Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Problem of Pessimism in Postmodernists

Christopher Butler, in his book Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction, (Chapter 5, “The Postmodern Condition”), points out that the thought and work of the postmodernists is consumed by pessimistic assumptions about the inevitability of class or psychological conflict. Here’s an excerpt (Page 115-116):
Postmodernists are by and large pessimists, many of them haunted by lost Marxist revolutionary hopes, and the beliefs and the art they inspire are often negative rather than constructive. Mass affluence is not good, because when people have what they basically need, advertising and marketing move into the gap to synthesize and define our (materialist) values for us, and those who do need are the more easily forgotten. Marketing thus takes precedence over production. We have the sense that even justice is or can become a media event — as in the trial of O. J. Simpson shown on TV, so clearly influenced by the exaggerated play-acting of advocates, the carefully chosen clothing of the actors in the drama, and the politically slanted, stereotypically prejudiced sound-bite summaries of lawyers and TV journalists. The whole thing can seem sickeningly fictional, as all participants manipulate opinion, through the media, by hypocritically approximating themselves to what they believe to be approved role models and fictional stereotypes. We may well ask, how is justice of a disinterested kind to be done on such a stage? Are judge and jury, who are after all in the end only one of us, really going to be taken in by all this shameless role-playing? Or are the procedures of justice in court somehow to be thought of as more reliable than that? There is room for doubt about this in all of us, and it is that doubt that postmodernists (and, indeed, the writers of many court-room thrillers) rightly insist upon. 
Butler goes on to note that the pessimism of the postmodernists is in many cases unjustified. They often blur out the differences between truth and fantasy and develop imprecise inferences about the problems of politics, culture, history and art:
But they also tend to give a misleadingly pessimistic account of the information we receive and of conflict and its resolution. Many of them in fact belong to a long post-Nietzschean tradition of despair about reason. In correctly seeing all discourses as inherently related to the power systems that might be thought to back them up — as expressing power — they can give the impression that our culture is not much more than a complex interaction of opposing threats of force. Their skepticism about truth often deprives them of a proper concern for the activities of reason-giving and rational negotiation and for procedural justice. The background influence of Marx and Freud too often implies that everything we say carries the authority and the threat of race, class, rank, and sexual power-play. But this hardly allows for the function in democratic societies of legal agreements and restraints, or of the moral considerations that lead to the protection of human rights which really are meant to be universal and not culturally relative or the property of any one group. Nor does it allow for the fact that the attempt to be reasonable, and truthful, to back up assertions by verifiable evidence, and so on, is essential if we are to come to the negotiating table with something other than implied threats (or to treat the writing of history or theology or the novel as something better than the entrapment of the reader in a mythical narrative). Imagine someone who thought that anything that any (American, or Israeli, or Russian, and other) politician said was always a form of imperialist, or theological, or ‘rogue state’ bullying, simply because it implicitly reflected, say, the power of that nation’s political institutions and armed forces. 
The influence of postmodernism is now on the wane. The new generation is already treating the founding fathers of postmodernist thought with a great deal of skepticism.

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