Post-Modern Dialectic as Improv

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Post-modernists “mean” what they say

George Steiner is a literary theorist who has had appointments at Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, and Geneva, despite not believing in literary theory. While reading his 1989 book Real Presences, I suddenly understood how post-modern thought works, and why it is self-consistent. All you have to do to understand it, it turns out, is believe that they mean what they say [1].

I had just read Steiner’s description of modernism (p. 87-100), and was puzzled that he never used the word “modernism”. I flipped back to the index to see if it listed modernism. No modernism, and no post-modernism either. In fact, there were no concepts of any kind in the index. It listed only proper nouns. Steiner, it seemed, organized his thought entirely around references to previous philosophers, artists, and works of art.

I went back to reading and came across this sentence: “Mallarmé breaks (rupture becomes a cardinal term) the covenant, the continuities between word and world” (p. 104).

This struck me as strange. I’ve read similar sentences in many other works, but could always interpret them as sloppy short-hand for something like “Mallarmé was the first to act as if there were no covenant between word and world.”

But Steiner doesn’t do sloppy short-hand. He says what he means and means what he says. He studies every word and clause, alert to its connotations and etymology, unpacking idiomatic expressions to make sure their original historical meaning is also in tune with his intent. If Steiner says that Mallarmé broke the link between words and reality, he means that there was a link between words and reality before Mallarmé wrote, and there was not afterwards.

How could one lone Frenchman’s poetry rupture the nature of reality? It can’t. No words can. Words have no connection to reality for Steiner:

To ascribe to words a correspondence to ‘things out there’, to see and use them as somehow representational of ‘reality’ in the world, is not only a vulgar illusion. It makes of language a lie. (p. 95)

Used (misused) as some kind of representational grid or facsimile of ‘the real’, language has indeed withered to inert routine and cliche’. Made to stand for inaccessible phenomenalities, words have been reduced to corrupt servitude. They are no longer fit for poets or rigorous thinkers (poetry being thought at its most rigorous). Only when we realize that what words refer to are other words, that any speech-act in reference to experience is always a ‘saying in other words’, can we return to a true freedom. It is within the language system alone that we possess liberties of construction and of deconstruction… so boundless, so dynamic, so proper to the evident uniqueness of human thought and imagining that, in comparison, external reality, whatever that might or might not be, is little more than brute intractability and deprivation. (p. 97)

When Steiner says there was a link between words and reality, he means that before Mallarmé, everyone agreed there was such a link. When he says there is no more link, he means people now agree there is no such link. That is all that matters. The surprising thing is that, given certain peculiar environmental conditions, this can be a self-consistent worldview.

Steiner isn’t a model post-modernist, and might not like being called a post-modernist. He seems to be Catholic, and where your typical post-modernist says, “Words can’t access reality and so have no meaning,” Steiner says, “Words can’t access reality and therefore it is God who imbues them with meaning.” But this post is entirely about how one can believe that we can know nothing about reality and be self-consistent, not about how one can believe that we can know nothing about reality and escape nihilism. Steiner is adequate for this purpose.

Post-modernism as philosophical behaviorism

His index contains only proper nouns because he doesn’t believe in any-thing but people and texts. Modernism? What’s that? A concept that does not correspond to anything in the world. Where is “modernism” in between books? Nowhere. It is no-thing. Steiner does not refer to “modernism”, but only to the relations between the words in particular works and of particular thinkers. It is a philosophical analogue of behaviorism: There are no concepts in the world in post-modernism, just as there are no concepts in the brain in behaviorism. Philosophical rigor requires dealing only in the word-streams that emanated from previous individuals, not in false “concepts” reified from those word-streams.

Steiner makes many exceptions to this, of course; otherwise he could not use language at all. But he does not think of writers as discovering things that exist in the world. Post-modernists introduce metaphors (“rhizome”), processes for creating post-modern art (“bricolage”, “pastiche”, “mash-up”), and endless terms to describe different ways of relating art / word to meaning / reality / original (“camp”, “différance”, “incommensurable”, “indeterminacy”, “kitsch”, “language games”, “parody”, “simulacra”) and text to text (“intertextual”, “metafiction”, “meta-narrative”), but these are not the kinds of words that show up in indices. They are relationships and attributes, but not in themselves things one talks about as bridges or sine waves are. Post-modernists aren’t taxonomists. The world of things is irrelevant to them.

Post-modernism as improv

This also explains why Steiner never worries whether the things he says are correct, contradictory, or sensible [2]. He never asks whether the sources he cites are correct or contradictory. A citation, to him, is the same as a proof. The only criteria of a proposition’s admissibility is that it has already been accepted into the game [3]. Dialectic requires embracing contradictions; it moves forward by pasting them together in aesthetically-appealing ways. Given only statements that don’t contradict each other, a post-modernist could say nothing.

That’s why Steiner only rarely says anyone is wrong, and never anyone who is an accepted part of the literary canon or of the post-modernist word-game. Because the first rule of the word game is: You cannot say anything is wrong once it’s part of the game.

This is also the key rule of improv comedy. A member of an improv troupe might say or do something that appears to paint the sketch into a corner, but the other members must never contradict it or deny it. Postmodern dialectics should not be thought of as an attempt to be correct, but as an extended game of improv.

Even when post-modernists wish to make the ultimate condemnation of a viewpoint, they don’t say it’s wrong, they say it’s “dead” (implying it was once alive and vital) [4]. Arguments are not wrong or right; they are in fashion or out of fashion. It isn’t a question of whether a statement corresponds to reality; it’s a question of whether the person who said it was playing the game correctly at the time. Aristotle can get away with talking about truth because the game demanded belief in objective truth when he wrote. A citation to something he said is a proof; a restatement of it is idiocy.

The post-modernists have been trying to explain this to us all along. They say it over and over: Words do not correspond to reality. Understanding this leads to the “freedom” to say anything. Philosophy is a word-game. Philosophical discourse is done via dialectic, in which you take two contradictory earlier views and combine them without resolving their contradictions.

Once you have all four principles, enough like-minded colleagues to play word-games with, and no fear of your games having any personal consequences to you, you can play your word-games forever.

Post-modernism versus science

Steiner devotes p. 69-86 to this puzzle: How does science produce things that work when it relies entirely on the false belief that its claims are objectively true? “The ultimate grounds of this contract [between theory and fact] remain enigmatic. Why it should be that the external world, in the naive, obvious sense, should concur with the regularity-postulates, with the mathematical and rule-bound expectations of investigative rationalism, no one knows.” (p. 71)

He suggests (p. 72) that science works because God deigns to indulge it. But he insists that science and “theory” [5] have no place in literature and the arts, and presents as proof his statement that theories of art cannot be tested, and a list of famous works of literature he has read that are all different from each other (p. 75-76).

It’s difficult to make sense of this section, but it is clear that Steiner doesn’t think scientists are playing the game. Of course they violate the first rule, by calling some statements wrong, but it’s more than that. He equates theory and scientific thought with computation (p. 83-84). Science and theory, for him, are mere calculation, the turning of a crank after the appropriate meat is dropped into the grinder. Science is not as rich as language: “No formalization is of an order adequate to the semantic mass and motion of literature, to the wealth of denotation, connotation, implicit reference, elision and tonal register which envelop saying what one means and meaning what one says or neither. There is a palpable sense in which one can see that the total explicative context, the total horizon of relevant values which surround the meaning of the meaning of any verbal or written utterance is that of the universe as human beings, who are beings of speech, inhabit it.” (p. 83)

He does not address the question of how theories, which do predict reality, can be developed by playing the language game; his remarks in other sections insist, repeatedly and emphatically, that statements in language can never escape the circle of language to refer to reality. I think he is unaware that science includes creating theories by thinking. He also does not notice that he has explained the surprising power of science by saying it is less powerful than what he does when he thinks.

But he does not need to address these things. He has cited Wittgenstein; he can move on. His post-modernist colleagues will not ask whether he has used Wittgenstein “correctly”, as long as he does it with passion and style. He goes home, turns on a switch, and the room is lit; he turns a faucet and water comes out. Science works its magic, as it should. It would be beneath his dignity and the nobility of his thoughts to concern himself with such brute mechanical concerns.

Post-modernism versus the environment

Consider the environments that the most-prominent post-modernist philosophers did their major work in:

Jean Baudrillard: Paris
Jean François Lyotard: Paris
Michel Foucault: Paris
Jacques Derrida: Paris
Jacques Lacan: Paris
Richard Rorty: Princeton

The post-modern mind-view is so hard to grasp because one immediately perceives that regular encounters with reality would shatter it. Like a hothouse orchid, it can survive only in one environment: a mind that does not interact with the physical world. This is found in city-dwellers with academic tenure in the humanities. The “freedom” they worship is not freedom to think or act, but freedom from consequences. They are free, quite literally, from reality.

For two things to interact means each has an effect on the other. The natural state of humans is one of constant interaction with the environment. Consider an early European settler of the American plains. The environment continually acts on him, forcing changes in his behavior: Winter is coming; he must gather firewood. It looks like a storm; he must put off his trip to town and gather the animals in the barn. He continually acts on the environment: He builds a cabin, digs an irrigation ditch, builds a fence. He must continually model and predict the world, and take steps to achieve favorable outcomes.

Now consider a tenured post-modernist literature professor in Paris. If it is cold, he turns up the thermostat. If he is hungry, he goes out into the street and exchanges little pieces of paper for food, at stores that are open 365 days a year, nearly 24 hours a day. He never has any need to model or predict the environment. He lives in an apartment, works in a school, and commutes there by train; the sum total of the environment’s effect on him is to determine whether or not he takes an umbrella.

The main source of unpredictability in his life is the train he takes to work. Imagine our post-modernist waiting for a train that is to arrive at 8:25. At 8:26, it has not arrived. A non-postmodernist might say, “The schedule said the train would arrive at 8:25, but it was wrong.” If he were a railroad employee, this would matter; he would have to realize the train had, in fact, not arrived, and figure out what had gone wrong and how to correct it. But a post-modernist is free instead to say, “The schedule says the train will arrive at 8:25. My eyes say the train did not arrive. Life is indeed full of unresolvable contradictions.” He is so occupied in this reverie that he fails to notice as the train pulls in, and everyone else on the platform boards. After it has left, he notices, and says, “Fascinating! For them, the train arrived. For me, it did not.” Because he has no impact on the train, and because missing the train and being late has no impact on him (he has tenure), he is free to deny the objective reality of trains and their arrivals.

Likewise, he has no opportunity to influence the environment. His apartment is rented; he may not modify it. Every inch of the street he traverses is owned by someone else and subject to a thousand regulations concerning its use.

The only things that affect him are word games, with his colleagues, students, and the administration. Even gaining tenure and climbing the ladder to an administrative position are word games. The only effects he has are in word games. He does not inter-act with the real world beyond the word games.

This seems contradictory at first–aren’t many post-modernists political activists? Yes, but they would never participate in politics on the local level, knocking on actual doors to get votes to build an actual local community center. They are interested only in grand political visions: Marxism, Revolution, Globalization, Humanity. Frederic Jameson describes post-modern politics as “without a party, without a homeland [patrie], without a national community . . . without co-citizenship, without adherence to a class.” This is essential, because any <connection with reality through which post-modern rhetoric may accidentally cause an observable effect in the real world> would turn its own sword of deconstruction against itself.

The self-consistency of post-modernism

Steiner and many other post-modernist philosophers have literally crazy beliefs, but they can hold those beliefs and be self-consistent, because they live in a world where other people deal with reality for them. Indeed, a scientist put in the shoes of a literary critic would fail miserably; he would play the language-game all wrong and be kicked out of the game. Once someone has learned to play the word-game well, the natural human neural mechanisms that reinforce behavior that is rewarded will only strengthen their faith in the way they see the world.


[1] Post-modernists don’t “mean” anything in the sense of believing it, or even ascribing objective meaning to it. But the sentences they utter convey the propositions they intend to convey. You can’t ascribe the most-sympathetic interpretation you can imagine to anything a post-modernist says; that would nearly always mangle their meaning.

[2] He implies the Greeks believed Anselm’s ontological argument for a monotheistic God (p. 88). He implies undecidable languages are languages in which every sentence is undecidable (p. 61). He claims to know the motives of Cro-Magnon cave painters (p. 211). On page 78 he says Aristotle’s “Poetics” is a theory; on page 86 he insists it is not. He says critics should not write about literature other than the classics, then criticizes them for all writing about the classics. He says each sentence conveys infinite meaning; he says no sentence can convey any meaning at all. In the space of a few pages, he provides his second definition of all art in all media, criticizes the arrogance of people who create theories of literature, and then presents his third all-encompassing theory of what makes good art. He admits his own discipline has generated almost nothing but uncountable useless books and articles every year for hundreds of years, then dismisses experimental approaches to literature as “barren” after about five years and a hundred papers. The thesis of his book, that good art requires logocentrism, contradicts two of the primary claims he invokes to support it–that (1) we must accept the modernist critique of language, and (2) the modernist critique of language destroyed logocentrism.

[3] Note the resultant extreme concentration of power: Claims are evaluated not according to their truth, but according to whether members of elite institutions read and comment on them. Post-modernism is therefore evolutionarily fit as a meme in any elitist discipline, because it gives more power to those already in power.

[4] This is after Nietzsche, the ur-post-modernist, who said “God is dead; we have killed him”, not “there is no God”, and may have meant it.

[5] Steiner appears to think that a “theory” is a set of rules that can deterministically predict every last detail of the object under study (p. 77). A theory that claims to explain Hamlet, in his view, must be able to write Hamlet.

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