Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Boogeyman of Postmodernism

There's a term that's tossed about a great deal these days - postmodernism. I have a bit of a rant on the subject, one that has been building for some time but finally prompted by this post.

My own thinking on the subject is that the term isn't very useful at all. I'd rather discuss specific authors and their ideas, rather than some vague, ill-defined movement.

There are writers that are lumped together under the term "postmodern," but because of all the (unnecassary) scary, nihilistic, all-text-is-vanity associations that go along with the term, I just prefer to say "continental philosophers."

But, postmodernism is still the popular way to identify these writers. And there is a popular perception that goes along with the term: everything is "relative." There are no correct or incorrect statements.

This perception leads to a common criticism: if nothing is wrong, than nothing can be right. Why bother to express ideas? You can never criticize anything. There is no point in thought, because no conclusion you reach could ever be better than another conclusion.

Yes, thank you. This is obvious. It would be a brilliant and decisive critique of postmodernism - if any postmoderns had actually said anything like this.

Granted, my experience with postmodernism is fairly limited. A handful of books and essays from a handful of writers, stretched from the 19th century to the 21st century. There is a wide variety of ideas and pursuits and questions rising out of these readings, but there is one thing I have never encountered - this boogeyman of "postmodern relativism."

So why do so many people believe postmodernism is about "destroying" "absolute truth," then? It's not just Christians, of course; it seems like a lot of our culture thinks this way. One of the books I skimmed at a friend's house is thankfully online at Amazon.com. Have a look at the provided excerpt; this is exactly what I'm talking about.

The classic example of postmodern thinking is Jacques Derrida, the philosopher that died just last year. It was his practice of "deconstruction" that raised the most hackles; I've been questioned as to why anyone would ever bother reading Derrida, or why Derrida would ever write anything - because it is deconstructable. Apparently, some think Derrida said there is no meaning to anything - say anything you want, and you won't be wrong.

Which leaves me wandering how many people have actually read Derrida. Probably not this blogger, or this hysterical fellow who claims that "deconstructionists" are communists. And I doubt the authors of this above mentioned book have read Derrida either; their description of deconstruction (unavailable on the net) was little more than a practice in ignorance. A simple google search would have brought up any number of accurate discussions.

And of course, a google search brought me to this article, and it explains Derrida the same way he was taught to me. Read it if you are interested. If you aren't interested in reading something even that short, why would you feel equipped to dismiss a huge body of work?

Here is my point. Don't run on common perceptions of postmodernism. It is best not to operate on any preconceptions at all; pick up an author that looks interesting, and read what he has to say. Don't rely on someone else to read for you. Then talk about it with others.

If you can't be bothered to read something for yourself, then you should take Wiggenstein's always elegant advice: "that which we may not speak of, we must pass over in silence." Or, don't take his word for it; read Jude 1:10. Try to understand something before you speak abusively of it.

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