The Dartmouth Observer
Friday, October 18, 2002
Blind About Postmodernism
John Stevenson still has not said whether he favors getting rid of statistics on race that are needed to enforce civil rights law and track racial profiling (or Indian reservations). Are you all willing to go that far to transcend race? (What do you all think?). If he's not, then he's not fully color-blind and he needs to develop a more nuanced position than he has thus far. I want to say more on that, but hopefully John will respond in the meantime.
For now, I will note that I think John continues to make weird, illogical comments about Marxist ontology and I can't understand how his statement that critical theory is part of postmodernism is anything but false. John responded to my criticism of his weird statement about 'diversity advocates', "Nietzschean in its methodology, Marxist in its ontology, and Foucaultian in its analysis," by saying: "When I was writing this post, I found it quite simple." Yes, I am sure you all understood him very well of course, but I must again conclude that he does not know what he talking about, as he confuses me more when he says:
?Nietzschean methodology refers to Nietzschen idea of the ubermensch (over-man) leading the herd trapped in their slave mentality to something better. Marxist ontology refers to the way the see the world organized: in large groups of people: classes, races, genders, et al. Foucaultidian analysis refers to the theoretical tools used to analyze the world (the world is represented by the word "ontology"; analysis refers to one's epistemology)."
You can read this statement above and realize it contradicts itself. John notes the world is represented by 'ontology.' Sure, ontology refers to a theory of being (of what actually is). Yet as Stevenson surely knows, Marx thought that in the world, class was the only thing we should care about. He did not have an 'ontology' of race or gender. In fact, he and mainstream Marxists been criticized on that score. So diversity advocates, or whatever you want to call them, are NOT using a "Marxist ontology," as John says. They are using Marxist ways of looking at things to ANALYZE totally different things in the world BEYOND "Marxist Ontology," groups based around gender and race. It is fine for John to mislabel things, but he does not inspire confidence by getting things backward and then defending that claim in an illogical manner. On a less assured note, I am not clear how the idea of the ubermensch is a methodology (it seems on first glance to be closer, if anything, to being an ontology?) and also I am not sure how the idea of the ubermensch connects to a theory that minority groups are being oppressed, though here I can think of some possible connections. You could make a better case that Nietzche's geneology is aking to a methodology used by 'diversity advocates.' I'm not sure about this, but something is nagging me about John's description of Foucault in that I wonder whether, as John states, Foucault would separate the tools from how we analyze the world from what actually exists in the world is. I know some PoMos deny this distinction between how we view and world and what exist: I bet this a big debate among Foucault scholars; John, do you know? I'm not denying that Foucault (and therefore his influences like Marx and Nietzsche) has influenced at least some 'diversity advocates,' but I think John's jumbled up what is going on here and does not quite know what he talking about. That's fine, as long as he admits he got it wrong and the implications of that for the other things he said in his post or show why those errors do not affect his criticism, which is possible.
Why is this important? A good deal of the debate among PoMos and other 'left' academic and mainstream perspectives is whether ontology is prior to epistemology. If John gets his basic terms wrong here in such a simple manner, I wonder how much he really knows about the important differences among 'diversity advocates' who rely on different philosophical arguments. Now, I realize most of you don't care about this stuff, but those lefties who John seems to lump all together sure do. And John seems to care, and if he can't talk about epistemology and ontology in a comprehensable manner here, I'm skeptical as to whether he understands the much harder debates that take place among other 'leftists' against postmodernists. John is attributing thoughts to people he disagrees with, so I would hope he would try to get it right, especially since there is a greater diversity of thought on the 'left' than he seems to either acknowledge or know about. If you are going to make your opponents out to be a monolithic bloc, at least attribute to them something that at least part that group thinks. I think his use of academic jargon only serves to obscure his thoughts (or lack thereof) rather than make clear what he's (not) saying; for someone who projects the aura of knowing about 'postmodernism' he misuses and misunderstands basic terms. I personally don't pretend to know everything. But in this case I know enough to tell when someone is just wrong.
But also important, Stevenson wrongly labels people who are not postmoderns, leading to further confusion. John Stevenson says: "Postmodernism is perhaps a useful tool in moderation. Critical theory, a part of academic postmodernism, is useful in analyzing how we say what we say... Critical theory allows one to account for more complexity and thus form better theories and explanation of how the world works."
John, if you mean Critical Theory in the sense of the Frankfurt School, you are dead wrong. One of the most famous Critical Theorists, Jurgen Habermas, has fought against Foucault and other postmodernists (calling them the Young Conservatives of Postmodernity). Habermas critiques modernity as it is, but ultimately sees himself in the tradition of the Enlightenment in that reason is still important to him (though it should be noted that his form of communicative reason is not the same as one that I suspect many 'liberals' (in the broad Enlightenment sense) in America would endorse). So Critical Theory in this sense is NOT part of postmodernism.
If you mean critical theory in another sense, such as it is sometimes use to refer generally to anything that ?critiques' mainstream thought, then you are again wrong. I guess you could say postmodernism is part of critical theory (no caps) in this sense, but not as you said that critical theory is part of postmodernism. But is this sense, critical theory doesn?t mean all that much except that it is theory that is critical.
So I challenge you John, what sense did you mean it? Is there another sense which I missed? Because all I can make out from your post is that critical theory helps us build better theory and explain things, which tells us NOTHING about what critical theory is, since that is something most mainstream thinkers would hope a good theory would do (I would think...no?)
This criticism may seem arcane, but John has criticized the views of the academic 'left' and if he's wrong on this and what they actually think, then I am not sure I trust that he understands it. Sadly this type of stereotype is widespread. This is not a case of disagreement on what their positions entail or logically lead to, but just a fundamental misunderstanding of terms. It is often very hard to understand things like postmodernism. And we all misunderstand things or type things in haste. But why does John spread and defend those misunderstandings? Whether his criticisms in earlier posts are harmed by these misunderstandings. (On another note, he still has not said whether he has actually read his beloved Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations). I leave it you to judge, as that is not necessarily the case, but I thought I would point out that maybe you should wonder whether and when this critic of 'postmodernism' has no cloths.