Saturday, January 4, 2014

Varoufakis on Postmodernism.


or Why Critics of Economics Can Ill-Afford the "Postmodern Turn"

Yanis Varoufakis (Professor of Economic Theory at the University of Athens, and noted blogger) addressing in 2002 the then fledgling Post-Autistic Economics movement:
"It is a sad irony when the activities of dissidents help shore up the establishment they set out to subvert. The point of this piece is to warn the 'economic' dissident: Beware the Postmodern Turn! The argument will turn on the thought that postmodern criticisms of economics serve the twin purpose of (a) releasing pent-up frustration with the profession while, at once, (b) reinforcing its ideological backbone." (link)
I am sure those who have followed the output of online post-modern self-described Post-Keynesian macroeconomists (which one may, unfairly, consider representative of the PoKe collective) will find Varoufakis' article astoundingly accurate (I may have further to say on this subject in the future).

But here I wish to refer to something else. For all its merits, there is a glaring omission in Varoufakis' argument. This is curious, since he explicitly mentioned science and the postmodernist (PoMo, for short) views on it. Varoufakis left out the so-called Science Wars and perhaps its best known "battle": the Sokal Affair.

The debate between natural scientists, at one hand, and social science/humanities academics, at the other, is too lengthy to be dealt appropriately here. With the caveat that readers should exercise common sense when using Wikipedia, I'd recommend for the absolute newcomer its two related entries.

For my purposes, however, it will suffice here to show these two charts, courtesy of Google Books Ngram Viewer:

(right click to open a larger version in a separate tab)

The chart above shows how frequently the 2-word phrases "Sokal Affair" and "Social Text" (bigrams or 2-grams, in Google's terminology) have occurred in Google Books in American English, since 1975 and up to 2008 (apparently, the corpus does not include more recent books).

The publication of mathematics/physics professor Alan Sokal's prank article (delightfully titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", link) in 1996 by one of the flagship PoMo academic journals, Social Text, occurred when the journal was gaining references, acceptance and influence in the literature.

Soon after publication, Sokal revealed through another journal (Lingua Franca) that the article was, in fact, a hoax:
"I decided to try a modest ... experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies ... publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions?"
Judging by the chart, Sokal's article seems to have caused little initial commotion; but as the controversy surrounding his naming and shaming of Social Text gained prominence both in academic and ordinary media (around 2000), the fortunes of Social Text changed: as of 2008, its influence was still heading south.

(right click to open a larger version in a separate tab)

The exact same phenomenon is, if anything, even more evident in the next chart, describing the broader PoMo "movement" (often seen as an umbrella term for post-structuralism, deconstructionism/deconstructivism and related "isms"): the whole PoMo bubble burst. POOF!

While it's hard to ascertain Prof. Alan Sokal's precise weight as causing agent (after all, with or without Sokal, the public was bound to eventually perceive PoMo for the sham it became), one must acknowledge his efforts and credit him for them.

As seen in the opening of this post, Varoufakis warned in 2002 heterodox economists against a "PoMo turn" because it would be theoretically counterproductive and self-defeating. Against the backdrop of the PoMo collapse, however, it's clear that it would be worse than that: it would be suicidal...

...and just plain dumb.

But dumbness has never stopped you, so, by all means, carry on.

3 comments:

  1. What precisely do you mean by PoMo? The term seems overused and is often applied haphazardly to any criticism that argues, at least in part, that status quo paradigms are grounded in power relationships (for example). The funny thing is that many arguments/philosophies that are labeled PoMo existed in Plato's day (Plato was countering such approaches).

    I also find it curious that Heidigger is labeled a PoMo philosopher when to me all he really did was try to dress up Eastern philosophy (e.g., Taoism) in Western clothes. You can pretty much sum up Heidigger's thinking as "the truth is not a fixed thing but a flowing event," a concept that significantly predates Plato, at least in Asia.

    Sorry for the digression . . .

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    1. "Sorry for the digression . . ."

      Not at all. Thanks for the comment.

      "What precisely do you mean by PoMo?"

      That's a very good question; unfortunately, I don't have any good answer: frankly, I wasn't able to find any clear definition beyond "umbrella term for post-structuralism, deconstructionism/deconstructivism and related 'isms'."

      See for instance:
      "That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning."
      Aylesworth, Gary, "Postmodernism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

      In fact, in my opinion, even postmodernists themselves seem to mean different (sometimes wildly different) things when they use the PoMo label.

      Which should give us pause for thought, if you ask me.

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  2. Thanks. I was able to download some good books on postmodernism over at scribd. Now, after reading Varoufakis' article again, I think his real criticism is that it is not enough for the dissidents to criticize, they must offer their own grand narrative (something that PoMO has declared dead) to replace the existing one, which they find flawed. If they don't, the flawed grand narrative of economics will march on while appearing stronger for having survived the criticism.

    I think that's an interesting point, and one that many postmodernists recognize: postmodernists have not escaped modernity but are firmly rooted in it. As long as that is the case, they must conform to the expectations of modernity (e.g., by offering their own alternative grand narrative) or become irrelevant.

    Post-Keynesians like Steve Keen have clearly avoided the PoMo turn, as they are offering alternative models and solutions, not just criticisms.

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