. And if this is the current fashion, then so be it. Whether or not these pursuits are deemed in any way successful will be judged both here and in the future, as always. Fashions in every field coming and going as they do. All of this I accept.

Now if this is all postmodernism ever had to say, then let it be said, but let it also be said that there is nothing particularly ‘modern’ about it, let alone ‘post’…

Shakespeare made many allusions to the theatre itself, and liked to include plays within his plays. Shifting the audience’s perspective with reminders that we are another part of a performance and long before Berthold Brecht had snapped his fingers to wake us to our own participation. Lawrence Stern’s Tristam Shandy, one of the earliest novels in the English language, is a work more famous and celebrated for being so self-referential. More recently, Rene Magritte’s paintings challenge relationships between images, words and the world; whilst in early cartoons we can also find such ‘postmodern’ devices, as, for example, when Bugs Bunny becomes Daffy’s animator in the splendid Duck Amuck. Such is the success of these games of form and reference within purely comedic settings that even that most hackneyed of old jokes “why did the chicken cross the road?” relies on an audience who understands its cultural reference to jokes more generally – that jokes have a punchline, and so the joke here is that there isn’t one. Context has become everything, and what could be more ‘postmodern’ than that?

ii) postmodernism as a theory against absolutes

My first brush with postmodernism happened almost two decades ago when, as a postgraduate student, I’d suddenly begun to mix within altogether more literary circles. During my three years of studying physics in London I’d never once encountered any reference to the ideas of Saussure, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault or Baudrillard, but suddenly I had a few English post-grads telling me that physics, and indeed science in general, was just another theory, and one holding no special claims to finding an understanding of nature than any other. At first this seemed hilarious. How, I wondered, could those who knew next to nothing with regards to, say, Newton’s laws of motion, be so smug in their opinions about the truth or otherwise of quantum mechanics and relativity. Studying science had at least taught me not to be so presumptuous. So just what had gotten into them?

Jacques Derrida2 famously wrote that “there is nothing outside the text”, which is an extraordinary thing to write when you think about it. I mean is Derrida quite literally saying that nothing exists beyond the text? Why of course not, you dingo! For if nothing existed beyond the text, then there couldn’t be any text, since there’d be no one to write it in the first instance. Surely that’s obvious enough! So what does he mean?

In my handy guide Postmodernism for Beginners3, which at least has the good grace to include plenty of nice pictures, there is a section entitled ‘Deconstruction’, which was (according to the book) Derrida’s method for waging “a one-man ‘deconstructionist’ war against the entire Western tradition of rationalist thought.” His new approach of deconstruction, the book goes on to say, being an attempt “to peel away like an onion the layers of constructed meaning.” But of course if you peel away the layers of a real onion you’re eventually left with nothing… which is something the book’s analogy fails to mention.

And just what is Derrida’s method of deconstruction? An attempt to look for meanings in the text that were “suppressed or assumed in order for it to take its actual form”. I’m quoting from my book again. But then how is anyone supposed to do this? Well, here again I confess that I really don’t know – and the book is only a beginners’ guide so unfortunately it doesn’t say. I can however recall the story told by a friend who was studying for a degree in English Literature. He told me that his tutor had once asked a seminar group to read a selected text with the express intention of misunderstanding the author. So I guess that’s one approach.4

Now I concede that all critical readers must have due entitlement to read between the author’s lines. Anyone with a modicum of sense must recognise that an artist will at times disguise their true intentions (especially if they involve dangerous political or religious dissent); dressing their concealed truths in fitting uniforms. Of course the author may also wish to veil themselves for altogether more personal or private reasons. But then why precedent the latent above the blatant anyway? As if what an author tries to hide is more important than what they are, more directly, seeming to say. To address this question, postmodernists broaden their case, saying that ‘meaning’ itself is wholly dependent upon ‘authority’ or ‘power’. This is to say that the artist is nothing more than a product of the cultural context of his or her time. According to such reasoning, whatever it was they’d meant to say becomes irrelevant. A depressing claim, and one that lacks any obvious foundation. And where is the broader point to all of this? What does it have to do with science for instance?

Well, Derrida contends that the word ‘text’ must be understood in “the semiological sense of extended discourses.” Any clearer? No – try this: “all practices of interpretation which include, but are not limited to, language.” Got it yet? I’ll put it more picturequesly. Away from the leafy seclusion of literature departments, Derrida is declaring that this same approach (his approach) must be applied to all avenues of thinking. Any special privilege for methods of reason and objectivity is to be absolutely refused on grounds that once we are agreed that all discourse (in the semiological sense) is necessarily a cultural, historical or linguistic construct, then all ideas must be seen to hold the same indeterminate value. Therefore, to raise science above other disciplines of enquiry is merely “a value judgement” borne of European prejudice and vanity.

So what finally does this all amount to? Does Derrida really claim that astronomy can be judged to be no better measure of our universe than astrology? Or that when Galileo proposed the idea that the earth moved around the Sun, the pope was no less right for saying that it did not? Or if we proclaim that the world is round, are we no closer to any kind of truth than the legendary flat-earthers? And when we build rockets that fly to the moon and beyond, that this does not prove Newton’s ideas over those of Aristotle? The same Aristotle who thought that the moon was made not of rock, since rock would inevitably crash to earth, but from a fabulous unearthly material called quintessence! And what if Jacques Derrida were to have taken some leap of faith from his window, might he have hovered in the air like Road Runner, or would he more surely have accelerated toward the ground at 9.81 metres per second per second? I certainly know where my money’s riding.

*

Now in case you think my objections are unfounded, and based on either my lack of knowledge of the subject or else a deliberate and calculated misinterpretation of postmodernist thinking (whatever that means given the postmodernists’ own refusal to privilege an author’s intentions on the grounds that these are unrecoverable and irrelevant), I feel that I must draw attention to an incident now referred to as The Sokal Affair.

In 1996, Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, feeling frustrated by the nihilistic claims being made by the postmodernists, decided (as any good scientist would) to perform an experiment. His hypothesis (if you like) being that he could convince a reputable journal in the field to: “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” On this basis he submitted a paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to the journal Social Text. To give you a flavour of Sokal’s admirable hoax, here is an extract from that paper:

“Derrida’s perceptive reply went to the heart of classical general relativity: The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability – it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something – of a center starting from which an observer could master the field – but the very concept of the game… “

Outlandish nonsense, of course, but (and no doubt to Sokal’s great delight) the journal mistook his fun for a work worthy of publication5. Then, on the same day of its publication, Sokal announced his hoax in a different journal, Lingua Franca, calling his published paper “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense”, which was “structured around the silliest quotations I could find about mathematics and physics”6. Here is what Sokal himself had to say about his reasons for perpetrating the hoax and his underlying concerns regarding the influence of the Social Text editors. He has a great deal to say and so I feel it is fitting to give over the remainder of this section to Sokal’s own justification and conclusions (after all, why have a dog and bark yourself):

“Of course, I’m not oblivious to the ethical issues involved in my rather unorthodox experiment. Professional communities operate largely on trust; deception undercuts that trust. But it is important to understand exactly what I did. My article is a theoretical essay based entirely on publicly available sources, all of which I have meticulously footnoted. All works cited are real, and all quotations are rigorously accurate; none are invented. Now, it’s true that the author doesn’t believe his own argument. But why should that matter? … If the Social Text editors find my arguments convincing, then why should they be disconcerted simply because I don’t? Or are they more deferent to the so-called “cultural authority of technoscience” than they would care to admit? […]

“The fundamental silliness of my article lies, however, not in its numerous solecisms but in the dubiousness of its central thesis and of the “reasoning” adduced to support it. Basically, I claim that quantum gravity — the still-speculative theory of space and time on scales of a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter – has profound political implications (which, of course, are “progressive”). In support of this improbable proposition, I proceed as follows: First, I quote some controversial philosophical pronouncements of Heisenberg and Bohr, and assert (without argument) that quantum physics is profoundly consonant with “postmodernist epistemology.” Next, I assemble a pastiche – Derrida and general relativity, Lacan and topology, Irigaray and quantum gravity – held together by vague rhetoric about “nonlinearity”, “flux” and “interconnectedness.” Finally, I jump (again without argument) to the assertion that “postmodern science” has abolished the concept of objective reality. Nowhere in all of this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.7

Why did I do it? While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance. …

“In short, my concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? …

“Social Text’s acceptance of my article exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory – meaning postmodernist literary theory – carried to its logical extreme. No wonder they didn’t bother to consult a physicist. If all is discourse and “text,” then knowledge of the real world is superfluous; even physics becomes just another branch of Cultural Studies. If, moreover, all is rhetoric and “language games,” then internal logical consistency is superfluous too: a patina of theoretical sophistication serves equally well. Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic. My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this well-established genre. …

“Politically, I’m angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed Left. We’re witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful – not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many “progressive” or “leftist” academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage…

“I say this not in glee but in sadness. After all, I’m a leftist too (under the Sandinista government I taught mathematics at the National University of Nicaragua)… But I’m a leftist (and feminist) because of evidence and logic, not in spite of it.”8

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It has long puzzled me too, why many once dyed-in-the-wool Marxists have increasingly drifted over to Derrida. I mean these two systems are supposedly in direct contradiction. Marxism is a ‘grand metanarrative’ par excellence, and so postmodernism is presumably its willing nemesis. So why would those who had invested so heavily in Marx suddenly jump into bed with Derrida et al? Well, it might be supposed that the fall of the Berlin Wall was of key importance here.

With the end of the Soviet experiment, it wasn’t simply a political regime that had given way. In its wake the whole Marxist ideology was rocked, since, and whatever its adherents may have then believed, this rapid and extraordinary sequence of events signified the catastrophic end to that particular alternative world vision.9

It’s not even that Marxists were still looking longingly toward Russia for their answers – most had already long accepted that the Soviet dream died with Stalin if not before – but just as with the death of a friend, it’s not until the funeral that we can finally say farewell. For those who’d searched for answers under the lens of Marxism, a time was rapidly approaching when most would be forced to admit defeat. That finally there was nothing left to halt the rising tide of global capitalism. Unless…

But lo! Could some new theory, of revolutionary hue, if significantly altered, replace the discarded doctrines of Marxism? Perhaps there was still something yet that might save the world from the savagery of unchallenged global capitalism. Soon these were the hard questions facing not only the Marxists but all those with Socialist leanings. And as a Leftist too, I shared in the same concerns.

Not that Marxism is dead of course. Not quite. Though Marx appears to be a spent political force, his spell, if diminished, is still potent inside the faculties of academia, living on in the alcoves of English departments for instance (and often side by side with Derrida and the others). But my question is how did Derrida step into Marx’s boots so comfortably? Is there any deeper reason why Marx and Derrida have made such good bedfellows? Is there anything that these adversaries might actually share?

*

I recently came across a review of philosopher Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell – his inquiry into the origins of religion (a popular subject these days) – and have since been considering whether or not to include any mention of it (perhaps with reference to my thoughts in Chapter One). Well, as you will know already, presuming you’ve read everything thus far, I have so far avoided making any direct reference to Dennett’s book as such. Instead, and by way of a brief and hopefully interesting digression, I have decided to present a review of the review itself. Quite aside from being in-keeping to offer such a meta-narrative, the review itself, which happened to feature on a website otherwise dedicated to “world socialism”, helped to shed light on the current theme of the odd convergence between postmodernist theory and Marxism. But before I can progress, I first need to briefly outline the main thrust in Dennett’s book itself, which, when stated most succinctly, is that religion is a natural phenomenon.

There is an evolutionary advantage, Dennett says in Breaking the Spell, conferred to those who adopt “the intentional stance”: our very reasonable presumption that the other creatures one encounters are also “agents”. It is easy to understand then, by extension, Dennett continues, why natural forces in general might also be presumed to act rationally and with specific desires in mind.

Combined with this, as Dennett also points out, the offspring of many species, including humans, are innately trusting toward their parents, because, happily, this also confers a survival advantage. These factors taken together then, it is easy to understand how a worship of ancestors might have arisen as a useful bi-product of human evolution. Whilst, on the cultural level, as the earlier hunter and gatherer communities gave way to agricultural settlement, this opened the way to more formalised and stratified forms of religion that must have slowly arisen – religion then, according to Dennett, is a piece, if you like, of mankind’s extended phenotype (yet another natural/cultural artefact, and, as such, somewhat akin to the motor car or Aswan Dam, none of which are any less “natural” than say a bird’s nest or a beaver’s lodge). And thus, being natural in origin, religion itself becomes a proper subject for scientific investigation, just as all other natural phenomena lie the within the province of scientific analysis.

The spell that Dennett finally wishes us to break from being that religion is fundamentally no different from any other kind of human behaviour or enterprise. That much is all Dennett – at least according to our reviewer.

Dennett’s approach is not really to my taste. It leans too heavily on the speculative theories of evolutionary psychology, whilst in doing so, stretching the concept of “natural” to such a degree as to render the word close to meaningless. But worse than that, he leaves little or no room for the insoluble cosmic riddle itself, when this is surely a vital component in any proper understanding of what drives the religious impulse. So this is my review, second hand of course (since I am not intrigued enough to read Dennett’s original words).

Firstly, our reviewer acknowledges that much of the book is admirable, in so far as it goes, but then he insists that Dennett misses the main point. And the main point? Well, from the reviewer’s perspective Dennett simply isn’t being Marxist enough. Remember, this is a Marxist review!

In order to grasp the infernal bull of religion properly by the horns you need to understand Marx, the reviewer goes on. Why? Because Marx recognised how religion retards “class consciousness” amongst the proletariat, famously calling it “the opium of the masses” and “the sigh of the oppressed”. Religion then, according to Marx, is a comforting but ultimately false light: its promises of heavenly paradise, a necessary distraction from the injustices of the real world. At root, it is a necessary means of mollifying the proletariat masses. And who can doubt how often religion has and does serve precisely such ends – although we didn’t we actually needed Marx to tell us so. Thinkers back to Voltaire (and long before him) have repeated proffered that same opinion.10 Which is where I’ll finally come back to postmodernism, deconstruction and Derrida.

Here’s the actual sentence in the review that snagged my attention, causing me to make a connection that had perhaps been obvious all along:

“[But] Marxism does recognize that material factors are ultimately to be found at the root of all ideology, of which religion is a part.”11 (Emphasis added.)

Soon afterwards the reviewer backs this same assertion with a quote taken directly from Engels:

“Still higher ideologies, that is, such as are still further removed from the material, economic basis, take the form of philosophy and religion. Here the interconnection between conceptions and their material conditions of existence becomes more and more complicated, more and more obscured by intermediate links. But the interconnection exists.”12

Suddenly, it can all be fitted together. Since for the Marxists too, not just religion, but all “higher ideologies”, might be whittled back to their cultural and historical constructs. A deconstruction almost worthy of Derrida, with the difference being in the placement of emphasis: for Engels the cultural and historic conditions being “material”, whereas for Derrida they are “semiotic” – whatever that exactly means.

Marxism is an entirely Capitalist heresy, said the late political satirist Gore Vidal, adding, just as Capitalism was itself a Christian heresy. Not that these ideologies are by essence one and the same, no more than it automatically follows that since a frog develops from a tadpole, both creatures are inherently identical and indistinguishable. Vidal’s point is simply that these three mutually antagonistic doctrines, Christianity, Capitalism and Marxism, are closely related by origins.

Following on then, postmodernism ought to be understood as a Marxist heresy, and thus, by extension, just another in a line of Christian heresies. It is, to extend Gore Vidal’s insightful analysis, a cousin of Christianity twice-removed. Or look at it this way: when Derrida says, “there is nothing outside the text”, is he saying anything so radically different from “The Word is God”? The circle, it seems, is complete.

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But I cannot finish the chapter here. For though it is certainly fair to draw comparisons between the “social constructs” of postmodernism and the “false consciousness” of Marx, it is unfair to judge them as equals. Marx never denied the possibility of “true consciousness”, since this is, broadly speaking, his goal. Derrida’s approach is altogether foggier, whilst rejoicing in the rejection of all “logocentric” reason. So determined to escape from every possible kind of absolutism, the dangers of which are evident enough, he finally leads himself and his followers into the shifting sands of relativism. Once there, and afraid to face up to truth in any shape, this nihilism is thinly veiled by obscurantism and sophistry.

In 1966, when Jacques Derrida met Paul De Man they quickly became friends and colleagues. Independently and together, they continued to develop their theories of deconstruction. However, you won’t find any reference to Paul De Man in my Postmodernism for Beginners guide, because in recent years De Man has slipped a little off the pages. Why is this? Perhaps because after his death, evidence came to light that during the war he had been an active promoter of Nazism.

Some articles penned for the Belgian collaborationist newspaper, Le Soir, during the first years of the war, had indeed been explicitly antisemitic, referring to the “Jewish problem” and how it was “polluting” the contemporary culture. More shockingly, De Man had continued producing his albeit modest contribution to the Nazi propaganda machine, when he must surely have known that a genocide was taking place on his doorstep. In the wake of the first expulsion of Belgian Jews, as thousands were crushed into the cattle wagons, and driven from homes in Brussels to the horrors of Auschwitz, De Man had continued to peddle such poisonous nonsense. When news of De Man’s Nazi sympathies first came out, this story actually made the front page of the New York Times, generating a furore that seems a little surprising today. It provides a measure of how much De Man’s star has faded.

But then, in the aftermath of such shocking revelations, Derrida defended his old friend – as well as the reputation of their shared child: deconstruction. Aside from the appeals to justice and fairness, Derrida made use of his own deconstructive methods in articles such as the poetically titled “Like the sound of the sea deep within a shell: Paul De Man’s war” and then (in response to further criticism) “Biodegradables: Six Literary Fragments”. De Man must be understood within his cultural context, Derrida insisted throughout13.

In later years, Derrida quietly admitted that some texts (and ideologies) were more equal than others, even attesting to a Marxist element within his own branch of deconstruction (at least if Postmodernism for Beginners is to be believed). Whatever the case, in his defence of De Man, Derrida clearly understood how his slippery theory might profitably be used to paint black as grey and grey as white.14

It was precisely this same lurking danger that George Orwell had understood so well, and which he laid out so clearly within the covers of Nineteen Eighty-Four:

“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His [Winston Smith’s] heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yes he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s centre. With the feeling that he was speaking to O’Brien [an Inner Party official], and also that he was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote [in his secret diary]:

‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.’”15

*

So much for the murk of postmodern unknowing. There are other ways to challenge logocentrism – that pursuit of certainty through reason that Derrida so detested. So I’d like to finish this chapter by dispelling the Occidental mists a little with thoughts from abroad.

The teachers of Ch’an or Zen Buddhism from centuries past also impressed upon their students that proper understanding cannot be grasped by the indelicate gloves of verbal or logical reasoning. However, in contrast to Derrida and the others, they did not confuse reason with objectivity.

One such teacher, Dofuku said: “In my opinion, truth is beyond affirmation or negation, for this is the way it moves.” Here then, to finish, a few alternative words on the complex relationship between language and the world. The first of these are lines taken from the Chinese tradition of Ch’an, from a collection written down in the thirteenth century16:

Words cannot describe everything.

The heart’s message cannot be delivered in words.

If one receives words literally, he will be lost.

If he tries to explain with words, he will not awaken to the world.

And here, a later Japanese Zen story called “Nothing exists”17 that cautions the student against the ever-fatal error of “mistaking the pointing finger for the Moon” by confusing any description of reality with reality itself:

Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.

Desiring to show his attainment, he said: “The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realisation, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.”

Dokuon, who had been smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.

“If nothing exists,” inquired Dokuon, “where did this anger come from?”

*

1 BEYOND NATIONS & NATIONALISMS: One World, Noam Chomsky on Post Modernism and Activism

From a discussion that took place on LBBS, Z-Magazine‘s Left On-Line Bulletin Board, 1997.

2 “So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood.” Ibid.

3 All quotations without footnotes in this section are drawn from “Postmodernism for Beginners” by Richard Appignanesi and Chris Garratt, Icon Books Ltd. Whether or not these are the words of Jacques Derrida is not always made clear, but then why should we worry about authorship when as Bartes pointed out: “readers create their own meanings, regardless of the author’s intentions: the texts they use to do so are thus ever-shifting, unstable and open to question.” (p.74)

4 “As for the “deconstruction” that is carried out… I can’t comment, because most of it seems to me gibberish. But if this is just another sign of my incapacity to recognize profundities, the course to follow is clear: just restate the results to me in plain words that I can understand, and show why they are different from, or better than, what others had been doing long before and and have continued to do since without three-syllable words, incoherent sentences, inflated rhetoric that (to me, at least) is largely meaningless, etc. That will cure my deficiencies – of course, if they are curable; maybe they aren’t, a possibility to which I’ll return.” Noam Chomsky, source as above.

5 Published in Social Text #46/47 (spring/summer 1996) pp. 217-252. Duke University Press.

6 Sokal, Alan (May 1996). A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies. Lingua Franca.

7 He adds here that: “It’s understandable that the editors of Social Text were unable to evaluate critically the technical aspects of my article (which is exactly why they should have consulted a scientist). What’s more surprising is how readily they accepted my implication that the search for truth in science must be subordinated to a political agenda, and how oblivious they were to the article’s overall illogic.” Ibid.

8 For publishing Sokal’s original paper, the journal Social Text received Ig Nobel prize for literature (1996).

9 “The fall of the Berlin Wall did more than any of the books that I, or anybody else, has written, to persuade people that that was not the way to run an economy.” quote from free-market economist, Milton Friedman.

10 Voltaire, who was an outspoken critic of religious and, in particular, Catholic fanaticism, clearly understood and bravely acknowledged the relationship between church authority and political power more generally. In his Dictionnaire philosophique (1764), the main target of which is the Christian church, and its doctrinal belief in the supernatural, he wrote dryly: “As you know, the Inquisition is an admirable and wholly Christian invention to make the pope and the monks more powerful and turn a whole kingdom into hypocrites.”

11 “Dennett’s dangerous idea”: a review written by James Brookfield (6 November 2006) of Breaking the Spell: religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel Dennett, Viking Adult, 2006. Review taken from World Socialist Web Site published by the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI).

12 Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Part 4: Marx, by Friedrich Engels, First Published: 1886, in Die Neue Zeit, and translated by Progress Publishers in 1946.

13 “First, Derrida argues, de Man is not responsible for all of the many evils of Nazism or for the Holocaust. To compare him to Mengele, as one writer did, is unjust. Second, it is unjust to read de Man’s later writings as an admission of guilt or responsibility – or as an attempt to deny responsibility – for what he did during World War II. Third, although de Man wrote a series of articles expressing the ideology of the occupation forces and one article which is blatantly antisemitic, it is unjust to judge his whole life based on that one episode in his youth. Fourth – and this is the most controversial point in his argument – Derrida suggests that de Man’s articles are not as damning as one might be led to expect when they are read in the appropriate context. According to Derrida, the explicit antisemitism of the worst article is equivocal, and it is hardly as bad as many other articles in Le Soir. …”

“Nor can one object that these two articles do not discuss deconstruction or employ deconstructive techniques. In fact, both possess interesting and sustained discussions of deconstruction and its place in the academy, as well as many passages explicitly offering and rejecting possible connections between deconstruction and justice, or between deconstruction on the one hand and fascism or totalitarianism on the other..” passages taken from Transcendental Deconstruction, Transcendent Justice, originally published in Mich. L. Rev. 1131 (1994) by Jack M. Balkin.

14 Jack Balkin, respected academic and defender of deconstructionism, acknowledges the dangers of following its relativistic course when it leads toward nihilism. He explains how Derrida betrays his own theory to avoid this error: “[First] Derrida offers deconstructive arguments that cut both ways: Although one can use deconstructive arguments to further what Derrida believes is just, one can also deconstruct in a different way to reach conclusions he would probably find very unjust. One can also question his careful choice of targets of deconstruction: One could just as easily have chosen different targets and, by deconstructing them, reach conclusions that he would find abhorrent. Thus, in each case, what makes Derrida’s deconstructive argument an argument for justice is not its use of deconstruction, but the selection of the particular text or concept to deconstruct and the way in which the particular deconstructive argument is wielded. I shall argue that Derrida’s encounter with justice really shows that deconstructive argument is a species of rhetoric, which can be used for different purposes depending upon the moral and political commitments of the deconstructor.”

This perfidy, Balkin celebrates, suggesting that Derrida’s new form of “transcendental deconstruction” be universally adopted: “Yet, in rising to respond to these critics, just as he had previously responded to the critics of de Man, Derrida offered examples of deconstructive argument that were not wholly consistent with all of his previous deconstructive writings. They are, however, consistent with the practice of deconstruction that I have advocated. This is Derrida’s perfidy, his betrayal of deconstruction. Yet it is a betrayal that I heartily endorse. …”

15 Quote taken from Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part 1, Chapter 7.

16 Ibid, p.123. Extract taken from The Gateless Gate by Ekai, called Mumon. Transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps. [I have modified the final line to render a more poetic effect. The original reads: “If he tries to explain with words, he will not attain enlightenment in this life.” In making this small alteration I have tried to maintain the spirit of the original.]

17 Extract taken from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, an anthology of Zen and pre-Zen writing compiled by Paul Reps, published by Penguin Books, reprinted in 2000, p.75.

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1 Comment

Filed under analysis & opinion, « finishing the rat race », Noam Chomsky

One response to “the clouds of not knowing

  1. dee

    Great piece. I read the Sokal hoax years ago. I realised it was a joke when I came across the phrase ‘liberatory mathematics’ ..I mean, huh? Lol!

    I went to only one lecture on deconstructionism in college. Is sounded like an elaborate intellectual hoax, maybe to test the limits of credulity. ( When Plato proposed our forms were but shadows of the eternal, he didn’t deny reality.. the local 46a bus might be but an imperfect shadow of its eternal form, but that wouldn’t stop it killing me if I ran in front of it 🙂
    ) He I’m going to cudgel my brains, I want to gain something – like knowledge. Not this nonsense. At least Lewis Carroll and Andy Warhol are fun.

    Big fan of Chomsky , g bless him! Just hope he’s looking after himself – there’s a lot to stress him out there ..

    Like

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