Beyond the ivory-towered coterie of the late twentieth century academic world, few people cared to try to understand postmodernism, let alone wield it: even now, few mourn its death.

Attempts to define what postmodernism actually was tend to come across almost as effete and self-referential as the worst postmodernist works themselves: all that can comfortably be summarised is that it was a diffuse movement that asserted (a) that there is no capital-T Truth, only socially constructed small-t truths; and (b) that there are no Grand Narratives, just (yes, you guessed it) socially constructed local narratives that serve a narrator’s purpose.

Yet given that plenty of non-postmodernist writers and philosophers had put forward countless variations on the same point of view, what was there about postmodernism that was unique? Or, dare I say it, even remotely interesting?

Narcissism

“It’s the combination of narcissism and nihilism that really defines postmodernism”, Al Gore once said (New York Observer, Nov. 2002): but in my opinion, even this is not strong enough. Postmodernism was an artefact of an academic milieu in which both the postmodernists themselves and everyone else were assumed to be narcissists all at the same time. The line between “the truth is what I want you to think it is” (narcissism) and “truth is socially constructed” (postmodernism) is only a matter of degree or scale: for it is only in a society where everyone just happens to be a narcissist that the former is able to scale up to the latter.

The real toxin of postmodernism, then, is not its nihilism but instead its implicit scaled-up narcissism: it could not distinguish itself from other ways of thinking, but only ever replace them en masse, by imposing its own narcissistic worldview on others. It always secretly saw itself as a thinking meta-hack, a clever-arse way to explain away all the difficulties of Truth and External Stuff In General.

Pro-History or Anti-History?

The overriding practical problem with postmodernist thought was that it could not account for historical truth. The central (and, I think, only genuine) starting point for historical epistemology is that of trying to answer the question “What Happened?” When all evidence is formed by the quest not for causality but for actuality, postmodernists cannot ‘do’ History, because they cannot accept that any single account could have primacy over all others.

As a result, postmodernism positioned itself quite contrary to History: for even though there are plenty of historians who happily do their thing without any Grand Narrative (or indeed Grand Old White Males) as support, few could do their job if there were no historical evidence to work with. As a result, I cannot see how postmodernism can be anything apart from fundamentally Anti-History.

Postmodernism = Caesar

Yes, postmodernism is dead, and more seem to want to lead their dogs to piss on its grave than to celebrate it. And it should also be no surprise that here “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them;. The good is oft interred with their bones.

For me, it seems that the most enduring legacy of postmodernism is a general weakening of thinking, even among people who don’t really know what postmodernism was. And the reason for this was that people became too strongly conditioned by (what for a long time was) the dominant anti-Truth totemic trope of postmodernist culture.

At the heart of this broken programme lies what I think is a linguistic confusion given to us by language. Even though we use the same word ‘truth’ for both historical truth (a statement about what happened can be false or partially true, never 100% true) and mathematical truth (a logical property of a statement within a system, all of which can be painfully close to tautology), the postmodernists took it instead as if it related to political truth (of which there is no such thing). As a result, I think one of the central conceits of the postmodernist parade was founded on a misunderstanding of what Truth is: for the ‘Truth’ they railed against was simply their political straw man, propped up solely to be ripped down. And it was always the wrong kind of Truth.

It Lives!

All of which would be no more than a sidenote, were it not for the fact (in my opinion, at least) that there remains a widespread distrust of Truth – that it is actually Patriarchal Truth (or at least Grand Old White Male Truth), subtly lodged in our minds by the unwilling pawns of the dominant cultural hegemony like a false memory.

Yet when we examine objects from the past – whether a building, a document, a dress, or an unsolved ciphertext – There Is A Single Truth about what happened, and the ineluctable combination of prolonged careful observation and clear focused thought can almost always bring us closer to it.

At the same time, there are plenty of bad questions that people attempt to pass off as historical inquiry: “Why did that happen?”, “What was X thinking?”, “What was X’s ultimate intention?”, “Is it the illustrated diary of a teenage space alien?” (I kid you not). In each case, these almost always have broadly the kind of Grand Narrative derided by postmodernists as their jelly skeleton: the only real historical inquiry is about that which happened, everything else is just pretension and Hollywood.

So perhaps we can forgive the postmodernists for one thing: even if they did misunderstand Truth completely, there are still plenty of ludicrous Grand Narratives out there being passed off as Grand Facts which we should learn how to resist. 🙂

Post-Truth

If you don’t take my word for it that postmodernism has weakened people’s thinking, here’s a (black) mirror to hold up to the world. The (just now arriving) Season 11 of the X-Files (discussed on The Verge here) has Dr They talking to our old friend Fox M:

“Your time has passed,” They tells Mulder. “We’re now living in a post-coverup, post-conspiracy age. The public no longer knows what’s meant by the truth. No one can tell the difference anymore between what’s real and what’s fake.”

“There’s still an objective truth,” Mulder insists.

And (of course) Mulder is shown to be correct… though probably not in a way that he and Scully can prove to anyone. The Truth is indeed still out there, though – as always – proof remains hard.

14 thoughts on “On postmodernism, History, Truth, and the X-Files…

  1. I think Sokal’s _Social Text_ hoax was the death-rattle of the Science Wars component of Post-Modernism, although like Jason Vorhees it shambles back to life on occasion…

    It’s useful to recognize that Post-Modernism (wrt the Science Wars) spans a wide range of opinions, some more reasonable than others. It’s possible to recognize that science is a socially-situated activity with all of the ramifications of that without going all-out and thinking that the light comes on when you flip the switch because dynamos are phallic symbols of the patriarchy rather than because there’s an objective reality out there that doesn’t depend on our beliefs. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

    Karl

  2. D.N.O'Donovan on February 10, 2018 at 6:46 am said:

    Nick, thanks for a most interesting post.

    I tend to think of everything which has happened, so far as we can reconstruct the past and past attitudes from what remains – as history.

    But I do think that what are good questions or not good questions really isn’t amenable to such absolutes as you seem to imply. It is absolutely a mainstay of the technically-focused sort of history to ask “Why did that happen?” and to enquire of the way imagery is formed, or the changes that occur over time “What was s/he or what were they thinking?” and “What was the intention” behind the historical fact of a certain act.

    I’m not saying there’s a single definitive answer, but such questions (IMO) produce more solid results than purely hypothetical ones. Why did the expulsions occur in France and England after centuries of acceptance won’t have a simple answer, but it’s not unreasonable to seek an answer from the historical record.

    If an X-ray shows that the original face in a portrait was later painted over, it is reasonable to ask what the painter, the sitter or the person who commissioned the painting was thinking – because thinking is motive. Again, the answer mightn’t be simple; the evidence may not permit a definitive answer – but the question is one of history and it’s not a ‘bad question’.

    Intellectual historians, I know, are averse to ‘why’ questions, but in the history of technologies and of comparative iconography, we ask them all the time: why did loom-design in a town in coastal Iberia suddenly change late in the eighth century? Is a technical and historical question that is answerable – when the answer is the point and not a myopic idea of ‘how it should be’. The answer in one case might be – for example – that an introduction of silk-weaving required looms which exterted less pressure on the warp.

    If we didn’t seek to understand the ‘Why’, or ask ‘what did contemporaries seei and think when this image was produced’, we’d end up writing nothing but our own stream-of-consciousness impressions. The history not merely of none but our own time, but of our personal imagination. That’s what has happened over and over again in Voynich studies – as its history shows clearly enough. 🙂

  3. Hi Nick,

    Good piece, but I disagree with the blanket statement that ‘why did that happen?’ (or even ‘what was X thinking?’) isa bad question and not valid historical inquiry. It depends (as usual) on context: if the inquiry is based on objective sources (diaries, letters, statements by witnesses) then the inquiry is valid and should not be dismissed ad hoc.

    To give an example, historians knew immediately ‘what happened’ in the beginnings of both the First and Second World Wars, but it was only afterwards, when records and private documents could be studied and individuals interviewed (e.g. the private letters of the Kaiser or Emperor, or the trials at Nurenburg) that the steps and decisions and motivations could be filled in and understood. And those are part of the historical truth just as much as troop movements and treaties.

  4. Greg: what was going on inside a (now-dead) person’s head is a thin dusting of speculative psychological icing sugar atop the rich cake of historical evidence. But is it really history in the same sense, or just wishful pseudo-forensic myth-making?

    Narrative historians want it to be history because reconstructing ‘what the Kaiser was thinking’ helps them fill in the (otherwise necessarily silent) gaps in their accounts – but to me, it’s just dressed-up fictionalist faux journalism, that we’d all be better off dropping like a hot stone.

    But rest assured that I respect other people’s opinions on this matter. 😉

  5. When H.G. Wells put down his Short History of the World in two volumes in 1920?, he was sued for plagiarizing the work of another historian’s account of the same subject matter, A Short History of the World which went unpublished because the legal suit was settled; which goes to show that historical facts can even be argued in court to determine who thought them up first. I have recently gone over Geoffrey Blayney’s 21st century job of the same title, though he managed to cover everything in a single volume thank goodness, so now I’m up to speed on everything up until the published date. Of course since that time we have moved into the more up dated and versatile history style which I think they call virtual, which is great because one is permitted to make adjustments to the course of it.

  6. Diane: in all those circumstances, my contention is that you would be asking better (i.e. ultimately more productive and more genuinely information-yielding) questions if you reframe them away from the journalistic court-room tropes of motive and intent, and instead move them towards the world of specific, material, empiricist affairs – the world of that-which-actually-happened.

    In your loom example: how did loom technology change around a certain time? What were the distinguishing features of that technological shift? Did that technology then reappear in different production centres? What was it in turned replaced by, and when? These are all more genuinely informative ways of framing the inquiry that don’t involve treating history as no more than an exercise in supposedly-well-informed psychological projection.

    In the case of the Voynich Manuscript, I don’t believe that any ‘why’-category ‘psychologistic’ question over the last century-plus has provoked an answer containing so much as a jot of genuinely insightful or helpful information: and I’m not expecting to see such a thing any time soon. Personally, I see the lack of progress with Voynich research as a by-product of the lack of focused empiricist inquiry, crowded out by an endless tide of people offering psychologistic pseudotheories that seek to ‘explain’ the manuscript’s contents with reference to a supposed creator’s ‘profile’ – genius, artist, midwife, heretic, madman, crook, translator, missionary, alien teenager, whatever.

  7. John sanders: my lawyers and spin doctors can prove that I wrote everything in your comment long before you did, so I shall see you in court. 😉

  8. Nick: I’ll simply plead that I was merely commenting on one historian’s grasp of another historian’s narrative thought train; so that the Court might set aside the plaint for lack of causal intention to steal or abuse another’s improperly obtained knowledge in the first instance… And as to the matter of costs for trivial litigation Your Honour…wellll now let’s just say that they would be raaather substantial in view of blah blah blah &C.

  9. Trivial as in pursuit; frivolous as in litigation.

  10. D.N.O'Donovan on February 10, 2018 at 5:44 pm said:

    Nick,
    This is an interesting methodological issue and I wish there were a better environment for genuine discussion – here the format more or less expects yes-versus-no and none shall move an inch.

    I’m always fascinated by the way so many Voynicheros presume that so much is wholly personal, and wholly theoretical, and argue from that basis – but very rarely ask if there’s a particular reason (rather than reasoning) for an opnion.

    You say:
    my contention is that you would be asking better (i.e. ultimately more productive and more genuinely information-yielding) questions if you reframe them … In your loom example: how did loom technology change around a certain time? What were the distinguishing features of that technological shift? (etc.etc.)

    Somehow it’s as if you’re talking to me about a world which exists only on paper.

    Here’s how it goes in real life. You’re digging to investigate an eleventh-century settlement in Iberia, but you also find a small site with pots and so on dating it to the 9thC. Then you find a loom that is fairly well-preserved thanks to high and dry ground.. and you can see it has a design different from every other one you’ve found, or known documented for 9thC Iberia.

    Why the different design? You ask. Are they foreigner? Is it a random import – if so, from where? What can reconstruction tell us about purpose?
    So you reconstruct, and read, and phone-and-email colleagues and all the rest.

    Point is, you never start with a paper world, but with artefacts. And instead of formulating guess-work/hypothetical/fictional/narrative “theories” as a guide to the course of research, you seek to answer some clear, definite, reasonable and answerable “Why?”

    Nick.. it just is the way we work in other areas of history. And actually it does – regularly and usually – produce very solid results. If you don’t ask, then you are presuming you already know… hmmm. I wouldn’t go that way, myself.

    But this sort of issue isn’t able to be debated here amiably, I think. Not as if it were in a common room, or after dinner.

  11. Diane: there’s a big difference between asking good questions (ones that the process of answering stands a chance of moving forward what you know) and asking bad questions (ones that only yield speculative / frothy answers) – so we’re surely not debating whether or not questions themselves are a good thing.

    As to whether the kind of questions you describe would be closer to good questions than the kind of questions I described… that is the crux of the matter here, and I think it would require a bigger forum than this margin to contain. You know my answer, and I know your answer: and I happen to think you’ve got it just plain wrong. And that’s OK.

  12. D.N.O'Donovan on February 11, 2018 at 5:33 am said:

    Nick – you have to say that ‘we’ve’ got it wrong, meaning everyone who works in the same way, and all the people who pay for our time and advice.

    Still, as you are so certain, there’s no more to be said. Pax.

  13. Diane: another alternative is that you have projected your own particular way of thinking onto a group of people, and are then trying to argue from their massed authority. Just sayin’.

  14. D.N.O'Donovan on February 12, 2018 at 1:46 am said:

    Nick, If I were to persisted in ignoring the physical reality of your wedding ring, and persisted, despite your occasional references to your family and offspring, in projecting onto you some theoretical character – say a spotty fourteen-year old living in your parents’ house in a room thick with dirt and littered with pizza-boxes, and continued projecting this theory-product upon you whenever you commented on something within your professional competence, I’m sure that you would be as offended by the obtuseness of my behaviour as by its offensiveness.

    – when you shave, use a mirror –

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