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The Origins of Postmodernitis

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

by
David Solway

Bio

March 25, 2011 - 12:00 am

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.

To summarize. Master narratives by which we seek to elucidate the history of man and civilization are spurious and must be jettisoned in favor of the parochial and insular. There is, so to speak, no Church, only an indefinite number of discrete parishes, all different from one another and all equally warranted. Additionally, the belief in the lingua franca of truth must be set aside and replaced by a multitude of humble vernaculars. As Adorno suggests, the picture of “a chair in oblique perspective” is just as valuable as, or even more valuable than, “a picture of the Battle of Leipzig.” And from these two maxims follows the travesty of the doctrine of cultural relativism (aka multiculturalism).

We may notice a peculiar paradox simmering in this therapeutic thought-world, a dialectic of sameness and difference that does not conclude in the harmony it envisions. All cultures are essentially the same in that each strives to find its optimal adaptation to the challenges of existence. They are animated by the same impulse to meet the probationary trials posed by time and nature. Yet every culture is different from every other insofar as it arrives at its own distinctive, licit response to these challenges. As German sociologist Jürgen Habermas puts it in The Theory of Communicative Action, all cultures “share certain formal properties”; where they differ is in experiential substance. Consequently, we are all brothers and sisters who should live in amity with one another by not interfering in the practices that have been adopted under unique and intransitive circumstances. The fact that our brothers and sisters may have other ideas about concord, tolerance and mutual understanding, about master narratives and truth claims, does not impact the postmodern sensibility in the slightest. It’s all good.

It is evident what this means for the once-cherished and increasingly threatened values that are intrinsic to the Judeo-Christian armature of Western civilization. The idea of universal rights and common ethical principles has gone by the board; they are re-interpreted as merely demotic convictions of no ecumenical merit whatsoever. What we call “freedom” (of conscience, of speech, of assembly, of religion) has no plenary application. The same goes for gender equality, the rule of law, habeas corpus, or traditional matrimony as pertaining to one man and one woman, which are portrayed as sub-cultural attitudes or culture-specific assumptions that do not apply to all human beings. It is this relativistic sentiment that informed President Obama’s Cairo speech. Alluding to the muddy concept of the “will of the people,” Obama deposed that “Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people.” Barack Obama is America’s first postmodern president.

There is nothing permanent about our culture, lectures philosopher Richard Rorty in his major work, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity; instead it is subject to constant re-invention, the critique of old stabilities, the striving for fresh tropes and the disenchantment of the past. We should try “to get to the point,” he urges, “where we no longer worship anything…where we treat everything—our language, our conscience, our community—as a product of time and chance.” This is the philosophical re-statement of Milan Kundera’s best-selling novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which depicts a condition of transience and uncertainty we must learn to bear bravely and with spirited exuberance. Everything is in play, everything is up for grabs. We live in a world without reliable truths or transcendent possibilities, without epiphanies, without absolute values, without teleology and without durable meanings. Our allegiance is not to a culture, nation or civilization; it is to the macrocosm of the plural. Or so we have been instructed.

As a result, we in the West, battered by our ideological elites into a coma of abeyance, have no right, for example, to denounce or legislate against stoning, limb amputation for certain offenses, female genital mutilation, sartorial  confinement, wife-beating, polygamy, honor killing and other such practices prevalent in the Islamic world. These are culture-specific behaviors that should be respected or tolerated as expressions of a different approach to the problems of social life. If Boas’ Kwakiutls engage in the mass destruction of personal property in the potlatch ceremony as an act of grandiose self-glorification, who are we to find such manifestations childish? If Geertz’s Balinese revel in bloody cockfights, what right do we have to recoil? If Malinowski’s Trobriand Islanders were adepts at homicidal magic, who among us will cast the first aspersion? After all, they have come to customary arrangements that work for them and minister to their needs.

These tenets are chiefly associated with the political left for whom Western culture is just as exceptional, or rather, unexceptional as that of a jungle tribe in the fastnesses of Borneo. There are no barbarians, only different forms of civilized man. Cannibalism, gender apartheid, endemic cruelty, sorcery as opposed to medicine, institutional violence, internecine slaughter, theocratic despotism…are perfectly fine as characteristics of “offshore” independent societies. We are not to intrude with such parochial notions as our having been endowed by our Creator with a number of unalienable Rights, among which are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” as per the American Declaration of Independence. The concept of the sanctity of the individual and the pushback against the dispensations of arbitrary authority are exclusively Western developments deriving from the Magna Carta, the British empirical philosophers and the European Enlightenment, and fostered mainly in what is known as the Anglosphere. The authority of the Collective, aka the “will of the people,” wherever else it may spring up is to be accepted as no less legitimate, a precipitate of a different nexus of social, political and cultural contingencies.

The trouble is that the left has extended its tolerance to various cultural enclaves within it own territory that live by a different code of conduct, one often at variance with and indeed hostile to the norms and usages that prevail among the heritage population. The aggressive program of these groups to infiltrate the mainstream and metastasize at their host’s expense is, for the left, how freedom and equality work. The invasion from within is to be encouraged under the rubric of “social justice.” In so doing, the left in its hortatory cluelessness is incrementally surrendering its own life, liberty and happiness to the depredations of an alien mindset and undermining the cultural foundations of its own taken-for-granted world. It has facilitated the wasting disease of deculturation, spurred in large measure by anthropological theories of so-called “critical advocacy.” (See Philip Carl Salzman’s Understanding Culture for a brief but valuable discussion of such theories.) Tolerating the intolerant, the postmodern left has, in effect, lapsed into a state of culture schlock, a condition which author Howard Rotberg in his book of that title has aptly labeled “tolerism.” “Postmodernitis” would be another name for it.

The hypocrisy is truly staggering. When a gay man is killed, a woman punished for being raped, a Christian firebombed or a Jew hunted down in some Islamic nation, the left has little or nothing to say. How will it respond when the same things begin to happen here? Western Europe has already tasted the bitter fruit of that pervasive transplantation we call multiculturalism and we are not far behind. This is why Rep. Peter King’s congressional investigation into the radicalization of American Muslims is long overdue. Writing in Hudson New York, Raymond Ibrahim sheds some much-needed clarity on the issue: “while it is important to recognize that not all Muslims are jihadists, it is equally important to recognize that all jihadists are Muslims.” Indeed, statistically speaking, it would appear the 95% of all terror attacks worldwide are carried out by Muslims. But whatever the actual ratio may be, it is indisputably disproportional. As Ron Radosh states, “All the major terrorist actions that threaten the United States and the West today come from adherents to Islam who have been radicalized.”

In America, we may be observing “isolated incidents,” writes the pseudonymous John Boot, but tomorrow? “Tomorrow we may wake up to discover we’re Birmingham or Amsterdam or Marseille.” Under the aegis of the “progressivist” left, we too have embarked upon a policy of “preemptive capitulation,” to quote the president of the Hudson Institute, Herbert London’s astute remark. This looks very much like what is happening. According to Islamic cleric Anjem Choudary, one day “the flag of Islam will fly over the White House.” (Some believe it already does.)

The issue comes down to this. What started out as a methodological discipline in the field of anthropology has mutated into an intellectual sickness that regards our own culture, with its hard-earned principles of individual dignity, freedom under the law and standards of conduct to which all are expected to adhere, as nothing more than a provisional adaptation, a cultural singularity whose dissemination must be prevented and renounced. To insist upon the universality of such ideas is condemned as a form of racist bigotry. I suspect that Franz Boas would have been appalled could he have foreseen the way in which his analytic procedures have deteriorated into the melancholy spectacle of cultural degradation from which we suffer today.

David Solway is a Canadian poet and essayist. He is the author of The Big Lie: On Terror, Antisemitism, and Identity, and is currently working on a sequel, Living in the Valley of Shmoon. His new book on Jewish and Israeli themes, Hear, O Israel!, was released by Mantua Books. His latest book is The Boxthorn Tree, published in December 2012. Visit his Website at www.davidsolway.com.
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