Sunday, February 2, 2014

Why PoMo is Self-Defeating (i)

Typdom, a 1930s word game. [A]

Well-known Post-Keynesian/heterodox economists, like Yanis Varoufakis, John E. King, Paul Davidson, Geoffrey Hodgson, Sheila Dow, and Lars Pålsson Syll, have expressed their opposition to Postmodernism [link].

What have these people against PoMo? Why should you care? Here I'll advance an answer.


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Frank I. Luntz is a successful man. His Wikipedia profile soberly describes him as "an American political consultant, pollster, and Republican Party strategist". One could be more upbeat than that: Luntz has had a number of very high-profile assignments, in the U.S. and abroad; for instance, advising the second Bush Administration on environmental issues (link).

In that capacity, in 2003 Luntz authored a confidential memo on the best media strategy against governmental intervention on climate change.

The Guardian on the memo, leaked to the media:
" 'The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science,' Mr Luntz writes in the memo …
" 'Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate'."
(link)
If you follow the news, that should ring a bell: Luntz's advice is to deliberately sow doubts on how consensual the science on man-made weather change is, regardless of its actual prevalence among the scientific community.

Further down, The Guardian article reads:
"Mr Luntz urges Republicans to 'emphasise the importance of acting only with all the facts in hand', in line with the White House position that mandatory restrictions on emissions, as required by the Kyoto protocol, should not be countenanced until further research is undertaken".
The advise now is to move the goalposts permanently: once your questions are answered, ask new questions. With this you delay decisions, obviously; more subtly, the public gets the impression the argumentation is inconclusive.

There are more evident tricks, too; as the NYTimes put it in an article very appropriately entitled "Environmental Word Games": "not to change the policy, but to dress it up with warm and fuzzy words". To use just one word: euphemisms.

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I'm sure readers have noticed in the last 10 years many instances of the above, all of which suggests that Luntz's proposals were applied and worked.

One who certainly did notice was Prof. Bruno Latour (philosopher by training, anthropologist by experience, currently teaching in sociology…, link, at the Paris Institute of Political Studies). He is an ideal observer. For one, he has long studied the social construction of science and is well-known and respected in that field. According to his Wikipedia profile, "his monographs earned him a 10th place among most-cited book authors in the humanities and social sciences for the year 2007".

Commenting on Luntz's memo, Latour writes that Luntz's media strategy is "an artificially maintained scientific controversy to favor a 'brownlash' " [i.e. "a deliberate attempt to minimize the seriousness of environmental problems through misuse or misreporting of science", link].

Surprisingly, Latour, the science-sceptic, with that criticism joins the weather science establishment. But he did more than that; he went one step further:
"Do you see why I am worried? I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show 'the lack of scientific certainty' inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a 'primary issue.' But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument-or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I'd like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?" [Latour's personal site: PDF, paywalled version].
In other words, Latour admits to also playing "word games", not unlike the brownlash he accuses people like Luntz of playing.

To be sure, he did not mean to fool the public (or so he says); quite to the contrary, he "intended to emancipate the public".

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Latour's may be an extraordinarily candid admission, by a vaguely leftish academic, of the use and abuse of less-than-legitimate "argumentation tricks" (or plain sophistry, to be blunt); other philosophically "sophisticated" intellectuals apparently have practiced the same kind of tricks to advance all sorts of agendas, without the scruples Latour manifested.

Prof. John Quiggin has shown some interest on this subject. In a post last year, Quiggin makes some very pertinent remarks:
"All of this reflects the inconvenient fact that scientific research often reaches conclusions that conflict with the policy preferences or religious beliefs of rightwingers.
"It's striking in this context to recall that, only 20 years ago, the phrase 'Science Wars' was used in relation to generally leftish postmodernists in the humanities, who were seen as rejecting science and/or promoting pseudoscience (while some of this stuff was rather silly, there's no evidence that it ever did any actual harm to science). These days postmodernist and related 'science studies' critiques of science are part of the rightwing arsenal used by Steven Fuller to defend creationism and by Daniel Sarewitz on climate science".
[emphasis added]

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Let's summarize this: the thing with PoMo is that two can play those "word games". Originally pioneered by leftish petit-bourgeois intellectuals, like the so-called Frankfurt School and by people like Latour himself, eventually, "conservative, right of centre, libertarian" PR professionals, like Luntz, learned to make a living out of the game.

While they were the only ones playing, the PoMo crowd apparently saw themselves as boldly "transgressing the boundaries"; now that others, like Luntz, are playing (very successfully, on top) Latour is worried.

Latour's denunciation reminds me of amateurs complaining about professionals: "We used to do it for love". That may be so, but what's relevant, I'd say, is that everybody did it.

Further Reading:
A presumably impartial brief profile of Steven Fuller; Fuller in his own words and Fuller as seen by a critic.

Image Credits:
[A] "Typdom, Buchstabenspiel in Kreuzwortmanier, alte Ausgabe von etwa 1930", by Peng. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Wikipedia.

6 comments:

  1. I'm not seeing Postmodernism (PoMo) at play, I'm seeing applied agnotology (on Luntz's part). There is a huge difference, I think, between saying that the grand narratives of the past are invalid and saying that the truth is unknowable until the debate is over.

    To be fair, there is a relationship between Neoliberalism, agnotology and Postmodernism, but I think the only real link is that Neoliberalism uses PoMo as a beard to hide its agnotology. Make sure to check out Philop Mirowski's "Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste" for how agnotology as Postmodernism fits in.

    http://www.amazon.com/Never-Serious-Crisis-Waste-Neoliberalism/dp/1781680795

    By the way, Mirowski does not identify the Neoliberal tactics as either applied agnotology or PoMo, but I think he is talking about the same thing you are.

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  2. "I'm not seeing Postmodernism (PoMo) at play..."

    PoMo is in the eye of the beholder. As we discussed in the comment thread of a previous post[1], PoMo has no clear, unambiguous definition; if something is left undefined, people can and will see in it whatever they wish.

    This amoeba-like malleability is one of PoMo's rhetorical strengths: it means PoMo cannot be pinned down. In other words, the same argument you used could be used to counter any criticism. "PoMo is this"; "No, it isn't because I don't see it this way"; "PoMo is that"; "No way. I don't see it like that".

    That's obviously, an illegitimate strength. And it begs the question: what makes one person's opinion (your opinion, in this case) the criterion to define whether PoMo is or not at play in that situation?

    "… I'm seeing applied agnotology (on Luntz's part)".

    Perhaps you see this only on Luntz's part, but Latour thinks otherwise: he himself sees no difference between what he did and what Luntz does. And he says so clearly, both in the quote I included and in the texts I linked to.

    I mean no offence, but I tend to believe Latour.

    "There is a huge difference, I think, between saying that the grand narratives of the past are invalid and saying that the truth is unknowable until the debate is over."

    There may be a huge difference between saying the two things (although the difference is not obvious, to me) but, I think, PoMo says both things. Are you claiming that in PoMo they are seen as mutually exclusive?

    "To be fair, there is a relationship between Neoliberalism, agnotology and Postmodernism, but I think the only real link is that Neoliberalism uses PoMo as a beard to hide its agnotology."

    I'd be interested in reading this in your blog.

    [1] http://aussiemagpie.blogspot.com.au/2014/01/varoufakis-on-postmodernism.html

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    Replies
    1. "PoMo has no clear, unambiguous definition; if something is left undefined, people can and will see in it whatever they wish."

      If nobody can agree on what PoMo is, then how can anybody talk about PoMo? In reality, I think PoMo can be defined, if one first recognizes that the label "Post Modern" is most often applied as a pejorative to any critic of the status quo who openly discusses the role of social power in defining social institutions. By that standard, both Marx and Machiavelli would be identified as PoMo practitioners, if they first raised their voices today.

      Again, it is pretty clear to me that the common theme of Post Modern philosophy is that objective meta-narratives, e.g., history, are impossible because everything, including each individual's understanding of the same words, is ultimately subjective. While there are a lot of PoMo analysis techniques that are completely different and would seem to defy common categorization, their differences are due to what they are intended to analyze, not by the purpose of the analysis itself.

      My bottom line is that if somebody is offering a meta-narrative, they are not engaging in Postmodernism. They are, in fact, manifestly Modern in their approach.

      "Perhaps you see this only on Luntz's part, but Latour thinks otherwise: he himself sees no difference between what he did and what Luntz does."

      Actually, Latour does see a difference in what he did and what Luntz does, i.e., Latour did not engage in the action with the intent to mislead:

      "But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument-or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I'd like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?"

      Latour's hindsight questioning of his prior intent is, in fact, an application of PoMo theories of deconstruction, which holds that the author's intent is irrelevant, that only the words and their effect matter.

      While Latour is free to struggle with the relevance of his intent, as two people who do not adhere to PoMo, we should absolutely find his intent relevant in determining whether or not he and Luntz engaged in the same behavior. They have not. Latour engaged in an intellectual debate with the goal of winning that debate. Luntz is engaged in a political tactic by staging a false debate that is intended to never be resolved.

      "There may be a huge difference between saying the two things (although the difference is not obvious, to me) but, I think, PoMo says both things. Are you claiming that in PoMo they are seen as mutually exclusive?"

      I think Latour is correct to question whether his intent matters, if the outcome is the same. The Postmodern answer is no, but the Modern answer is yes. For example, intent results in distinctly different consequences for the act of committing a homicide, from "justifiable", to misdemeanor manslaughter, to felony manslaughter, to murder "in the heat of passion," to premeditated murder.

      At the end of the day, I view Postmodernism as a dead-end because it was stillborn in the first place. When I realized that Heidegger is viewed as a Postmodernist, it became clear to me that PoMo is a poorly conceived analysis and unrecognized critique of the shortcoming of Western Philosophy itself. With its false assumption of a discernable, static Truth, Western Philosophy is incapable of perceiving, let alone analyzing, the dynamic truth of reality. Unfortunately, Postmodernism is itself a child of Western Philosophy, and, therefore, its reasoning boils down to predictable dialectics in a world where dialectics are incapable of describing available choices.

      "I'd be interested in reading this in your blog."

      Good suggestion. Thanks.

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    2. Tao,

      "In reality, I think PoMo can be defined..."

      Excellent! Go ahead and define it yourself, then; after that, convince PoMo people to accept your definition. Once you've gotten a widely shared definition, we can talk again.

      In the meantime, we leave the "I think"s out.

      "Actually, Latour does see a difference in what he did and what Luntz does, i.e., Latour did not engage in the action with the intent to mislead:"

      Come on, Tao!

      I am perfectly aware of Latour's claims, so much so that I aknowledged them, **twice** (once immediately after his quote and then a second time at the end of my text). Whatever difference in motivation between Latour and Luntz is utterly irrelevant; what's relevant is that they both did the same thing.

      "While Latour is free to struggle with the relevance of his intent, as two people who do not adhere to PoMo, we should absolutely find his intent relevant in determining whether or not he and Luntz engaged in the same behavior."

      Again: No. As a matter of fact, I find Latour's (and Luntz') intentions entirely irrelevant.

      (Incidentally, I am not convinced PoMo people find motivations irrelevant, but even if they did, should I oppose them on this just to be contrarian!? Like, they stop at the edge of the cliff; therefore, I jump just to spite them?)

      No Tao. There are places where intentions may be important. They aren't important here.

      Intentionality is important during a judicial trial. When judging someone's guilt in a trial, one must consider attenuating circumstances. Say, lack of intentionality justifies a conviction for manslaughter (carrying a term in jail) instead of first degree murder (carrying a longer term or even death).

      But this is not a tribunal. There is no law against sophistry. Latour and Luntz are not being accused of any crime, nor are they being tried. We have neither the power to impose penalties, nor the duty to determine the appropriate penalty. Therefore, lack of intentionality cannot be argued as an attenuating circumstance.

      What's more, even if this were a tribunal and they were being tried, what would stop Luntz from making the exact same claim Latour made (i.e. "I had the best intentions")?

      In that case, if you find intentions vital, it's your burden to explain why you believe Latour's claim but not Luntz'.

      I don't have that problem and I won't take it just because you say I should.

      Delete
  3. Arguing that something you cannot (and will not) define is "self-defeating" is either, well, self-defeating, or a tautological argument that you always win because you are the final arbiter of what "it" is. Heads you win, tails I lose?

    You seem to be boiling Postmodernism down to word games, and that simply is not what it is. (See, no "I think" preceded the final clause of that sentence.) Just as neoliberals adapted Marxist theory into their own political tactics to drive their political agenda, they've adapted Postmodern theory into their own political tactics to drive their political agenda. Slagging postmodernism without understanding it is no more valid than slagging Marxism without understanding it. Of course, it is easier to attack fringe postmodernism than it is to attack mainstream neoliberalism.

    One thing that neoliberals have been very good at is learning from their perceived rivals. The difficulty in doing so is suffering through the process of exposing yourself to what you know you despise. The payoff is worth it, though. In the case of postmodernism, you will find that the "nobody can define it" meme is feigned ignorance meant to defuse the limited, but important, value it brings to the table.

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    Replies
    1. Tao,

      You are right on this: I "cannot (and will not) define" PoMo.

      You can do something about it. I've already issued the challenge: define it yourself in a way that is not a straw man, in a way that PoMo people see themselves actually represented. Then we can talk.

      Otherwise, I see little point in this conversation.

      I'm signing out.

      Delete