This Article Does Not Exist

* A guest post by Robert Anson Hoyt aka #1 son -- who has suspected he's an elephant since he was about two, in the same way I've often suspected I'm a cat. So excuse the pachiderm-o-centric imagery. He is what he is. :) And, oh, yeah, he does overthink it. (Wipes furtive tear.) My boy.*

Postmodern Blues

Or: This Article Does Not Exist
Also: How Not to Practice Zoology

 I'll be blunt. Postmodernism makes me itch. There are very few viewpoints on this planet that annoy me to the extent that postmodernism does. Postmodernism actually manages to be worse than Nihilism.

Oh, you think they're the same? They aren't, and I'll tell you why. Sure, a Nihilist will raise their nose and tell you that all values are subjective. But it takes a Postmodernist to look at the Nihilist and tell them that - not because of the ideas they asserted, but merely because they asserted ideas - they are wrong.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. To understand my position, let me lead you back through the mists of time to Hell, also known as my high school classroom. I am, for my sins, an IB graduate, and like all IB graduates, that meant I had to participate in a class called Theory of Knowledge. I won't lead you through the details as to what the class was supposed to teach, because no matter what it was, it didn't succeed.

Not to say the class taught me nothing, it just didn't teach me anything the prim and proper IB heads in France would dream of putting on their brochure. It took me along the bowels of the nightmare carnival from Hell known as postmodernism, showing me in loving detail its every blemish, often saying those were features rather than bugs. Then it spit me out into the world with a philosophical certainty etched in my heart that -  many demons though I might have -  I will never resort to postmodernism.

Let us take the first parable chosen by TOK class. It concerns several wise men, all of them totally blind, observing an elephant by hand. One feels the trunk, and proclaims that an elephant is like a snake. One feels the leg and says it is like a tree. One feels the side, and suggests it is like a wall. One feels the tusk, and proclaims it is pointy like a spear. Then, because all of them has a different answer, they get in a flaming row. The very postmodern moral: the elephant can be likened to the truth, and the men to people searching for truth, such that each understands a part of it, but none of them all of it. 

This sounds very sage, of course, until you start poking at it. I'll admit up front that the very metaphor itself annoyed me. What, for example, qualifies these men as "wise" if their general approach to learning about an object is to poke it and then immediately assert opinions? Is this how postmodernists think people do science? If that object was a bear trap, would their scientific opinion be that you shouldn't poke it? Or are they normally wise, but today they were very drunk? Does that explain why they thought it would be a good idea to rub an elephant? Then again, perhaps their aforementioned method of gaining information pissed off the villagers so much that they're trying to get the men trampled, because the village maidens are really tired of them "looking for information" in their bosoms? For that matter, just why hasn't the elephant trampled them? Is it just so confused that old men are coming from the woodwork to rub it that it hasn't thought up an appropriate reaction?

I realize that's nitpicking, so let's consider what the story is actually supposed to mean, instead. There is some central truth, and a variety of people examining it. The people come away with observations that are all partially true, but none are entirely true. And here's the problem, right away. This may be postmodernism's explanation of science, but in a strange way, it isn't what postmodernism actually believes. Postmodernism asserts that all points of view are just reflections of the people making them. The men in the parable were making concrete, verifiable, but incomplete observations. But if the parable really wanted to express postmodernism properly, the village idiot would have come by and observed that the elephant was covered in feathers, and therefore like a chicken. (And then, if it were real, all the old men would have beat him with sticks. And rightly so.)

But wait, I need to explain why postmodernism believes that all points of view are reflections of the people making them. It has to do with a given society defining things in certain ways that make people observe things using specific patterns. And the postmodernists engage in a variety of little games to attempt to explain away reality by using this statement. Of course, for all that they argue that reality is just patterns of social constructs and individual observations, I notice that the current number of postmodernists to have successfully jumped off a building and flown via arguing that gravity doesn't exist, or doesn't work the same if you come from a different culture, or if you call it by a different name, remains at zero. But the problem with postmodernists is that, even if one of them tried it, even if you and every other person on Earth watched them splatter on the ground, their very devoted postmodernist friends would just say that it was possible that within that person's perception, they flew.

What made this even worse was that the postmodernists at some point got science. This is laughable to begin with, since postmodernism was supposed to be a counter-response to the rigidity of scientific thought. And what branch did they select as their own? Quantum physics, of course. The thing that attracted postmodernists to quantum physics, like flies to a jar of honey, was that very little beyond the basics is properly understandable without post-doctoral education. But the general ideas presented by many famous experiments, if not the actual mechanisms behind them, were very useful. The idea that the observer affects the observed alone was intriguing to postmodernists. Finally, they could get credibility.

After all, this was essentially their central thesis. With a little due diligence and a thick dose of illogical thought, that was what postmodernism could use to infect the sciences. And while from the perspective of the sciences it never succeeded (thank heavens, or we might get wooden rockets powered entirely by the belief of the builders that they could fly), from the perspective of the humanities, they have had the forces of science on the run since that time. Being a self-admitted reaction to the philosophies behind science, they could have asked for nothing more. And when you get right down to it, it demonstrated to what lengths postmodernism was willing to go to become an all-embracing philosophy.

By now, I hope you're starting to realize the problem with postmodernism. For a social movement working to span ever vaster swathes of academia, it's frighteningly empty. By intent, it has no substance. Everyone has had the experience of arguing with a postmodernist on the playground in elementary school. Remember the imaginary battle you had with someone at some point, where you said your robot had one hundred missiles, and they said they had a thousand, and so on until infinity-plus-one? No matter what the argument, the postmodernist writes everything off as no more than a perspective: there is no goalpost they can't move, no fact they cannot disprove through a simple twist of mental gymnastics. For the postmodernist, being right requires very little thought and certainly no actual understanding. Infinity plus one can be bigger than infinity if you believe it is, in other words.

But you see, the ultimate strength of postmodernism is also its ultimate weakness. Definitionally, postmodernism should not be capable of existing. Because the postmodernists, as proud as they are of believing no one perspective is correct, are taking a perspective. Postmodernists do not truly believe all perspectives are equally valid. They believe that their perspective -- that all perspectives are equally valid - is correct.

Now, of course, the true postmodernist can easily overcome that little hurdle by becoming what you might call a post-postmodernist, believing that the belief that all perspectives are equally valid is simultaneously correct, and incorrect. Of course, many would argue these are mutually exclusive but (trust me, if you ever meet one, you'll find this out the hard way), this does not deter them. The problem becomes that one can also believe that post-postmodernism is incorrect. And so, to embrace the ever-expanding range of opinions, our nascent post-post-postmodernist arrives at his new philosophy, only to realize that even as he took the new position a new opposition instantly appeared.

In other words, postmodernism manages to be so faulty as a philosophy that it has something previously available only to computer programs: a memory leak. In an attempt to perform its function, post-modernism must necessarily continue expanding ad infinitum, never capable of holding itself under any umbrella or even fully defining itself.

Our crafty post-modernist might try to escape by challenging this directly, simply saying that postmodernism does not have to do this. Of course, our opinion that it does is equally valid, they say condescendingly. But wait: we don't believe both opinions are equally valid. Sweat appears. That opinion too is equally valid. And now the pattern has emerged, and we're back in the swing of it. We don't believe that all three options are equally valid.

We could chase every possible such thread to infinity around postmodernism, but we really don't need to, for I can already see the proponents rallying. Proving that postmodernism is inherently prone to running to infinity in this way doesn't prove it's wrong, per se. We could chase that, too, to infinity, but we don't really need to. Remember, the whole point of postmodernism is that it can't be proved wrong. It can't be proved right, either, but that's a very minor setback for any philosophy. The infinity game, however, lays bare the mechanism that is the death of postmodernism.

Postmodernism must, always and ever, avoid taking a position. Functionally, therefore, it is exactly as useful as taking no position at all. For a philosophy with such a loud mouth, it's amazing that it has nothing whatsoever to say. Some postmodernists will defend it as making people more aware of the positions that others hold, but the instant they assert that opinion, they fail as postmodernists. And if they want to regain the title, then they cannot defend postmodernism, but must flee into infinity again, frantically accepting the indictments of it.

In the end, the problem that people who assert that no objective truth exists run into is that, to take their own favorite parable, that would mean there is no elephant. But even in the absence of an elephant, mankind is a species made for producing elephants. It doesn't really matter, in some ways, whether anyone could objectively define good, evil, justice or truth. Saying that they can't find an objective truth misses the point entirely, because humanity in general can feel those elephants; even if no one person can define them because of their personal bias, true, but more importantly, even if those elephants do not exist.

If that sounds suspiciously postmodern, it's really not. Postmodernism purports to desire more diversity of opinions, but as a philosophy it forces you to abandon all opinions and accept theirs. It purports to desire more purity in defining knowledge, but it puts empirical evidence on par with the babble of the junkie on a streetcorner. It is inherently deceitful, always doing the exact opposite of its stated goals. I'm not sure I could ever get far enough away from that.

Rather than pummel the issue with my own words, let me sum up the issue by quoting Terry Pratchett's character Death in the Hogfather: "Take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet you act, like there was some sort of rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.". What Pratchett touched was not merely the essence of humanity, but the antithesis of postmodernism... which should be a serious warning to us.

We create the elephants that people feel because as humans, we desire them. They help give us something to live up to: standards that raise us above what we might otherwise be. Rules that we live by. You can't find objective truth for these things, but not for the reasons the postmodernists think. Each person's definition of these words is personal, it's true, but each person also has a stake in the larger elephant. That larger elephant is simply how people everywhere act according to these words. That system is inherently correctable. Because we create the elephant, it changes as we do. Because we live according it, we change as it does. It is not objective because nowhere did it ever claim to be objective. Just the opposite. These are the ideas that humans establish so that they will know they are more than simply human in species.

These are not religious ideas, per se. These are the ideas you need to even understand something like religion, or complex secular ideas like "decency". Rather than concentrating on the question of whether any person's bit is valid, it's more important to question whether the elephant they create, in terms of the actions it inspires, is doing good or ill. That's critical, because someone could evolve the purest, most moral philosophy on Earth, but if no one buys it, it means nothing. The FIRST priority of a philosophy, even and especially postmodernism, is and must be gaining a stake in the larger elephant, and our first priority must be to fight, therefore, those contributors to it that are most harmful. And depending on the answer, the next question is how to change it. And that's another argument, to be judged by the lights of other elephants, but in this case, it doesn't really matter.

Because postmodernism, which likes to claim that all these ideas are equally valid, forgets the ultimate purpose of the ideas humanity forms. Some ideas are inherently contrary to the survival of the human race, and by calling them all equal you are destroying the purpose of humanity's guiding lights. If you let it, it will make you swallow honey and poison in equal measure and declare the two exactly the same. It shows no understanding of why questions of truth and justice exist in the first place. But unlike nihilism, it forges that belief into a single overarching idea. In doing so, it tries to "win" the argument. And to a postmodernist, winning is more important that the survival of the species.

In short, postmodernism fails for multiple reasons. Part of why it fails is that it is internally inconsistent and impossible to define. But it also fails because it does everything in its power to avoid taking a definite position, and so completely loses all usefulness. And finally, it is contrary to the very purpose of philosophy and ultimately creates great potential to harm humanity.

Despite all this, however, postmodernism can be insidious. Many people are tempted by the ability to win every battle, even if they realize on some level that it means losing the war. It appeals, certainly, to those who have always wanted to feel as though they are a little smarter than everybody else, most especially if this is far from the truth. It appeals to the jaded and the cynical, who feel that they can finally rise above every conflict of ideals, where both sides always look alike to them. It appeals to those who want the safety in numbers it offers, to those who can impress a professor with it, to those who think their high-minded rhetoric will help them get girls. Some put it on and wear it like fashionable clothing but never really buy it, others take the dangerous step of accepting it.

But from the minds of those who see through the postmodern facade, a little baby elephant has also been born. That elephant stands in the path of the diseased old bull of postmodernism and trumpets defiance, not because it is objectively right, but because it is right by human standards. For the good of our species, we must contribute all we can to keep that baby elephant alive. In part, it stands for the very ideals that are best in humanity. But more than that, it stands for the idea that humanity could have ideals at all.

Remember this, if you take nothing else away from this article. If that elephant should ever die, if postmodernism should ever ultimately win, then we will be walking down a difficult, deceptive, and dangerous path. And when we walk down that path, there is no guarantee we will ever be able to turn back.

*crossposted at According To Hoyt*

posted by Sarah on 01.27.11 at 12:59 AM


Great post. One of the best explanations I have seen of the self-canceling nature of post modernism.

If only its self-canceling nature made it cease to exist!

Eric Scheie   ·  January 27, 2011 5:45 PM

Indeed. Good, and devastatingly accurate article. But it doesn't exist...

Post modernism is, at best, a brain toy (when you hear hoofbeats, think zebra - that sort of thing). That it somehow became a philosophy is a great mystery to me.

Kathy Kinsley   ·  January 27, 2011 7:12 PM

Goedel Strikes Again.

It is "does not compute" all the way down.

M. Simon   ·  January 28, 2011 7:54 AM

As to the much-talked-of "education bubble," it doesn't exist either. And why should education? Or college?

Eric Scheie   ·  January 28, 2011 8:58 AM

Ah, Eric, that's part of what's been cooking at the back of my mind.

I think one of the characteristics of people addicted to what can only be called Radical Liberty is that we tend to go "okay, it's always been done this way, but what if?" Of course, half the time we fall on our faces. BUT education is crying out for that sort of approach. I keep thinking we're proudly preparing kids for the 1950s

Sarah   ·  January 28, 2011 11:00 AM

As I've been collecting and reading McGuffey readers, I'm thinking that we might as well prepare them for the 1850s!

In those days, sixth graders knew how to read college level text, thanks to a simple process of one-room-school osmosis.

Instead of pouring $12,000 per pupil down into a bottomless administrative rat hole, parents used to simply build a small building and hire a teacher.

It was very backward, of course. That's why they had such a high literacy rate.

Eric Scheie   ·  January 30, 2011 10:17 PM

I'm amazed I overlooked this.

The line about "poison and honey" reminds me of my immediate response to Gaga's line on the red carpet of some awards show dressed in Meat re: DADT - that no one is more valuable than anyone else. "Really? Hitler and Ghandi?"

Those kind of spokespeople make me think of Linsey's comment to Hippie in "the Abyss" when he was ranting about Von Daniken - "Stop taking my side."

It also made me lose any and all of the little respect I had for her from the few songs I actually did like . *shrug*

Darius   ·  February 15, 2011 8:53 AM

...and in the current strain of thought skewered in the article: If no-one is more valuable than anyone else, why should anyone pay attention to her?


Darius   ·  February 15, 2011 8:56 AM

A very funny write. But you've expended an immense amount of fine intellectual energy to squash an ant.

Postmodernism, along with the philosophy that makes it possible--pragmatism--can be dismissed in a single line:

Every so called truth is relative, either a social construct or an aberrant individual observation--except this one, which is absolute.


Steven   ·  February 16, 2011 6:01 PM

IOW, to continue my comment, as with formal scepticism, postmodernism is self-refuting.

How did it become a philosophy? First, it's not a philosophy; it's an anti-philosophy, designed to wipe out the concept of philosophy.

Second, it came from people like James and Dewey (you remember him, the great education guru in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and from whose theories modern education has been fashioned), among the founding facilitators of modern pragmatism.

Third, it's been accepted because people accepted the claim that pragmatism is practical.

And that came from people believing that something can be practical yet immoral--or vice versa, that something that is moral can be impractical.

And that came from Kant, who got it from Plato, who gave it life through his mind-body dichotomy, which later became, by way of Neo-Platonist Christianty, the soul-body dichotomy.


Anonymous   ·  February 16, 2011 6:15 PM

PPS. That is called irony.

Steven   ·  February 16, 2011 6:39 PM

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