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The Origins of Postmodernitis

Cultural relativity: How did we get from there to here?

by
David Solway

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March 25, 2011 - 12:00 am
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The movement that we call “postmodernism” is so vast and nebulous that it has come to mean just about anything we want it to mean. According to David Kolb in Postmodern Sophistications, the word itself was first used in its current sense by historian Arnold Toynbee in 1946 to refer to the last decades of the nineteenth century when “the great modern synthesis began to break down.” It was subsequently picked up by artists, poets, architects, and critics and applied to the period after World War II. The word has now become a cowcatcher term sweeping all query and objection before it. It serves in the way a phatic interjection in everyday speech does — “umm,” “you know,” “like” — except that it punctuates the longueurs of flaccid thinking and insecure conceptualizing. You search for a word to describe the complexities of contemporary life or to fill in a blank when a more precise designation is required to account for the weird permutations in the aesthetic, political, and intellectual domains, and up pops, you know, “postmodernism.”

Can the movement be depicted somewhat more accurately? Can the tag “postmodern” be grasped in a short, compendious definition, or is it like trying to fasten a greased cravat to the neck of an octopus, if an octopus had a neck? The subject has been intensively discussed by legions of scholars and professors for the last fifty years, having become a veritable academic industry and achieved a level of frenetic intricacy impenetrable to the layman.

Let me offer a simplified distillation of the phenomenon, so far as I understand it, in an effort to chart the etiology of a cognitive disease, to clarify confusion, and to indicate why our present social, political, and intellectual world has become so freakishly distorted.

What we now call postmodernism is essentially an anthropological concept, harking back to one of the greatest thinkers and practitioners in the field. It owes its origin to Franz Boas, who developed and established the concept of cultural relativity as an ethnographic tool to aid in the unprejudiced survey of exotic tribes and cultures. In The Mind of Primitive Man, Boas wrote that all cultures should be regarded with sympathy, that we should hold the conviction that all “races” — today we would say “ethnicities” — have “contributed to cultural progress in one way or another” and that they are equally capable of “advancing the interests of mankind.” No particular culture should be considered as better or superior to any other since all cultures participate, each in its own way, in the human adventure. Each culture arrives at its own specific solutions to the problems of survival which confront it in the environment where it has taken root. And each needs to be assayed on its own terms.

Boas’ notable contemporary Bronislaw Malinowski arrived at a similar appreciation of cultural autonomy in his celebrated study of the Trobriand Islanders of Melanesia, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, in which he propounded the theory that varying types of social behavior must be analyzed for the need each of them fills in maintaining the smooth functioning and longevity of a given community. We see the same ideas and assumptions operating in the work of their students, anthropologists like Ruth Benedict (Patterns of Culture) and Margaret Mead (Coming of Age in Samoa.)

Similarly, in such tomes as The Savage Mind and Tristes Tropiques, the structural anthropologist Claude Lévy-Strauss argued that the savage mind and the civilized mind exemplified the same set of basic structural features for parsing the universe, though differing in content, beliefs, usages, and empirical knowledge. Disparity is predicated on semblance. Because of this morphological unity — “Each is doing the same thing as the other,” as he writes of Buddhism and Marxism in Tristes Tropiques — the Western intellect was in no position to “talk down” to primitive man or members of other, presumably less “advanced” cultures. The diversity of cultures that stipple the planet are, as cultures, equally advanced, just as the myriad languages that proliferate around the globe are commensurate artifacts of communication fulfilling their several purposes — an idea put forward by Edward Sapir, who was trained by Boas, in his Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech.

We might also mention in this connection Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures which proposes that all cultures, despite their particularity, are normal and should be appraised as “imaginative universes” that make sense for their inhabitants. The meaning of a cultural action “varies according to the pattern of life by which it is informed,” and not in virtue of some objectively supervening template of unilateral values. Ultimately, “Societies, like lives, contain their own interpretations.”

While acknowledging the fundamental identity of mental processes, these thinkers concurred in denying or doubting the universality of Western norms and principles, a caustic suspicion which has gradually but decisively penetrated into the zeitgeist of the West, culminating in the amorphous yet potent cultural amalgam of postmodernism. As Margaret Rose points out in her The Post-Modern and the Post-Industrial, postmodernism (affectionately dubbed PoMo by its proponents), comes in a range of flavors — reactionary postmodernism, consumer postmodernism, architectural pastiche, literary parody, etc. I would suggest, however, that among its many avatars, it is distinguished by two constitutive ideas.

1. There is no such thing as a master narrative, only local explanatory chronicles whose reach is confined to the groups that hold them. This notion is associated with the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard who, in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, writes: “I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.” Rather than the implicit, all-encompassing back-narrative by which a civilization or a people tries to understand itself and others as part of a historical dynamic, there are only “many different language games” — an idea Lyotard derives from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations — that “give rise to institutions in patches,” in other words, to a “local determinism.” Analogously, in the words of the influential Frankfurt School thinker Theodor Adorno in his Minima Moralia, “relevance is determined by … topicality.”

One can readily see where such thoughts and prescriptions are leading us. There is no “world” as such, merely regionalisms; no superlatives, only comparatives to be assessed non-judgmentally; no history, only a flux of explanatory fables. “What remains,” writes medievalist Paul Zumthor, somewhat ruefully, in Speaking of the Middle Ages, “is our myths as we recite them [and] our need for the imaginary rather than the intelligible.” Psychologist Kenneth Gergen in The Saturated Self goes even further, defining the postmodern sensibility as “the loss of identifiable essence…the erosion of authority [and] the growing disregard for rational coherence.”

The emphasis falls on the fragmented, the eclectic, the centrifugal, the play of reference and citation rather than on totalizing projects and models of continuity intended to unify and control the boundaries of “conceptual space,” whether theoretically or politically. The so-called big story, especially the story about the transcendent status of Western values, is a sectarian makeshift, an objective fraud and a mystification. We in the West have no special prerogatives in the carnival of the world’s multifarious cultures. Privilege is self-conferred. We have, in short, no priority, no higher attributes to boast of.

On the contrary, each cultural entity determines its version of how the “world” works, or is supposed to work, as represented in its rituals, myths, lineal configurations, and the particular stories it tells itself about origins and ends. But these stories figure as romantic equivalents, allegories of self-validation at parity with one another. Frederick Crews jokes in his satirical deflation of the postmodern mindset, Postmodern Pooh, that for its bearers history is only “an endless round of inconsequential neighborly exchanges” in the Hundred Acre Wood of anecdotal confluence. PoMo, we might say, has become PoohMo.

2. What we designate as “truth” is only the expression of a particular interpretation, an instance of hermeneutic localism. Following the infectious maxim of theoretical relativist E.H. Carr in What is History?, postmodernists conceive the search for truth and the study of history as entailing a “hard core of interpretation surrounded by a pulp of disputable facts.” The current form of such revisionist thinking takes its cue from the “genealogical” inquiries of Michel Foucault, in such books as The Order of Things and The Archeology of Knowledge. Foucault, whose relation to the documentary archive was notoriously supercilious, advocated the partisan, perspectival writing of history as opposed to the presumably unattainable goal of traditional historiography

As is well known, Foucault and his acolytes were influenced by Nietzsche’s pivotal axiom from The Genealogy of Morals that “there are no facts, only interpretation,” a maxim which is intended to be taken as a fact. Its chief American exemplar is, of course, Howard Zinn, who writes in the 1995 edition of his best-selling A People’s History of the United States of the need to produce a “biased account” of significant events as a “counterforce” to staple historical scholarship. (The 1999 edition modifies these assertions, with Zinn merely conceding that his critically formative “experiences were hardly a recipe for neutrality in the teaching and writing of history.”) Ironically, the governing canon such postmodern revisionists espouse, namely, the relativity of all truth claims, applies to everything, apparently, but their own absolute insights and pronouncements about the relativity of truth claims. All facts are fictive except their own.

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