Saturday, October 16, 2004

Is Post-Modernism Over Yet?

A lengthy and cerebral article by Johann Hari regarding the death of Jaques Derrida and the legacy he left behind. I have tried to understand post-modernism, namely in the form of buying Postmodernism for Beginners. Even the author of the book makes the point that post-modernism hides behind it's vocabulary:

The first thing you have to do to translate it in to Postmodernese is to make the sentence stop making sense. You do this by substituting buzzwords or phrases for ordinary words that do make sense.

Either the author is being playfully ironic or I'm making a straw man of a straw man. My biggest gripe with the book, and hence of the post-modernism the author portrays, is that it cavalierly dismisses science on the basis of science failing to satisfy the criteria established by non-scientists as necessary to "justify" itself. The author is explaining the theorems of Jean-Francois Lyotard where he describes the basis of explanations of events as dependant on meta-narratives. According to Lyotard, the meta-narative "science" was dependant upon the concepts of the French Enlightenment, characterized in the book as "Let the practical discoveries of science allow men and women to get on with the proper business of seeking happiness!", and Hegel's idea of Unity of Knowledge, that by the completion of knowledge mankind shall achieve "total being".

While those might best describe the philosophy of science at the beginnings of the enterprise, I do not believe that science needs any justification other than nature itself. So long as nature exists, mankind will use science as the method to create the best possible description of it.

Even allowing for that, Lyotard claims to demonstrate that science has failed to satisfy its philosophical underpinnings. The use of science as a means to bring misery a la the railroad schedules and gas chambers of Nazi Germany disproves the happiness bringing argument, while the opacity of quantum theory denies us the Unity of Knowledge.

There is no denying that the Nazis used technological advances to bring great death. However, the Nazi philosophy that created the actions was based on theories, namely genetic superiority, that were deliberately shielded from scientific challenge. I equally hold that the net happiness existent in the world is greater thanks to vaccines, antibiotics, and efficient means of producing food.

Second, becuase scientific learning is challenging us with concepts that are far outside of our common conceptions, it does not follow that the enterprise is therefore useless. If science is going to show us the way from "ignorance to total being", then it must be expected that there must be some transformation on the part of human kind. The book's example of the paradox of an electron jumping from one atomic orbit to another without traversing the intervening space as a death knell to the concept of Unity of Knowledge. What it does in fact does is challenge the recipient of the knowledge to reassess the idea that a material body must cross all of the space between the end points of its journey. This is very difficult, but no one said that acheiving total being would be easy.

Final note, the founders of postmodernism seem entirely too fond of revolution. The whole effort seems to me as disdainful of incremental development. If the ashtray doesn't have enough room in it, trash the whole car.

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