George Bush, Bruno Latour and the end of postmodernism

For discussion: one of the far right’s greatest achievements in the past decade has been to show post-modernists how wrong they were.

Let me explain. In a famous 2004 article on the Iraq War, the New York Times journalist Ron Suskind quotes an aide to George W. Bush (possibly Karl Rove) disparaging what the aide calls “the reality-based community”:

“‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.’

The quote may not be correct, and it may be that the aide was actually making the case for action over endless analysis; it isn’t as clear as Suskind paints it. But the whole quote had a post-modern ring to it, and it set me thinking about post-modernism and the right. Just eight years later, some thoroughly belated conclusions:

First, the attempt by some on the US right to push creation science into schools is a pretty textbook implementation of the postmodern philosophy of science. Specifically, it is …

… an implementation of the views of the post-modern philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend about replacing science with democracy. Feyerabend was not much of a believer in seeking “the truth”; rather, he wanted to let a thousand flowers bloom. Here’s his Wikipedia entry:

“Feyerabend defended the idea that science should be separated from the state in the same way that religion and state are separated in a modern secular society. He envisioned a ‘free society’ in which ‘all traditions have equal rights and equal access to the centres of power’. For example, parents should be able to determine the ideological context of their children’s education, instead of having limited options because of scientific standards. According to Feyerabend, science should also be completely subjected to democratic control: not only should the subjects that are investigated by scientists be determined by popular election, scientific assumptions and conclusions should also be supervised by committees of lay people. He thought that citizens should use their own principles when making decisions about these matters. In his opinion, the idea that decisions should be ‘rationalistic’ is elitist, since this assumes that philosophers or scientists are in a position to determine the criteria by which people in general should make their decisions.”

Determining scientific assumptions and conclusions by committees of ordinary people, of course, is just what the proponents of creation science are currently fighting for.

Second, the approach by some on the right to the conclusions of climate science (as distinct from choices about climate policy) can be seen as another example of right-wing post-modernism.

It was the climate science debate that drew the attention of Bruno Latour, a philosopher frequently associated with post-modernism, although he has preferred to be seen as an opponent of the very idea of modernity. Latour was one of those analysts of science so neatly skewered by Alan Sokal in 1996 in the famous “Sokal hoax“.

In 2004, Latour wrote an essay, Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? Not much noticed at the time, it’s now finally available online. And it’s well worth a read, in part because Latour can actually write well when he wants to.

He started by noting that US Republicans strategists such as Frank Luntz had adopted a conscious strategy of stressing that the scientific debate on climate change was “not settled”. Latour was now unsettled to find that people with whom he disagreed were using the same attitude to truth that he himself had spent years promoting.

You don’t often see a philosopher enduring this sort of crisis:

“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? …

“… While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? And yet entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.

“Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact  whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good? Should I reassure myself by simply saying that bad guys can use any weapon at hand, naturalized facts when it suits them and social construction when it suits them? Should we apologize for having been wrong all along? Or should we rather bring the sword of criticism to criticism itself and do a bit of soul-searching here: what were we really after when we were so intent on showing the social construction of scientific facts … Isn’t this what criticism intended to say: that there is no sure ground anywhere? But what does it mean when this lack of sure ground is taken away from us by the worst possible fellows as an argument against the things we cherish?…

“… Have we behaved like mad scientists who have let the virus of critique out of the confines of their laboratories and cannot do anything now to limit its deleterious effect?”

Latour even has in this essay a Popperian moment, when he declares the foolishness of a critical approach which is always right, no matter what happens. Instead, Latour wants a new “realist attitude”. (Sadly, he has never convincingly explained what that new realism would consist of.)

Postmodernism has been predominantly a movement of the intellectual left. For some leftists it seemed the best solution to the events of the 1980s, to the rise of democracy movements and market economics. If they couldn’t fight the reassertion of democratic principles and the mixed economy, of free expression and markets, they would wryly mock it all. If we’re to be wrong, they asserted, then we will now maintain that no-one can truly be right. The sociologist Jeffrey C. Alexander, in his neglected essay “Modern, Anti, Post and Neo“, documented a process of “defeat, resignation and comic detachment” in the face of events like the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The Marxist cultural theorist Terry Eagleton lampooned that left-wing defeat and resignation wickedly in the first chapter of his The Illusions of Postmodernism.

Left-wing postmodernism has been fighting reality ever since the Berlin Wall. The people who knocked down the Berlin Wall clearly did not believe that their reality was a linguistic construction. If they knew anything about Foucault’s thinking, they knew better than to take it seriously. They wanted improvement, and they knew how to get it. So did the countless individual modernisers of East Asia who transformed the lives of both themselves and hundreds of millions of their fellow human beings through the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s. So did the people who brought technology to the forefront of Western thinking in the 1990s. These people all thought, in their different ways, that it was possible to make things better. The theorists who best explain such events were not Foucault, or Feyerband, or even Anthony Giddens; they were old fuddy-duddy rationalists and tinkerers and modernisers like Talcott Parsons and Karl Popper and Joseph Schumpeter.

But even the events of the late 1980s and the 1990s were not enough to doom postmodernism’s appeal to the left. What has fittingly doomed it is its embrace by elements of the right.

Update, July 2014: I was surprised and a little pleased to find that Alan Sokal also reads the George W. Bush presidency as a prime cause for the decline of post-modern philosophical ideas. See this video.

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About David Walker

David Walker is the principal of publishing consultancy Shorewalker DMS (shorewalker.net) where his current projects include editing Public Accountant magazine for the Institute of Public Accountants. David has previously been chief operating officer of publishing firm WorkDay Media, director of communications and advocacy for the Business Council of Australia, director of policy and communications for the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, site director for online finance start-up eChoice and an editor and columnist at The Age. He has written professionally on economics, business and public policy since 1987 and spent three years in the Canberra Press Gallery. Contact him on 03 8899 7790 or email [email protected]

7 thoughts on “George Bush, Bruno Latour and the end of postmodernism

  1. A fine post – well done.

    IANAP (I Am Not A Philosopher). But the slide from “there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth” (something the most fuddy-duddy old modernist would not deny) to “we can never access the truth” always seemed to me a ridiculous one. To say that we are prisoners of language when we describe the world is not to say that we cannot describe it at all.

    In this world we see through a glass darkly rather than face to face, but we see nevertheless.

  2. You make it sound a bit juvenile, dropping an idea just because someone you want to disagree with finally starts to think like you do. But modern political oppositions are very good at fun house reflections that maximise any ridiculousness inherent in theories.

    Not surprisingly, Les Murray has said this better than Latour, with fewer, shorter words:

    The degree we attained was that brilliant refraction of will
    that leaves one in several minds when facing evil.
    (Sidere Mens Eadem Mutato)

    This has a slightly different emphasis than this post, but still targets a cloistered talking-around-the-issues that only undermines any idea or hope for a common good.

  3. Well, the Bush aide was simply reiterating that history is written by the winners, and the administration truly did succeed in creating an alternate reality in which Al Qaeda is a world-spanning network of terrorists ready to strike at any time and Muslim hordes are poised to overthrow western civilisation.

    It’s rather silly, though, to claim that post-modernism is simply wrong, especially if we’re talking about the idea of subjective truth.

    Take the current period of campaigning for the US presidential election. In the middle of two wars, following an economic collapse, at a time when tent cities of the newly-destitute are springing up across America, the Right is shouting about…contraception.

    Now there is a movement that hasn’t been sucked into post-modernism. For them, the notion that women should be able to make choices, including to have consequence-free sex lives, is simply absurd, and the role of women as domestic baby incubators is blatantly obvious and beyond question. Yet most people dispute that particular “truth”.

    And the examples given of post-modernism coming back to bite in regard to climate science and evolution are weak. Traditionalists have always appealed to conspiracy as a way of preserving treasured shibboleths. From the moment someone suggested the earth isn’t flat, it’s been an endless saga of blaming papists or atheists or Marxists for making unwelcome suggestions about the observable world, and claiming that people need instead to be taught “the truth”, which can only be found in the bible or a boardroom.

    Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics was published in 1964 – some time before the period Walker identifies as the rise of post-modernism – and describes the exact same patterns of thinking we see with AGW and evolution paranoia today.

    In fact, the soft appeals to subjectivity employed by creationists and climate change denialists are not proof of how wrong post-modernists were, but of how wrong the anti-science movement has been. How else to explain the hasty retreat from hard evidence and the scientific method, then switching to arguing that the opinions of a handful of religious cranks or paid shills constitutes a schism in the scientific community that the public must be alerted to?

    There’s a lot in post-modernism to be critical of, but I’d argue that it’s also largely responsible for the ideological and intellectual freedom we’ve gained in the past century.

  4. Sancho, I agree with your observations about “The Paranoid Style” – and I should probably revise my final sentence above. You don’t need postmodernism in order to have the campaign against climate science. But the tactics of the campaign against climate science did start looking an awful lot like postmodernism in practice. What brought this home to Latour was the famous Luntz memo, with its recommendation to “make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue”.

    It does amaze me that Latour (or anyone else) could spend decades exploring the nature of truth and and yet leave until age 56 to ask yourself whether your theoretical constructs undermined your own political beliefs. But it seems to happen a lot. Indeed, the old joke about postmodernism seems to be actually true: a postmodernist philosopher is someone who can spend his days lecturing students on the radical indeterminacy of texts, and yet still leave his wife a note saying they should have steak for dinner.

  5. a truly moronic and anti-intellectual posting. some points:

    it’s difficult to know whether you’re talking about the post-modernist approach to grand narratives of someone like Lyotard, the post-structuralism of Derrida and Foucault, or the postmodern nihilism of someone like Baudrillard, all somewhat different approaches. Since the vast bulk of this work was done before 1991, it is difficult to see how it is a response to the collapse of the Soviet system.

    Lyotard’s argument in 1972 was similar to Kuhn’s paradigm theory and Wittgenstein’s notion of language games – he argued that the search for a theory that would situate all other theories as partial – ie for a Truth – was essentially a vicious circle. That doesn’t mean that truths- ie this wall stops me from getting to the other side of the city – dont exist, any more than Wittgenstein’s notion that ‘meaning equals use’ means that words can mean whatever you want them to. Derrida’s theories of the ungroundability of the sign/signifier had nothing to say at all about political-economic matters until late in the piece, and Derrida himself argued that deconstruction had to be a parallel method of study, in companion with traditional epistemology, etc. Terry Eagleton’s mocking of the more simplistic academic versions of postmodernism hasn’t stopped him from using the work of Derrida, Foucault or others in his serious work.

    Judging by your comments about what is self-evidently good – neoliberal global development apparently – you seem to beopposed not merely to postmodernism but to any form of critical reflection whatseover. Perhaps that’s why your posting is so obviously self-contradictory: accepting global warming as real and a present danger, you nevertheless believe that the best guide to global development are capitalist boosters with ann unreflective belief in creative destruction. So the ‘good’ is simultaneously globally unsustainable development plus an awareness of the dangers of it. First rate thinking and best analysed through Focault’s concept of a ‘discourse’ – loosely, a set of unstated assumptions and definitions which do not cohere, but which define the shape of everyday thinking in different eras, or regions or social locales. Another braindead economics grad with arts envy apparently. What an addition to CT

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