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August 10, 2007

A million little pieces of postmodernism

John Stoehr

In need of more than just 'essential truth'

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post that touched on multiculturalism and its tendency toward a kind of relativism that inspired incredibly thoughtful comments. Two have stayed with me, because they are about the center that continues to lack the strength to hold. That is, the primal human need for universal principles seems to be daily challenged by the dynamic forces of contemporary American society. I'm not alone in this observation.

From Gary Panetta:

"The trendy philosophies undergirding multiculturalism, ironically, abet this market-driven mentality. By 'multiculturalism,' I do not mean the inclusion of non-white or non-male artists and writers into what used to be the literary and artistic canons. I mean instead of all those obtuse academic arguments that try to maintain that one thing is just as good as another and that all social relations boil down to power.

"Such arguments are not progressive but reactionary. If 'excellence' is strictly relative, then there's nothing wrong with letting the marketplace decide what's good. You can only critique the market if you have some place to stand outside of the marketplace. But no such place exists if the very idea of excellence (or justice, or mercy) is reduced to mere opinion. Sanity becomes statistical."

From David Sokolec:

"The fear of somehow ignoring the next Van Gogh has made idiots of us all, and when a doctoral candidate and the author of a book entitled 'You Are Not the Boss of My Words' can say, as was reported in today's New York Times in an article on a children's book that "perfect grammar is whatever works," then we have a very dim future ahead.

To blame any of this on multiculturalism, however, is a mistake. Multiculturalism simply tried to show that art and stories from countries or segments of society not usually heard from, or coming from a non-Western tradition was as valid as the more traditional western based art.

This seems to me a good idea. The problem is that no standards by which that art was judged were applied. That it was a good idea does not mean that any given work was good simply because it came from that segment.

Again the refusal to establish some means for judging the work, in fact, does a disservice to everyone involved. Were we to send a high school band and the New York Philharmonic to some non-Western country, we would rather hope they heard the difference in quality."

For David and Gary, and in appreciation those seeking more than "the essential truth" and the rewards of conversation beyond the relativist confines of what is "true for me," as James Frey might say, I offer this piece. -- J.S.

A million little pieces of postmodernism
Three books shed new light on the troubled state of "essential truth"

When Oprah Winfrey expelled James Frey from her book club last year after he confessed to fabricating large portions of his best-selling memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," the move sparked a nationwide conversation about the importance of truth and the categorical value of not being indifferent to it.

At that point, Frey was the latest, and most conspicuous, in a long line of fabricators that included Jayson Blair of the New York Times, Stephen Glass of the New Republic and Jack Kelly of USA Today, all of whom were exposed to have invented stories, undermining journalism's raison d'etre.

None of these garnered the same kind of attention as Frey, because none of them had ever been given Winfrey's seal of approval, which means big money is at stake. Frey's book sold 2 million copies in three months. It was the fastest-selling book in the history of Winfrey's club.

Not long ago, Winfrey may have accepted Frey's defense that his book, about his battle with addiction and search for redemption, represented the "essential truth" of his troubled life. That details were inaccurate, or made up in toto, was irrelevant to a kind of profound truth one cannot express when hemmed in by mundane details.

In the mid-1990s, no one, including Winfrey, seemed to suffer pangs of conscience when John Berendt, after the publication of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," admitted to "rounding the corners" of fact to provide better narrative grip. The book ranks among the best-selling works of nonfiction of all time.

Something has changed and 2006 may prove to be the benchmark of that change. This week, the New York Times' Website posted the most widely read book articles of 2006. Third from the top, beating out the 100 most notable books of the year, is, you guessed it, Winfrey's rebuke of Frey. Of the 10 most viewed stories, in fact, three are about Frey's fall from grace.

In light of this, two new books -- one a philosophy, the other a history -- take two completely different approaches to truth. These books follow a landmark debate, reprinted recently, by two eminent 20th-century philosophers arguing over the essential question of human nature, a conversation that's perhaps more relevant to the Frey affair than we think.

The first is Rohan Kriwaczek's "The Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin," (Overlook Press, $24.95, 224 pages). On the face of it, the book, published last year in the United Kingdom and this month in the U.S., is a work of historiography outlining the rise and fall of a lost funeral music derived from the Protestant Reformation and suppressed by the Vatican by the middle of the 19th century.

Sounds interesting. Problem is, the book, energetically written and elaborately illustrated, is a complete falsity, a hoax, according to the New York Times and the London Guardian. The newspapers report there was no such funereal music and there was no such papal conspiracy to eradicate it.

The author and publisher have since admitted the book is spurious. Peter Mayer, the book's publisher, told the Guardian that he didn't know if it were true or false but that either way it's "a work of extraordinary nature." Kriwaczek said his critics misunderstood his intention to write a "serious artistic statement" and a "musical philosophy."

Like Frey's memoir, what matters to them is the book's "essential truth," not its factuality. Unlike Frey, however, Kriwaczek's tome is not a personal meditation on subjective experience, but a history that's supposed to include footnotes and a means of verification. It doesn't and it can't be.

Qualified truth like this worries people like Harry G. Frankfurt, a former professor of moral philosophy at Princeton University and the author of our second book, "On Truth" (Knopf, $12.50, 112 pages), published in November.

Kriwaczek's book comes during a era in which, Frankfurt writes, "what a person regards as true either is a function merely of the person's individual point of view or is determined by what the person is constrained to regard as true by various and inescapable social pressures."

Frankfurt calls purveyors of this viewpoint "shameless antagonists of common sense -- members of a certain emblematic subgroup of them call themselves 'postmodernists' -- (who) rebelliously and self-righteously deny that truth has any genuinely objective reality at all."

We expect this kind of attitude from politicians, businessman and publicists, Frankfurt writes, but recently, a "more reliable class of people," including journalists, historians and memoirists, many of them self-regarding postmodernists, has tolerated or endorsed a relativist attitude toward truth.

"As for the entitlements of deference and the respect that we ordinarily assign to fact and to truth, the postmodernists' view is that in the end the assignment of those entitlements is ... simply a matter, they insist, of how you look at things."

Is postmodernism really to blame for the likes of Frey and Kriwaczek? Does a 35-year-old intellectual movement skeptical of universal truths and Enlightenment ideals (like truth, justice and objectivity) but devoted to a quantitative assessment of the nuances of power explain how someone like Frey could believe the "essential truth" to be true enough and someone like Kriwaczek could believe a made-up history to be an artistic statement?

Perhaps.

By happenstance, our third book, reprinted in September, is one of the benchmarks of postmodern thought, "The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature" (New Press, 128 pages, $14.95). The book, among many other things, strips down the concept of human nature into two camps.

One, expressed by Noam Chomsky, the linguist and political commentator, believes human nature to be a universal attribute. The other, posited by French philosopher Michel Foucault in this 1971 debate on Dutch television, holds that the existence of human nature doesn't matter.

What matters for Foucault and postmoderns is how the concept of human nature is employed by those in positions of power. With a Realpolitik stance on ideals, they say: What is just or true depends on the socio-political position of who's telling you something is just or true, and the socio-political context in which the statement is made.

Thus, in this postmodern view, truth (or justice, or objectivity or fill in the blank with the universal principle of your choice) depends, to paraphrase Frankfurt, on how you look at it.

A major flaw of this brand of thinking, of course, is moral bankruptcy: The postmodernist never has to take a stand. In the bargain, a principle like truth becomes malleable, supplying Frey the intellectual undergirding for claiming his memoir is mostly true, nevermind that some of it is false.

Which is why Frankfurt felt it necessary to follow up his 2005 treatise "On Bullshit" with this new book. A sequel was needed, he said, because the first book, which did define why indifference to truth is deleterious, however failed to define why truth is important.

The strength of his case rests on his assertion that truth has practical utility, and that judicious application of the truth is the hallmark of a just society. "How could it possibly flourish, or even survive, without knowing enough about relevant facts to pursue its ambitions successfully and to cope prudently and effectively with its problems?"

On balance, though, postmodernist thinking can be argued to have done more good than harm. Many Americans used to think they were being objective in their assessments of African Americans. We now know that perspective was erroneous, if not criminal.

And Frankfurt does allow for the possibility of something good to come from something like Frey's and Kriwaczek's books, "showing, in other words, what conclusions those statements would rationally warrant if they were actually true rather than false."

However, why bother? Frankfurt writes: "This display of reasoning might be an entertaining and even, perhaps, an impressive exercise ... Under ordinary conditions, however, there would not be much point to it."

This article appeared in slightly different form in the Savannah Morning News Jan. 28, 2007

Posted by John Stoehr at August 10, 2007 6:50 AM

COMMENTS

This is a biased and simplistic view of post-modernism.

You have reduced po mo down to soundbites to bolster your argument. You have, in essence, stripped away "truths " about post modernism.

Po mo always was a broad church that, in essence, didn't really exist.

If the religious right didn't have po mo it would have had to invent it.

Your version is a paper tiger you contructed for your argument.

It is not true that po mo dislikes truth. Po mo can now be seen as putting history back on the front page after the demolition job of art history by mainstream Modernism.

Yes sir, think on that!

I came of age in the early '80s and I remember the farcical nature of the right and the left to po mo's rise.

Good God artists were actually painting images WITH oil paint! Isn't that what the conservatives wanted.

Po mo actually will be seen to be the "last stand" of history against the flood of infomation found in the new www.

After a few years of real relativism (as opposed to the very theory/philosphy-based version of po mo), we will return to a version of normality. The pendulum will swing back as it always has done.

The question that people with religion should ask is why they are always so desparate for the apocolypse to be upon us? Why is the sky always going to be falling? Why are we always always going to hell?

Posted by: scott redford at August 13, 2007 6:29 PM

Forgive me, for it isn't my intent to be rude, but after reading your comment, I couldn't help but do this in my mind (and now on the ether):

This (comment) is a biased and simplistic view of religion.

You have reduced religion down to soundbites to bolster your argument. You have, in essence, stripped away "truths " about religion.

Religion always was a broad church that, in essence, didn't really exist.

If post modernists didn't have religion, they would have had to invent it.

Your version is a paper tiger you contructed for your argument.

It is not true that religion dislikes truth.
Yes sir, think on that!

-----

I'm not sure how religion got brought into the discussion given that John's post didn't bring it up. Perhaps because it is easier to write off critiques of post-modernism as the anti-intellectualism of those few religious folks who hide their ignorance behind rhetoric than to meet and engage the very real downfalls of the philosophy.

Posted by: Bridgette at August 14, 2007 9:19 AM