- Byron Clark
This article was originally published in the University of Canterbury student magazine Canta under the title ‘Minimum wage is an objective truth: How postmodernism hurts the working class’.
If you’re an Arts student then theres no doubt that you will have encountered the term ‘postmodernism’ at some point during your time at university, perhaps though you haven’t been given an explanation of this school of thought or perhaps more likely you’ve had it explained to you by ten different people- probably in twelve different ways. Its this confusion on what postmodernism actually is that makes any attempt at critiquing it so difficult. In the intellectual discussions that can be found outside campus cafés one arguing against postmodernism will soon hear from their opponent “no thats not what postmodernism is!” at which point the discussion becomes a frustrating argument about semantics usually ending with someone dismissively scoffing “bloody undergrads” and walking away. No doubt this article will draw similar responses, however I’m going to attempt to define postmodernism as accurately as I can, based on the impressions of it I have gained in the course of my university education, as well as though my own study, and then outline my criticism of it. Let me first state that if you’re inclined to use the word ‘postmodern’ to describe architecture (indeed this was the original use of the word), a piece of art, music or your latest haircut, then my argument is not with you. Refer to contemporary art however you like, and it doesn’t worry me, my argument here is against the philosophy of postmodernism, a collection of ideas that I see as having negative consequences in our society.
Pomo; what the hell is it?
This is not an easy question to answer, a quick look at the Wikipedia article on postmodernism will show a graphic stating that the article is in need of an expert to come clean it up, and the article itself is of little help. Its not unreasonable that no one in Wikipedia’s volunteer community is a postmodernism expert, arguably there are few pomo ‘experts’ in existence. Even the well known linguist Noam Chomsky, a man who the New York Times has referred to as “One of the greatest intellectuals of our time” seems to have trouble getting his head around it; “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 [postmodernist theorists] Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. — even Foucault…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” (Chomsky, ca.1995). Baring this in mind, I ask you to accept this somewhat simplified deffinition that I will use for the sake of this argument.
Postmodernism is the idea that there is no objective truth, because the way we perceive the world is constructed by our society, and in particular by language, and if this is the case, can we really know what reality is? If all truth is subjective, then what is true really? Some postmodernists draw from this the conclusion that what we perceive is real, or at least real to the individual, leading to a sort of philosophical idealism where, for example, a postmodernist on a walk through the park would say “I perceive that that tree over there exists, ergo, it does.” Not everyone who subscribes to the Pomo school of thought would take it this far, but some do (this will be discussed bellow in the section about Alan Sokal). First though, I will argue my philosophical objection.
The materialist criticism
The Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson has argued, along with others, that our perception of reality is a reflection of the existing material world, he did this in a complex and pleonastic way in his book Postmodernism, or, the cultural logic of late capitalism. To save you reading about philosophical materialism, I’ll sum it up with an analogy; Jameson, on a walk though the park with our postmodernist friend would say “that tree exists, so you perceive it as existing.” For Jameson, the areas most analysed by postmodernist theorists, namely culture and society (lets call this the ‘superstructure’) can not be fully understood when separated from the material economic base of that society (lets call this ‘base’) although there is certainly a fair deal of social construction going on within the superstructure, any society is shaped by the relations of production and exchange (economics) that form its base. This is an argument that any clued up Marxist (such as this author) would subscribe to.
Now, there is a chunk of ideas which are tied in with postmodernism that I would agree with. Is our perception of the world shaped by language? Most definitely, for an example take the use of the word “class” in New Zealand’s political discourse, its seldom mentioned at all, and when it is its usually preceded by the word “middle.” As such, when The Listener did a feature article on ‘class’ in New Zealand its research showed that most New Zealanders (83%) see themselves as “middle class” (Black, 2005) Would the postmodernists argue that this idea of a New Zealand with a tiny working class and tiny ruling class and a massive bulge in the middle is simply a perception, a subjective truth at best? Well they probably would, yet would they point out that ‘class’ in its true meaning, is the distinction between those who own the means of production, distribution and exchange (the ruling class) and those who work for them (the working class) and would they point out that a particular class has an interest in people perceiving our society the way most of those questioned by The Listener did? (we’re all just one big middle class!) sadly the answer is no. For the postmodernists, the very idea of social class is merely one of the many truths that are not true- after all, everything is subjective right? This same idea in common in postmodernist thought the world over, so we get for example, British historian David Cannadine claiming that In the eighteenth century “there was no ‘class’” in part because “Karl Marx was not alive and around to tell them this was who they were and what they were doing” (Cannadine, 1998, p.24).
Consequences of the denial of class
It is here that Jamesons work becomes more than just a book to read so you can say things like “look, just don’t even talk to me about postmoderism until you’ve read Jameson” next time you’re hanging with the cafe intellectuals, because he highlights the political ramifications of this way of thinking; “These are not merely theoretical issues; they have urgent practical political consequences, as is evident from the conventional feelings of First World subjects that existentially (or “empirically”) they really do inhabit a “postindustrial society” from which traditional production has disappeared and in which social classes of the classical type no longer exist - a conviction which has immediate effects on political praxis” (Jameson, 1991, p.53)
The term ‘postindustrial society’ seems to be one enjoyed by the postmodernists, (industry is so, urgh, modern) but it is a misnomer, the world today is more industrialised than ever before, thanks the rapid growth and proliferation of third world sweatshops during the past three decades or so. To take the the view that our society (speaking globally) is “postindustrial” is incredibly Western-centric. Even in Western societies the service economy does not make class irrelevant, the fast food worker is still working to create wealth for the owners of the restaurant chains, and could not survive without selling his or her ability to work. Not to mention that as the fast food industry was built on Taylorist ideas of production line efficiency even the idea of ‘industry’ in the West is not irrelevant either (see for example, Schlosser, 2001).
Postmodernism doesn’t mean that social class doesn’t exist, it just means we all pretend it doesn’t. Further, the very ideology of postmodernism makes a fight back against capitalisms increasing dominance of our lives stunted. In an example of what I mean by this, prominent anti-capitalist journalist Naomi Klein, writing of the influence of corporate marketing in universities stated that most academics were “preoccupied with their own postmodernist realization that truth itself is a construct. This realization made it intellectually untenable for for many academics to even participate in a political argument that would have “privileged” any one model of learning (public) over another (corporate)” (Klein, 2000, p.116).
The Sokal hoax
Postmodernism’s critics also come from the sciences; in 1996 physicist Alan Sokal was “troubled by an apparent decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities” and decided to try an experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies (whose editorial collective ironically included Fredric Jameson) publish an article “liberally salted with nonsense?” To his surprise the answer was yes. His article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” declared “without the slightest evidence or argument, that “physical `reality’ [note the scare quotes] … is at bottom a social and linguistic construct’” (Sokal, 1996). Writing of his hoax he asked rhetorically “Is it now dogma in Cultural Studies that there exists no external world?” and invited “anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions…to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment.” (ibid) Why did Sokal attempt to publish his nonsense article? Well, his criticisms of postmodernism are similar to the ones I’ve already outlined and are worth quoting at length; “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? And yet, much contemporary academic theorizing consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths — the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language.” (ibid)
While there are many brilliant academics in the world who are using their skills to benefit society, the dominance of the intellectual elitism (and sheer nonsense) that Chomsky, Klein and Sokal have mentioned is of grave concern. Chomksy wrote is his critique of postmodernism “The left intellectuals who 60 years ago would have been teaching in working class schools, writing books like “mathematics for the millions” (which made mathematics intelligible to millions of people), participating in and speaking for popular organizations, etc., are now largely disengaged from such activities, [they] are not to be found, it seems, when there is such an obvious and growing need and even explicit request for the work they could do out there in the world of people with live problems and concerns” (Chomsky, ca.1995).
I worry for my generation, those of us who are students in New Zealand universities today are going to go on to become the next generation of intellectuals, yet we are a generation that grew up in the post-Rogernomics years, taught to look out for our individual interests, to think of ourselves as consumers rather than workers, and promised jobs in the wonderful postindustrial ‘knowledge economy.’ Postmodernism teaches us to ignore the reality we live in, and, by masking itself in obscure and pretentious language, creates a wedge between intellectuals and the worlds masses of working people. Its a way of thinking that almost seems made to fit the political situation of our time. When looking at how we are taught to think in our modern (or is that postmodern?) late capitalist society, its important we consider just who’s interests our way of thinking serves.
Cannadine, David, Class in Britain (Yale University Press, 1998 )
Chomsky, Noam, On Postmodernism circa 1995
Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Verso, 1991)
Klein, Naomi, No Logo (Knopf Canada, 2000)
Schlosser, Eric, Fast Food Nation (Penguin Books, 2001)
Sokal, Alan, A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies, 1996