Let the Pandemic Kill Postmodernism.

Photo of Lyotard by Bracha L. Ettinger

Intellectual fashions change slowly, often, we are told, one funeral at a time. Perhaps then we can hope that the five and a half million Covid deaths (so far) will be enough to end the fashion for postmodernism, which has hobbled the humanities for decades, and lay the foundation for the post-truth era.

Consider the following passage from a lecture by Princeton philosophy professor Michael Sugrue, recorded some time in the 90s, and uploaded to Youtube some time last year, discussing the work of French postmodernist, Jean-Francois Lyotard.

Lyotard emphasizes the fact that the legitimation of science and the legitimation of the state are always bound up in other words the condition of knowledge and the circumstances and the way in which we legitimize knowledge claims always has reference and connection to the way in which we legitimize political claims particularly claims about political coercion and its legitimacy

It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Consider the use of coercion to enforce lockdowns, mask wearing, and vaccine mandates for example. Questioning the science and questioning the government go hand in hand.

Sugrue was discussing Lyotard’s 1979 book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. This work is generally considered a response to the German philosopher Habermas and his idea of communicative reason — the special kind of reason (distinct from instrumental reason) which we use when engaging in good faith discourse (rather than attempting to manipulate each other, like we would tools or machines).

Habermas is a leading figure in the left wing Frankfurt School, whose work pushes back against technophobic anti-liberalism in post-modern European philosophy, reasserting the liberatory possibility of technology and the role of rationality in establishing a moral framework — essentially re-endorsing the core of enlightenment project while working in the most insightful critiques of its detractors. Habermas, it seems to me, attempts to save continental philosophy from its own worst tendencies. Lyotard’s work, then, is a dazzling refusal to be saved.

Any attempt to legitimise a particular kind of thought would implicitly delegitimise other approaches, and so any “totalising metanarrative” is inherently a defense of the status quo and an obstacle to justice. The book, for example, compares an indigenous storytelling tradition with the modern scientific method, and declares each to simply be a “word game”, each with their own rules, independent and almost irrelevant to the other. He writes:

It is therefore impossible to judge the existence or validity of narrative knowledge on the basis of scientific knowledge and vice versa : the relevant criteria are different. All we can do is gaze in wonderment at the diversity of discursive species, just as we do at the diversity of plant or animal species

He invokes the danger of cultural imperialism, and the example he uses is an ancient indigenous tradition, which progressives -for good reason- are nervous about attacking. But the argument he makes applies equally to a Facebook page, or some bloke down the pub who thinks there’s a 5G nanochip in the vaccine.

It’s actually impressive how well this obscure philosophy of the reverse-appeal-to-authority has, quietly, in the intervening decades transformed into widespread lumpen-praxis. It’s almost as if what happens in philosophy departments actually matters.

Unfortunately the disassembly of progressive meta-narratives has not led to a profound and interesting diversity of vision, but to the ascendance of insane and dangerous meta-narratives in the form of conspiracy theory, alternative facts, and fake news. The bodies are piling up.

The reactionary bad guys are reminding us that they will always be better at weaponising ignorance than progressives.

That is not to say these thinkers are not worth reading. Like when he asserts that dialogues (word games) are often best understood as ‘the “taking of tricks,” the trumping of a communicational adversary’. Anyone who has spent time on social media will probably find in this phrase, written at the end of the 70s, eerily prescient.

But Lyotard doesn’t see this as a problem, or if he does, it is not one which can be overcome by reason. If any rules at all are applied to dialogue, if anyone is excluded from the game(s), that is, in Lyotard’s term “Terroristic”.

Once again the correspondence between this obscure left wing thinker from decades ago and popular anti-vaxxer activism now is uncanny. Using “terror” to describe efforts to marginalise pseudoscientific discourse sounds a lot like the talk of “dictator Dan” from Australian anti-vaxxers, who have focused on the Labor premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews as an agent of repression for using lockdowns as well as mask and vaccine mandates. One of them recently set themselves on fire over the issue. A rejection of oppressive reason if ever there was one. All perspective is gone, and all proportionality. After all, we have no objective measure. All is just as Lyotard and the postmodernists demanded.

That’s why the argument by thinkers like Giovanna Poggi, that vaccine requirements are not, as anti-vaxxers argue, an “infringement on their liberal rights” is beside the point. It misunderstands the anti-vaxxer ideology. They are not liberal but post-liberal, anti-rationalist and anti-modern. They use scientific papers and language of free speech and civic discourse the way ISIS uses stolen US military hardware.

I hope, and would like to believe, that in the years that follow, anti-scientific technophobia will no longer be acceptable at prestigious universities and that without this bureaucratic legitimation the gobbledygook will lose all purchase and fade into obscurity. Who now, will attempt to furnish their progressive credentials by attacking science as a tool of the elite? Who now will trot out the tired old lines about interrogating intellectual homogeneity, of picking apart the hard won (and legitimately threatened) gains of rationality just for the sake of it?

What then will our 21st century neo-modernism look like?

There’s a lot we don’t know. But one thing that I am sure of is that evidence-based arguments and plain spoken reason will be at the very core of it. That’s the future we are building at Stone.

Stone is what we call a research transparency system, built with journalists in mind. The idea is to set a standard of transparency and accountability that bad faith actors cannot meet. This is especially important when the article in question is about the safety of a vaccine, or the results of an election, but even a philosophical and esoteric piece can be strengthened, as this one has, I hope, by including a window into the process by which it came together. What inspired it? what else did I read? What did I not read?

As those of you who have watched it already know, the answers to all these questions are included in the research portal above. In this example there’s an issue with the sound and you can’t hear what the Professor has to say (you can read the captions though). Windows 10 has helpfully enhanced the noise cancellation in its audio library, eliminating the sound it knows is coming out of the speakers. This issue will be addressed in the next release, when we debut our custom AV library, giving users the option of capturing audio directly from online sources. That won’t be the last bug. The software is still in beta, but it’s free to download and to use, and always will be. If you believe in an evidence backed, democratic future, using this tool is a good place to start.

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