Tuesday, July 09, 2002

Postmodernism's High Priest

Jonah Goldberg writes in National Review Online:

...Stanley Fish has a long defense of postmodernism, which has been under assault since September 11. The doctrine that there are no moral absolutes, it seems, is fun to play with when arguing about the president's pants or the meaning of "is." But when thousands of Americans are murdered by zealots, the demand for postmodern analysis over the last few decades all of a sudden seems like the intellectual equivalent of the tulip-bulb craze of the 17th century: a huge market built up around an amusing but essentially valueless commodity. Fish, the George Soros of the PoMo market, has been working overtime to protect his investment.

I'll leave it to others — Peter Berkowitz, for example — to take Fish's efforts head-on (though you might take a gander at my "Facts and Firemen"). But what's set me off is Fish's claim that postmodernism is simply "a rarefied form of academic talk." Fish would have people believe that postmodernism is simply what postmodernists do in their hidden English-department laboratories.

Well, not only did the virus of postmodernism escape Fish's lab, but he and his henchmen ground it up into fine particles and sent aerosolized packets of it to every magazine, newspaper, publishing house, and movie studio in America. Fish's hypocrisy is stunning. The PoMo virus has infected millions, destabilizing traditional institutions across the social landscape. And yet when confronted, he says "I'm not responsible for what happens in the real world, I'm just a lab technician." Well, this high priest of the cult of the twelve monkeys is responsible.

When Fish is on the defensive he can make postmodernism sound humble and useful. Postmodernism, he says, merely holds that people from different or opposing belief systems cannot appeal to objective truth in order to persuade each other who is right and who is wrong. "Postmodernism maintains only that there can be no independent standard for determining which of many rival interpretations of an event is the true one," he writes. Assuming he's not being an intellectual Arafat, saying one thing in English to the American public and another thing in his "rarefied academic talk" to his minions, that actually sounds somewhat reasonable. It certainly isn't a radically destructive idea.

But whether that's the truth or just a propagandistic lie is entirely irrelevant. Fish damn well knows that millions of people think postmodernism means something very, very, very different — even if they don't know what postmodernism is. For lots of Americans, the idea that there are no objective standards of truth or morality is incredibly sophisticated and intelligent. The authors who write the clever novels, the film directors who get awards and rave reviews for blurring the lines between good and evil, the professors who claim George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden are morally indistinguishable: These are the "thoughtful people" in our culture. Meanwhile, the people who talk in terms of right and wrong are ridiculed by the sophisticates.

Call it feminism, critical race theory, critical legal studies, queer theory, whatever: It's all shrapnel from the same postmodern bomb, broadly speaking. These doctrines haven't all been terrible for America, but their misapplication and over-application have. Scientists take responsibility for the damage they do. English professors take speaking fees. Conservatism, which does not fetishize the masses, understands that even an intelligent idea can have horrific consequences if let loose upon a society. The uninformed, the lazy, the affected, the ambitious, and the dumb can adopt sharp-edged ideas and use them as blunt cudgels if we are not careful. The authors of postmodernism have not been careful.

I keep thinking of the exchange in the film A Fish Called Wanda. Otto, played by Kevin Kline, is an idiot and a bully who also fancies himself an intellectual (he thinks the central message of Buddhism was "every man for himself"). Wanda, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, says to him: "To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I've known sheep who could outwit you. I've worn dresses with higher IQs, but you think you're an intellectual, don't you, ape?"

Otto objects, "Apes don't read philosophy."

To which Wanda replies, "Yes they do, Otto, they just don't understand it!"

There are legions of Ottos out there who believe postmodernism means there is no truth, no right, no wrong, no good, no bad. They believe it because they either misunderstood Fish and his disciples or because they understood them all too well.

Stanley Fish knows all this. And, a few throwaway lines notwithstanding, he clearly thinks it's great. Indeed, if he didn't think so he would not devote his energies to defending postmodernism. Rather, he would, like Dr. Frankenstein, run through the village trying to make amends for the damage all of his Ottos have done.